God's Open House

Sunday, January 21, 2018

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Fish or Get Fished

I’m about to talk about a book from the Bible that you have most likely never heard in a sermon or even a church service. In fact, if I were to put in a list of other random names out of the Bible, most people wouldn’t be able to identify it as a book in the Bible. I’m talking about Nahum. If you’ve read it, kudos. If you’re going back in your head, saying, “Well I did read the whole Bible that one time, so I must have read it but it does not ring a bell at all,” then you’re about where I am.

The reason that you’ve never heard of Nahum is that it is devoted in its entirety, to gloating over the destruction of the ancient city of Nineveh, and that just does not come up in conversation all that often. Nineveh is not just any city. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. From the 900s to the 600s century BCE, the Assyrian Empire was the largest in the world. It dominated the Middle East, and not gently either. Assyria was famous for using brutality to maintain its hold over its provinces.[1] The Israelites, who were under the Assyrian thumb for generations before finally being conquered in 722, hated the Ninevites. They hated the Ninevites so much that they had a book, Nahum, dedicated to gleefully recounting or predicting the destruction of Nineveh in 615. And they weren’t content to read it for a chuckle now and then. They passed it down as scripture for generations. They wanted Assyria’s humiliation to be permanent. That’s how much Israel hated Nineveh.

The book of Jonah begins with God calling the prophet Jonah and sending him to, you guessed it, Nineveh. God hasn’t just asked Jonah to go to some random city and preach. God has called Jonah to go to the enemies of his people for hundreds of years. The assumption that most of us make is that Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he is afraid of the Ninevites. But if you read the book of Jonah, it becomes clear that that’s not the case. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because Jonah hates the Ninevites. Have you ever felt that way about someone or something? Have you ever hated someone so much that you’d rather run off in the opposite direction than have anything to do with them?

When God tells Jonah to go east to Nineveh, Jonah gets in a boat headed towards Tarshish. Nineveh is in modern-day Iraq, near Mosul. Tarshish is in Spain, on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. He’s going as far as he could possibly go in the opposite direction. But Jonah isn’t running because he’s afraid for his life. When God hurls a storm at the boat that is so terrifying that the sailors are crying out to their Gods in panic, do you know where Jonah is? He’s taking a nap.[2] The captain has to go down and wake Jonah up to ask him to pray to his God. Does Jonah pray to God to save them? No.

The sailors cast lots to see whose fault it is, and it comes up Jonah. But Jonah already knew that. He knows that God is the ruler of both land and sea. He knows that the storm is God coming after him. He just doesn’t care. He’d rather die than go to Nineveh. He suggests that they should throw him overboard. The other sailors (nice folks, by the way) are the ones who try to keep him alive. They try valiantly to row back to shore. They cry out to God to ask for help. But in the end, none of it works, and they apologetically throw Jonah into the sea. At no point does Jonah make any effort to stay alive. He’d rather die than go to Nineveh.

So they throw Jonah overboard and we all know where he ends up. The only place, apparently, that Jonah likes less than Nineveh. The belly of a fish. Only then does Jonah pray to God. Only then does Jonah make any effort on his own behalf. Death was one thing, but a fish belly was too much. And sure enough, God hears his cry, and God has the giant fish vomit him back on to dry land.

So there he is, standing on the beach covered in fish puke, and God says, almost word for word in the beginning, the same exact thing he told Jonah before all this happened. Go to Nineveh. There’s a lesson in this, if you’ll hear it. I used to hear something similar from my mother when I was a kid. When God tells you to do something, don’t make her tell you twice.

I want to tell you that this is the end of Jonah’s rebellious phase. That would wrap everything up nicely in a bow. Jonah got stuck in the belly of a fish, he repented, and from then on was a dedicated soldier of God. But that’s not what happened. Jonah’s going to go to Nineveh, and he’ll preach to the Ninevites. But, like a teenager taking out the trash, he’s not going to like it. Jonah makes no effort to get his message across. He doesn’t go halfway into the city, and he preaches 5 words. In English: “40 days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

40 days comes up pretty frequently in Bible. Some folks want to ascribe some special significance to it, the reality is not that exciting. It’s not some secret code. Forty days is just what they say in Hebrew when they mean “a really long time.”[3] In the same way that we say, “a million years ago,” when we mean a long time ago, in Hebrew they said 40 days. How did we get to a million from forty? I don’t know. Inflation, I guess. My point is that Jonah is being intentionally vague. You can imagine him walking into Nineveh with his big sandwich board like any good doomsday preacher. And it says “The End is Near” only he’s got “Near” crossed out and below it he’s written “Sometime.” Jonah walks partway into the city, mumbles a few words about doom coming a long time from now, and then takes off.

And the response is electric. The whole nation repents instantly. They all go on a fast. The king puts on sackcloth and ashes. Everyone puts on sackcloth and ashes. They round up all the cattle and put them in sackcloth and ashes. Dogs, cats, goldfish, all of them, are in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah gives the most half-hearted, shortest and least impressive sermon in history, and yet somehow, the most horrifying regime of the era has suddenly turned into a camp revival.

Is Jonah happy about this? No. He’s fuming. He goes off a ways from the city and sits down to watch and see if God’s going to have mercy on these awful Ninevites and their awful change of hearts and their awful repentance. And what does God do? God forgives them. Jonah is furious.

He says, “See? I told you this was going to happen! This is why I fled to Tarshish, “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” (Jonah 4:2). In the mind of everyone else, this is a good thing. God is abundantly merciful. But for Jonah, who hates the Ninevites, God’s mercy is just awful. He’d rather die than see them live.

The story ends with a sort of bizarre object lesson. Jonah has made himself a little spot outside the city to watch and see if God will turn them all into pillars of salt, or not. And God makes a bush grow up right next to him and give him some shade. The NRSV says bush, but we really have no idea what it is. The Hebrew word is qiqayon. It’s a hapax legomenon, which is a Greek term that means it only shows up once in the Bible, so we don’t have any good way of guessing what it means.  Some people say it’s a gourd. Some say it’s a castor oil plant. Whatever it is, this qiqayon gives Jonah some shade. And it feels nice.

And then just as quickly as God brought it up God takes it away. God sends a worm that kills it and it withers, and then God brings up a nice hot wind, and blows it on Jonah all day.

And God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the qiqayon?”

Jonah says, “Yes, I’m angry enough to die.”

And God says, “You care so much about this qiqayon, that grew in a day and was gone in a day. Can’t I care about Nineveh, the biggest city in the world?”

That’s how it ends. As you go from this place, I would encourage you to ask yourself, “What is my qiqayon?” What is the thing that I’m so stuck on that I’d rather die than let God’s will be done? And who are your Ninevites? Who would you rather die than bring God’s forgiveness to? And how might you find a way to open your heart and remove those obstacles between you and God?

We like for Bible stories to be morality plays, where its all wrapped up in a bow at the end, but that’s not the case for Jonah. At the end of the book, Jonah is still angry up on that hill by Nineveh, and as far as I know he’s still there. And Jonah’s been nothing but stubborn and disobedient, yet somehow God is still trying to convince him to come around. Isn’t if funny how that is? God has a whole city full of new converts, repenting and wanting to follow God with all their hearts. And God is still chasing down that one stubborn fellow who just won’t listen.

But there are some overarching things that are worth noticing. The first is that you cannot go anywhere that God cannot get to you. Not Tarshish, not the belly of a fish, not Nineveh. Not a hospital room, not buried in your work, not the bottom of a bottle or the depths of depression. There is nowhere you can go where God can’t get you.

The second is that God is almost certainly more merciful than you are. While this may be frustrating at times, I think it’s something we’ll be glad of in the end.

Finally is God is free. God is free to call whom God wants. God is free to drag one person halfway across the world even when they don’t want to go just to make a point. God is free to forgive whom God wants. And more than anything else, God is free to love anybody. What’s it going to take for us to get that freedom too?

[1] Plunket-Brewton, Callie “Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5,10” porkingpreacher.org, Luther Seminary. < http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1214”> Accessed Jan. 16, 2018

[2] see Jonah 1:6

[3] Moberly, R. W. L. “Preaching for a Response? Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered” Vetus Testamentum, LIII, 2. 1 January 2003, p. 159.