Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The Road to Nineveh
Gertrude Stein; Saul Bellow; J.D. Salinger; Bernard Malamud; Chaim Potak; Elie Wiesel; You want to hear a great story? Read one written or told by a Jew. The Jews have spent three millenniums perfecting their craft and they were pretty good when they started. Remember the one about the shyster Jacob who tricked his older brother out of the family birthright for a bowl of soup? Or what about the folks trying to build a tower to heaven out of sub-par materials? Perhaps one of the all time favorites is the one about a whale that swallowed a man and the guy lived to tell about it. Do you remember what happens next? A man being swallowed by a whale is a big deal. But it pales in comparison to the end of the story.
Let me catch you up to speed. The story begins when Jonah receives a message from God to take a trip to Nineveh and preach a sermon about God’s forgiveness and grace. This presented a problem. Jonah didn’t much care for the Ninevites. He didn’t really know them but he had heard they were strange, different, and therefore not to be trusted. To further complicate matters Jonah’s neighbors didn’t much like the Ninevites, which meant if Jonah made contact with this folks, he would have to answer to his neighbors when he got home. So Jonah ran away. Being a good Jew, Jonah believed the only place he could run was toward the ocean. The ocean represented chaos. It was the home of the sea-monster Leviathan. Jacob figured even Yahweh, the God of the Jews, knew better than to venture into such treacherous waters. As is the habit of many folks, Jacob underestimated the very nature of God.
Jonah headed out to sea and the sea erupts. Jonah, the same guy who has no compassion for the people of Nineveh, felt responsible for the sailors and has them throw him overboard. Instead of drowning is swallowed by a big fish. In the bowels of this fish, Jonah discovers he is not alone.
Jonah did not exactly expect God to be waiting inside the fish. Truth is God often appears when we least expect it. Once Jonah recovers from his surprise, he utilized this discovery to plot his escape. Using a time honored Jewish liturgy, Jonah cried out, “O God I cry out to you because I know you can hear my voice. God, I know you are merciful and forgiving. I know if I only ask for deliverance you will grant it. Have mercy on me and I will be your faithful servant.”
Upon completion of this prayer of confession, Jonah was literally spit out on dry land. As he was clearing the salt water from his ears, the first thing he heard was, “Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim my message of repentance.” Reluctantly, Jonah set out on his God-given task. He still didn’t want to go. If he had had a cell phone he would have called his wife telling her to sell the house, because he certainly wasn’t going to be able come home and face the neighbors. Jonah knew what was about to happen. The same God who rescued Jonah from the whale would certainly offer repentance to Nineveh and Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. He didn’t like the Ninevites. They were ….. different. He had never actually met anyone from Ninevah but he had heard stories, and he didn’t much care about what he had heard. All Jonah wanted to do was get in and out of the city as soon as possible. And that was what he did.
Jonah didn’t tell anyone he was coming. He didn’t make a reservation with the King. He didn’t rent the local auditorium. His sermon was exactly eight words long. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Having fulfilled his part of the bargain, Jonah started the long walk home. He had delivered the message. He probably hoped no one heard it. But as we know, that was not the case. Instantly the people of Nineveh, including the King begin to offer prayers to God. And when God saw this outpouring of repentance, according to Chapter 3, verse 10, God’s mind was changed and Nineveh was forgiven.
Jonah was outraged. He screamed out at God, “I knew you would do this. I knew you were too gracious and merciful. I knew you were just some bleeding heart who is always overcome with the desire to show compassion. Just go ahead and kill me. If I have to be friends with a Ninevite I would rather just die right here in the desert.”
Poor Jonah. He believed in a God whose mercy and grace extends far beyond what some folks consider reasonable. Poor Jonah. He believed in a God who by God’s own words is ever changing and ever evolving. Poor Jonah. He now has the option of sitting in the desert under a plant that is getting ready to die or acknowledge that God’s family uncategorically includes folks whose gender, race, economic status, and sexual orientation might be different than his. Jonah is not the only one who struggles with this. But there is good news. Many of us have had our own “time-out” inside the whale and when we got spewed out on the beach our eyes were opened to the wonders of God’s complete community.
What a marvelous imagination the creator of the Jonah story must have had. Was the story factual? I sincerely doubt it. Did it express a God-given message of truth? Without a doubt. Be honest, how many of us have been swallowed by our prejudices and misunderstandings when considering who might be part of God’s great community.
This morning we will ordain and install five good folks to serve as elders at Rockfish Presbyterian. Al Gale and Jane Andrews will be ordained as first time elders. Like Jonah, I am a little suspect of Al. We had dinner together the other night and I discovered we have some political differences. Worse than that he also admits to not a being a Redskin fan. Can there be a place in heaven for a person of such questionable taste? Al is probably wondering the same thing about me.
On the other hand, what Al and I have in common with each other, and with the rest of you good folks, is today we celebrate Jane’s ordination. My understanding is that 10 years ago Jane was elected to be ordained but peculiar language in our Book of Order would not allow that ordination to take place. I believe for quite some time now God has been having a talk with our denomination. Rockfish heard and listened a little sooner than others. You folks are trend setters. Finally, we can “decently and in order” celebrate what you have been celebrating for over a decade; Jane’s God-given gifts. I give thanks to God for being allowed to be part of this historic moment. I give thanks to God for the opportunity to also celebrate the gifts of Al, Sue, Walt and Lynn. But most of all I give thanks God is still out there stirring the waters, reminding us to be careful when we attempt to put limits on God’s vision and imagination.
Let us give thanks to our God who created us and celebrates each one of us as children of God’s kingdom.