For much of the summer I am going to offer “summer reruns.” Over the years of my ministry I have rarely reused messages, but since early in the spring I have considered doing so for the summer months. Some of the messages may be from earlier in my ministry here at FCC while others may come from previous ministries. Thinking about this, I realized that a number of people in our congregation have not heard any of my messages even from just a few years ago.
I begin this morning, and will continue throughout the month of June, with a brief series of messages from the book of Jonah, which is a story that is not as familiar to us as we probably believe. We all know the part about Jonah and the fish, but the rest of the book – which is the key to the entire story – is not as well known. I remember when I realized I did not know the story of Jonah as well as I thought. In the county where I lived at the time was a small community named Nineveh, and in that community was 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, of which God says in the book of Jonah, its wickedness has come up before me. But, as Paul Harvey used to say, we often do not know, or remember, the rest of the story. There is a good deal more to the book of Jonah than simply the part about the big fish; there is, without meaning to get too far ahead of myself, the part of the story that tells of the transformation of Nineveh. The story of transformation is one that we sometimes miss. Who wants to be known, for instance, as a Scrooge? And yet, when we remember the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a very different man and is a wonderful example of compassion and generosity. We should be happy, then, to be called a Scrooge! The same is true of Nineveh. The city of Nineveh was transformed, so what better name for a community or church than that of Nineveh, which symbolizes a gathering of transformed people!
The entire book of Jonah is comprised of just four short chapters – two pages in total – and because it is so brief we will read chapter one in its entirety for our Scripture text this morning –
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.
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 runs in the opposite direction. This morning, I want to use the idea of Jonah and his running as an analogy. I believe we are all running from something. From what might you be running this morning?
- 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 in 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 a great deal. Jonah didn’t want to express compassion to people 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 it throughout many of 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.
We are meant to contrast Jonah with the others in the story, and it is an interesting contrast. 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. The sailors, whose lives are threatened because of Jonah’s actions, 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 Jonah and do not want to take any action 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 demonstrate compassion to the people of Nineveh. 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. Compassion is at the heart of our faith (I would add that if you enjoy listening to TED Talks, I would recommend Karen Armstrong’s TED Talk about compassion as a central tenet of faith. You can view it here –
https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_armstrong_makes_her_ted_prize_wish_the_charter_for_compassion). 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, and this is too often true of religious people. 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 and demonstrate compassion. Simply claiming to be religious, obviously, does not make one compassionate. In fact, I think we could all admit that we have met religious people who are not only lacking in compassion, but are downright mean!
Perhaps one of the reasons this is so is because it is so difficult for us to accept those who are different from ourselves. We live in a culture of great variety and diversity, and I believe that the churches who will thrive and prosper in the coming years are the churches that reflect the growing diversity of our society. I have a friend who tells me of the danger of creating monocultures in agriculture. A monoculture is one in which a farm produces only one or two agricultural products. According to my friend – and I believe he knows what he is talking about – a farm does much better when it is a polyculture, that is, a producer of a great many different products. The same is true, I believe, of humanity. We shouldn’t want a monoculture, as God has created the wonderful diversity that surrounds us. That diversity, however, can sometimes frighten us and cause us to be fearful and distrustful of those who are different.
- Don’t run from the human condition.
Jonah was a religious man, and yet he demonstrated 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 ever been out on water when a storm hits? It can be very frightening. When my mother-in-law lived on a lake in northeast Georgia, and we visited there, I loved to be out on the water. She had a jet ski that I loved to take out on the water, often out to the main body of the lake. I would turn it off, jump in the water, and enjoy a swim on a hot day. I have been out on that part of the lake when a storm suddenly and surprisingly swept across the water. Out on that portion of the lake, which reaches depths of over 100 feet, and where I was far from the shore, was a very scary place to be when the storm made the water rough and the waves battered that small watercraft. Several years ago, at the Operation Care Gala, Tori Murden McClure was the speaker. She is the president of Spalding University in Louisville and is 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 when the hurricane struck she faced unbelievable waves. Upon completing her journey she found that the average wave height at the hurricane eye wall was 70 – 120 feet. The center of this room is a height of 32 feet. Can you imagine being in waves of that reach to double or triple the height of this room? As the waves battered her boat it not only rolled over on its side, but from end to end as well. It must have been a terrifying experience, and one in which it would be easy to wonder if survival was possible.
It was terrifying when the storm hit the boat in which Jonah had sailed. The fear of the sailors caused them to suddenly get very religious and they began to pray. 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 some years ago, and though I don’t remember the context of the meeting’s 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 what in the world possessed me to do so and I’m sorry that I did. When you think about it, that’s a really ridiculous comment, isn’t it? Is there a wrong reason to go to church? 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 do that to some extent? 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! That is exactly where they should turn for help!
I find it amazing that Jonah could sleep through such a storm. I don’t know about you, but I need all the conditions to be just right in order to sleep. I need the room to be quiet. I need the temperature to be just right. I need a comfortable pillow. I need to be relaxed and not have any worries on my mind. But Jonah slept like a baby through a terrible storm, which was evidence of his lack of concern about others. As Jonah slept below deck it was evidence of his lack of interest in going to Nineveh to minister to the people who lived there. Jonah was running from the human condition, be we must not do so. We can’t avoid the human condition. We cannot hide 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.
- Don’t miss a new beginning.
Not to get ahead in this series, but Nineveh gets a new beginning, but Jonah shows no evidence that he embraced a new beginning. There is no evidence that Jonah ever developed a sense of compassion for the people of Ninevah.
The beauty of God is the new beginning that is always offered. At the Operation Care Gala, of which I spoke a few minutes ago, 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 did 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. Let us embrace the change that God offers to us.