Jonah is a prophet who begins by saying no to God. He is not alone in saying no to God’s call. God regularly calls to a place and a life that is not what we plan or want or expect. That is how it is with Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh. It is the last place on earth that Jonah wants to go. He will have nothing to do with a ministry there. So he says no to God and heads in the other direction, to Tarshish. Tarshish is a much more attractive destination than Nineveh. Tarshish is exotic, adventurous, a distant paradise. It is a much more promising location for ministry than Nineveh. God calls Jonah to go. He goes. But not to the place where God sends him.
For as long as there have been a people of the Bible there have been prophets, pastors, lay women and men who have seen themselves in Jonah’s decision to turn and run away from the presence of the LORD. You would imagine that a people who seek to know God, to hear God, to commune with God would be overwhelmed with energy and enthusiasm when that God breaks in upon their life with a message, a Word, a calling. But so often that calling overwhelms with fear, with challenge, with impossibility. Surely God cannot be calling me. And surely the call that we hear cannot be to go to Nineveh of all places. So, just as surely, our stories regularly begin, like Jonah’s, with a decision to turn and flee from the presence of God, to say ‘no’ to God. But this does not necessarily mean that we give up the appearance of speaking and acting on God’s behalf.
In his wonderful meditation on the book of Jonah titled “Under the Unpredictable Plant”, the pastor and writer Eugene Peterson notices that ministers and their congregations regularly choose to book passsage to Tarshish when their true destination is Nineveh. Tarshish is a destination that promises something new and wondrous for the church. It is the long dreamed of Shangri-La in which the church will finally be the people it is called to be. To head for Tarshish is to decide to take the church where we think it should go, not where God calls it to go. This is the tempting, tantalizing journey that pastors take, with their congregations along for the ride. It is the journey to a self-directed church in which we imagine that the church could and should be something more, something purer, something other than a very ordinary collection of human beings who look, for all the world, like sinners. Such a church is regularly scandalous, humiliating, troubled, difficult. It is in Nineveh, not Tarshish.
For a time Jonah is not alert to the trouble. He thinks that he has made an ending of the call of God. He goes below decks to sleep. When Jesus sleeps in the midst of the storm it is because he is confident that he can overcome the waves. When Jonah falls asleep in the storm it is because he is still ignorant that he is the cause of the trouble. But at some point he wakes up to the realization that he will not make it to Tarshish. At some point it becomes clear to him that the call of God has not ended simply because he has said ‘no’ and gone in another direction. At some point in ministry a pastor headed in the wrong direction finally faces the storm outside or the storm within and knows that a change is needed. At some point a church determined to sail to the wonders of Tarshish rather than the problems of Nineveh flounders and changes course. I don’t say this lightly. It’s the truth of my life. I know what it is to be sure of the direction that I was headed - a direction determined more by my own ego and the congregation’s desires than by the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is also the truth of this congregation’s life, revealed most clearly in the storm three decades ago when the building - the ship - had to be let go and the congregation jumped overboard into a very different future.
The new ministry does not begin immediately. Jonah is not miraculously transported to Nineveh. First he descends into the sea. It is his baptism into a new God-directed life. He is at once lost and found. He drowns to his old direction, old goals, old destination. But it is not over. The endings in the story of Jonah always open into a new future. Entombed in the sea the LORD provides a fish which swallows and inters Jonah. There Jonah sings. He sings a hymn of praise to God. It is a new song but it is not made up of new lyrics. Jonah has learned to sing by singing the psalms with the people in the Temple and on the pilgrimage. Now those hymns that he has soaked up over the years come together in a new song of thanksgiving: “I called to the LORD out of my distress and God answered me.” Jonah recognizes the trouble, calls to God for help and is rescued for a purpose. It is a three day journey from ending to new beginning, a three day journey to become re-oriented from Tarshish to Nineveh. Is it any wonder that the early church saw in Jonah a pre-figuring of the three day journey from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday (Matthew 12:38-41)? The journey to newness begins with an ending. Only then can the future that God intends open. It is true for Jonah. It is true for me. And it is true for you. There is no short-cut. When it begins the new future will be God’s doing, not Jonah’s doing, not my doing, not your doing. I am hoping that this will be the result of the conversations we will be sharing with our four neighbouring United Church congregations over the next year. I am hoping that we will not set out together on a journey to Tarshish. I am hoping that, instead, we will find ourselves thrown overboard into deep water together that puts an end to going in the wrong direction and begins a journey in God’s direction which, as it happens, is also in the direction of Nineveh.
The fish spews Jonah out onto dry land. Or, as it says in Hebrew, the fish vomits and Jonah is delivered onto the beach. Now Jonah can begin the ministry he was called to back in the beginning. Now the dream of a ministry in the dream world of Tarshish is over. Now the every day realities of calling the people of God into being in Nineveh can begin. Jonah is read once in every three years in the three year cycle of the lectionary but his calling is replayed every Sunday that we gather. It is easy to forget this about Jonah unless you have a pulpit that is constructed in the shape of a whale. It was once the fashion to build pulpits in this way in parts of Eastern Europe. There the preacher entered the interior of the whale at the base, climbed a ladder through the belly of the whale and came into the open mouth in order to deliver the sermon. This is how the call to speak God's living Word takes shape. There is a deep interior journey through trouble, through drowning, through death that God transforms into a word of promise and life. And the Word is always spoken to the lost residents of great Nineveh. Oh, they do not know that they are lost. After all, they live in the great urban centre of trade and commerce, of culture and education. But they are lost. This is the message that God has given to the prophet, given to the preacher, given to the church. It is a message of repentance. It is a message that Nineveh is not progressing but regressing. Nineveh is coming to an end. Forty days. That is how long it has. Forty days.
Biblically speaking forty is a long time. It is as long as it takes to flood the earth. It is the length of years that Israel wanders in the wilderness and the number of days that Elijah waits on the mountain and that Jesus lives in temptation. When Jonah announces the forty day expiry date on the culture of Nineveh he is not so much putting his finger on the calendar as he is announcing the inevitability of an ending that will come sooner rather than later. And he knows what to expect. He knows that the congregation of Ninevites will not be thrilled to hear this. It is the reason that he headed to Tarshish in the first place. He would rather preach sermons filled with promises and platitudes than to announce that there is trouble straight ahead. But that is no longer an option. Jonah himself has repented. Jonah himself has turned around and said ‘yes’ to God. Not willingly, true. Not without running in the other direction, agreed. But Jonah’s ministry is now bearing the fruit of his own repentance. He is now a servant of the LORD sent to bring the message of turning to a people who are otherwise running like lemmings over the cliff of a consuming self-interest. I wonder if this is the reason that the entire Book of Jonah is read every year in Jewish synagogues on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the great day of repentance for the Jewish people, the day to turn to God and to seek forgiveness for sins of the year that has passed. It is the day to abandon the journey to Tarshish and accept the call to Nineveh. But, of course, Nineveh is not a Jewish city. It is Gentile country. Like Jonah, the Jewish people have been called to be a blessing to a people who are not their people. We, like them, have been called to announce the good news of turning to those who have not heard and do not know.
But here’s the thing. To Jonah’s shock and surprise the Ninevites respond not with rejection but with gratitude. He wanders through the streets and lives of the Ninevites announcing that the cities’ days are numbered, that the cancer in its politics is malignant, and the people get it. It is as if the doctor’s warnings about too much cholesterol and too little exercise finally hit home. Jonah says that it is too late now, that the city is too far gone, that its ending is inevitable. But it is not. The people gamble their future on the chance that maybe, just maybe, God may save them yet. The king’s official proclamation says it all: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind.” Jonah announces an ending but, once again, it turns out to be an open ending. There is an opening for change, for conversion, for newness. It begins with the prophetic announcement that reveals the truth about the trouble. That is the work of the preacher and the people of God. Speaking out of their own hard journey of repentance they testify that the end of the old ways are at hand. Who knows how it happens, or why, but the Ninevites say ‘yes’? Who knows how congregations of Christians continue to gather and to tell the story and to turn their lives around? It is a wonder to me. Who knows why we find ourselves drawn to the font where we join Jonah in drowning to our old self-guided direction, spewed out on the kingdom side of the water to follow Jesus to Nineveh, the least and the last, the people we thought we were escaping?
The ways of God are strange, indeed. Jonah takes his seat east of the city and argues with God. Six times his anger with God is named. He is angry because God shows mercy. He wants to work out the mathematics of judgement. He wants to be proven right in his preaching, that there would be no second chance. He hates being a failure. First he was wrong in heading to Tarshish and a crew of sailors was saved. Now he is wrong in predicting Nineveh’s ending and an entire city is forgiven. Jonah can only see failure. Like many pastors and congregations he shakes a fist at God. He is frustrated with God. And all the while he is given shade and sustenance and life by God. Focussed as he is on himself and his reputation he takes the grace of God for granted. Until it is gone. Until a worm nibbles the roots of the plant that shades him. Until he feels what life is like when God’s grace disappears. Then he is mad, as mad as hell. Mad that his shade is gone and his life is dry. Mad that God’s justice is so damned merciful to the Ninevites. Jonah wants to have it all figured out. He wants to be the hero of the story. He is like many a pastor and congregation that I know. We want to figure out the ways of God and we are sorely tempted to want the story to be about us. But, of course, the story is not ours to figure out because the story is about God. That is why the ending of Jonah’s story is necessarily an open-ending. Jonah says 'no' to God and heads for Tarshish. He thinks the conversation is closed. But it is not. It is open. Jonah is thrown into the sea, drowned, ended. But his future remains open. Then he announces the end of Nineveh. That, too, becomes an open ending for the doomed city. Now Jonah is angry with such an open-ended God. That is why his story must inevitably end with God’s open question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” It is a question that invites and requires an ongoing answer, an answer that we live with our life here and now in Nineveh.
(a video recording of this sermon is available online at the University Hill Congregation site)