Sermon: A Reluctant Prophet

“A Reluctant Prophet”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 8, 2020

Selections from Jonah
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the sailors were afraid…Jonah said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

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 – even the king. “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king proclaimed. 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had decided to bring upon them; and God preserved them.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God raised up a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God raised up a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. Again, Jonah asked that he might die.

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Matthew 12:38-41
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!

The first image that comes to mind for most of us when we talk about Jonah is probably Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish. (There’s no whale in the story – who knew?) Maybe we think of it as a cautionary tale – if you disobey God, you’ll live to regret it. But Jonah is actually a satire, meant to help us see ourselves in the reluctant prophet and to learn compassion for our enemies.

You see, God asks Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh that they need to change their evil ways so God doesn’t wipe them out. Jonah is reluctant to carry out God’s commission – so reluctant that he charters an entire ship bound for the farthest known corner of the world, so reluctant that he’d rather let the ship’s crew throw him overboard and spend three days inside a giant fish than do what God asked – because Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians are the mortal enemies of Jonah’s people, the Israelites. 

At the time the book of Jonah was written, Assyria had invaded Israel, laid siege to its cities and burned them down, and deported its population, most of whom would never return to their homes. There was a lot of killing, pillaging, and rape involved; the Israelites, understandably, hated the Assyrians. So when God asks Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh – to give them a chance to get back into God’s good graces – Jonah is not on board. As Rob Bell says, “You want me to go where to preach what to those people? No thanks.”

After the whole swallowed-by-a-fish incident, Jonah reluctantly does as God asks – but only the bare minimum. I love this scene: Jonah walks into this huge city filled with people, says one, five-word sentence warning Nineveh of its imminent destruction – most prophets in the Bible go on for chapters and chapters – preaching the world’s shortest sermon with no information about who’s mad at them or what to do to change their ways – and yet somehow the entire city instantly repents and converts, worshiping God, fasting, and mourning, from the king on down to putting sackcloth on the animals. I would like to know what exactly animals need to repent of, but I guess Nineveh decided to go big or go home on this whole repentance thing.

Jonah is ticked off because God has shown compassion to his enemies. This was what he feared all along would happen – he actually says to God, “Isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled…at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

Wait…Jonah would rather die than watch God respond in love to the Ninevites, than watch God respond exactly as advertised all over the Hebrew Bible, exactly as God has responded to Jonah’s people every single time they’ve gone astray (and there have been many such times)? Yes. He’d rather literally jump ship than be part of helping his enemies mend their ways and find healing and wholeness.

I wonder if there are any of us who have felt that way these last four years, or these last several months of watching pandemic suffering mount and racialized violence grow and division fester and cruelty and hatred of the “other” become commonplace. I know I’ve certainly read and heard a lot of people begin sentences with phrases like “I’ve lost all respect for…”, “I’ll never again be able to trust…”, “I can’t forgive how this person I love voted…” Any of those hit close to home?

We may chuckle at Jonah’s single-minded, stubborn refusal to see his enemies as worthy of compassion; we definitely laughed reading this through on Wednesday night (and boy did we need to laugh). But as the Roman orator Horace wrote about satires like this one, “Why do you laugh? Change the name, and the story is about you.”

The truth is that it is easy to see our enemies as worthy of our disdain, our contempt, even our hate. After all, they have gravely hurt us, or abused those we love, or threatened a community we cherish, or stomped all over values we hold dear.

It is much, much harder to look into the face of our enemy and see Jesus reflected there. 

Indeed, it can be incredibly painful, because we have to hold the part of our enemy who could do us such damage in tension with the part of them that is made in the image of God, that is loved by God. That’s an awfully uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, one most of us would rather not give the time of day to, let alone really embrace. 

Loving our enemies, seeing Jesus in them, demands that we cannot define the “them” who have hurt us as solely the opposite of what we stand for. I think Jonah knew that when he looked closely at the Assyrians – that when we look closely at our enemies, we’re very likely to discover loves, longings, and struggles that remind us of our own. And we will certainly discover flawed human beings who are yet loved by a merciful, compassionate God – One who also loves us, with all our flaws. If we’d rather not admit we have shared ground with our enemies, we’d certainly rather not confront the darkness inside us that reminds us of them as well. No wonder Jonah did his best to run away!

But I think there may be another reason Jonah is so ticked off. Nineveh repents, yes, and turns to worship God. But they only do so after they are threatened with annihilation, and there is no record that they made any attempt to repair the devastating destruction they had wrought on the Israelites. I can imagine Jonah being peeved that they seem to get off so lightly. 

We can again relate to Jonah here: an apology, after all, doesn’t mean as much if it’s part of a deal to escape punishment, and it doesn’t mean much at all if it isn’t accompanied by an attempt to repair the wrong done. If an abuser only expresses contrition to convince you to take them back, or if an authority figure only says they’re sorry so they can keep their power – well, then forgiveness starts to feel pretty quickly like cheap grace.

And in the public square, especially at a time like this when so much lasting damage has been done, saying that it is time for us to hold hands and sing kumbayah without reckoning with that damage or holding accountable those responsible for it – is morally irresponsible. Not to mention that such spiritual bypassing repairs none of the systematic oppression that led to it in the first place. It’s a recipe for history to repeat itself.

Christians are often the first to call for forgiveness, reconciliation, reunification…it’s a major tenet of our faith, and an important one! But we as Christians – especially if we’re white Christians – are not usually the ones who have been most harmed in an unjust situation. One of the things that came up in Bible study is that it is not actually our place to grant forgiveness for a harm perpetrated against another person or group. That’s *their* prerogative. So if I choose, I can forgive someone for refusing to take communion from me because I’m a woman pastor (true story!), but I can’t absolve someone from the harm they did in supporting the delegitimization of my LGBTQ loved one’s marriage or in rejecting the right of my kid’s Black godparent to feel safe from police brutality. We can’t say God hasn’t or won’t forgive the wrongdoer – and in fact we strive to hold onto the hope of redemption for all of God’s children, including ourselves – but for us to publicly proclaim wrongdoers are off the hook not only robs the victim of any agency, it also circumvents God’s vision for justice and shuts down any chance for true reconciliation.

In this morning’s gospel reading, some religious elites looking to trip Jesus up ask him for a sign that will prove he’s been sent by God. Jesus refuses, saying, “On Judgment Day, the Ninevites will stand up and give evidence that will condemn this generation, because when Jonah preached to them they changed their lives,” while those of Jesus’s generation have the actual Messiah preaching to them, yet they still won’t admit they’ve gone astray in their desire to preserve their status or their disregard for the poor and outcast. 

If the moral of Jonah is that we can’t limit God’s mercy to just those we like and agree with, then the moral of our Gospel passage this morning is that we can’t limit God’s justice to protect our own standing or to “keep the peace.” 

Yes, we have a lot of healing to do as a nation – but I don’t believe it can happen in any meaningful way until we honestly address the harm that’s been done, whether over the last four years or the last four hundred. It may very well be that true healing will only come as we pursue justice – and that our ability to see God in the “other” will grow only as we insist on seeing God first and foremost in those our nation continues to so damningly leave behind.

Sometimes I wonder what happened after God saved Nineveh. Did Nineveh reach out to Israel with a sincere apology and offer to fund the restoration of all the damage they’d done? Did Jonah hold on to his bitterness about the second chance offered to his enemies, or did he start to imagine what it would look like to live as neighbors?

We haven’t yet begun a national conversation about what any of this looks like – Jonah certainly doesn’t give us any clues. But I hope that we, as Christians, will resist both the urge to demonize those on the other side of the gap – whichever side that is – and the urge to call for a unity which is not built on repentance, repair, and justice. Because what is justice if not the belief that the harm experienced by another is just as real and deserving of compassion and repair as if we had experienced it ourselves – that in God, the “other” we can’t imagine ever identifying with is really not that distant from us at all?

May it be so. Amen.