|Life in the Global Village: Above and Beyond
Above and Beyond
Reading Jonah 3:1-10
Introduction: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows?passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” ?The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;?weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit,?O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:1-10).
Have you ever noiced how difficult it is, when you are convinced you really are better than others, to admit that might not be the case. I don’t know if I learned it from earliest childhood or I was simply born with it. Being “better than” has haunted me as long as I can remember. Certainly there are a number of aspects of our culture that contribute. Whether one is in school or in the job place, competition is built into all of our definitions of success. We’re constantly in the competition/comparison game with others. And sports in our culture is another huge contributer. Oh there are plenty of things and ways in which I recognize others as better than me – it’s easy to spot the better athletes, the better scholars, the smarter and richer. But somehow my identity is always in search of the people I can compare myself to and I have the advantage. Why is that? What drives the identity quest in that direction and why is it that even when we recognize our own flaws and failures, even when we throw ourselves upon the mercies of God, almost immediately we look again for “those people” – the less thans.
We continue our journey with this ancient prophet named Jonah this morning, and while Dean last week refused to get into any of the questions we might have about the kind of fish that swallowed Jonah or the physical possibilities from our scientific worldview that a person could be swallowed by any fish, stay there for three days and live to tell about it, I’m tempted this morning to try to answer that question rather than the truth claims of what comes next in the story.
I wonder if someone way back in history decided that two year olds are the best audience for this story because they don’t ask any questions. To read this story in the Bible closely one has to ask much more difficult questions than what kind of fish was it. One has to believe that bad preaching really is better than no preaching at all! If we had lived back in the times in which this book was written – if we would part of the chosen people of God being terrorized by the Assyrians and Babylonians – we would be asked to believe that preaching to the enemy is better than fighting the enemy. We would be asked to believe that the words out of the mouth of one many could change outcomes. We would be asked to believe that the last bastion of ‘less thans’ that we hold on to in order preserve our own righteousness might be better than us when it counts the most.
Last week we saw what in itself was an unlikely scenario – not Jonah fleeing form God. Most of us have tried to do that ourselves at some point. What is unbelievable to me in the early part of the story is sailors being caught in a storm, discovering exactly what it will take to survive the story – in this case throwing Jonah overboard – and they refuse steadfastly to take another human life to spare their own. They will throw their cargo overboard and continue to risk the ship and their own lives first. There is that line in the gospel of John about Jesus: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. The book of Jonah was read and preserved by people who thought they were the chosen ones of God. Jonah was the good guy – but the pagans not only believed, they were willing to die themselves to save Jonah.
The mercies of God are celebrated by Jonah in this confessional prayer that I just read, where even as he celebrates the grace of God, he still holds on to his distinctive, ‘better than’ understandings. “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I…..” Let’s see, the pagan sailors have all switched from their sea Gods to Yahweh. Who are those people at this point in the story?
Back on dry land, and apparently after some time to get rid of the fish smell, God calls Jonah a second time to go to the great city of Nineveh and announce the words that God will give him.
We’re reminded by the narrator when Jonah finally arrives at the destination that Nineveh is a big place – a great city that takes three days to walk across. This time Jonah does not hesitate in agreeing to God's call and setting out on the long overland trek to the great pagan city of Nineveh. Remember again that this book is being written in Israel to the people of the northern kingdom, to people for whom Nineveh is one of the great enemies to be feared. Jonah is headed, by himself, to foreign soil out of the security and safety of King Jeroboam’s jurisdiction. Called to speak to a hostile people that he has been raised to hate.
So here comes street preacher Jonah – we’re told he makes no effort to reach the whole city. He preaches for one day and quits. And there is nothing eloquent or impressive about his preaching. He opts for the short sermon, minus illustrations and a closing poem. It’s five words long in Hebrew, eight words in most of our English translations. The narrator says, “He cried out,” but from his later response in the story, you just have to wonder how much energy was in his voice. And you have to wonder how many times he actually said it. In the narration he just speaks once and then leaves. In a city that takes three days to cross, no matter how many times we think he said it, not that many people actually heard him speak. And yet, the response spreads like a wildfire through the community. "The people took to heart the warning from God."
Before word of the message ever reaches the king, a public fast is declared. Everyone stops what they are doing and life changes immediately. From the richest to the poorest of citizens, people put on their mourning garments, they dressed in sackcloth. When the king himself hears, he sets an example by putting on the clothing of mourning and sits in ashes. And he establishes the fasting not just for the adults but chldren and even their animals as well. Can you imagine a city of 120,000 people suddenly coming to a complete halt--this wasn't the celebration of a holiday, a new day off work. It was a complete stop of life and lifestyle. “Let them all pray with fervor to God, and let them abandon their wicked ways and the injustice they practice.” God gives these people forty days to completely change their identity as a people and their religious conviction. Repentance for these people is not saying they are sorry, it is not saying they pledge to come to church more often, it is a complete reversal of living. Their hope is that such authentic change will lead God to change his mind and spare them.
The warning was from God; It was so powerful that Jonah only said it once to a few people and they were so convicted by it that they themselves carried the message to the rest of the community. It was received as a message from God; The people responded to God, not to Jonah. And when God witnesses their sincerity of heart, their mourning of the past and their new directions for the future he indeed has compassion on them just as he had compassion on the sailors and just as he had compassion on Jonah. He changes his mind – a powerful phrase – and spares the city.
Sometimes God uses unwilling messengers to proclaim his message just to remind us all that the power in in the message, not the messenger. And sometimes God proclaims his message to the audience we least expect because those people are the ones who can hear it. What must this response have sounded like to the people of Israel – God’s chosen people? Never in the history of Israel do people respond like these Ninevites responded. In the midst of Hosea and Amos and Micah and Isaiah crying out to their people for change, how must they have felt to see the pagan city of Nineveh completely transformed by one sentence from Jonah? The outsiders could see God and change their ways when the insiders could not.
I spent this week puzzling over who you and I are called to identity with in this story. Are we to see ourselves as Jonah? Is one of us being called to Iran or Iraq or any other group of people we long for God to punish when God longs to love them.
Are we to see ourselves as the rest of Israel hearing this story? Do we need to know that God’s mercies are intended for more than the chosen ones? More than the people who agree with us already. That God really does care about all of the human beings created in his image on this planet?
Are we the Ninevites? After all, most of us come from Gentile roots not Jewish lineage? And we find ourselves in a nation characterized by much of the rest of the world the Evil Empire? Is Nashville - the city with a steeple on every corner, but also the world’s largest adult bookstore and the more sexual addiction 12 step groups per capita than any other city in the nation – is Nashville really Nineveh?
Who needs to preach and who needs to repent?
Here is the good news – no, the GREAT NEWS this morning. As Dean said last week, in this story, Jonah and the sailors and the big fish and the Ninevites are all the supporting cast. They are not the real focus of the story. The main character is creator God. A God whose mercie truly never end. A God who justice and longing for us humans to behave justly is resolute and steadfast. He longs for human beings to live in his will. He longs for human beings to love and respect and honor other human beings. He longs to recognized as Creator by his creation. Nothing can stop his pursuit of us. You can’t escape to Tarshish, you can’t find a place to go hide, and you can’t find an enemy to hate that isn’t also part of his creation that he loves. And there is no evil that one cannot turn from and be saved. God’s mercy always trumps God’s justice.
Who in the world – in our world this morning – is not being pursued by God, not loved by God, not worthy of his mercy and steadfast love. Whose feeble, weak-voiced preaching will he call upon to change lives? Who in Nineveh needs to hear his voice this morning?
We puzzle today about what to do with the invitation time in church, don’t we? Just as you don’t see much sackcloth and ashes in our time, you don’t see the traditional invitation song anymore. Shouldn’t there be some sort of altar call, some invitation to come down front or at least go to the back. Sometimes I’m helped by remembering that there were no invitation songs and mourners benches and altars at the end of sermons until the 19th century. It was the tent meetings and revivals that led to singing 16 verses of Just as I AM. When going forward got too embarrassing and awkward, the Billy Graham Crusades got around that by having all kinds of people come forward by design to make it easier for those truly convicted by the message. Yet, in our story this morning, more people respond to the message (more than 120,000) than any other story in scripture that I’m aware of. The conversion of 3000 on Pentecost is tiny in comparison. But there is no invitation! Jonah doesn’t invite anyone to stand and sing. But God is at work, pursuing his creation, longing for people to change their hearts and minds so that he can change his.
Perhaps what we need this morning, and every morning is a reminder that it is not the local preacher or the local church or a particular song that entends t he invitation – it is Creator God, longing to love each of his children and all of his creation.
The word of the Lord comes this morning – as a call to repent, as a word of divine judgment – as mercies that never come to an end. And mercy always trumps judgment if only we will turn and tell the truth about who we really are.
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, July 22, 2007
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