Note for non-Powell residents: The example I use towards the end of the sermon, Paul Cardwell, was the former CEO of Powell Valley Health Care. He was convicted of and imprisoned for embezzling a substantial sum of money from the hospital.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Last week in my sermon, I spoke about God’s call, and how each one of us has been called by God to certain vocations in life, whether that vocation is the same thing you get paid to do, such as being a doctor, nurse, or schoolteacher, for example, or it is a type of vocation such as being a mother, father, daughter or son. This week in our Bible readings, we see two different examples of how people respond to God’s call upon their lives: Jonah, who runs away from God’s call and only returns under duress, and the disciples, who drop everything that they’re doing and leave their jobs and families behind to follow Jesus. Today, though, I would like to focus on Jonah, because I think his story still resonates with us many thousands of years later.
Those of us who grew up going to Sunday school think we know all about Jonah. He’s the guy who was swallowed by a whale, right? Well, actually, not quite. The story is that he was swallowed by a large fish, not a whale. Presumably, since we can’t imagine a fish large enough to swallow a grown human male, our imaginations have made the large fish into a whale. But, be that as it may, how many of us remember anything else about Jonah besides the fact that he was swallowed by a large fish? Some of us might. And while the fish part of the story may be the most memorable, it is not the most interesting part of the story. So, let me take a moment to refresh your memory, because in order to understand today’s snippet of the story, we need to remember the entire book of Jonah.
Jonah was a prophet. And before we go any further with that, we need to step back and define what a prophet is. When we hear the word “prophet,” most of us think of someone like Nostradamus, that is, someone who makes predictions about the future. While that was sometimes included in the Old Testament prophets’ job description, that was not the main part of their job. A prophet is simply someone who speaks the word of the Lord to the people. That’s it. And the prophets of the Old Testament called the people to account for their sins, and then, after the punishment for those sins happened, they spoke God’s words of comfort and love to the people. The prophet Micah summarizes God’s word to the people when he says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Because the Israelites did not do these things, even after the prophets repeatedly warned them, God allowed them to be conquered, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians.
It is the Assyrians that concern God in the story of Jonah. The book of Jonah opens up with God telling Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But instead of doing what God told him to do, Jonah runs away, and sets out for a place called Tarshish, which is probably located in Spain. In other words, Jonah goes to the complete opposite end of the Mediterranean from Nineveh. Why? Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which was the evil empire that had come in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah didn’t want to take the chance that, because of his proclamation of God’s word to the city, the people of Nineveh might repent and then God would not punish them. Jonah hated the people of Assyria so much that he would have rather seen them die for their wickedness than give them the chance to repent.
Jonah never makes it to Tarshish, though, for a mighty storm comes up, and all who are on the boat are afraid that they are going to die. Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, and the sea will calm down. The sailors do so, and the sea instantly calms down. Jonah, of course, thinks he is going to die, but that’s when God sends the fish to swallow him up. God really wants Jonah alive, because he wants Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. Jonah has three days to think about things and pray, and then the fish finally vomits Jonah up. This is where our reading begins today: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” Jonah finally does what God tells him to do and starts proclaiming, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s the entire message. And instead of regarding him as some crazy street preacher who smelled bad—remember, Jonah’s just spent three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, who then vomits him up on shore—the people of Nineveh take his words to heart and repent, mourning and fasting, and not only the human beings, but the animals, too! So, God spares the people of Nineveh and does not bring disaster upon them. And Jonah gets upset with God, because he showed mercy to these bad people who conquered his own people. The book ends with God asking a question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
There are several lessons that God is teaching us through this story of the prophet Jonah. The first one is this: Sometimes the call that God places on our lives is not going to be easy. Jonah was called to preach to those people who he thought were his worst enemies. God calls us, each and every one of us, to speak words of love, compassion, and forgiveness, to those people who we consider to be the most unlovable, the ones who we think God could not possibly love. Take a moment and think about who those people are in your lives. Whoever they are, you are called to be a prophet to them: God’s spokesperson, telling that person that God loves them and will show mercy on them, because God is “a gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And even though it may give us heartburn to speak those words of God’s love to our worst enemies, if we believe that God is a loving and compassionate God, then we must believe that he is a loving and compassionate God for each human being that he has created: those who do their best to live a good life, as well as those who seem to do nothing but evil.
Another important lesson to be learned from Jonah, related to the first, is that God forgives. This month’s Bible study in the women’s circles covered the topic of David and Bathsheba, and after hearing all of the rotten things that David did, some expressed astonishment that all David had to do for God to forgive him all of these things was say, “I have sinned against the Lord.” That’s what happened in Nineveh in the story of Jonah: the people heard the word of the Lord proclaimed to them by Jonah. They fasted, they put on sackcloth, they cried out to God, and they turned from their evil ways and from violence. And God forgave them.
We are so thankful to God when God offers us forgiveness for the things that we have done. We marvel at his mercy: our sins are remembered no more. But when that same mercy is extended to people who we think have committed far more heinous sins than we have, what is our reaction? Resentment. We think that God should make those evildoers pay, and should not forgive them so easily. We can thus sympathize with Jonah’s reaction when God forgives the Ninevites. Jonah complains 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” We, too, would sometimes rather die than to see God extend mercy to those people who are our enemies.
But the lesson of Jonah is this: God loves each and every person that he has created and put on this earth. If he didn’t, how could we be sure that we are the ones who are loved? That same wonderful word of mercy that we have heard from God is extended not only to someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis, but is also extended to Paul Cardwell, the former CEO of Powell Valley Health Care. That same word of mercy is not only extended to you and to me, but to the terrorists of whom we are so afraid. All that needs to be done to receive that mercy is what the Ninevites did, and what Jesus proclaims in our Gospel lesson today: Repent, and believe in the good news. Repent and believe. As the verse in the hymn “To God Be the Glory” goes, “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God. The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Isn’t that great news? God has mercy on us and forgives us. Now, go and tell everyone you meet, even that person you think is your worst enemy. Amen.