Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 22, 2012

2012.01.22 “Anywhere But Nineveh” – Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10

Central United Methodist Church

“Anywhere But Nineveh”

Pastor David L. Haley

Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10

January 22nd, 2012


          Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.” This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.

          Nineveh was a big city, very big — it took three days to walk across it.

          Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

          The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it — rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

          God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.”  – 1 Samuel 3: 1 – 5, 10, The Message

Do you find, as I find, that living in a community as diverse as ours can be challenging? Does it stretch you, as it stretches me?

Here’s an example. I was shopping at Marketplace on Oakton, one of my favorite places to shop. I love the Greek music (at least I think it’s Greek), and not only the variety of foods, but the variety of people who shop there.

One day when I was checking out, the checkout lady sneezed. I said, “Gesundheit.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a blessing in German, for when you sneeze.” I asked, “And what’s your language?”  She said, “I speak Farsi and Turkish.”

“Farsi,” I thought; “I don’t even know where Farsi is spoken.” When I got home I looked it up, and learned that Farsi is the most widely spoken Persian language in the Middle East, and is spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.  So the next time I saw her, I continued the guessing game: “So you speak Turkish and Farsi? Are you from northern Iraq?” She said, “No, I’m from Tehran, Iran.” “Oh,” I said, feeling completely ignorant, a failure in both geography and linguistics.

Another day, I asked another of the checkout ladies, who looked very Greek, “So, are you are Greek?”  “No,” she said, “I’m Assyrian.”  “OK,” I thought, “I give up. I know nothing.”

That’s how – in our town – we’re all continually challenged and continually learning. It’s also why our community has formed Coming Together in Skokie, to celebrate our diversity. Beginning with the Indian community in 2010, and the Filipino community in 2011, this year, we have the opportunity to learn about the Assyrian community. In a community that speaks some 90 languages, we’re just getting started.

Because there are many Assyrians in our community, you may already know more than I do. How do you celebrate a culture that is thousands of years old, but has no country to call its own? What do we make of a civilization that invented almost everything, including literature, whose descendants show up in our community and sometimes our church, but speak little English? How are we so ignorant to get their religion wrong, often thinking of them as Muslim, when Assyrians were one of the first peoples to become Christian, and have been now for 2,000 years, often paying a heavy price for it in the countries from which they have come, such as Iraq. But they are not Christian like we are Christians, so we think of them as foreign and different.

I think back painfully to last summer, to our first 8:30 worship service.  Among the 30 or so people in attendance, there was a man – a stranger – wearing a suit, which of course stood out. If I remember, he also carried a Bible, which stood out more. Afterwards, as I talked with him, he told me he was an Assyrian, and had just arrived here the week before from Iraq. He stressed that he worked with our troops during the war as a translator, and said that now that they were here, he and his family were quite anxious about how they were going to make it. I failed to get contact information, thinking I would see him again. I did not. But I have thought about him – and the others like him – often since.

I also thought about that man and others like him this week when I read today’s Old Testament story, the story of Jonah, whom God called to go to Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. (Hey, I know those people, they live in my neighborhood!) What Jonah learned is what we need to learn: that God’s love for others – including those who are different, outsiders, or even our enemies – is at least as great as God’s love for us. The only difference is, now God is not calling Jonah to reach out to them, God is calling us.

That is the theme of these Sundays in Epiphany, God’s call to us.  Last Sunday, we heard how God called young Samuel, but also a modern day prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. This week, we hear of Jesus calling disciples, but also of God calling Jonah. People are being called all over the place. It’s only a matter of time before God’s calls us, if God hasn’t already.

When God calls, it’s useful to note that we have before us today, two models of response.  One is the IMMEDIATE response, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, who left their boats and followed Jesus, without even asking questions. If you have always felt – as I have always felt – that they responded too quickly, then you may be more interested in the model of response offered by Jonah, which was to buy a ticket in the OPPOSITE direction.

More reluctant than Amos, more fearful than Jeremiah, less confident than Hosea or Isaiah, Jonah comes to us as one of the sourest and yet most successful of Old Testament prophets.  While other prophets preach on Israelite soil, proclaiming God’s word to God’s people, Jonah is called to be a foreign missionary, to declare God’s word to a strange people in a foreign land.

Yet Jonah’s problem wasn’t that they were strange people in a foreign land; it’s that they were Assyrians.  Jonah would have been happy to preach hellfire and damnation, because frankly, they deserved it. In Jonah’s opinion, reflecting that of his contemporaries, they were a horrible people with nasty habits. “Face off” in Assyria did not mean a hockey game. They were Israel’s longtime enemy, and therefore God’s enemy, right? After all, the Assyrians had humiliated and crushed the Israelites, stripped them of their culture and land. Surely God could not love them, and would never forgive them for what they had done. So when God says: “Go west to Nineveh.” Jonah says, “Nineveh; anywhere but Nineveh” and Jonah went east to Tarshish.

If you know anything about the Bible, you know what happens next, how Jonah managed to be such a blessing to the crew that they threw him overboard, into a whale of a problem. He did have a profound religious experience, and sings a wonderful Psalm in Jonah, chapter 2, but somehow doing so in the belly of a fish would tend to detract from the experience. Jonah was so bad, even the fish spit him out. It gets even more unbelievable from here: as someone once noted, that for which Jonah is best known, being swallowed by a whale, may be the most believable part of the story.

You can run from God, but you cannot hide. And so: “God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.” Why did God call Jonah a second time? Because he disobeyed the first time. God is persistent! “This time Jonah started straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.”  At least he is educable; no prophet left behind!

The truth is, we’ve all had days like that. You believe God is calling you to do something, you’d just as soon not, but the Voice is persistent, relentless, and you give it a try. For example, once I decided I was not going to give out money to the homeless who asked. So the next guy who asked, I offered to take into a restaurant and buy him a sandwich. He accepted, and we were talking and eating, when suddenly he threw down his sandwich and ran out the door. “Was it something I said?”  I count it as a learning experience, just as Jonah did the fish, I hope.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, he’d obviously spent a lot of time on his sermon. It consists of 4 words in Hebrew, 7 or 8 in English, depending upon what version you read. His delivery must have had all the enthusiasm of Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons’: “Forty days more . . . and Nineveh . . . shall be . . . overthrown.”  It had to be the most boring sermon in history, with the possible exception of a few I’ve preached. “Hey, thought Jonah, “let’s not go overboard, “because after all, I’ve done that.”

What happened next surprised everybody.  Sometimes it’s not the messenger or the Message, it’s God. So despite Jonah’s lack of enthusiasm or eloquence, it worked. Everybody in Nineveh repented, from the king all the way down to the cattle, maybe even the dogs and cats. So successful was Jonah’s mission that even God repented, and decided to spare the city from invasion

If you don’t see what’s coming next, you haven’t been paying attention. On learning how God changed his mind, Jonah was furious. He lost his temper and yelled at God, “God! I knew it — I knew this was going to happen! When you kept saying “that GREAT city”, I wondered if you didn’t have a soft spot for the Assyrians. I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!” Jonah may be the only prophet in history to turn a hymn to God into a song of complaint.  Forgiveness, after all, is a great thing, until we have to extend it to others.

The author Leonard Sweet has observed that Jonah is stuck in Schadenfreude; you know that word? It means “malicious joy at another misfortune.” Jonah drips with it. Unfortunately, sometimes we do too.

Jonah is the patron saint of anyone who secretly smiles when the prom queen shows up at the 25th reunion with 60 extra pounds and her third husband. Jonah is the soul mate of the employee who feels delicious pleasure when the mean boss is sacked with 15 minutes to clear his desk. Jonah is the poster child of all who appreciate reading in the newspaper about the “family values” politician photographed in a hot tub with “a woman not his wife.” Jonah is the precusor of those who find anything to rejoice about when bombs and missiles begin to fall, because that means peaceful means have either failed or not been tried, and innocent people are sure to suffer and die.

Jonah reminds us that even in the community of faith – perhaps especially in the community of faith – we confuse what we hate with what God hates, and forget that what we may hate, God loves, more than we can even imagine. According to Jonah’s story and Jesus’ story, God loves even our enemies, an excruciating thought for those of us like Jonah, who delight in the notion that God detests the people, the ideas, and organizations that we detest.

Jonah reminds us that “wickedness” springs not from the fact that you are not like me, or that they are not like us; wickedness ensues when people are not like God, whether those people happen to be Assyrians, Afghans, Democrats, Republicans, Muslims or Methodists. Jonah reminds us that God’s plan is that everyone should turn from wickedness, toward the only God who can free us from a whale of a problem; the only God who can transform an entire city; the only God who can do the hardest thing of all: melt hateful hearts.

There’s more to Jonah, but we don’t have time; because we’ve got work to do. Because, like Jonah, now God’s calling us. To reach out to those who are different, who are outsiders, even our enemies. Unlike Jonah, we may not have to go to them, because they have come to us, to our church and to our community.

The first event in this year’s Coming Together in Skokie will be next Sunday afternoon at Niles West High School, starting with an exhibition of Assyrian art at 2:30 pm and a cultural celebration at 3:15.  If you get the chance, ask them this: Where are you from? What language do you speak?  Ever hear of a guy named Jonah?


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