Anybody But Me

As a seminarian, one of the most popular hymns sung during chapel was “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte. Sung with great zeal and passion, the strains of the organ lifting our voices in song, we would sing “Here I am Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.” It is easy to sing in the confines of a seminary chapel. But what happens when God calls us to people, places, communities we would rather not go to. In today’s passage the prophet Jonah is sent to Nineveh. We are introduced to Jonah, son of Amittai, in chapter one. An Israelite prophet who receives a divine summons from God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Nineveh was the capital of a nation that symbolized the overwhelming and ruthless power of empire. Israel had long been a victim of Assyria’s brutality. Yet, God calls Jonah to go to into the heart of the empire and proclaim a message of repentance. Jonah, runs in the opposite direction. After all what oppressed person wants to be sent to those who have been their oppressor?

The story of Jonah is one of the most familiar narratives in scripture. Whether one is familiar with the Bible or not, we have some vague notion or recollection of a story about Jonah running from God, being overthrown off a ship into a raging sea, and being swallowed by some sea creature — whether a whale or big fish or something of some sort. There is more to the story of Jonah than a fish and a fleeing prophet.

While, in today’s passage Jonah finally arrives in Nineveh, it is not with a winsome message of grace. It is a call toward destruction! In chapter 3 verse 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah does not walk around proclaiming the love of God, or a message of grace and reconciliation. He preaches a message full of wrath. Jonah’s message is shocking towards our post-modern ecclesial sensibilities. Some theologians have, after all, argued that Jonah is a nationalist with a narrow view of to whom God wants to speak. Jonah, they argue, balks at Nineveh because he believes that they don’t deserve mercy.

However, could it be that Jonah as a member of an oppressed people group has every right to be angry at Nineveh? Could it be that Jonah is, as Howard Thurman writes, a member of one of those who have had their backs against the wall? That as an oppressed person Jonah has every right to be angry at their oppressor? Chesung Justin Ryu writes: “As long as the oppression or colonization and its painful memories are ongoing, how can the oppressed hide their anger?” Could it be that we expect Jonah to respond with an immediate “yes” of gratitude toward God’s summons. Audre Lorde reminds us that anger does not destroy; hate does. Anger provides energy so we may engage in analysis and protest, survival and justice. In today’s text Jonah marches through the city proclaiming repentance. Could it be that Jonah stands in a long prophetic tradition? That anger, when it is not rage but righteousness, can be a creative harness to declare a vision of what God intends for the world. That God’s call to the most unlikely of places is both for our transformation and the transformation of the world. God often uses those on the margins to speak truth to power. God has sent Jonah right into the midst of the empire to declare a word from the Lord. God has used prophets throughout history to speak God’s words of truth in the midst of the oppressor. God has used prophets like Maria Stewart, the first woman, and the first African American woman, to deliver a public speech in American history, in Boston in the 1830s, declaring a word of liberation to slavery, and an end to sexism. God has used prophets like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Katie Cannon, Barbara Jordan, and Pauli Murray to remind a nation and world embroiled in injustice to repent, to return, to turn back to God and to right relationship with one another.

In Jonah 3:5 the people respond to this message. They believe God! Nineveh and the Assyrians have been large and in charge. They have been the center of one of the violent empires in world history. They were known for their violent torture of their victims. Now a message has been declared that in 40 days they will be destroyed. They respond in humility and contrition. They believed God. We ought to be careful that we do not miss the voice of the Lord because of where it comes from, or what it looks and what it sounds like. God uses an Israelite, the very people Nineveh was oppressing, to speak to them.

In this text we witness an empire, prone to violence and social injustice, repent and change. Assyria, the avowed enemy of Israel, responds to the message of this Israelite prophet. That is the thing about prophetic summons. God’s voice comes from unlikely places, at unlikely moments, at unlikely times.

What is incredible about his passage is not only that the people of Nineveh repent; we see the heart and the character of God. We see God change God’s mind. Now, like me, you maybe thought that God was the same yesterday, today, and forever more? But what we witness is that God’s heart and God’s character is mercy and that God, as theologian Valerie Bridgeman argues, is a God who is a radically free agent unbound by human theological expectations. That God shows mercy both to Nineveh and to Jonah. That this God is a God of second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances. That this God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. This God who in Jesus Christ reconciled us back to God’s self continues to fill us with the surprises of mercy and grace.

Prophetic summons may come in righteous anger and rage. They may be a voice echoing from protests, and pulpits, and the words of essayists, but these summons are to something far greater. They are a call to a love that will not let us go, a love that will not let us oppress our neighbor, or stay hiding in the belly of a sea creature. It is a love that will follow us to the farthest reaches of the sea or even into the very heart of empire. It is a love that will keep searching, and calling, and summoning, and beckoning until we respond, Here I am, Lord.

Let us pray. Here we are, Lord, responding to your call of love over and over and over again. And we thank you for that love that will not let us go. In Jesus’ name, Amen.