Jonah Week 3: The Reluctant Prophet

Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 6/19/2016


The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)

Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.

God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. (Jonah 3:1-10, CEB)


 

Do we have any Star Wars fans here? My Dad introduced it to me when I was a kid and I fell in love with it. Toy lightsabers, Jedi action figures, the whole 9 yards. I even had a Darth Vader mask that made my voice sound like Darth Vader’s – it was awesome!

Darth Vader was the villain of my childhood. He was the character I loved to hate in those movies, the original trilogy. He was the quintessential bad guy – everything down to how he dressed, all in black, his intimidating mask. He looked like the definition of evil. And it was only at the very end of the last movie that he was redeemed by saving Luke Skywalker from the evil Emperor. Up until then, he had been unadulterated evil. So he was the villain I loved to hate. Now, I saw the newer trilogy after that, with Hayden Christensen and Ewan MacGregor in them – anyone seen those? Those movies kind of ruined that image of Darth Vader and made it more complex, because they showed him as a young, innocent, troubled boy – they explained how he got to be so evil, and you started to understand him. But without those movies, Darth Vader was just pure evil – the villain you love to hate.

Do any of you have a character or villain or someone you love to hate? Think of the villains in Disney movies – Scar in The Lion King, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, the evil stepmother in Cinderella. These are characters and villains we love to hate – they’re bad people, there’s nothing in them to like. It’s kind of comforting when movies have this, a clearly drawn line around who is good and who is bad, right?

We heard this same kind of theme in our Scripture for today, actually; the third part of Jonah’s story.

Jonah loved to hate the people of Nineveh. That much should be clear from the story so far.

We’re in the third week of our series on Jonah, so if you’ve missed the last two weeks or you need a refresher on the story, here’s where we are: God called Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh – the capital city of Assyria, the archenemies of Jonah’s people – so Jonah didn’t want to go. So he ran literally as far away as possible in literally the opposite direction to escape God’s call. But he wasn’t able to escape it, which is what we talked about in the first week: We cannot escape God’s call on our lives.

As Jonah was trying to escape, God sent a big fish to swallow him. And in the belly of the fish, Jonah finally said “I’m done running, I’ll do this thing that you want me to do.” And the fish spit him up on dry land. So last week, we talked about how it’s not possible to sin yourself away from God’s grace, no matter how far you go.

So we’ve seen that Jonah loved to hate the people of Nineveh. And this hatred is especially evident in the passage for today that you heard earlier. Jonah finally decided to follow God’s call to Nineveh, after his trip to hell and back – literally. The fish vomits him onto dry land, and he starts walking to Nineveh, covered in fish puke and shaking sea water out of his ears.

He gets to Nineveh, the city he loves to hate, and spends one day walking through the city proclaiming his message. Now, there are a few things screwy with that. The Scripture tells us that it took three days to walk across Nineveh.

But Jonah only walked 1 day, giving God’s message to the city.  Jonah only proclaimed God’s message to 1/3 of the city. Jonah hated them so much that he didn’t even want the majority of them to hear his message of God’s judgment.

And listen to his message – “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” That’s pretty short – just 9 words. In Hebrew, the original language for this story, the message is even shorter – 5 words. Ovd ar-ba-‘im yo-vm ve-ni-ne-veh neh-pa-chet. That’s it!

These are the only actual words of prophecy we have from Jonah. And that’s strange. The Prophet Isaiah gives us 66 chapters of prophecy. The Prophet Jeremiah gives us 52 chapters of prophecy. Ezekiel gives us 48 chapters of prophecy. Jonah – – he gives us 5 words of prophecy. 40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!

And it gets worse. Jonah’s message is pretty doomy, foretelling the destruction of Nineveh, but other prophets had similar doomy messages of destruction. But the other prophets also extended hope. Return to God, love God and treat your fellow human beings right, and disaster will be averted. There was always a chance for repentance. But not with Jonah. He just said “40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” No hope, no chance for repentance, nothing.

Jonah hated the people of Nineveh so much that he was determined to see them get destroyed. He wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. Sure, Jonah followed God’s call to go to Nineveh, but he was reluctant every step of the way, even after he got out of the fish.

It kind of reads like when kids are forced to do chores, so they do them so badly that they’re never asked to do it again. “Sure, I’ll take the Weed-Eater around the lawn – oops, sorry about your flowers.” “Sure, I’ll do laundry – oh wait, you mean the whites and colors aren’t supposed to go in the same load. My bad.”

But despite Jonah’s best efforts, God still worked in the hearts and minds of the Ninevites. Despite Jonah only giving the message to 1/3 of the city, despite the lack of hope in his message and the shortness of it, despite all of that, every single person – young, old, rich, poor, even the animals and even the king humbled themselves, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes – a sign of humility, sorrow, and repentance. The king called on everyone to fast and to cease their evil behavior and all the violence under their control. And they did.

SO – God relented. He didn’t destroy Nineveh. Despite Jonah’s best efforts, despite Jonah’s hatred of these people, despite his attempts to keep them from repenting and ensuring their destruction, Jonah becomes the most successful prophet in Jewish history. Every single person he was sent to repented and changed their lives, and God relented.

So what does this mean? It means that God loves even those people who we hate. Those people, that group, that identity we can’t help but hate, those people who we can’t see any reason to love – God loves them. God loves even those people who we hate.

Jonah hated the Ninevites and worked for their destruction. God loved the Ninevites and worked for their salvation.

Jonah had every reason to hate the Ninevites – and we can understand that hatred in a way – they oppressed and destroyed Jonah’s people; they were an evil, cruel, sadistic empire. They’re the bad guys, the people we love to hate, so of course Jonah’s going to hate them! But God loved them.

This doesn’t make logical or rational sense to us. It goes against every tendency we have, everything we thought we knew about the world. God loves even the bad guys, even the people we love to hate – God loves them.

This is not just radical love, this is scandalous love. This is the type of love that got Jesus nailed to the cross – loving the unlovable, and crossing every boundary, loving those who everyone says you ought to hate. But this is our God, the God who loves even those people who we hate.

God loves even those people who we hate. Now that’s a radical message in a world like ours that is so full of hatred. If you paid attention to the news at all over the last week, I’m sure you were heartbroken as I was as news of the shooting in Orlando last Sunday unfolded.

In case you need a refresher, early last Sunday morning, a man opened fire in a night club and killed 49 people, and injured 53 others. The shooter was eventually shot and killed by police. It is now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. And it all happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Pulse was a prominent gay club in the community and an important place for the LGBT+ community in that area. Because of that, it appears that this was a hate crime against the LGBT+ community, those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer, just like the attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC almost a year ago was a racist hate crime against our African American brothers and sisters.

This attack was awful in so many ways. But it brought this specifically to my mind as I was preparing this sermon this week. Those in our society who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer have borne the brunt of society’s hatred so often. And this attack is an example of what happens when that hatred is taken to the furthest extent.

But you heard today from Jonah’s story that God loves even those people who we hate, even those people who the world hates. Now I don’t care what your political views, what your political party leader, or what Fox News tells you is the correct response to this. Our Christian faith tells us that the correct response is love, and that should take precedence over anything else. Love. Not politicizing. Not “the gays got what they deserved” – certainly not that. Love. That is our response.

I don’t care what your personal faith tells you about the wrongness or rightness of homosexuality; in fact, I have a pretty good idea of where most of you stand on that. But I’m not talking about that right now. 50 people are dead. 49 of those people were at a gay club in Orlando, and most of them identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. 50 people are dead.

This is not a time to talk about how wrong you think homosexuality is. This is a time to mourn the huge loss of life. This is a time to let the families of those 49 grieve their loss without someone telling them that their son or daughter was living in sin. This is a time to pray without ceasing for those suffering loss, as well as those injured in the attack, for Orlando as they reel from this loss, and for our whole country as we inevitably polarize around this tragedy.

But it is not a time to stop at payer. It is a time to pray, but it is also a time to help in whatever way we can. Our faith calls us to love, and to love in action. Isaiah 1 talks about God hating Israel’s worship because they worship and pray while ignoring the plight of society’s unprotected members. They worship and pray while ignoring the pain and suffering of the poor in their society. They worshipped and prayed without helping the oppressed, without defending the orphan, without pleading for the widow. Therefore, God didn’t listen to their prayers.

And James says it best: “A person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone…faith without actions is dead.”

And there have been stories of such faithful action following this tragedy, stories of hope and love instead of fear and hate.

There was a grandmother flying to Orlando, where her grandson had been killed at Pulse nightclub. The flight attendants knew about the attack and had heard why this woman was flying, so they secretly passed out note cards and paper to the other passengers on the flight to write messages of love and support for this woman. By the time they touched down in Orlando, 30 pages of messages of hope, love, and sorrow were given to this woman, along with money and other offers of support, letting her know that in the midst of hate, there is love.

As soon as everyone in an around Orlando heard about the tragedy and heard how many people had been injured, lines began forming at blood banks as people donated their blood to the injured. Chick-fil-a even opened on a Sunday and gave sandwiches and drinks to those standing in line at the blood banks. Even though they knew Pulse nightclub is a gay club, even though they could already presume that those who had been killed were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, and even though Chick-fil-a doesn’t agree with homosexual identity, they still saw that love was the correct response.

And that’s all great, but that was all done by people in and around Orlando. What has God called us to do here?

[For my online-only readers: Here I gave my congregation a few ways we could help in our own context, several hundred miles removed from Orlando. If you want to donate to help the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, here’s the link.]

But there’s more we can do beyond that. God loves even those people who we hate. And God calls us and challenges us to love more and more people. As I said earlier, it appears that this shooting was a hate crime against the LGBT community. I know there are other factors floating around, and as the investigation continues we might find out more. But as Christians, we are called to be the hands and feet of our God, removing hatred from the world. And the only antidote to hatred is love.

Unbridled, unbound, passionate love for all.

And not the emotional love. Active love.

Love that works for the good of other people, regardless of their conformity with your understanding of an ethical human life, or lack thereof.

Love that works for the wellbeing of others regardless of whether you think they’re right or wrong.

Love that works, not for ourselves, but for others, no matter who they are or who they love.

God loves even those people who we hate, even those people who we don’t understand, even those people we don’t like, even those people who we are so dead-set against that you don’t see a way you could ever love them. God loves them. And God calls us to extend our love further and further until it encompasses the whole world and everyone in it.

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