The Rest of the Story

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                        Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                           January 21, 2018

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

 

I know it’s a busy day here for the members of the congregation,

with the annual meeting after worship

so I’m going to keep my sermon short.

 

Every year around this time,

the Sunday lectionary tells the story of Jesus calling his disciples

but we don’t hear about Jonah that much,

so I’d like to focus on him today, and tell a bit more of the story

than the parts Sarah read this morning.

It is actually a very short little book in the Bible

– four short chapters, only 48 verses long

Jonah is included among the books of the prophets,

but it’s actually more of a satire or a comical folktale

– an entertaining story with a pointed moral.

The book of Jonah starts this way:

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,

      ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and preach 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.”

 

So God told Jonah to go to Nineveh – 500 miles east – and in response,

Jonah jumps on a ship headed to Tarshish – 2000 miles west.

And then of course, the Lord sent a great storm

that threatened to swamp and sink the ship,

and Jonah realized that the storm was directed at him,

to get him to turn around,

so he told the sailors to throw him overboard.

And God commanded a great fish (some say a whale)

to swallow Jonah, in order to save him from drowning.

And after three days, the Bible says,

“The Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

 

That’s probably the part that everyone remembers from Sunday School.

But then God commanded Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh,

and this time he DID go

as the Lord commanded, much as he hated to,

and did proclaim God’s judgment against their wickedness.

 

Now in the beginning, the Lord had charged Jonah to

      “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it”

But do you know what Jonah was to preach against?

Do you know what the wickedness of Nineveh was all about?

Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire,

the dominating world power of the eighth century BC,

and according to Biblical scholars, the two main sins of Nineveh

were Assyria’s arrogance and abuse of power

in conquering and plundering the goods

of the people of poorer nations, (Isaiah 10:13)

and the cruelty of Assyria’s treatment of the people they captured.

(Nahum 3:1, 10, 19)

 

Assyria became a by-word for brutality in the ancient world.

The Assyrian Chronicles describe horrendous acts of torture

which were employed to create fear

and, thus, submission in the enemies of the empire.

It was all very well to be forgiving and merciful

when say Tarshish is involved.

But it would be quite another thing to forgive Assyria.

Justice and mercy at this point seem diametrically opposed.

 

Jonah didn’t think the people of Nineveh deserved to be spared.

But Jonah finally did go to Nineveh, and walked the streets, proclaiming

“Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

But lo and behold, the leaders and the people of Nineveh

actually heeded Jonah’s message,

and the judgment that God was calling them to,

and they repented their sins and changed their ways.

Even the king of Nineveh repented,

and called on all the citizens to do so with him.

He issued a proclamation to the whole city:

“Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth”

      and they shall cry mightily to God.

All shall turn from their evil ways

      and from the violence that is in their hands

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind;

      he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

 

(There’s an image for you – not only all the people,

but all the cattle and donkeys and sheep and goats in the land

walking around wearing sackcloth on their backs!)

Then, the Bible says,

      When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,

            God changed his mind about the calamity

                  that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Then the strange ending, which is actually the moral of the story:

After Nineveh repents and is spared, Jonah gets angry at God – “angry enough to die” he says.

In the text that Sarah read, the translation is

“But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

However, the original Hebrew reads roughly,

“This was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.”

Jonah thought the Ninevites deserved to be destroyed for their evil ways,

and they had no right to repent and be spared, and God had no right to have mercy on them.

Jonah prayed to the Lord,

“O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?

That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger

      and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

 

And that’s how the story ends. There’s no resolution.

Jonah apparently just pouts and goes away mad.

Jonah resents God’s mercy and compassion.

And God reproaches Jonah for his hard-heartedness.

“Should I not be concerned” God asks, “about Nineveh, that great city,

      in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?”

 

The prophet Jonah hated evil more than he loved good.

He preferred to condemn sinners to judgment and God’s wrath, rather than change hearts

and give witness to God’s grace and abounding love.

 

And that was – is – the pointed message of the story,

for the original hearers, and for the Christian churches, and for each of us.

Sometimes Christians are more inclined to take a perch of self-righteous judgment

and condemn what they see as the evils of today’s society and the world around them,

rather than show compassion, practice graciousness,

and give witness to God’s mercy and abounding love.

A former pastor of mine, William Sloane Coffin, once made the point this way:

“If you love the good but don’t hate evil, then you are sentimental.

But if you hate evil more than you love the good, then you have just become a good hater”.

Quoting St. Augustine, he went on to say,

“It is vain to think that your enemy can do you more harm than your own animosity.

Evil should never be fought as if it were something

totally outside oneself.”

 

So the book of Jonah is more than a whale of a tale

about a man swallowed by a big fish.

It’s a moral fable about good and evil, justice and compassion.

and God’s abundant grace.