In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our story today begins in the middle of the action, with the Word of the LORD coming to Jonah a second time. “Get up,” He says, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Though that last verb really should be in the past tense. Because God had already commanded Jonah to go. He just hadn’t done it.
Many, if not most of us here, know this story. We know what God told Jonah. We know what Jonah didn’t do. We know how things worked out in the end. The story is practically old hat. Flannel boards and coloring sheets. And yet we hear it again today, we are given it anew now, and we dare to believe that it is a Word from the Lord and that He has something to say. What will he say to you?
When God first spoke to Jonah and said “Go to Nineveh,” it was the worst day of his life. Jonah hated Nineveh. He loathed it. The thought of bringing the Word of the LORD there was reprehensible. Disgusting. What could God possibly want with the Ninevites?
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the sworn enemies of Israel, and the most powerful, most murderously evil empire the ancient world had ever seen. They were ruthless. Cruel — and proud of it. There was a lot to hate about Nineveh and the Empire they represented.
But Jonah took it a step further. Whereas most people might shudder and curse when the Assyrians came up in conversation, they more or less quickly moved on. But Jonah enjoyed that rush of anger. He cultivated it. And who could blame him? Who would dissuade him? It’s always been socially acceptable to hate someone or something that is textbook deplorable. Jonah cherished his hatred — which made the command of the Lord impossible for him to obey.
Hearing what God wanted him to do, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. “I shall flee from the Lord’s presence,” he declares and goes as far away from Nineveh as he can possibly get. He arrives at the sea, hops on the first boat he finds, and sets sail. We can almost imagine him spitting over his shoulder before settling down in the hull of the ship for a nap, thinking, Those Ninevites can die in their sins. They deserve whatever they’re going to get.
He falls asleep. Hours pass. The waters are calm — until dark clouds gather on the horizon. Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. The waves grow higher. Everyone (except for Jonah, who is still sleeping) is terrified. The sailors fish out their idols, they pray to their gods, they beseech whatever deity comes to mind, asking them to intervene. But nothing works. The captain of the vessel wakes Jonah up. He asks him if he knows what is going on. If there’s anything he can do to stop what the sailors believe to be their imminent demise. “Cast me overboard,” Jonah says. And eventually the sailors do.
As Jonah sinks into the depths, it looks — tragically, ironically — that he’s finally come to a place where the Word of the Lord can’t reach him — though once more, He does. God sends a great fish to swallow up his recalcitrant prophet; and after three days in its belly, the fish spews him right back to where he started. “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.’”
And Jonah obeys, though he begrudges every step of the way. And we know that because we’re told that Nineveh is vast, three days’ travel from end-to-end; but Jonah doesn’t even reach the middle of the city before delivering God’s message — in five Hebrew words, no less — “Come 40 days,” he cries, “Nineveh will be overturned.”
Job done, Jonah turned to go — only to find that the Ninevites had listened. Everyone, from the King to the cab drivers to the cows bowed the knee and bewailed their sins. “Have mercy on us, LORD, have mercy,” they cry. And he does. He does.
You’d think this would be the moment that Jonah forgives the Ninevites and embraces them. There were once his enemies. Now, they were his brethren! But he doesn’t. Instead, Jonah storms out of the gates, hikes up a mountain, and sits down, glaring at the repentant city. If looks could kill. They do — though not in the way we expect.
Our story concludes with a final tableaux: God causes a plant to grow up to shade Jonah; and then God ordains a worm to kill it. Sweaty and sunburnt, Jonah loses his temper. “Kill me now,” he begs. “It is better for me to die than to live.”
To which God responds: “Jonah, Jonah, Jonah. Why are you this way? You are concerned over something so small, a vine you didn’t plant or tend. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh? Should I not be concerned about the thousands of people who live there? Don’t you understand who I am?” But the story ends with that exchange. Jonah doesn’t give a reply.
Which means we are meant to supply it. And we can — because we all know Jonah, just like we all know the Ninevites. They’re easy to find, easy, even to understand. They live in our hearts.
All it takes is a moment of honest self-reflection, a look inside that reveals the truth: We’ve all had knee-jerk reactions that pop out and hurt someone we love from time to time. And we’ve all been hurt and then cherished our resentment to the point of thinking that maybe God should skip his mercy this time around. Does that sound familiar? It does to me. That’s the beauty and the genius and the humor of this story. It shows us in no uncertain terms that we are all repulsive pagans. We are all reluctant prophets.
We are all sinners in the hands of a merciful God — a God who was out to save not just the Ninevites, but also Jonah. He would not be satisfied with anything less.
And he is not satisfied with anything less.
God does not want any part of his creation or any person in it to be overturned by Sin or destroyed by the hatred and the fear and the selfishness that run rampant in this fallen world. To allow that to happen would be against God’s nature, a death-sentence for the universe he has made. And so it is that just as God spoke to a people who were not his people and just as he rescued his prophet from the depths of the sea, so too, does He pursue us, to save us, not fleeing his enemies, but casting himself into the sea for our sake, so that the storms of this world and the storms in our hearts might be calmed with the power of his grace.
Such is his boundless love, love that does not wait or hold back until we’re “good enough” or until we “get wise” or until we respond to his commands with perfect humility. He comes now: Once, twice, three, four times, on and on, again and again, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you who you are meant to be.”
That is our hope, our promise, our present reality. The Kingdom of God is nearer than we think. It’s on our lips and in our hearts. And the King says, “Turn away from your wickedness and live.” For true life, everlasting life, begins when we take him at his word and let His Word be the last. AMEN.