Sunday, January 25, 2015

A look at the Jonah story

Today’s Old Testament reading was from Jonah, a short book located between Obadiah and Micah in the “minor prophets” section of the Bible. The reading started with Chapter 3 and the words,

 “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”

So during the sermon, she mentioned the fact that the first time God called, Jonah ran.
Well, why did Jonah run? Because God was warning a nation that was an enemy of his country and would later invade and capture and de-populate the Northern Kingdom of Israel. If we put this little story into the historical context, we can see the difficulty of that particular call. And beyond that; Nineveh, in the kingdom of Assyria was just not a nice place to visit.

Why, when fleeing in the boat to Tarshish, did Jonah matter-of-factly tell the sailors to throw him overboard? Simple, he wanted to drown at sea, rather than go to an enemy and give them a warning.

Of course, in this story, God miraculously rescues Jonah by having him swallowed by a fish. 

(Try to suspend credulity to not miss the whole point of this story…please.)

Could you imagine yourself in this position? What if you knew, without a doubt that a hated enemy was going to be destroyed unless you warned them? Wouldn't that just make your life so much easier, if that enemy just “went away”? I can think of some moral-reasoning going on to absolve you from any culpability. But in this case, we get some insight to Jonah’s inner turmoil in the last chapter of this short book. Jonah hoped that even though all of Nineveh listened to his message from God and “repented”, that God would destroy the hated enemy of Israel anyway. Jonah complains to God:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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)

Now, although this is not added to the story, Jonah would eventually have to go home to the Southern Kingdom, to the Temple, after preaching a warning to a kingdom bent on the destruction of his nation. Yes, I think any of us might want to ask to die as well, rather than go home.

So then Jonah, still hoping that he will get a ring-side view of the destruction of this city, heads out of town to watch:

 “Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there.  He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush [like a bean plant] and made it come over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die rather than to live.’” (Jonah 4:5-8)

Yes, the pathetic childlike pout over the living and dying of a shade-giving plant, shows the egocentric Jonah, still more concerned with his well being than an entire city of people; yet even as we read these words, could it be that we have a bit of that same feeling in ourselves? This is beyond mere embarrassment, for Jonah is about to walk home to more harassment and turmoil; more than he has lived through so far. Can you imagine his people back home saying “You did WHAT!? You helped the Assyrians?!”

So in the end God speaks to Jonah and says,

“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

In our daily lives as Christians, do we think that God is “on our side” to make things pleasant, comfortable, and go our way all the time? This little book is a reminder that God loves those who don’t know, or even care about Him: and He cares for animals as well. And one more historical note: Biblical scholars don’t really know when this book was written, either pre or post exile (the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar), but think about this: Jonah has been a part of the Hebrew bible for thousands of years, and as such, if actually written “post exilic” it has and will always be a sign of God’s mercy and love to all human beings.

Jesus said “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3: 16-17)

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