Reflection given January 21, 2018 Duncan United Church
Bible readings: Book of Jonah; Matthew 1:14-20
The story of Jonah’s incredible journey to Nineveh is an important story, containing many truths about our responses to God’s insistence, and God’s insistence that whatever we make of our lives, or think about what others have made of theirs, God has love, purpose and use for all. Many parts of this story have happened. Many happen still. An ironic, humourous, loving epic of hope and faith, it is a story about our refusal to be light, and God’s use of our refusal to be light.
Our first hint that the story may be an allegory could be in the names that open it: Jonah, son of Amittai. Dove, child of Truth.
Other prophets have great and powerful names, they do great and powerful things. They can become fearful. They can tremble, but in God they become great and powerful again. With God’s righteous light before them, they overcome kings, emperors and pharaohs alike.
In this story a man named after the symbol for peace is given a mission from God and he does pretty much exactly what you’d expect a peace-seeking, quiet, minding-his-own-business kind of guy to do. Even if his father’s name is Truth. First argue, then agree, then slip out the back door while nobody’s watching.
Trying to keep a low profile in the bowels of the ship, Jonah is awakened by sailors braver and more loyal than he. Willing to sacrifice their lives for his, they toss him overboard only when he insists it is the only course. I can almost see him. Resigned but morosely triumphant. ‘Let the sea take me if it will, better that than Nineveh.’
The big fish appears – called a big male fish in Hebrew – it incubates Jonah’s repentance (as he comes to realize resistance is futile) and – now called a big female fish in Hebrew – spews him out, a new creation, on the shores of Nineveh, three days later.
Squelching his way to the centre of the city, through an impossibly long journey, he calls the people to repent, or prepare for doom. And they do. Every man, woman, child and animal repents. Throws on sackcloth, is rubbed down with ashes. Refuses to eat. All of them, from the king down to the cat, discover Yahweh and are held in love. It’s a remarkable story of one person’s incredible ability to, in communion with God, be a catalyst for change in the world.
Except that Jonah is pretty sure it has nothing to do with him. I think that’s the root of his anger. Looking at the miraculous changes taking place before his very eyes, he doesn’t stop to wonder that he should be the one chosen to begin it. Nope, he wonders why, if Yahweh could do this, why did he need to be involved at all? He cannot see himself with any agency in this miracle. He looks back with anger, ahead in despair.
Driven out of his home, tossed into the sea, swallowed by a fish, spewed out on the shore, near drowned, half dead, dragging his ridiculous self to the centre of the greatest city on earth, crying out ‘repent’. A bleached, demented residue. Hardly human at all. Certainly not powerful, not prophetic, in no way commanding. How could it be him? God didn’t need him at all.
Stomping out of the city, he cobbles a shelter together in the wastelands and waits. Maybe for the city to revert and be blasted. Maybe for his own futile end. A vine grows to nurture shade for him. Curling through the wood, bringing green and cool air. Jonah begins to perk up, things might be turning a corner, perhaps a new day is dawning.
God then sends a worm to eat the vine. Incensed that this too is taken, Jonah mourns the vine and waits for death.
God asks Jonah if he’s saddened at the death of the vine. Yes, says Jonah, you could say that. Well then, says God, think how sad I would have been if Nineveh had perished as the vine did.
The story ends, but the inference is clear. If Jonah, the dove, had not landed in Nineveh, peace and blessing would not have come there either.
It’s a funny, ironic, larger than life, unbelievable and yet wholly true story.
The stories of our people and the realities of our lived experiences tell us God does not work alone. In God, Jesus calls others to come fish with him, and calls still.
Sometimes we are called into difficult, improbable, impossible journeys with God’s insistence prodding us, and Jesus walking at our side. Sometimes we are called to turn away from everything that makes sense. Everything that protects us from harm and risk and wounding. Called to reach out to those we know are our enemies, those that would as soon wipe us out, or mock us, or deny our humanity, or treat us as if we were dirt beneath their nails, waiting to be scrubbed out for a cleaner, healthier existence.
Sometimes we are swallowed by great urges, we are taken over, and we are swum into vast oceans. We are rotted from without, we are eaten from within. Sometimes what is left of us is vomited up on the sidewalks of our cities, bedraggled, worn, used up and drawn tight by the pain and fear that keeps us on the run from love’s graceful blessing. Sometimes we are driven to drag our reluctant, hopeless, distracted selves right into the centre of the city. Hunched in the square we bear messages from God. Calling on the city to repent. Sometimes with words.
One day. God promises! – one day. Every woman, man, child and animal will be renewed in God, will be re-bound in love, will rejoice with tears of blessing for eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts broken open in light. One day.
One day.
Let us consider that, as we pray….