May 28, 2014
Some years ago, as I drove into a community, I noticed a church sign – Nineveh Christian Church. At the time, I thought it was an unfortunate name for a church. What church wants to be associated with the city of Nineveh, as God says in the book of Jonah, its wickedness has come up before me. Why would a church want to be associated with such a name?
My reaction revealed what is common when we consider the book of Jonah, and demonstrated how little I knew of the story. Even though the book is just four short chapters, two pages – we condense the story down to a few verses about Jonah being swallowed by a large fish. Many people probably aren’t aware of the events in the last chapter, which gives the city of Nineveh a good name.
This morning we begin a short series on the book of Jonah. We begin with chapter one, and because the chapter is brief, we’ll read all of it.
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:
2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.
14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”
15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.
16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
This morning, I want to use the idea of Jonah and his running as an analogy. The book of Jonah is written in very to-the-point language. The beginning verses lay it out very starkly – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah immediately sets out – in the opposite direction.
I believe we are all running from something. From what are you running?
1. Jonah ran from a call to compassion.
When God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh he is inviting Jonah to be an extension of divine compassion. To be fair to Jonah, he had at least one good reason to run the other direction. Nineveh was a city whose leaders and armies had not been kind to the people of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, under whom ancient Israel had suffered. Jonah didn’t want to deal with people whom he would have considered as enemies, and he probably felt that God should consider them enemies as well.
It’s tempting for us to believe that our friends are also God’s friends and our enemies God’s enemies. There was a good deal of tribalism among the ancient Israelites. We can find some of it throughout the Old Testament stories. They were called to be a blessing to others but they were sometimes too inward-focused to be able to demonstrate compassion to others. God was calling them outward, and they were too often content to look inward.
This brief story does not portray Jonah in a positive light. Do not mistake Jonah for any kind of hero, especially a hero of faith. He is not. The other characters in the story, compared to Jonah, are presented in a much more sympathetic manner. Even the sailors, whose lives are threatened because of Jonah’s actions, and who worship pagan gods, possess a level of compassion that is lacking in Jonah. The sailors, even after learning that Jonah is the reason they are caught up in the dangerous storm, refuse to hold a grudge against him. In fact, when Jonah instructs them to throw him into the sea they refuse to do so. Instead, they did their best to row back to land (verse 13). Even when they decided to do as Jonah asked, and threw him overboard, they did so with great reluctance and asked God for forgiveness.
Jonah was unwilling to give the people of Nineveh a chance. Regardless of God’s command that he should go and preach to the inhabitants of the city, Jonah refused to do so. Obviously, Jonah felt little or no compassion toward the people of Nineveh.
The attitude of Jonah, though manifested so many centuries ago, remains alive and well in today’s world. There are far too many people who refuse to demonstrate compassion towards others. There are too many instances where religious people, tragically, represent the attitude of Jonah, refusing to deal with people even though God gives the command to go to them.
One of the difficulties we face is that it’s hard to accept those who are different. We are a little diverse in our congregation, thankfully. Not hugely diverse, but more diverse than the typical church. We aren’t all of the same ethnicity or nationality. The churches that thrive and prosper in the coming years are the ones that reflect the growing diversity of our society. It’s not a WASPish world any longer, and as the people of God, we should represent the diversity of his creation.
2. Don’t run from the human condition.
Jonah was a religious man, one who practiced faith. And yet he demonstrates no interest in the human condition to which he has been called by God to respond.
When the sailors are struggling against the storm he is sleeping down below in the boat. Have you been out on the water when a storm hits. My mother-in-law lives on a lake in northeast Georgia. I love to be out on the water, but when a storm blows in, and you’re out on the lake, it can get to be quite frightening. Out on the main body of lake, where I like to ride her jet ski, is over 100 feet deep. It can be very scary to be in water of that depth when a storm strikes and the waves are battering the jet ski. On Thursday evening some of us attended the Operation Care Gala. Tori Murden McClure was one of the speakers. She is the president of Spalding University in Louisville and is better known for two great adventures. She is the first woman to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by rowboat and the first woman and first American to ski to the geographic South Pole. Her first attempt to row across the Atlantic was ended by a hurricane. During her second attempt she again encountered a hurricane. She had a waterproof cabin where she could wait out storms and her boat would right itself when capsized, but she faced unbelievable waves. Upon completing her journey she found that the average wave height at the hurricane eye wall was 70 – 120 feet. Can you imagine being in waves of that size? Her boat not only rolled over from side to side, but from end to end as well. It must have been terrifying.
It was terrifying when the storm hit the boat in which Jonah had sailed. The sailors suddenly get religion when the storm hits. Sometimes we criticize people for turning to God only when life gets difficult, but if they turn to God does it matter what motivated them to do so?
I was in a meeting in another community some months ago and though I don’t remember the context of the conversation I remember someone making this comment – well, we don’t want people coming to church for the wrong reason. I’m going to criticize that comment but I’ll be honest – I’ve said it as well, though I don’t know why.
When you think about it, that’s a really ridiculous comment, isn’t it? Is there a wrong reason to go to church? Take a minute and think about it. Can you come up with a wrong reason to go to church? I can’t. Even if someone is coming for what they can get out of church, don’t we all? Don’t we all have a little self-interest in us when it comes to faith? If someone wants to come to church because they are looking for something for themselves I say come on! If someone turns to God in the midst of difficulty I say good for them! Something got their attention.
As Jonah slept below deck in the boat, during the storm, it was a revelation that he had no interest in going to Nineveh to face the people who lived there. We cannot run from the human condition. We can’t say when you get your life together, when you meet this list of criteria, then we’ll embrace you.
God asks us to embrace the human condition, in all of its mixture of blessing, tragedy, brokenness, and need.
3. Don’t miss a new beginning.
Not to get ahead in this series, but Nineveh gets a new beginning. Jonah shows no evidence that he embraced a new beginning.
The beauty of God is the new beginning that is always offered.
At the Operation Care Gala, there were two speakers. One was Tori Murden McClure, as I have already mentioned. Through her message she spoke more of her failures than her successes, as she learned that we often learn much more from our failure that our successes. The other speaker was a young lady who was able, with the help of Operation Care, to turn her life around. She went to Operation Care after losing custody of her children and becoming homeless. She had no job and no transportation. She had burned a lot of bridges with her family and friends. She had a lot going against her, but she was able to turn her life around, and is a shining example of the new beginning that God can bring to our lives.
The city of Nineveh had a new beginning. Jonah, as far as we know, does not. The city of Nineveh and Jonah represent the two alternatives – those who have the level of self-awareness to realize they need help and those who do not. Nineveh becomes a success story; Jonah becomes a warning. May we embrace the change that God offers to us.