Saturday, January 21, 2012

We are Nineveh...

I'm indebted to the work of Rev. Stephen Brown, the writing of Paul Janssen of the Poscack Reformed Church, and the insights of Beth Tanner in putting this week's sermon together.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Old Testament reading today, from the book of Jonah, is interesting for what it leaves out. Jonah is told to go and prophesy in the streets of Ninevah, and because of his preaching the people repent and God’s mind is changed. Jonah is a hero, Ninevah becomes a city faithful to God, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The whole story is a lot more interesting. The book of Jonah is only four chapters, so if you haven’t ever read through it, spend a few minutes with it this afternoon, but the whole story is that Jonah isn’t much of a hero at all. He’s, well, kind of a jerk, to be honest.

See, Jonah is a Hebrew, in the land of Israel. When God first tells him to go to Ninevah and preach, he actually runs in the opposite direction, hopping a ship to Tarshish.

A storm comes, and in order to save the lives of the sailors he’s thrown overboard at his own request, God sends a big fish to swallow him, Jonah repents while in the fish, which spits him up onto dry land… and that’s where the reading picks up.

God tells Jonah a second time to go and proclaim a message of destruction to Ninevah. Can you imagine what it would have looked like? You’re in your yard, and here’s this guy, he’s been sloshing around in digestive juices and fish parts for three days, and he walks up to you and tells you, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

The next day you’re over at the market, and this same guy goes past – you know it’s the same guy without even turning around, because, well, he smells like he has been sloshing around in digestive juices and fish parts for three days, right? All he says as he goes by is “Thirty-nine days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

So the next day you have to go downtown and pay a tax on some sheep you sold. Sure enough, same guy goes by. He doesn’t smell any better. “Thirty-eight days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

It’s likely that Jonah would have gotten your attention. Maybe you’d have made fun of him. Maybe you’d have been afraid of him. Maybe he would have made you angry – who is he, after all, to come here smelling like fish guts and telling us our wonderful city is going to fall?

It is far, far less likely that his message would hit home, and you’d believe his words. Amazingly enough, though, this is exactly the reaction of all of Ninevah!

Reading from the third chapter, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’”

What is even stranger than that, even more amazing, even more wonderful… “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

God’s mind was changed!

And here we get to the root of Jonah’s problem, what makes him, well, like I said, kind of a jerk: God changed his mind, and this made Jonah furious!

Jonah is, after all, a prophet, and as a prophet he sees things more deeply than others… and I can imagine that, as he was walking half-heartedly up and down the streets of Ninevah, day after day, “Thirty-seven days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown… thirty-six days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown… thirty-five days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown…” as he began to encounter people in sackcloth and ashes, fasting and repenting, crying out to God for mercy and forgiveness, he got angrier and angrier – in fact, the original Hebrew reads, roughly, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” –  because he knew full well what was coming… and it just… wasn’t… fair!

Jonah knew, after all, who the Ninevites really are:  not just enemies of his Israel, who would rejoice if every Israelite were ground into the dust.

They were bloodthirsty wretches, the kind of people who would just as soon slit your throat as shake your hand.  He knows the kinds of things they do:  sacrifice children to their idols, kill old people and toss them outside the city wall where the vultures and dogs can lick their bones clean. He knows that Nineveh has a reputation for ruthlessness, for devising ever more elaborate and gruesome methods of torture in order to produce fear in the hearts of all their enemies.

Jonah knows what they deserve.  They deserve to be punished, ransacked, destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth.  No mercy.  Just vengeance. 

That’s why he doesn’t want them to repent.  Nineveh used up its last chance 1,000 chances ago.  Which is why Jonah doesn’t want God to repent, either.  Why should God have mercy on them?  Why should God let them off the hook?  What would a little sackcloth and ashes do to atone for the tens of thousands of innocents the Ninevites had killed?  What kind of God would do such a thing – forgive the worst of the worst?

And yet… that’s just what God did. The God of Second Chances, the God who gave Jonah a second chance, gave Nineveh their second chance as well… And Jonah hit the roof. “I knew it! I told you this was gonna happen! You want to know why I ran to Tarshish? This! Man, God, you’re all gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and I knew you’d change your mind! It just isn’t fair! You know what? Just kill me, OK?”

Jonah knows full well what God should be like: God should know who does right, and who does wrong, and should automatically dispense blessings to the good and punishment to the evil. 

It isn’t God should be angry:  just the opposite. In Jonah’s mind, God should be dispassionate, uncaring, detached, acting and reacting in coldly logical and predictable ways. In other words, to Jonah, God should be exactly like the pagan gods that the Ninevites worship, not a caring God who is slow to anger. Not a God who cares, loves, and forgives… at least not to people other than Jonah’s own, the Israelites!

Jonah wants a safe, predictable, consistent God, not a God who is passionate, reckless, extreme. But of course God gets angry.

God’s anger is not a “miffed” kind of anger. It isn’t a petty, petulant or self-interested anger, God’s anger doesn’t work the way Jonah’s anger – or the way our anger – works. Jonah gets angry when things don’t go his way, and that should sound very familiar to all of us.

God’s anger – God’s wrath – is passionate, deep, burning, from down-in-the-gut. Here’s the thing, though: Though we expect God’s wrath to be the catalyst for fire from heaven, though we are told by this televangelist and that talk show host that God’s wrath is the cause of this natural disaster or that disease, what we find is that God’s wrath the energizing force that kindles the ferocity of God’s love, the love that doesn’t whimper like a kitty but roars like a lion. When we say that God is love, what we are in fact proclaiming is that God is passionate, reckless, extreme. God will be God.  A God who will sometimes repent, and sometimes not.  But who will always love.  Always, love.

At the end of the book of Jonah, he’s suicidal because a worm eats a vine that was giving him shade – yet he wasn’t at all concerned for the thousands whose lives were saved by their sincere repentance. In fact, he was camping out there, outside of Nineveh, in hopes that God would switch back and destroy the city anyway.

The Book of Jonah ends without a resolution. God teaches Jonah a lesson about compassion, but we don’t ever really know if the lesson took… and this is, in its own way, good news. Good news because the one thing we know when we leave Jonah, crying in the dust over a withered vine, is that God is not done with him. This reckless love, this extreme compassion, this passionate mercy that has enraged this prophet is now gently, or not so gently, leading a disappointed Jonah into a new and deeper understanding – a new and deeper relationship – with the living God.

My prayer is that this God of Second Chances, who is so loving and patient and forgiving of Ninevah, and of Jonah, will be just as loving and patient and forgiving of me… of all of us. Because, after all…
We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way, believing we could have what ever we wanted, buying whatever we desired, possessing whatever tickled our fancies.

We have lived our own way, building our mansions away from the riffraff, borrowing for what we can’t really afford.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way. We have trusted in our might, building armies to keep us safe, guarding against those who threaten our treasures.

We have lived our own way. Keeping strangers at arms length, constructing fences to hold back aliens, being wary of the foreigner.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way. Treating our families as optional commodities, marriages as throw-away pleasures, children as showy playthings.

We have lived our own way. Caring for our parents out of obligation, putting them in homes for our convenience, waiting for our inheritance.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

Gracious God, God of Second Chances, forgive us.

May we be thankful for our daily bread and share our wealth. May we be satisfied in our humble abode and rejoice in the Lord’s house.

Gracious God, forgive us.

May we turn our swords into plowshares, and trust in the arm of the Lord. May we welcome the stranger and minister to the least of these.

Gracious God, forgive us.

May we treat our families as holy things, and treasure every relationship. May we honor our mothers and fathers all the days of our lives.

Gracious God, forgive us.


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