I hope you don't think for a minute that the story of Jonah is a fish story. No, here's a story about a man who doesn't want to do what God commands.
In the very first words of the book, God says, "Hey, Jonah, I've got a job for you. Go to that great city of Nineveh. Cry out against that wicked city and all the nasty people who live there."
So what does Jonah do? He gets up and he goes alright. He goes to the city of Joppa and he marches right down to the dock on the Mediterranean Sea. Then he hops aboard a ship that's going in the opposite direction. God says, "Go east to Nineveh." Jonah heads west to Tarshish, somewhere around the Rock of Gibraltar.
If you know the story of Jonah, you may remember what happens. A storm arises on the sea. Jonah is thrown overboard to appease the storm. The Lord God sends a great big fish to grab Jonah and bring him back east, back to the shore where he started.
During the return trip, Jonah prays a flawlessly composed psalm in the belly of the fish. That causes the fish to cough up this preacher. Then God says for a second time, "Now, Jonah, get going to Nineveh. Go to that great city and do what I want you to do."
Certainly this is a whale of a tale, but it is not a fish story. It is the story of a man who was called upon to do something for God and he doesn't want to do it.
Now, I pause to tell you, there is some question about exactly what Jonah is called upon to do. Certainly, it involves preaching. Jonah is called upon to speak up against the city because the wickedness of the city has literally been thrown into God's face. And, yet, the first thing Jonah does is to get out of God's face. He flees from the presence of God.
So when God catches up with him, when God steers him back, when God says to Jonah a second time, "Get going to Nineveh," it's interesting that the Lord adds, "and I will tell you what to say."
When God spoke, we have no idea if Jonah was listening. What we do know is that when he got to Nineveh, Jonah preached a sermon with only five Hebrew words in it. Loosely translated it goes, "Hey Nineveh! In forty days you're going to be blasted to bits." Jonah walks for one full day into the middle of the city all the time preaching that five-word sermon.
He starts preaching that sermon and even though the people of Nineveh don't speak Hebrew, they begin to take notice. I mean, how could Jonah lose?
Three days in the belly of a fish, and the digestive gases have bleached him white. His clothes are ragged, he's missing a couple of teeth, and he still has a little seaweed hanging from his left ear. He strolls into the center of town, belts out his message and then begins the countdown: "40, 39, 38, 37....."
The good news is that the people believe God. They cry out to God and change their evil ways. The king of Nineveh hears the sermon and he repents. According to the story, even the cattle hear the sermon and they repent. Not only that, according to the story, God is so impressed with Jonah's sermon even God repents. That's what it says: The Lord Almighty changed his mind.
Thanks to Jonah, everybody has turned toward the face of God which, if you ask me, is probably what God wanted in the first place. That's the good news.
The bad news is that when Jonah sees all this he gets furious. He says, "Darn it, God, that's why I ran away from your face in the first place. When I preach doom and destruction, I want doom and destruction. But here you are, so merciful, kind, and forgiving, it just makes me sick."
Now I hope you catch the humor in this. The book of Jonah is a funny book. It is a satire on every exclusive, narrow-minded expression of religion. This is theology as high comedy.
But I hope the story disturbs us too. The story of Jonah holds before us a picture of God that is so loving, so patient, so relentlessly gracious that it pushes us to extend our human boundaries of God's infinite grace.
Why is Jonah so angry? The short answer is because God loves too many people.
The longer answer, according to Jonah, is that God is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing." Like Jonah, that's how we expect God to be toward us. That's not always how we want God to be toward others.
A friend told me about something that happened during a flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to London, England. A woman with a thick European accent got on the plane. She came down the aisle to the tourist section and discovered her seat assignment put her right next to a man with, shall we say, an African accent. She looked at her seat assignment; she saw it was correct. She asked her seatmate, "I'm sorry, are you in the right seat?" He smiled and nodded yes. She turned around to see if there were any other empty seats in the section but she didn't see any so she tugged on the sleeve of the flight attendant. "Excuse me," she said, "as you can see, I'm sitting next to a person whose skin color is different from mine." "Yes, ma'am, I can see that." "Well," she said, "this is simply unacceptable. Is there another available seat?" The flight attendant looked at her strangely and said, "I'm sorry, ma'am, it's against our policy to move people unnecessarily." "You don't understand," said the wealthy woman, "this arrangement will not do. I have funds in my purse to arrange an alternative." The flight attendant said, "You do?" "Yes, I do. Would you please go up to first class and see if there is an available seat? I simply cannot sit next to this person." The flight attendant shrugged her shoulders, walked up the aisle. A few minutes later she returned. She leaned over the European woman, tapped the man with the African accent, and said, "I'm sorry, sir, I hate to do this. I must make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you in first class."
The love of God makes it possible to give every person first-class treatment. Sometimes, however, we get stuck in our same old seats.
Right here, in the midst of the writings of Israel's prophets, there is a story of this reluctant prophet Jonah. He is called to speak to people outside Jewish boundaries and he doesn't want to go. He is sent against his will to speak to outsiders and he hates the assignment. Do you know where this story comes from? From the Jews.
As the Jewish writer Elie Weisel retells the story of Jonah, he notes that Jonah
is to teach the Gentiles without ceasing to be Jewish...It is the Jew in him who will teach the Gentiles. The more Jewish the poet the more universal his message. The more Jewish his soul the more human his concerns. A Jew who does not feel for his people, who does not share in their sorrows and joys cannot feel for other people and a Jew who is concerned with his fellow Jews is inevitably concerned with the faith of other people as well.
Here's the question beneath all of this: how far can God reach?
When Jesus answered that question in his words and deeds, he got himself in a lot of trouble. Jesus never seemed to distinguish between the people he taught and healed. He preached to the poor. He cured those who had been ignored by physicians. One long day after another Jesus went into a crowd full of need and tended to one person after another. Just when somebody was ready to typecast him, Jesus went into the home of a rich tax collector and broke bread with the wealthy Pharisees. He never seemed to distinguish between rich or poor, male or female, insiders or outsiders. He did not restrict his care to one group or another. No. In the name of God, Jesus gave himself to the world.
How many people can God love? Before you answer too quickly, let me remind you the church has struggled with this question from the beginning.
After Jesus was dead and risen, along came another preacher. His name was Simon bar-Jonah, that is, Simon, son of Jonah. One day he was sitting on a roof top in the seaside city of Joppa. Sound familiar? Simon, the son of Jonah, was minding his own business saying a few prayers. Suddenly God broke through and said, "I want you to preach my judgment and mercy to some people outside your little circle." Simon bar-Jonah or as we call him, Simon Peter, did not want to do it. "Too late," said the Holy Spirit, "downstairs some Italians are knocking on your door."
All of this happens in the 10th chapter of Acts. By the 15th chapter the church is having its first major disagreement. All the preachers are called in from the frontier. Everybody is squabbling over one issue, namely, how many outsiders are we going to allow in God's church? The problem, it seems, is that God keeps inviting everybody. It just goes to show the church doesn't tell a lot of new stories, rather, we keep telling the same story of a God who loves everybody, who is merciful to everybody, who is kind to everybody, but who is stuck with some reluctant messengers.
When are we going to get it straight that the love of God is for all people? That the judgment of God is laid upon every human heart? That the mercy of God can forgive every sin and give second chances to every person? When are we going to get it into our heads and our hearts that the Creator in heaven wants nothing more than to stand face to face with every creature beginning with us, but not ending there.
God is willing to love anybody. Even Jonah. Even you and me. The difficulty is not in telling ourselves this is true. The difficulty is believing it's true for everybody else.
Let us pray.
God of grace, none of us are beyond your reach. In Jesus Christ you have sought and found us. Through him you call us to speak your redeeming word of love. Some of us answer willingly. Others pull back in reluctance. Some can respond impulsively dropping their nets and leaving everything else behind. Others can respond only through your repeated patience and your long-suffering love. Whoever we are, receive us into your love, enlarge our hearts and minds that we might serve you lovingly and logically. Give us the grace and good humor to see your hand in all things and make us useful in your sight. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.