I don't think I am the only one who has been having boundary issues with media in the last week. Social media, television media, print or online media. So many of us have just been staying away. But yesterday, feeling my sermon to be on solid but unwritten footing, I spent hours following news, the acceptance speeches of Biden and Harris and all of the talking heads afterwards. Facebook, the works.
I was feeling pretty good too. I didn't feel good exactly, but a little less bad. I could breathe, I let myself feel hopeful, and according to facebook where we really are just talking to people who already feel the same as we do, I got a lot of confirmation of my sense of relief and anticipation.
Knowing that my sermon wasn't finished yet, my friend jokingly sent me a link to something to help. Who would have ever guessed that cliffs notes for the Bible was a real thing?
Wouldn't that be great! I don't think I ever used them back when I was studying in school when you'd think a student would. High School, college maybe. To me using cliffs notes = cheating. Cliffs notes = not thinking for yourself. Cliff notes = the very basics; what you use instead of doing the work; the short version; incomplete. Who would actually list cliffs notes as a resource in their footnotes? So imagine my continued sarcastic relief to read that “CliffsNotes study guides are written by real teachers and professors.”1 Oh, well THAT's good!
It's hard to imagine a cliff notes version of the book of Jonah because it is already the short version. But really it's complicated. When I first read the narrative lectionary for today, I was sure I would never use such a long selection. Ken was probably relieved. Until I called him and said, can you read through all of Jonah, and just let me know which parts you want to read? I think his exact words were, “Um….”
If we read more than Jonah tried to run away from God, got swallowed by a whale for his trouble, God saved him in order for Jonah to complete his task, we get the message that we shouldn't run away from what we hear God wanting us to do because God will find a way to get us back on track despite our running. That is a good message. I think it is still the most important message.
But it's more than that. Let's take a look at what Jonah was running away from. Jonah was being sent to proclaim God's message to the Ninevites. The Ninevites were the ones responsible for destroying all of the northern kingdom. They were the enemy, and a destructive one at that. The British Museum has wall reliefs depicting multiple grotesque scenes of Judeans being slaughtered. Archaeologists discovered this relief in a palace in Nineveh.2 Jonah worked really hard to not go to Nineveh. He booked passage on a ship, did nothing while the ship was being buffeted by a storm. Even the sailors were praying to their gods for relief. But not Jonah. When the sailors asked Jonah who he was, he named himself with an ethnic name “I am a Hebrew.” That's an unusual move in the Old Testament. Why would God send a Hebrew to the Ninevites? This is key to the story.
When the sailors discovered that he "… worship[ed] the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land," they knew that he then was the one who brought the storm upon them. The sailors asked Jonah what they should do, to get the Lord to stop the storm. This is missing from the lectionary choice – why I wanted to read the whole thing. Jonah “12 said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Jonah would rather die than go to Nineveh. The sailors though didn't want to throw him overboard so they tried still harder to get to land, but they couldn't. Finally, the sailors themselves cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” But their attempts to get themselves get to land were not successful and the storm raged even more. So they decided to do as Jonah himself suggested and throw him into the sea.
Sure enough that calmed the storm and the sailors were more devout than Jonah then. They prayed to God and offered a sacrifice and made vows. You might think that being swallowed by a large fish would be a bad thing. But not for Jonah. God sent that large fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah lived in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. When God released Jonah from the fish he released him onto dry land. From there Jonah went to Ninevah. In a city that was a three days walk to cross, after just one day across the city, declaring that they needed to repent because in 40 days Ninevah would be overthrown, the Ninevites repented. Immediately. They repented, the king made a decree, and the people changed! God changed his mind. Everyone goes home happy, right?
No. Jonah was mad at God. He left the city, set himself up in a booth basically to pout and watch what would happen. Jonah was mad that God changed his mind after the whole ordeal Jonah went through to tell them they would be destroyed. Jonah said to 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 prayed that he would die. God wanted to know why he was so crabby!
Jonah didn't want to go into enemy camp and proclaim their destruction because he already thought of them as the enemy, and as the enemy he had already judged them as deserving of that destruction. So when God showed them mercy, Jonah was mad.
Jonah was not mad about the fish, or the bush or the worm or the sun or even God's treatment of him. Jonah was mad that he a Hebrew was sent to Nineveh, only to see God show the Ninevites, the enemy, the same mercy as he, a Hebrew, was shown.
How can God be on my side and also on the other side? How can God show mercy to the one who destroyed everything I love? Why would God send me to warn my enemy of their impending doom?
Who decides who gets mercy? Who decides on the messenger and the message? Why did the Ninevites repent and change so quickly? What were they thinking? Maybe they too wondered why a Hebrew, whose people they had destroyed so brutally, would dare to come and tell them that they would be destroyed in 40 days?
The constant, the common denominator for all of these questions and for all of the perspectives, is God. God chose the messenger, and showed us a new perspective on the other. God's mercy is for both. The Hebrew and the Ninevite. The story doesn't end with Jonah deciding that the Ninevites aren't so bad.
I don't think this story is about you and me in the position of Jonah, and running from God. I think this story is also about showing both sides an example of what God's faithfulness looks like. Jonah might not go away loving the Ninevites, but he may feel differently about God after this experience. He ran from God's call and God gave him another chance. He was thrown into the sea into certain death, seemingly to the end of his mission to go and proclaim to the Ninevites. But God made sure that Jonah could continue, and saved him after three days in the belly of the fish.
Jonah got the same second chance as the Ninevites did when God changed his mind about their destruction. What Jonah learned is that it is not our job to judge or punish our enemies. While Jonah didn't seem to want to punish the Ninevites he certainly didn't want to be involved with saving them. Roger Nam, commenting in Workingpreacher, writes, “God's love is extraordinary. God proves to act in compassion and longsuffering to both the othered (Nineveh) and the Hebrew (Jonah). With both peoples there is redemption. God's offering to both Jonah and the [Ninevites] Assyrians is eventually met with an appropriate response. With Jonah, he is decisively obedient to God and boldly obeys in the city of his enemy. With Nineveh, the people obey with deep repentance. The book of Jonah suggests that Hebrews and [Ninevites] Assyrians might have more in common than perceived.”2
Did anyone else hear “Our opponents are not our enemies.” last night? As much as I got all the confirmation of my sense of relief, ability to breathe, energy for moving toward hope, from all of my facebook meanderings last night, I also got something else. It did not take long for celebratory words to start to head toward that pied piper cliff of destruction where we start to take joy from someone else's tragedy. I don't think I have any facebook friends or real friends who want to actually harm any person. But I think we get very close to doing some of the same things that caused us harm. If I blow off steam on facebook, that's one thing. If I laugh at something that's dark humor, that's a release, that's one thing. But when have we actually fallen off that cliff and joined the “oh, I was just kidding” crowd? When do we fall into the “you hurt me I'm going to punish you” camp? When do we fall into the “I can't wait until you get the pain that's coming to you” frame of mind?
I fall there all the time, fortunately, mostly in my head. What I say among my friends and my family and what I put out in public are both true things. But when it is in public we add to the energy in the wrong direction. It will be really easy now to love the pain that the other 7 million people might be feeling now. It might be really easy for us to be thirsty for the suffering of certain individuals. Our faith calls us not to go there. When we think about which mountain we want to stand on, we have to be strong enough to be our better selves. Anger, frustration, lashing out are all normal. But they shouldn't be fun. They shouldn't feel good. Our faith calls us to have all of our feelings yes, and leave it to God to show us what to do next. Our faith also reminds us that God's work takes time and persistence, and belief and faith.
I invite us to let Jonah be a cautionary tale for us. Who is the enemy? To some, maybe us. To us, it's them. What if we let God decide, and let God place his mercy where he will.
1Yep, I listed cliffsnotes in my footnotes!
Patterson, Charles H. CliffsNotes on Old Testament of the Bible. 08 Nov 2020
2Roger Nam, Working preacher commentary, originally published on November 6, 2016.
"Thing 1 or Thing 2"
Reverend Debra McGuire
November 8, 2020