Scripture: Jonah 1:17-2:10
I like to read and I end up reading several books a year. This will probably not come as a surprise, but my favorite genre is science fiction. So when I was a senior in high school and I had to take elective classes since I had already met most of the requirements for my last semester, I absolutely took one entitled “Science fiction and fantasy”. It was overall a fun class. One of the books that we read for the class was the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451. This dystopian novel is about a future where books are completely banned and any books found are burned by professional firemen. I remember reading the book, discussing the book, and even writing about the book always focused on how the novel lifted up themes of censorship and governmental overreach for control. Those are, after all, the most common understandings of the novel and if it is referenced today it is usually in regards to those contexts. However, while those themes may have influenced the overall story that was the original intention. Bradbury did not originally write Fahrenheit 451 as a future looking warning of where censorship and authoritarian control could lead us, but instead he wrote it as a reactionary piece to what he perceived as a great evil in television. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, right when TV was becoming increasingly popular and finding itself in more and more homes. Bradbury envisioned a future where television fully replaced books as a medium and his novel is about how such a replacement would be detrimental. As Bradbury has stated in interviews going as far back as the 1950s Fahrenheit 451 is less about the perils of censorship and more about the dangers of an illiterate society.
However, since 1953 TV and other non-printed media has only grown in popularity. In those years, the original message of Bradbury’s novel has largely been lost. When I was taught the novel over twenty years ago, the original message was not taught at all but rather the emphasis on censorship and authoritarianism. The novel was written to convey one message, but it has largely come to be associated with a communicating an entirely different message. I think the same case could be made for this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture comes from the book of Jonah, it is often referred to as Jonah and the whale, or more accurately Jonah and the big fish (because the bible never says it is a whale). Like a lot of the stories we have looked at this month this is a go-to VBS story. Over the years, in various VBS curriculums, Sunday school lessons, and story books I have seen this story reinterpreted and presented to children. Often the story is presented on a way that focuses on Jonah, but in doing so we miss a major point. This story is less about a man who runs from God and more about a God who loves the whole world.
There a couple of reasons why this story is so often adopted for children. First it has an animal in it. Second it is a fairly short story and has a very tight structure. The story of Jonah is found in the book of Jonah, which is only four chapters long. The story can be summed up fairly quickly. Jonah, a prophet of God, is called to go to Nineveh. He is to preach to the city for the people to repent of their wickedness. Jonah does not want to, so he flees for Tarshish. God sends a storm that threatens to destroy the boat, and Jonah is thrown overboard at his request. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah, and inside the belly of the fish Jonah prays and repents. He then goes to Nineveh, preaches, the people are convicted, and God spares the city of destruction.
In children books and Sunday school lessons often the take away here is placed on being faithful to God. God asked Jonah to do something, Jonah ran, God found Jonah, and eventually Jonah repents and does what God asked him to do. Often the lesson being communicated is that we should listen to God and be faithful to God in the first place. I understand why this is often the message that is emphasized, especially with children. It is fairly black and white and the story supports it with strong cause and effect. However, if we boil the story down too much it leaves us with some uncomfortable implications. When we make the entire emphasis of the story that Jonah should have been faithful from God, we can end up making the moral of the story “we should be faithful to God . . .or else.” Jonah did end up repenting for his sinful actions of fleeing from God and is spit out by the fish, but there is the uncomfortable question of what would have happened if Jonah did not repent? When we center the main point of the story too much on Jonah we lose some really important context such as why Jonah ran in the first place, why this angered God enough to send storms and fish, and what exactly God was asking Jonah to do.
God called Jonah to minister to Nineveh. Nineveh is not just any city. It was THE city of the enemy, it was the wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. This militant and powerful empire was a powerhouse and bully of the region. Just 30-50 years after the date of the book of Jonah, The Assyrians would destroy, conquer, and exile the northern kingdom of Israel. For Jonah this was the enemy. So in response to God telling him to go into the heart of the enemy’s territory he ran to Tarshish. Now we do not know where Tarshish is but the best guess is that it was located on the strait of Gibraltar in Southern Spain. This would have been the very edge of the known world and about as far away from Nineveh as Jonah could have fled. Not only did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh, but is willing to literally go to the ends of the earth to get away from there.
We could speculate as to why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh, but fortunately we do not have to. In Jonah 4:2 he states exactly why he did not want to go. This morning we read the center of the story. After Jonah is spit out by the big fish he is obedient to God, preaches repentance, and the Assyrians listen to his message. God chose to relent and not destroy the evil city and this infuriates Jonah. In Jonah 4:2, Jonah states why he is so angry: “ Isn’t this what I said LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love., a God who relents from sending calamity.”
The reason why Jonah fled from God was not because he was afraid or because he was full of self doubt. The reason why he fled and initially refused to go to Nineveh, is because he knew that God would forgive, he knew God would be compassionate, and he knew if the people turned to God they would not be destroyed. Jonah did not want this to happen. Jonah reasoned that if he never preached to the Assyrians then they would be destroyed. Jonah fled from God because he wanted God to punish the Assyrians, and he wanted them to be destroyed.
God called Jonah to a mission of mercy and love, and motivated by anger and hatred Jonah purposely ran from God was calling him to do. God wanted Jonah to choose compassion over anger. God drives this point home with Jonah at the very end of the book. After completing his assignment, Jonah waits around outside city to see if God will change his mind. While doing this God provides a vine, a plant with big leaves to shield Jonah from the sun. However, the next night God causes the vine to die, and Jonah is very upset it is dead. The point that God makes is that Jonah was more concerned with a plant he had no investment in than the lives of thousands of people. God on the other hand, cares deeply about these people because God is their Creator.
I think one of things that we can easily lose sight of is how radical the idea is that the God of Israel would care for the Assyrians. The ancient Middle Eastern world, was polytheistic. Every culture had their own gods, and they believed their patron deities were the only gods that had any care for them. What Jonah, and the other Israelite prophets advocated is that the God of Israelites, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the great I AM, was more than just the God of Israel. They advocated that the LORD was the God of all, that the entire world was His dominion, and that God cared about all of it. This was no less of a radical belief 700 and some years after Jonah when Jesus met with Nicodemous in the gospel of John declares, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” The message of both the old and new testament, the core theme of Jonah and the gospels is that God loves and saves everyone: The whole world, all means all. The great commission given to us from Jesus was to make disciples of all the nations, not just the nations we like and look like us. All means all. This message that God loves everyone and that God cares for everyone, not just the special, the elect, or the chosen was truly radical in its day. Unfortunately, it is still somewhat a radical message today, because it is not a message a lot of people here. This inclusive good news-that God loves everyone and that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, is still the good news that people need.
However, somewhere along the ways things have gone sideways. The message that God has been twisted one way and then distorted the other. The church as God’s people should be the flagbearers of the good news that God’s love for all truly does mean all. However for way, way too many people churches are viewed as groups that naturally exclude not include. Instead of seeing churches as places that mirrors the foot of cross by always having grace and mercy available, we are seen as closed minded places of judgement. To put it bluntly when the world sees us, they are more likely to think we look like Jonah than Jesus. They think we would rather run away and watch them burn then sacrificially stretch out our arms towards them in love.
Even if we personally have not acted in a non-loving way to non-believers, we are unfortunately guilty by association. We also bare responsibility to turn the ship around, and get it right. We have responsibility to love like Jesus and not like Jonah. In order to do that we may have to give up certain thoughts or attitudes. For example, when it comes to Christians relating to non-believers outside of a church, a common phrase used is “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I understand where this comes from. I truly do. The bible says God loves all and the bible says God hates sin. God is fully capable of doing this, but I am not convinced we as disciples can. If we devote any energy to hate, I am not sure how well we can love at the same time. Part of the problem American Christians have in general, is that we have been very articulate in communicating the sins we hate, but we have not always done the best job at loving others. Love the sinner, hate the sin, should not be our motto. Let’s drop the last five words or so and just focus on love. Once we have mastered loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we can worry about the rest of that phrase.
In some ways the story of Jonah is a story of faithfulness, but it is not a story of warning. The story is not communicating obey God or else. The story is challenging us with the questions will we love the people that God loves? Will we love them as completely as God loves them? It is easy for us to say that we will love people who come and try to be like us: to believe like us, act like us, and look like us. It is another thing to go and love people where they are at. God did not tell Jonah to wait for converted Assyrians to come to him, God told Jonah to go and Jonah chose to run away. While we may not physically run we still have the choice. We can choose to take the good news that God loves the whole world, that there is no sin too great to separate us from the love of God, and that anyone can be forgiven. Or we can choose to turn our backs on the world that needs God’s love and then wonder why no one comes to church anymore.
In 1 John 3:18, John wrote, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” May we claim this verse and may our actions prove the love of God. May we not be like Jonah and run from the people who need to hear the good news the most. Instead Let us treat the world, the community around us in such a loving way that our actions prove when the scripture says “For God so loved the world”, it means it. May the way we treat others show that when it comes to the immense, unquenchable, and unchanging love of God all means all. May we be the church that is known for loving its neighbors.