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Jonah, the Successful Prophet
Today’s passage from chapter 3 of Jonah comes after the whole big fish thing. The big fish (or whale) has just vomited Jonah up on the shore after three days of holding him in the darkness of its wet fishiness—the original “belly of the beast.” That beast is obedient to God, as were the Nineven cattle and sheep that God bizarrely required to don sackcloth and fast together alongside the people, consciously covering themselves “as if crying out to God” signifying their intention, as a city, as a people, to turn away from their former evil. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he would bring upon them and did not do it.”
“Beautiful City” from Godspell by Stephen Schwartz
We may not reach the ending but we can start
Slowly but truly mending brick by brick heart by heart
Now, maybe now we start learning how
We can build a beautiful city yes we can, yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man
When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build
A beautiful city yes, we can, yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels but finally a city of man
Jonah, the Dove
The Hebrew name Jonah (Yonah) means “dove.” Cal Berkeley professor Robert Alter wonders if Jonah’s name is supposed to remind us of another biblical dove, the one that returned to the Ark signaling the restoration of life following the cataclysmic Flood. Ironically, in Jonah, God’s finds an unwilling prophet who winds up preventing a cataclysm. These doves prophesy God’s desire for restoration and call us to live ethical lives.
All Prophets are Political
The Hebrew prophets speak to Israel’s national mood, addressing leaders and the masses. God commands Jonah to save Nineveh, Assyria’s mega-city, the crown jewel of the “empire whose very identity was forged in a deliberate attempt to conquer [Jonah’s] people” Israel.
Miguel de la Torre writes:
Jonah shakes his fist at God, angry that God’s divine mercy detracts from God’s divine justice. The Assyrians, in Jonah’s mind, are pure evil, undeserving of any compassion or mercy. Because they are monsters, not humans, they deserve retribution, justice that is quick and stiff. But what Jonah and others today who have suffered unjustly at the hands of oppressors fail to realize is that the sin of domination not only dehumanizes the life of the oppressed, but it also reduces the life of the oppressor. According to Rabbi [Nosson] Scherman, “The Hebrew word for sin, hātā literally means ‘lack,’ ‘a diminution.’ The act of sin in itself diminishes…sinner[s]. It makes a lesser human being. [Sin] engenders within [the sinner] an indifference to evil, a tolerance for evil, an appetite for evil—and eventually, a distaste for good.”
The Call to Reconciliation
How do we, as a people, address the relationships left broken in the wake of the insurrection three weeks ago? When we will hold those who killed a capitol policeman accountable? Do we just skip to “unity”? What will it take to build the beautiful city? Who among us, Calvary, will be courageous enough to call up that friend or relative who has become estranged due to disinformation and politics?
In order to speak to the people of Nineveh, Jonah had to learn some Akkadian, the language of the despised Assyrian Empire. He did not want to, but he heard God tell him to do it—and maybe that big, stinky fish was still in the area. The message of Jonah is clear. God is not the God of just us. Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim—is not even the God of just Israel. Our God is the God of the whole wide world, friends and foes alike, Israel and “pagans” alike, Presbyterians and those who worship in the cult of QAnon. No exceptions. God loves all of us, regardless of our opinions of one another, and wants all of us to turn to the work of restoration and ethical living. God instructs Nineveh to turn “from the outrage to which they hold fast.” Repent from the sins of free-floating anger and performative victimhood, and we will no longer be so diminished. We will be restored.
Following Jesus Is Costly
Another fishy story lurks in the gospel today. It’s familiar. Jesus goes to Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee Boys, James and John and invites these fishermen to drop the defective nets and follow him. “And I will make you fish for people,” Jesus tells them. There had to be something in the way he called to them, or perhaps it was the way they heard him. They walked away from their family businesses to become students of Jesus. Be like them. Say yes to your higher calling.
Don’t be like Jonah who refused to understood that God’s way is universal. Jesus meant everybody was included. Nobody deserves diminishment, either through oppression or the self-inflicted diminishment brought on by hate, deception and willful victimhood.
We know that God will hold us all accountable, but in this world we have to have some measure of order. As much as I want to move on from the pain of the past, I also know that evil and sin left unaccounted for will return emboldened and meaner than last time. Accountability is the first step toward restoration and, yes, unity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about accountability, saying:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…. [But] costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again…. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ…. It is costly because it condemns sin [diminishment], and grace because it justifies the sinner [restoration]. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.
Today Jesus calls you not only to discipleship but to be a better prophet than Jonah, to prophesy the reconciliation of broken relationships and the restoration of all that is truthful, ethical and honorable—lovingly.
Aunt Gladys & The Praying Mantis
My Aunt Gladys was not really my aunt—not by birth anyway. She was a distant relative, as was just about everybody in the small Appalachian community where I was raised. My family tree? More of a wreath, really.
Aunt Gladys taught Vacation Bible School, and she was Holiness. Her hair had never been cut. She piled it up on her head like a giant, blond wedding cake full of braids and curls. She always wore a dress. If someone asked her, in passing, how are you doing today, Gladys? She would always reply, “I’m blessed.” One day under that giant spreading oak tree at the Fellowship Baptist Church, Gladys told us, her Bible school class, told us how God had called her into ministry. We were mesmerized as she revealed God’s ways in her life.
“There I was,” she began. “I was just cleaning the hall in my house, down on my knees cleaning the floorboards, when I saw it. It was a praying mantis. And that praying mantis said to me, ‘Look it up in your Webster’s dictionary.’ And I did. And now I’m a prophet.” When I repeated Gladys’ story to my mother that night, her eyebrows raised, really high.
“What in the world!” my mother cackled. And then a little later, after some thought, my mother looked at me, saying. “Look what up in the dictionary?” So, being a young fan of the dictionary, I got it off the shelf and looked up “praying mantis” which was not an entry in our dictionary, but mantis was. Mantis comes, by way of Latin, from Greek, and it means “one who divines, a seer, a prophet.” My mother and I looked at one another, and she said,“Well, I’ll be. Gladys doesn’t believe the same way we believe, but that doesn’t mean that she’s wrong. She may be a prophet. Who am I to judge?”
Aunt Gladys’ church was like most of the other churches in the rural South, the ones we learned, uppity Methodists didn’t attend. Most churches ended with an invitation to come forward and commit your life to Jesus. Presbyterians are not comforted by such a practice—too emotional, too vulnerable. But I’m preaching to an iPhone and you’re watching online. Has there ever been a better time to recommit your life to following Jesus? Do you hear him? He’s calling, “Come home.”
Soloists sing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”
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.
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.
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