Friday, December 26, 2003
Jonah and the Whale of a Good Time
Highland Park Congregation
May 11, 2003
[Flannel Christian], Speaking
So Jonah is walking down Fauntleroy one day, minding his own business, and God comes walking up to him. Now this wasn’t as surprising to Jonah as it might seem to us, because God was a lot more personable back then, talking and bantering with the people in the Temple and in the country-side. But Jonah wasn’t too thrilled, either. You see, Israel wasn’t doing so well. The Assyrians were a neighboring country to the north—about where Iraq is today—and they were almost constantly beating up on Israel: killing people, taking livestock, burning villages, making war. The Assyrians were bad news for the people of Israel, and there wasn’t much Israel could do about it. They tried—Israel tried fighting back, tried running away, tried bribing and arguing and pleading, but all for naught. Israel was getting its butt kicked by Assyria, and it was getting worse by the day. And God was the god that said God would protect Israel. As far as Jonah could tell, God wasn’t doing so hot a job. Jonah would often just walk around thinking that things just couldn’t get any worse.
So along comes God and Jonah has to bite his tongue in order not to give God a piece of his mind. And God is acting all chummy and casual, like there was nothing at all to worry about. In fact, God even says to Jonah, “Hey, Jonah, I need your help. I got a great idea, and you’re just the man to do it.”
“Uh-oh,” Jonah thinks. So far none of the plans that anyone has come up with has done any good against the Assyrians, and God has something in mind just for him? No way.
God says, “I want you to go to Nineveh, and tell the people there that they aren’t acting very nicely and should change their ways.”
Jonah says, “WHAT?!” Now Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria. This was the LAST place Jonah wanted to be. It would be like one of us walking into Baghdad and wanting to tell everyone there that they need to shape up! Or even better, it would be like Saddam Hussein wanting to go to Washington, D.C., to talk to everyone on the street and get them to agree with him that the US ought to stop beating up on Iraq. How do you think that’d turn out? If anyone saw Saddam Hussein on the street? He’d be crazy to try that. Just like Jonah thought God must be crazy to ask him to go to Nineveh!
So Jonah says “oh yeah, Lord, I’ll get right on that” and starts heading the opposite way, thinking to himself, “Man, this just can’t get any worse.”
“Where you going?” God asks.
“Oh, just going to pack my things.”
“Well, ok, but don’t take too long, we don’t have all day.”
And so Jonah starts running. But instead of running toward Nineveh, Jonah heads down to the seashore and takes the first boat headed for Spain. Now, let me tell you, Jonah hated the water—it made him sick and scared, he couldn’t even swim! But traveling by land would have been too slow, he thought, and God would have been able to find him. So he climbed aboard. And there he is, at the bottom of the ship, trying to go to sleep so he won’t be thinking about how sick he is or how scared he is. And he’s thinking, “Oh man, this just can’t get any worse.”
And just when he thinks that a storm starts on the ocean, and this little boat starts getting tossed all over the place, and it looks like it is going to sink! Now all five men on the crew of that little ship were religious men. They each had their own god and each were praying to their god to help them, but nothing happened. So they ran down to get Jonah and told him to get praying to his god, too, or else they’re going to drown! So Jonah starts praying, and praying, and praying, and nothing is changing. So somebody thinks of the idea of finding out whose fault the storm is, whose god is angry at them, and they roll a die, and whoever’s number comes up that’s the guilty person. And you gotta know Jonah is thinking this is the worst idea ever, right? But the sailors roll the die and guess who’s number comes up. That’s right, Jonah’s.
They’re all looking at him like he killed somebody—“What’re you doing here? Why don’t you apologize to your god? Stop the storm!” And so Jonah starts praying again, this time very loud, but nothing changes. And the sailors get another bright idea—throw Jonah overboard. As soon as Jonah sees that look in their eyes, he’s thinking, “Man, this just cannot get any worse.”
So now he’s in the water, and remember he can’t swim, and there’s a storm, too. So, sure enough, he starts sinking and sinking, and he’s holding his breath, and now he’s thinking “Really, this is as bad as it gets.” When all of a sudden, he’s swallowed whole by a giant fish!
And there he sits for three whole days. Now, imagine the smell! You all have smelled old fish before, right. And that’s what they smell like on the outside! I’m pretty sure Jonah was somewhat thankful for not drowning, at least at first. But on about the second and third day, I’m betting he was thinking, “it just can’t get any worse than this. Really, it just can’t.” And there he sits and stews in the fish-juice wondering what’s going to happen to him.
Then, on the third day, this fish must’ve gotten tired of the constant indigestion that Jonah was causing, and spit him out on to the shore. Pthoowie!
And there Jonah is, finally back on dry land, not having eaten anything in three days, soaking wet and wreaking of fish, and right back where he started. All this, and he isn’t one step closer to Spain. And guess who comes walking along just at that moment. That’s right—God. Just when Jonah thought things were looking up (he was out of the fish, after all), things started looking like they couldn’t get any worse. The one person in the whole world Jonah did not want to see was God, and up comes God with that goofy grin.
But before God could even say anything, Jonah jumps up and yells, “Fine! I’ll go. I’ll go! Just leave me alone.” And he takes off for Nineveh, thinking there’s no way the Assyrians could be worse than starving on the inside of a fish. And, you know? For once, Jonah was right.
I don’t know what Jonah said to those Assyrians, those Ninevites, but whatever it was, they listened. We do know that he told them about the consequences of their actions, and what the future might be like if they kept acting the way they did: being violent and making war against smaller and weaker nations. And that was enough to scare them out of their old ways. And you know what they did? Listen to this: they proclaimed a fast and then they all traded their fancy clothes for burlap sacks—every one of them! That’s right, from the richest to the poorest, they all started wearing and eating the same things—they started seeing each other as equal and everyone else just as worthy as themselves! Isn’t that incredible? A whole city—a city so large that the Bible says it took three days to walk across—and they all started treating each other fairly… no rich, no poor, even the king took off his robe and put on this burlap sack, and sat in a pile of ashes to signify his repentance. That’s not all! The king decreed that everyone should do this and turn from the evil ways of violence. I’m not making this up! It’s right there in the Bible! The Assyrians were so moved by God that they decided right then and there to put an end to violence, and probably to economic inequity, too. Wow!
And wouldn’t you know it, God was happy with that. It was even enough to change God’s mind: Nineveh wasn’t so bad a city after all. God was happy with how things turned out. Who wouldn’t be?
Well, Jonah wasn’t happy with that. Jonah was even more mad at God now. Can you believe it? Jonah even went up on the hillside and made himself a little hut so he could pout.
God couldn’t understand why Jonah was acting so funny, so God—being a direct kind of guy—went up to Jonah and asked him, “Hey, guy, are you mad or something?”
And Jonah was just about bursting here: “Are you crazy? Of course I’m mad! How could I not be mad? … Look at them—they’re all so happy and free! … Well, that isn’t right! They killed hundreds of our people. They’ve destroyed so much of our land. They’ve threatened and terrorized us for so long, and you said you would defend us. And now they’re all happy and dancing and joyful and guilt-free? Where’s the justice in that? You ought to have killed them all!
“Look, I knew you were going to do this, God. That’s why I left. That’s why I didn’t want to come. I knew if you sent me here there’d be a chance that they’d listen, a chance that they’d stop being such evil people. And then we couldn’t hurt them, because they wouldn’t be bad anymore. And God, I want to hurt them. I want them to hurt so badly—I want them to hurt the way we’ve been hurting. I want them to suffer the way they made us suffer. I want them to regret ever having been violent and aggressive and vengeful. And then, God, I want them to die. That’s what’s fair, God. They should die.”
And really, who can blame Jonah for feeling that way. The Assyrians had killed a lot of Jonah’s people, perhaps even people he knew and loved. He was right—the Assyrians had hurt them.
What was “justice” there? What ought to have happened? Ought God to have destroyed Nineveh? We feel God ought to promise justice—our kind of justice, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
But that’s the thing about God—God is the source of forgiveness, and the inspiration for us to forgive the unforgivable; the source of love, and the inspiration to love what we might otherwise feel unlovable; a source of a justice that we do not often have the courage to imagine by ourselves. God isn’t anything if God isn’t the power for us to be more and better than we are.
Inasmuch as Jonah had pity for any of his own people, God was trying to draw that circle of Jonah’s compassion to include more than just the Israelites—to be able to use the term “my people” more widely, even so widely as to include the Assyrians he hated and whom he helped save.
Now I say Jonah helped save them. I ask you, by what power were the Assyrians saved?
Partly their own power—that they were willing to question their own actions and beliefs. Partly the power of Jonah, who was willing to wander in their midst and offer to them the questions they would start to ask. But these both are rooted in a deeper power, the power of creative transformation, the power of possibility, the power and the lure of becoming something that was unimaginable. It is the power that comes with a change in thinking, in viewpoint, in direction, in strategy. Power isn’t just in making things happen out there in the world, but power is in making things happen inside oneself—the openness to possibility, to caring, to love, to risk. That’s the power that transformed the Assyrians into people who all of-a-sudden cared about stopping violence and ending poverty and doing away with rank and privilege. Jonah didn’t force them to choose that—he didn’t even want them to choose that. God didn’t force them to choose that, God doesn’t work like that.
A belief in God is at best a confession that we don’t know everything; that we may yet find better ways of being; that we are willing to go where we once thought—or may even now feel—un-go-able. When the Assyrians listened to that spirit, they saw a possibility to radically change the way their world worked.
What are the Jonahs in our midst today? And by what power are they calling us to the same vision as Nineveh? There are many powers that surround and penetrate us, and toward what ends do they move us? Where are our burlap sacks and thrones of ashes, and how daring is our conception of justice?