Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 25, 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Commentary
It’s Round 2 between Yahweh and Jonah. The call to preach gets re-issued and if in Round 1 Jonah walked the opposite direction from Nineveh, this time he heads straight for it. But even well before you get to the petulant, angry Jonah of chapter 4, you just know his heart’s not in this thing.
Jonah has now very nearly been to hell and back after refusing God’s initial call of him and so it is not overly surprising to see Jonah obey promptly when the commission comes a second time. God has by now made it crystal clear: Jonah will find no escape from this preaching gig! Maybe some version of the words of Psalm 139 were even rattling around inside Jonah’s head: “If I go to the highest mountain, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I go to Joppa, you are there. If I set out to sea, you are there. Where can I go to escape my God!?” (Except in Jonah’s case the psalm was no doubt being recited through gritted teeth.)
So he goes, for what other choice does he have? He goes, he preaches the standard Prophets 101 sermon of doom and gloom and repentance and though the locals perhaps did not notice it, there was a tinge in Jonah’s voice that bespoke of the ancient equivalent of “Yada, yada, yada.” His heart just was not in his work. (And as preachers, aren’t we glad this is never true of us on any given Sunday . . . .)
But if ever a preacher needed a reminder that it’s not finally about you, Jonah got it. Half-hearted and boilerplate though his message to Nineveh was, it took hold, it took off, it went viral throughout the city and clear up to the king himself. Whatever Jonah said or did could not possibly account for the level of sincere repentance the Ninevites mustered. This was clearly, as some now put it, “a God thing” and a Holy Spirit thing and it worked. God relented. Foreign though these non-Israelites were and though they lived well outside the boundaries of the covenant as Israel understood it at that time, their loving respect for Yahweh was more than enough for God to take their destruction off of his “To Do” list.
And it angered Jonah something awful. In chapter 4 he’ll even move east of the city and set up a little lean-to shelter for himself, hoping against hope that just maybe there’d be some fireworks after all. There were none, of course, and Jonah’s anger soon curdled into boiling rage and a dyspepsia for which there were few if any earthly cures. Retrospectively, of course, this fills in the gaps in the narrative up to that point. Now we know why Jonah fled in the first place: he wasn’t afraid of failure. He was afraid of success. In his perception, salvation was a little Members Only club of which he was a member but which no greasy foreigner could ever join. Now here he had gone and become an agent of expanding the Club’s membership and it made him both angry and uneasy. How would he explain this to his loyal compatriots back home? Talk about providing comfort and aid to the enemy. This felt like treason!
Right in the middle of the Book of Jonah, in other words, and smack inside the lection appointed for this Year B Epiphany text is the spectacle of an insincere preacher being used sincerely by God. Here is one of the Bible’s finest examples of how God can (and often does) hit a straight shot using a crooked stick. It’s a vignette of how God’s Spirit can (and often does) get life-giving messages across to people even if and when the preacher is imperfect, half-hearted, distracted for whatever the reason. If there is something in Jonah’s counter-example to make those of us who preach feel a bit queasy (insofar as we may see ourselves in this picture now and then), there is also something here to give us hope. It’s not about us. God can and will use us even in our flawed weakness.
But at the heart of Jonah and of this lectionary passage is something else worth pondering, too: namely, how sincerely do we in the church today really want to bring all kinds of people into the church? Yes, we always say we want to reach all people and sometimes in the (unfortunate) language of the “culture wars” we act as though we’d love nothing more than to have all those who oppose the church for whatever the reason to come and join us. But what if they really did? What if the young people with the torn jeans and the multiple body piercings did want to join us at the communion rail? What about all those ethnic groups with habits so very different from the shank of any given congregation? What about those struggling with sexual identity, those with wildly different political views than what may characterize the majority of a given congregation? If we preach repentance to these people and then if one day it actually takes hold and they show up in the sanctuary . . . well, then what?
Maybe we are not actively awaiting and licking our lips over the potential destruction of this or that group, but if certain types of people did come to us (as they are), would we generate the kind of joy over this one might wish for?
Taken in isolation, the verses chopped up out of Jonah 3 by the Common Lectionary can look benign and seem to tell a happy story. But in the context of Jonah and of the Israel of his day, they tell no such story. The uncomfortable question with which Jonah confronts us yet today is whether the story these verses do tell is also our story. And if so, what can we do about that unhappy fact?
Aside from the book that bears his name, Jonah does not crop up much in the rest of the Bible. But the most important part of the Bible where Jonah is very much present is a passage where he is not named. But it comes in Acts 10 when Peter receives the famous roof-top vision through which he was taught not only that just maybe the Kosher food laws were being overturned in the New Covenant but so was the Jews-only nature of salvation. Peter had to go to all people and not wait for them to become Jews before he tried to turn them into Christians. Not long after that, of course, some Italians from the household of Cornelius showed up at Peter’s door to take him straight into the heart of Gentileville. Peter ended up preaching, they ended up repenting and receiving the Spirit (somewhat to Peter’s astonishment), and Peter ended up staying with them and enjoying pizza with ham, pepperoni, and a few other unclean toppings. (Thanks to Fred Craddock for the pizza idea!!)
That much we all know. But don’t fail to notice where Peter was when he received his vision of God’s new picnic: he was staying in Joppa. In Joppa and so the very city to which Jonah had once fled God’s call and from which he set sail to get away from God. Joppa is the turning point for God’s people. Jonah failed. Peter succeeded. Which direction will we go when we get to Joppa, whatever our “Joppa” may be?
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