January 21, 2024 Sermon

3 Epiphany Year B

St. Paul’s Random Lake

Jonah 3

January 21, 2024

 Running from God

Jonah 3

3The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.

Have you ever felt like God was telling you to do something and then turned tail and went in the other direction? 

I know it took a while before I was fully on board with the idea that seminary and the ministry was for me. When I graduated from college I spent a year working as a sales associate in a department store. I just wasn’t sure that I was worthy to be a pastor. But a year working in customer service got me turned around in the direction God was leading me.

In the first chapter of Jonah, God told Jonah exactly where to go and what to do. Most of us know that Jonah got swallowed by a giant fish, do we know how he ended up there?

Today’s lesson from Jonah Chapter 3 shows only Jonah’s success story. Jonah started out running away from God. God said to Jonah. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” Instead of heading to Nineveh as God commanded, Jonah found a ship headed the opposite way. What could possibly lead Jonah to blatantly disobey God?

The question is “Why wouldn’t Jonah run in the opposite direction? Assyria, represented here by its capitol city, Niveveh has been a thorn in Israel’s side, ransacking the northern kingdom and overthrowing it, followed soon by the complete devastation by Babylon who overtook Assyria. There is no reason to go to the “great city” to announce a “great” opportunity to repent. As their nearest enemy, their invasion ended Israel’s existence as a nation-state (1 Kings 17).” As far as Jonah was concerned, the Ninevites deserved whatever punishment they got.

Later in Jonah Chapter 4, Jonah was angry with God for being too kind and forgiving: “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 and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.” Jonah was not happy that God had chosen to give the evil Ninevites a chance to repent, but he knew that God was the kind of God who would do exactly that. Jonah himself judged that the Ninevites were far from deserving which is a very human thing to do. We tend to decide who we think is worthy of mercy and grace—and our human opinion is always, always much narrower than God’s. After all, as Jesus tells Nicodemus: “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.”

God is abundant in mercy and continually seeks to reach out to those who need him the most. Even Jonah. You may be surprised to hear, but the big fish which you may have thought was a punishment was truly intended as Jonah’s salvation.

When Jonah was fleeing from God he took a ship toward Tarshish. To get his attention, God sent a mighty storm that threatened to break up the ship. All of the sailors were afraid and prayed to their gods. Eventually, they discovered that Jonah was at fault. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship[b] back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.”

It was the fish that saved Jonah from drowning.

The whole of Chapter 2 is a prayer of thanksgiving Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish before he was vomited back on the land. Jonah was grateful that God gave him a second chance, but still didn’t want Nineveh to get the opportunity to repent.

But by the end of the story, jonah is ready to stop running from God and do what God calls him to do.  Jonah is likely the most successful prophet in the history of the world. He cried out: “40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And immediately the whole of the town repented. “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Now, you’d think Jonah would be delighted about his accomplishment, but instead, he is inconsolably sad and angry, even suicidal. Jonah just knew that the Ninevites would jump at the chance to be forgiven and Jonah did not want God to give them another chance. Saying to God. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  

God cares for Jonah and God cares for Nineveh—all 120,000 people who “don’t know their right from their left” and even the animals. Think of those people who one might judge or condemn as undeserving of compassion, those at the borderlands, or homeless in our own streets—God cares for you, even when you run in the other direction and calls you back and God cares for the least of these thousands, millions wherever they may be. AMEN.