Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The rhetoric of our time seems increasingly to be of the sort that made Jonah so certain of the proper judgment for Nineveh. It is the rhetoric of polarization, vilification, and even hatred.
Israel's most passionate desire in the days that Jonah was written was that God's wrath should destroy Israel's troublesome enemies. Put on the back burner was the missionary zeal that Israel was God's servant through whom redemptive truth would one day reach everyone. It is in this context that Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the capital of the hated Assyrian Empire.
We are again living in an era which betrays an upswing in language and attitude that would seek to make of superfluous differences among people the bases for prejudice, fear, and hatred. Meaningless differences for the mercy of God.such as religion, race, nationality, politics, and even occupation are made into reasons for withholding mercy and love.
Neither the positive examples from history.such as Joseph, Isaiah, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.—nor the negative examples—such as Jonah, Joseph McCarthy, Hitler—are sufficient to make the point of God's boundless love and mercy for humankind. We are pathetically incapable of seeing in all others the same need for God's love and mercy that we sense in ourselves. Or perhaps it's that we can't see in ourselves as great a need as we see in others. Either perspective results in the same thing: the drawing of distinctions where God sees none.
A lot of you probably think Jonah is the story of a man and a whale. That's not actually true.
Jonah is a story about the joy of hatred. Jonah is a story about the exhilarating feeling you get when you discover someone who is morally more reprehensible that you are. Jonah discovered that joy, and Jonah's basic thing was hating Ninevites. Ninevites lived far away from him, and he'd never met any of them. But he had a lot of data about them.Now hating Ninevites wasn't like hating Jews, Catholics, black people, etc. Hating Ninevites was like hating people who chew with their mouths open, those who like the "Twilight" movies, whiners, or terrorists. It was a rational, well-researched hatred based on the actual behavior of the hatees. Jonah had a lot of data on Ninevites, and he was building a career on them. He had just written a cover story for "Mother Jones" about the relationship of Ninevites, al-Qaeda, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). He was hitting the junior college circuit with a speech about Ninevites, and he was hoping to make the Ivy League soon.
So he wasn't surprised when one day God came to him to talk about the Ninevites. He had never spoken to God before, and he wasn't really a God kind of guy. But he figured God knew who the expert was, right?
So God came to Jonah, and said, "Jonah, I'm going to destroy all the Ninevites."
And Jonah said, "Wow, you must have read my article."
And God said, "Before I destroy them I want to warn them. It seems only fair. Since you know so much about them, I want you to go to Nineveh and tell them I'm going to destroy them, so that they'll have a chance to change their ways and save themselves."
And Jonah said, "You've got to be kidding. No way. I don't want to go anywhere near there. They're creepy people. And besides that, what if they change?"
So Jonah took off. He took a boat to the most distant point available, thinking he would skip town and ditch God. He didn't seem to realize that he was dealing with an omnipresent God.
God followed him in the boat and started a very large storm. As you might guess, the captain of the boat was extremely upset about the storm. He was an experienced captain who knew a theological storm when he saw one. So he said, "Someone on this boat is not on speaking terms with God. Let's draw lots and see who."
Jonah said, "Ah, we don't need to do that. I'm the one. I'll jump overboard because it seems like the only way that I'm going to win."
Now it turned out that God knew that the only way to overcome hatred is with brute force. And God doesn't give up easily. So when Jonah jumped over the side of the boat, God had a whale there to catch him. Jonah landed in the whale, and Jonah stayed in that whale with the rotting fish and the whale's digestive juices for three days and three nights. (Jonah, you see, being a stubborn man of principle, took seventy-two hours of such stench to get him to change his mind.)
Finally, Jonah gave in and said, "Okay, God, I give up. I'll go to Nineveh."
So the whale spit him up on shore near Nineveh, and he headed for the world capital of badness.
Now, when he got to Nineveh, he was pleased to see that everything that he'd ever thought about Nineveh was true. I mean they were right there on the streets using sweat-shop labor to make weapons for terrorists and methamphetamines. He was naturally appalled. So he got into his street-beggar mode, and he started saying things in a way that not very many people would hear him.
He shuffled down the street, leaned against the walls, and muttered, "Repent, repent. In forty days you will be destroyed if you don't repent."
You had to be walking right by him to hear him. But the very first person to walk by him happened to be bored with his job as a drug dealer. He said, "Wow, you're right. This is really awful. Let's all repent."
And that guy started yelling Jonah's message. It turned out that a lot of people were bored with their jobs. They went to the president of the country and said, "We've been gross and awful, and we're going to repent, and you have to, too."
They put on sackcloth and ashes. They replaced their dirty coal power plant wih solar power. They all planted organic gardens.
And Jonah was really really ticked off.
In fact, he was furious. So he said, "Okay, God. Are you gonna be conned by these hypocrites? Do you think that just because they're behaving differently, they're better?"
And God said, "'Fraid so. Behavior counts. You lose."
So Jonah stomped off to a hill outside of town and sat under a tree, praying for the Ninevites to show their true nature and for God to fry them alive. And all that happened was that God destroyed the tree Jonah was sitting under so that he got a sunburn.
Jonah said, "God, how come you destroyed this tree? This tree never did nothing." Then he did a ten-minute riff about the tree and how trees are important and you can't just destroy them for no reason.
And God said, "How come, Jonah, how come? Wherefore why is it that you care so much about that tree, when you have no pity at all for Nineveh? That city has a whole lot of folks in it, and some children and animals; and you wanted me to kill them all. How come you didn't care about them?"
And that's the end of the book in the bible. You're left there with the question. You never know what Jonah said. And you find out the question is for you. What are you going to do?
Can you live without hatred? (adapted from Anne Herbert, "The Other Side," 5/79)
Can we live without hatred? Is the joy of hatred too great to give up?
In the story, the joy in Nineveh at being saved is muted by the obstinate resistance of Jonah. He can't enter into that joy because of the joy of his own hate. After all, God accepted people who, in Jonah's estimation, should not be embraced in any way whatsoever.
In that dark mood, Jonah is not alone. It is one of the fundamental problems humans have with God—not that God is cruel or vengeful, but that God is gracious. It isn't so much God.s treatment of us that grates, but God's generosity toward others.
Who among us has not felt that we keep better records on human behavior that God does? Who among us hasn't been offended by a gracious God who pays full wage to one-hour workers, who is kind to the ungrateful and selfish, who sends sun and rain on the just and the unjust, and who gives parties for prodigals? God's offer destroys our sense of righteousness, but fulfills God's own.
The lesson that Jonah and we need to learn is as basic as the Gospel. God's love is a universal love. God's love is as certain for the people of Nineveh as it is for the people of Jerusalem. God is no respecter of nations or races or even religions. God only loves people, and God is not interested in all of the labels that we apply.or professions, or philosophies. God is only interested in people. "God so loved the world..." John 3:16 doesn't say God so loved North America or Lutherans or capitalists. God so loved the world. All of it. And everyone in it.
The story of Jonah is a great one to recall when we feel ourselves getting self-righteous or feeling better than someone else or starting to bear a grudge. Jonah helps us to remember that there is no joy and no holiness in hatred—and that there is no place we can run to escape the all-encompassing love of God. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, unto eternal life. Amen.