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You Want Me to do What?

Jonah 3:1-5,10

Today we hear two very different stories call. From the gospel of Mark, we read of the call of the first disciples. John the Baptizer, a well-known prophet, is arrested by Herod for criticizing his sexual liasons. The religious and political authorities of the day are relieved. His message about God breaking through was silenced. Or so they thought!!!!

But immediately! (everything happens immediately in Mark) Jesus comes out of obscurity and take up John’s cry; “The time for God’s action is now! The time is fulfilled! God’s reign is near! Repent and believe!” This is followed immediately with the call to those fishing by the sea. “Come follow me! I will make you fish for people. God needs you”. Follow me! And immediately (There’s that word again) they follow.

OK so what do we do with that odd message? “The time is fulfilled, God’s reign is near. Repent and believe”Boring Hellfire and Damnation right? We aren’t really crazy about that word repent in modern times. Repent is a call to radical change. Repent means turning our lives around Turning away from what takes us away from God, and turning towards God’s way …acting on the good news that God is bringing transformation. It’s a call for radical change.

It’s the kind of message we are hearing south of the border. All secret black prisons closed; Guantanamo Bay closed; an end to torture; An end to cosy arrangements with politicians and lobbyists; A bias towards transparency and freedom of information; A movement towards green energy; an appeal for a whole nation to come together to solve huge problems. Now that’s repentance! That’s the announcement that the time is now, It’s urgent. and you are needed to be part of it. And there are many who are feeling called by the leader to come and fish for people rather than excessive profit!

It’s hard to hear a message demanding radical change when you are comfortable, but the world is no longer comfortable on so many levels. And the call of the disciples took place in a very uncomfortable time and place; in a backwater part of the empire. during Roman occupation. Those fishing beside the sea were getting poorer and poorer, as Rome taxed them more and more to pay for their miilitary machine and empire. These were the people who followed…and they learned and grew in the time they were with Jesus to the point where even his death could not stop his message of God’s unconditional love.

Though it is not in the text directly, my sense is that these fisherfolk, were people who had been out in the wilderness with John, getting filled with ideas of a whole new in-breaking movement of God needed in the lives of people. Once John was arrested, they were willing to put their lives on the line to keep his movement alive. Only it became the Jesus movement, and was transformed further.

The story of Jonah is also about Call, Call to Jonah which he tries to get out of in most hilarious fashion. But a call to repent as well, not just to Ninevah, but to the society for whom it was written. After the trauma of exile, some religious leaders interpreted exile as God’ punishment on an unfaithful people. And so began a time of fear-driven exclusivity and retrenchment. Judah was becoming a narrow religious theocracy. As time passed, a new fear-based response was added. Blame the outsiders- Xenophobia. The religious leaders of tiny Judah, afraid of being swallowed up yet again by the bigger nations around them, thought that the best way to protect their culture and religion was to condemn contact with people who were different from them.” And so the theme of ethnic purity became a dominant theme in postexilic Judaism. Under Ezra and Nehemiah, laws were passed making it a crime to live in Judah unless you were a full blooded Jew to the 10th generation. By Jesus’ time, these purity laws, were firmly entrenched- One part of the tradition that he challenged constantly.

Criticizing these ideas got you ridiculed, accused of being unpatriotic; or later in Jesus’ case, crucified. But long before Jesus took on these attitudes of exclusivity, two anonymous Jewish story-tellers took pen in hand to write biting protest literature. Both countered the common wisdom of the day in profound and provocative ways. One story was Jonah, and the other Ruth. Both stories hooked readers into making judgments. By the time the story unfolded, it suddenly dawned on readers that they were making those judgments against themselves.

In the story, Jonah reflects the prevailing prejudice. He doesn’t believe God could care for the people of Ninevah. They’re gentiles, warmongers. They sure aren’t the kind of people God would love. By the end of the story, readers see that there is something seriously wrong with a religious system that enabled Jonah to be more compassionate to a tree than towards a whole city of Ninevites whom he could not believe God was concerned about.

So let’s hear this story in that context. Jonah is called by God : “You have to go to the city of Ninevah and bring my word.” Ninevah was the centre of the world in those days. Ninevah and her empire made everyone nervous – particularly little Israel. Nobody outside the Assyrian empire wanted anything to do with Ninevah. But Jonah’s call is to preach repentance, turn-around; to Ninevah, that unclean, unholy place. Jonah’s response You want me to do what????

He headed in the opposite direction as fast as he could! He grabbed the first ship to Tarshish heading West. Ninevah was East.

A huge storm comes up and the sailors pitch Jonah overboard to placate the gods so they can be saved. When they do, the sea calms. But Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and spends three days in the depths of the sea. After 3 days, the fish vomits him up on land. Guess what? God’s still there. God says

“OK Jonah You’ve got to go to Ninevah.” Jonah’s only consolation when he finally accepts that God is not going to let him go anywhere but Ninevah, was to savour the fact that he was going to be able to lash out God’s judgement on those evil Ninevites who had destroyed Jewish cities. So, he rolls into Ninevah for his big revival meeting. Ninevah was so big, it took 3 days to cross we are told. A pretty big exaggeration, but not the first one we have heard in this tale. He rents the biggest arena, he puts his big black bible on the pulpit and waits for the crowd to arrive. And they’re all there, from the king to the lowliest servant. They even bring the livestock. Jonah delivers the message “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown.” No “ifs”, “buts”, “maybes” or escape clauses.

Here’s where he gets arrested right? Not in this story. Darned if the Ninevites don’t repent! They acknowledge the errors of their ways and promise to change their ways. So much for believing people can’t change! You think that’s a shock?

Well at least as disconcerting for some, God changes God’s mind. The text clearly says it…. God saw their repentance and God’s mind was changed. There are many traditional branches of theology that turn pale at such a notion. But God’s mind is changed. When God does that it tends to annoy good religious folk no end. We get into the habit of assuming God thinks like us.

So Jonah is delighted, right? After all, he preached an 8 word sermon and he changed the life of the greatest city in the world. Good job, right? Wrong! Jonah is furious. “How dare you forgive these people?” He says to God, “You’re Israel’s God. You’re supposed to stomp our enemy, not forgive them. He gets suicidally mad. “I’m so mad I could die. Why don’t you just kill me now?” Now we’re starting to think this guy is a jerk right? It seems that what we see in front of our eyes is determined by what is behind our eyes.

Jonah goes off to sulk in the desert. While sitting in the desert sun, God sends a bush to shade him. Subtle eh? Then a worm attacks the bush and it dies and Jonah is angry. God asks, “Is it OK for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah replies, “Yes, angry enough to die.” God says, “Hey if you can have that much care about a bush, don’t you think I should care about Ninevah, where there are 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Great line eh? Maybe one of the best last words in scripture.

The story gives God the last word. But imagine if the last word had fallen to Jonah. What might he have said? “Wipe ’em all out. You told me you were going to do it! You dragged me all the way out here to tell them you were going to do it! So do it!” They don’t know left from right, they don’t know right from wrong, they don’t know almighty God from a hole in the ground. They’re not like us. We don’t make deals with these kind of people, we stamp them out!
But, thankfully, God has the last word, not Jonah.

Assyria today is known as Iraq. Ninevah was very near the contemporary city of Baghdad. Assyria was as hostile to Israel then as Iraq is now. The idea of Jonah going to Ninevah was like a nobody from modern Tel Aviv going to pre-war Iraq to tell Saddam Hussein he was going to hell. More to the point – Jonah had no desire to participate in the salvation of Ninevah. If it was going to burn, let it. They deserved it.

Everyone in the story repents. Everyone but Jonah. The Ninevites repent, God repents. Even the goats and the cows repent. But not Jonah. He sulks outside the city because he cannot bear to imagine that the divine sense of justice does not coincide with his own.
Is anyone outside God’s love? The writer of Jonah suggests no…A useful reminder. The history of Christianity is dotted with occasions when we have forgotten that. It is filled with examples when we have narrowed God’s concerns to the edges of our own agenda. God of our side, our race, our culture, our politics.

The Book of Jonah written in a time of fear-driven exclusivity and retrenchment, confronts this thinking and deliberately raises the question: Who are insiders and who are outsiders? How do we feel when God seems to care for the bad guys? How do we feel when God blesses someone we do not feel deserves it? What kind of God do we worship if we think God would delight in the destruction of our enemies? And why would we believe that repentance, turning around, even of great imperialist nations is not possible?

I wonder what this story might say to the modern day treatment of Palestinians by Israel, or to the Xenophobia we have experienced in the West with our so-called war on Terror. I wonder what it might say to our despair that anything can change? I wonder what repentance would look like in our own time? If our nation, our political systems, our economy, our culture were to repent what would that mean for the earth?What would that do to the way we solve disagreements? What would that do to the way we treat people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, abilities? What would it do if Canada took its repentance and apology to aboriginal people;s seriously and lived into it in changed behaviour.

Jesus called people to follow him, down strange paths, into unexpected places. to live a costly love. Will we be open to God’s call to us, regardless of how striking and improper it may seem? Or will we join Jonah and go and buy a ticket to Tarshish? Either way, we still have to deal with God.

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