This morning, we continue the theme of “call” that we began last week. It is an important theme for Epiphany which is the time we celebrate God’s word being extended to the Gentiles. I think it is important to identify what it means to be called or chosen. I often hear the concept of being called or chosen confused with the gift of salvation. Salvation is offered to all through Jesus Christ. It is a free gift that we just have to accept. To be called or chosen by God is to be selected for a specific task that furthers God’s kingdom. Abraham was called to be the father of a nation in a specific place whose call would be to bring monotheism to the world. Moses was called and formed by God for the purpose of bringing those people out of slavery, of establishing a holy nation, one set apart from all others, in covenant with God, in the land promised to Abraham to continue the covenant and call first made with Abraham. David was called to be the king, the leader, of these peoples who would establish them in Jerusalem and would be the ancestor of the ultimate leader, Jesus. Call always involves a job or task that furthers God’s purposes but involves a human being in the fulfillment of that purpose.
We get just a snippet of Jonah’s call this morning and I would like to spend some time looking at it in more depth.
There is one historical reference to Jonah found in 2 Kings 14:25 which places Jonah as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, the last king of Israel. This is immediately before the Assyrians destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. The book of Jonah was probably written after the destruction of Israel and its original purpose is unclear, but clearly the author is wrestling with why God would allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel, a large piece of his chosen people, but the author also gives us a lot of insight into the nature of God’s call and humanity’s response.
As the story opens, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large city in Assyria and warn the people that he has heard of their wickedness. To put this in perspective, think of whatever county you consider to be the greatest threat to the United States – Germany and Japan in the 1940’s, Russia, Iraq, China. It is as though God asked you to go to the largest city in one of these countries and tell them that God is not happy with them. How would you react? Jonah’s response is to hop on the first ship going the opposite direction.
Once on the ship a great storm comes up that threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it. The sailors are pagans. They begin both the practical tasks of lightening and securing the ship and they cry out to their various gods with no result. They drag Jonah out of bed and cast lots, they throw dice or use some random method such as drawing straws to determine who has angered the gods and Jonah is it. They demand to know what he has done which gives him an opportunity to tell these pagans about the God of the Hebrews, the God who created both the sea and the dry land. Jonah acknowledges that he has disobeyed and attempted to flee from his God and he offers himself as a sacrifice to calm the sea. The sailors initially resist and attempt to row toward land but the storm continues and they agree to throw Jonah overboard, begging Jonah’s god not to be angry at them. As soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm ceases and the sailors acknowledge Jonah’s God with sacrifices and vows. Jonah, even in his disobedience, was used by God as a witness to the sailors of the power and might of Jonah’s God.
God does not abandon Jonah to the sea. A large fish swallows him and he spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. While in the belly of the fish, and Jonah prays a beautiful prayer acknowledging that as he is drowning he makes thanksgivings and acknowledges that deliverance belongs to the Lord. We are told God spoke to the fish who “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” I always have visions of Pinocchio at this point, but Jesus will later point to this passage as a reference to his death, burial and resurrection.
One would think Jonah had learned his lesson and when God calls to him a second time with the same request, he begins the three day walk to Nineveh, but apparently as he is walking, he is allowing his anger to boil within him. He is obedient and warns the Ninevites they have forty days before they will be destroyed, then he walks out of the city. Jonah finds a place outside of Nineveh where he can watch what happens. I suspect he is hoping to witness their destruction. Surprisingly, the Ninevites respond immediately to his warning. They declare a fast, and everyone goes into mourning, they put on sack cloth and they sit in ashes. Think Lent truly taken to heart. The king declares a national day of repentance not just for the people but also the animals in the hopes that God will change his mind.
It is important to note that all the prophets of Israel and Judah were called to warn the people to change their ways to avoid disaster, but they were not heeded. Later, after both Israel and Judah were destroyed, their message became one of hope and a reminder of God’s mercy.
Jonah gets mad at God. Jonah wants the Ninevites to be destroyed and God sent him to warn them and they listened. Jonah complains to God saying, “I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” One would think this was a good thing, but Jonah is angry that God has shown mercy on Jonah’s enemies. Do we ever do that? Do we ever wish bad things to happen to the people we don’t like? Do we get angry when good things happen to someone we don’t think deserves it?
God decides to make this a “teaching moment” for Jonah. Jonah pitches a tent outside of the city to pout. This is a very hot part of the world, and as the sun warms the day, God allows a giant weed to grow beside Jonah’s tent and provide shade for him. Jonah is very happy about this gift of a weed for shade, but then God sends a worm to eat the weed and he sends a hot wind to blow on Jonah so he is becoming very uncomfortable and once again begins to complain to God. He his very melodramatic and each time he gets angry at God he tells him “It is better for me to die than to live.”
God asks him if he is angry enough to want to die over the destruction of a weed that grew one night and died the next without Jonah having anything to do with its existence and Jonah tells him, yes, mad enough to die. God then asks Jonah if God, the creator and nurturer of all creation, should not be concerned about all the inhabitants of Nineveh – thousands of adults, children, and animals.
We never hear Jonah’s response. Perhaps he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that time. I think there are many lessons to be learned from this story. God pursued Jonah until he did as God asked. He did not force him, but he clearly let Jonah know when he was not in compliance. Is God pursuing you with some task in mind? In the story, the people of Nineveh – a violent wicked pagan people, heard the message and repented. No one is beyond God’s merciful salvation. We as humans are quick to write people off if we disapprove of their behavior, but God never gives up one anyone. God didn’t give up on Nineveh and he didn’t give up on Jonah. Have you given up on anyone? Have you let circumstances cause you to give up on yourself?
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus warns the people that the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah. I think there is much for us to ponder in this story and in Jesus’ words.