Sunday, January 25, 2009
Not What We Would Have Chosen
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, Mark 1: 14-20
It's not what he would have chosen. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is a faithful fearer of God. He gets his chance to serve God in the way that most fearers of God would love to--by going to a place, and being a prophet, and communicating God's displeasure about them to them, and calling them to repentance.
Except he has this problem. The people he is sent to are not believers like him, they are the people of Nineveh, a foreign land and a once and future enemy of Israel.
One could say that Jonah has little hope of his message being heard and obeyed, and, because these are people who are pagans, enemies, this might very well be a suicide run for Jonah. Add to that the feeling Jonah has that these Ninevites are probably less than human anyway, because they are not like him.
So, thinking that God has lost his marbles, Jonah decides to go hide until God regains his focus. He heads for Tarshish.
Now, Tarshish isn't a clear reference on a map--I'd heard that there used to be a town named Tarshish somewhere on the Spanish coast, but the commentaries actually clam that there is no clear destination. There are cities in Greece and northern Africa that have names that can be interpreted as Tarshish, including the Apostle Paul's hometown of Tarsus in southern Turkey. The term Tarshish can also mean anyplace that is far away, the way we sometimes use the city name of Timbuktu. What is true is that all possible geographical destinations that could be Tarshish are northwest, or west of where we assume Jonah is, and Nineveh, where God is sending him, is east, on the Tigris river, in what is now Northern Iraq.
So, off he goes in a ship, headed the opposite direction from where God wants him to go.
The story says that God sends a storm, and as soon as the sailors of the ship take up Jonah's offer to jump out, the sea calms, and a big fish comes and eats Jonah.
Three days, Jonah stays inside the fish, and figures out in the time of quiet and meditation in a nice warm dark place that God probably does mean what he says, and that God isn't going to steer him wrong.
The fish comes close to shore, and "spits" (read as "barfs") Jonah out, and Jonah heads for Nineveh.
He arrives in the icky, pagan city of Nineveh, and begins his work. "Forty Days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!" Well, The Ninevites see this unwashed Israelite, who is all crusty and slimy from being inside a really big fish, talking about the fact that Nineveh will take another beating at the hands of this Yahweh, this Israelite God, and they pay attention. Everyone puts on sackcloth and ashes, from the king down the slaves, even the donkeys, and assume the posture of penitence.
Nineveh is saved, and Jonah was disappointed. He'd left the town, and gone away to watch the destruction of Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah style, and when it doesn't happen, he's disappointed.
So, at the beginning of chapter 4, here's Jonah saying "God, I knew you were merciful and gracious, and I knew you would keep your word with these people. That's why I ran away, because I don't like the people, and I don't want them to be saved". He goes and sulks, and while he's there, sulking, God grows a great big leafy plant that shades Jonah, which he likes. But God kills it, so that Jonah is in the sun all the next day (this is the granddaddy of all sulks, apparently, because it takes two days).
"You are unhappy about the bush, God says, which you didn't plant, didn't water, and didn't grow. I gave it to you freely. But you're angry about it's going away. Shouldn't I be full of care about Nineveh, 120,000 people, which I am also responsible for, did create, and do care for, just like I care for you?
Jonah wishes that they would have received God's grace after a little more pain, perhaps some blood, and certainly a lot of resistance. Grace was offered, grace was received, and it just seemed too easy. It's not what Jonah would have chosen.
Here's another story; Jesus is walking down the beach. He stops, looks at some fishermen and goes up and talks to a few. They drop their nets and follow him.
This is the beginning of the Christian movement in the world. It seems that more care should have been taken. Interviews should have been given, psychological profiles should have been constructed. Someone might not be ready, or might fail. Someone might turn against Jesus. These just don't seem to be the right people--they don't have the right skill set. This gift of grace they are being given, to be the first to follow Jesus, and to help him, Jesus is just too free with this. Grace was offered, grace was received, and it just seemed too easy. This just isn't the way it should be done. This is not What We Would Have Chosen.
Thank God for this thing about grace. Grace is offered, grace is received, and it just seems too easy. This is not what we would choose.
Thank God that grace is something that we don't get to distribute. Thank God it is in God's hands. And thank God he is so free with it.