Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘Now Jonah he lived in a whale’. That, in the words of the Gershwin song (sung here by Paul Robeson), is all that many folk know about Jonah. Or perhaps they know a little more of the story of this reluctant prophet. Of how he was asked to preach against the city of Nineveh, and how he decided to avoid the command of God by going in the opposite direction- he boards a ship headed for Spain. But God is not to be foiled. A storm springs up, and Jonah confesses to the terrified sailors that he is the cause of their distress- he has disobeyed the God of the wind and waves. They throw him overboard, and calm returns to the sea. Jonah, meanwhile, is swallowed by his famous giant fish, who spews him up alive on a beach. It is at this point that this morning’s reading takes up the story. So again, the command of the Lord comes to Jonah:
‘Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to the people the message I have given you’.
And so, after his fishy adventure Jonah, does finally head for Nineveh, with a stark warning for the people of the city:
‘In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!’
It would have been a terrifying thing for any Israelite prophet to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, one of the great empires surrounding Israel. Archaeological excavations in what is today northern Iraq have uncovered an enormous, grand, wealthy city, built, no doubt, on the wealth of weaker nations they Assyrians had conquered. Jonah is asked by God to go to these powerful, sophisticated people with a message from his God, the God of little Israel: ‘Go to Nineveh, that great city, and speak out against it; I am aware how wicked its people are’– perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s so reluctant.
You need to know, however, that Jonah is an unusual book among the books of the prophets, because it basically tells a story. The other books- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and so on- are mostly collections of the prophet’s words. They sometimes tell us a little about the prophet, or about incidents in his life, but the prophetic books are mainly books of prophecy, and they are not about the prophet. The Book of Jonah, however, isn’t really a collection of prophecy, but a story about the prophet. We hear almost nothing about his preaching, except that prophecy that Nineveh is to be destroyed. This is a different kind of prophetic book.
And the story is quite the opposite of what we normally read about the prophets. It is the story of a prophet who would not do as he was told. He does not simply obey the summons of God to preach, or even express a few doubts about it. Instead, he actually runs way, and then has this comic adventure with the fish before he finally arrives in Nineveh. Jonah, it seems to me, is a parody of prophecy. It is as if someone sat down to write a book which would make fun of the prophets of Israel. Jonah is a comic creation, a tale to poke fun at an aspect of Israelite religion- a sort of ancient ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ parody of the Hebrew prophets. But it is a parody with a purpose.
For the heart of the story is not the comic fish. Rather, it is what happens when Jonah gets to Nineveh. Jonah is a prophet who preaches repentance, and threatens destruction on those who disobey God. Quite common themes for these Old Testament prophets. But what happens next is not what the reader might expect. Jonah walks through the city, he preaches his message of destruction: ‘In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed!’
At last, Jonah is acting like an Old Testament prophet out of central casting. Like Donald Trump threating North Korea, Jonah threatens an enemy of Israel with fire and fury- the destruction of their city by God. At last, it seems, Jonah is doing the right thing.
But what happens? Do these sophisticated, wealthy, powerful Ninevites take any notice of this prophet from the little land of Israel? Do they take seriously this hairy figure who smells of fish? Well, yes, actually they do. Miraculously even the king gets to hear of it, and he and the people of the city believe Jonah. They change their ways, and show signs of repentance. The author of the book tells us, rather ludicrously, that the king even commanded that animals as well as people should wear sackcloth, the traditional Israelite sign of repentance. And as the Ninevites all pray furiously to the God of Israel, the destruction of their city is averted.
In many ways the repentance of the Ninevites is as much a miracle as Jonah being swallowed by a fish. Whoever made up this story is having fun at the expense of the prophets of Israel, parodying their preaching techniques and their assumptions. Jonah starts off as a prophet too scared to preach. When he does preach, it is a message of destruction. But incredibly, his message is believed, and the people of Nineveh believe this message from Israel’s God.
It seems that too many of these old prophets really didn’t believe that God could act like that. They preached that God would punish Israel’s enemies, as if God did not care for the inhabitants of other lands. But when the Ninevites repent, God stays his hand. And so the final part of the story finds Jonah in decidedly grumpy mood. Jonah had gone to all that trouble of prophesying that Nineveh would be destroyed. But his prophesy doesn’t come true. Because they have repented, God will not punish them. After forty days, Nineveh is still there, and Jonah is annoyed and angry, even suicidal- for he seems, in many ways, like a failed prophet.
Jonah, and those like him, understood things too narrowly- that’s the message from the writer of this parody of prophecy. They think that they are to preach judgement, when in fact they are to call people to repentance. They believe that God is the God only of their nation, when in fact God cares for the entire world. At the very end of the book, as Jonah complains to God, God asks why should he not ‘have pity on Nineveh, that great city. After all, it has more than 120,000 innocent children in it, as well as many animals!’ The point of this book is to remind the prophets that God’s love and mercy is not just on Israel. The God of Israel cares for the entire world; all people are in his care. What he desires is not the destruction of sinners, but for people to turn to him.
There is an incident mentioned in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus has sent his disciples ahead to prepare for him to visit a village in Samaria. ‘But the people there would not receive him’, writes Luke, and continues:
‘When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”’
And Luke says simply,
‘Jesus turned and rebuked them’.
Jesus certainly spoke of repentance, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. But unlike Jonah he saw that repentance was just the beginning of a process. Just as he invited his first fishermen disciples, so he invites us to follow him on a journey of discovery. For Jesus does not simply preach punishment and destruction. Instead, above all, Jesus’ message is a message of hope.
There are time, I think, when the Church gets a bit like Jonah. We look at the state of the world, at the terrible things which go on in our cities, and- if we aren’t too scared- we go and tell people that they will be punished for their sins, not really expecting it to make much difference. It seems to me that that was not Jesus’ way. Instead, he attracted followers because he offered them hope.
Before Barak Obama became American President, he wrote a book called ‘The Audacity of Hope’. Audacity is not a virtue we might think to apply to Jonah. After all, he was not audacious- he was, to use the old Scots word for it, ‘feart’! But eventually reluctantly, he went off and preached anyway. Yet what he predicted did not come true, because of unforeseen circumstances. It is at the end of the book where Jonah because audacious, when we find him in this argument with God, an argument which God wins, because it turns out that Jonah’s God is much bigger, wider, more loving than he’d thought.
For those of us who read Jonah, this is a message of hope. It turns out that God’s grace known no bounds. If we are called to turn to God, that is not something we should do out of fear. Instead, God is offering his love and grace to all people, everywhere. In a divided world, here is a message which transcends all human boundaries. That God should care for the children and animals of Nineveh was a revolutionary idea in its time.
Yet there are still people today who would rather God brought fire and brimstone down on people who are not like them. One of the most worrying trends of our time is that we are increasingly seeing ideas like racism becoming increasingly acceptable. In America, Donald Trump is happy to be supported by white supremacists. Here in Europe, a far-right party has just entered into a coalition government in Austria. In our own country, the media fuels a xenophobic approach to politics, in which we blame immigrants and foreigners for all our problems. All this depends on a belief that some people, some races, some nations are better than others.
Jonah was afraid of Nineveh, because Nineveh was is nation’s enemy. And when eventually he was forced to preach there, he was sure that Nineveh was God’s enemy, too. So when God showed compassion on Nineveh, that was hard for Jonah to take in. For it meant that God cared, not just for Jonah’s nation, but even for nations who seemed to be enemies.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him, and work with him, fishing for people. His message was: turn from your sins and believe in the Gospel- for the Kingdom of God is near. And the point about the Kingdom of God is that it is for all people- for people of all nations and races. In the Kingdom, there are no nations or cultures which are privileged. We do not get to say to God- bring down fire and fury on those people who are not like us. For God has compassion on all people.
For Christ’s Gospel is not a message of narrow judgement, but a hopeful message of God’s care and love, and it is for all people. It isn’t compatible with a racist nationalism, or any other kind of bigotry. Any philosophy which claims one race, nation or culture is more precious than another is incompatible with Christianity. Instead, what drew those fishermen away from their nets was a message of hope. It is audacious to speak of hope in our world. But that is what we must do if we would speak of Christ and his Kingdom to the world today- we must give people hope, the hope which comes from believing Christ’s message that the Kingdom of God is near.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo