Sermon for Williamstown
Epiphany 3, 25th of January, 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Today the lectionary gives us what I think is the only reading from the Book of Jonah that we get in the entire three year cycle. The Book of Jonah is so awesome, and so hilarious, that although we’re only given six verses in the lectionary, I’m going to take you through the entire book. So, sit back and relax.
It begins when God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and prophesy against it because of its great wickedness. Like many people called by God, Jonah is less than enthusiastic. As I said last week when we were talking about Samuel: Moses reminded God that he was a stammerer; Jeremiah said that he was only a boy; very few people called by God have Elijah’s ‘here I am, Lord, send me’ response. Unlike Moses and Jeremiah, Jonah doesn’t actually argue with God. He simply takes off in the other direction. God wants Jonah to go to Ninevah in the East; Jonah flees to Tarshish, the furthest known point in the West; for Hebrews the far end of the world.
Not that Jonah can really be blamed for this. Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It represented all that was hateful, repugnant and cruel. The Assyrians themselves were known to be bloodthirsty, specialising in sacking and looting. Ninevah was not the sort of place to which an Israelite prophet would hope to be sent when God’s call came.
So Jonah takes a ship to Tarshish. You know the next part of the story: God sends a huge storm; Jonah realises that he is the cause of it and volunteers to be thrown overboard; the sailors toss him and the storm quietens; Jonah is swallowed by a large fish; and three days later is spewed up on dry land.
This is where today’s reading starts, with God again telling Jonah to go to Ninevah. And Jonah now agrees, although not very happily, to bring God’s message to Ninevah. Presumably even Ninevah was better than spending another three days in the belly of a fish. He begins to walk through the city, prophesying, and finds himself a reluctantly successful prophet. The people of Ninevah believe God; they proclaim a fast, and everyone in the city puts on sackcloth. We’re reminded that it’s not the strength, boldness, courage or cleverness of prophets or disciples that allows God’s message to be heard, because Jonah is none of these things.
Today’s reading cuts out the bit of the story that tells us the king’s reaction: ‘When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.”’ If you don’t think that Jonah is a comedy, just imagine all those animals wearing sackcloth. Then the king says something very profound: ‘Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
Now we see why Jonah fled from God’s command and took ship for Tarshish when told to go to Ninevah. Jonah is a man with a strong sense of law and order, but with very little sense of love. And he wants his God to be like that, too; he wants a God who is as narrow, as intolerant, as self-righteous as Jonah himself. But he knows that this is not what God is like. He tells God: ‘”O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’” Jonah may have been astoundingly, overwhelmingly, successful in his preaching, but he does not like it. He sees the people of Ninevah being disobedient and evil and immoral and he wants them pelted with fire and brimstone. He wants them to receive the punishment that they deserve! Instead they repent and God relents. And so Jonah sulks. He goes out of the city and sits down. God makes a bush grow to give Jonah shade, and * Jonah is very happy about the bush. But when dawn comes the next day, God sends a worm to attack the bush and it withers. When the sun rises, God prepares a sultry east wind, and the sun beats down on Jonah so that he’s faint and asks to die.
Jonah is not a happy prophet! In fact, throughout this book he comes across as a sulking, childish prophet. Not that we can blame him. I don’t think there are any of us who at times don’t want God to reward those we see as good and punish those we see as wicked. We want God’s justice. But this book tells us that God’s love and God’s mercy outweigh even God’s justice.
We don’t know whether Jonah comes to accept God’s perspective. The book ends with God’s explanation to Jonah of God’s actions: ‘Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”’ One commentator describes this as “God [consoling] the pouting Jonah like a mother explaining the justice of the world to an angry three-year-old.” We don’t know if Jonah the pouting three-year-old heard, understood, and accepted God’s explanation. The book ends on God’s question.
The Book of Jonah is a comedy, but like many of the best comedies it has its morals and its stings in the tail. One of the morals I read in it is the occasional need for the recognition and repentance of societal sin. The king of Ninevah demands that everyone, human and animal, cry out to God in repentance. I’m sure that not every citizen of Ninevah was equally sinful. I suspect that some people, and definitely the animals, weren’t directly sinful at all. But it’s likely that all of them benefitted from being part of the empire, whether they personally oppressed others or not, and so all of them fasted and clothed themselves in sackcloth. Sometimes sin is social and structural, not something we do individually, but something we all benefit from. And that sort of sin demands repentance, just like our individual sins. We saw something like it in Australia when Prime Minister Rudd apologised to the indigenous people, and especially the Stolen Generations, on behalf of all other Australians.
One of the stings in the tale is God’s reminder that while Jonah is mourning the loss of a plant, God cares for the one hundred and twenty thousand people in Ninevah, and their animals. Often we’re Jonahs in this way, too. We care for the people and things immediately before us; we’re indifferent to those who are further away. We can compare Australians’ response to the killing of two people in Sydney’s Martin Place after the siege, or the seventeen people killed in France as part of the attacks on Charlie Hedbo, with our much more muted response to the murder of 145 people, mostly children, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, or the murder of hundreds, possibly thousands of people in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Often we are Jonahs, worried about our plants and unconcerned about the people and animals of Ninevah. Maybe we could try to get more of a God’s-eye perspective on the world. It might change the world.
But most important of all the messages that we get from the comedy of the Book of Jonah, is the message that God is extravagantly concerned for everyone and everything in creation – for both the evil and the complacent, for Ninevah and Jonah, for prostitutes and Pharisees, for our enemies and ourselves. In this story we see the counter-intuitive morality of the Bible that has Samaritans as good neighbours; stutterers as law-givers; revelations of God in the sound of sheer silence; and compassion shown to evil cities like Ninevah. The comedy of the Book of Jonah is a revelation of God’s love and concern for the whole creation, whether or not we think that parts of the creation deserve it. Since none of truly deserve God’s love, we can all give thanks for it. Amen.
 Mary W. Anderson, ‘Thy will be done’ The Christian Century, Jan 5-Jan 12, 2000.