If God were to appear to you in a dream and tell you to travel to New York and walk through the center of Manhattan pronouncing God’s judgment and impending destruction of that city, how would you respond? I suspect many of us would wake up and think, wow, that was a really strange dream and perhaps share it with friends for a laugh over a coffee or lunch break. If we felt particularly disturbed by the dream, we might call our therapist or spiritual director to help process the feelings and emotions the dream conjured. Somehow I suspect most if not all of us would eventually shrug it off and forget about it. But what if this dream were to reoccur persistently?
In this evening’s Old Testament lesson we hear a portion of a comical story about Jonah who receives this very message from God. This short book is only four chapters long start to finish and the introduction to Jonah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible states that he is never even called a prophet in the text.[i] To add insult to injury, the book of Jonah is more about God’s dealings with the ‘prophet’ himself than with the recipients of Jonah’s message, therefore making Jonah the ‘circus clown’ of all the prophets. His day starts out by getting a daunting assignment from God: go to Nineveh, the capitol city of the hated and oppressive Assyrian Empire, and pronounce God’s judgment on them. I don’t think there is a single one of us who blame Jonah for his response. Jonah runs away and we shake our heads at him intuiting that this is only going to get worse.
He finds a ship with a crew about to set sail for Tarshish, pays his fare, and sets sail. However, eluding God proves to be more difficult than poor Jonah counts on. God causes a mighty storm to toss the ship about the sea violently, and the sailors panic wondering not only who angered God, but which God has been angered. Jonah admits responsibility and asks to be thrown overboard. Being thrown in the sea and drowning has got to be better than walking down Main St. in downtown Nineveh pronouncing doom to an oppressive regime, right? Maybe, but Jonah doesn’t get off that easy. He’s thrown into the sea where he is swallowed by a big fish and lives in its belly for three days and three nights. (On a side note, as soon as Jonah is thrown overboard the storm subsides. As a result, the sailors cease to worship other Gods and put their hope and faith in the God of Israel). We realize as Jonah does, sitting in the belly of a giant fish, that his situation has gone from bad to ridiculous. Jonah repents and is regurgitated by the fish onto dry land. As exhausting as all this has been so far, Jonah’s journey is far from over. God is persistent and He tells Jonah a second time: ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
So Jonah musters up his courage to do the task he has been given to do. He walks into Nineveh proclaiming God’s judgment: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No oracles, no lamentations, just a simple, eight-word message. And Nineveh, the capitol of this evil, dread, and oppressive Gentile empire immediately takes heed and changes its ways. No questions asked. Therefore, because of their willingness to show contrition and repent, God changes his mind and is merciful. Unbelievable!
This is where our lesson ends this evening, but there is one final chapter where we find Jonah sulking because God didn’t follow through the way Jonah proclaimed he was going to do. After what Jonah had been through…..no calamity, no destruction, no fire and brimstone……just mercy. All we can do is smile at poor Jonah and perhaps ourselves because we paid money to see an epic movie only to realize we are instead watching a biblical ‘Mel Brooks film.’ God consoles Jonah with a bush to shade him from the sun which pleases him and then God causes it to dry up and wither leaving Jonah in the scorching heat, just to show him that it is God’s prerogative to bring either destruction or to show mercy. Jonah’s only task and concern was to do to the will of God and participate in God’s mission. Poor Jonah!
While Jonah’s tale is short, comical, and entertaining, like a good Hans Christian Andersen story, there are some practical things we can take away from it for our faith journey. First I would say that God always goes to work using the most unlikely characters to accomplish His mission. The Bible is full of stories (both Old and New Testaments) with examples such as the young boy David who goes to battle with the giant Philistine warrior Goliath and triumphs without any armor and with only a slingshot for a weapon;[ii] or a young unmarried virgin named Mary that gives birth to Jesus, God’s son, the long awaited Messiah;[iii] or a Pharisee named Saul, known for his unmerciful persecution of the followers of Jesus, who encounters the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, the most prolific Christian missionary to the Gentiles.[iv]
I don’t blame Jonah for feeling overwhelmed at the task God gave to him. I certainly understand his instinct to run out of fear. There have been many times in my own life where I have felt that what God was putting in my lap was too big, too complicated, too dangerous, and too scary. But as the Psalmist writes, God knows us better than we know ourselves for it was He that ‘knit me together in my mother’s womb.’[v] In the Chapter of our Rule of Life on Silence we read: since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.[vi] God knows our gifts, talents, stamina, resources, and we bring these spiritual gifts to join God in bringing about peace, joy, stability, healing, and the good news that God is with us in all we encounter and face day by day. He will give us the provision and fortitude we need to accomplish his will in this life. All we have to do is say yes and trust that he will give us the necessary nourishment for the journey.
Second, by saying yes to God, we are agreeing to take part in his plan of salvation. Jesus is in the starring role of this adventure and we play supporting roles in Divine action. We alone cannot save or provide salvation to ourselves or others on our own merit. It is God’s initiative to restore relationship with Him and ourselves through the giving of his son Jesus, and it is our response to God’s desire for relationship through the sacraments and the structure of the Baptismal Covenant that we will help to accomplish this desire and participate this mission. Note that when we are asked in the Covenant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation? The answer is “I will with God’s help.”[vii] We cannot accomplish all of this on our own. It is way too awesome. I think Jonah feared that he was journeying to and through Nineveh alone. But Jonah discovered that just as you cannot run and hide from God, so also, you can accomplish amazing things because God is Emmanuel; that is God with us.
And last I would say, sometimes the results of participating in God’s mission may not turn out the way we expect, or we may be called to change course in mid-journey. We cannot fully know the mind of God in the accomplishment of His will. But that’s okay. In his Instructions on the Religious Life our founder Fr. Benson says: “Never draw back from any work which you have got to do, under the idea that there is no security of its being carried on. All you have to do is your day’s labor. Do it; and if your work be altogether overthrown when you have finished and your day is done, it is no concern of yours; leave it with God.”[viii] I think this is what Jesus is alluding to when he is teaching his disciples how to pray: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” All you need to ask God in prayer is “What’s the next right thing?” And then do that one thing.
God is at work in us and through us, and if that sounds daunting remember that He has always been at work in the most impossible situations with the most unlikely characters…..like poor Jonah. That is what God imparts to Jonah at the end of his brief tale and therefore also to us. The story might not turn out like we think it’s going to, but God is at work bringing about his Kingdom, not a hated an oppressive regime like the rulers of Nineveh, not a promise of calamity and destruction, but one of mercy and transfiguration. After all, Jonah’s actions brought a bunch of sailors to the knowledge of God’s love and saved an Empire in just 4 chapters in under 3 pages and in 8 words. Jonah, the greatest of all prophets….with God’s help!
[i] Coogan, Michael David., et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: with the Apocrypha. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2001.
[ii] 1 Samuel 17
[iii] Luke 1:26-38
[iv] Acts 9:3-19
[v] Psalm 139:13
[vii] Book of Common Prayer: Holy Baptism, pp. 304-305
[viii] Benson, Richard Meux. Instructions on the Religious Life. A.R. Mowbray, 1935.
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