Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 21, 2018

2018.01.21 “Jonah: God’s Reluctant Prophet” – Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10

Central United Methodist Church
Jonah: God’s Reluctant Prophet
Pastor David L. Haley
Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10
January 21st, 2018


“Icon of the Holy Prophet Jonah cast from the belly of the beast, by Odarka Kish, 2016”


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.”  – Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10, The Message


Three weeks into January, we in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church are in appointment season, a season you probably didn’t know existed. As you also know, this year Central is in the mix; I’m thankful I at last am not, other than for appointment to retirement.

For those unfamiliar with the appointment system, our Bishop – Bishop Sally Dyck – and her cabinet work as matchmakers, to match the needs of congregations with the gifts and pastors. Once a decision is made, somewhere a phone will ring, and a pastor is offered an appointment. If they accept, they are taken by the District Superintendent to an interview with a congregation’s Staff-Parish Committee. As the three of us ordained pastors (Sylvia, Lisl, and me) can tell you, that means anxious moments on both sides, for churches and for pastors.

Eleven years ago, when I was appointed to Central, I recall those moments like yesterday. After 17 years at my previous congregation, after we moved into our new building in the fall of 2006, Bishop Jung made it clear it was time for me to move. We were offered one place, did a windshield survey, but it was clear that it would not work well for us, so we said, “No.” You realized that if we had said “Yes,” we would never have known any of you. No pressure!

We knew the next call was coming, we just didn’t know when or where. One day Michele said, “I wonder if they would offer us Central?” ‘Hmmm,” I thought, “that could work!” We hoped and prayed that when the call came, it would be James Preston, and he would offer us Central. Finally, the phone rang: it WAS James Preston, and he said, “David, I want to talk to you about Central.” That was followed by the drive up, the windshield survey, the interview, the acceptance, the appointment: the rest is history. I invite you to begin praying for your next pastor – whoever he or she may be – because very soon – if not already – their phone is going to ring.

God has always called people into ministry and service through various forms and ways, sometimes through intermediaries and technology, sometimes by calling our name. Today in the Gospels, for example, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, James and John, inviting them to leave their nets and boats behind to follow him.

But it is the Old Testament lesson I find most relevant, when long ago, God called a reluctant prophet named Jonah, to go and preach to a place and people to whom he did not want to go.

Jonah, son of Amittai, lived in the vicinity of Galilee during the 8th century B.C., when God called him to go to the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh. More reluctant than Amos, more fearful than Jeremiah, less confident than Hosea or Isaiah, Jonah comes across as one of the sourest yet most successful of Old Testament prophets. While others preach to Israelites, proclaiming God’s word to God’s people, Jonah is called to preach to foreigners, the Assyrians, his worst enemies.

The text does not elaborate whether it was Jonah’s Bishop who called, or whether they met at IHOP to discuss the terms of the offer; the only thing clear is shaking his head to say, “No!” “Thanks but no thanks, God; “Give me a five-point charge in rural west Tennessee, but don’t send me to Nineveh; anywhere but Nineveh!” It reminds me of the pastor in KY, who got appointed to the town called “Hell-for-Certain.” (Yes, there is an actual town of that name. So he wrote to his mother and said he was being sent to Hell-for-Certain.” That’s how Jonah felt.

The reason Jonah said “No” is not because the parsonage or schools were bad or because his wife worked too far away, it was because he really did not like those people, the Assyrians, of which Nineveh was the capital. In Jonah’s opinion, reflecting that of his contemporaries, they were a horrible people with nasty habits. The Assyrians had humiliated and crushed the Israelites, stripped them of their culture and land. They were Israel’s longtime enemy, and therefore God’s enemy, right? Surely God could not love them, and would never forgive them for what they had done. Sure, he would go, if he could preach hellfire and damnation, because surely, they deserved it. Sure he would go, as long as God pushed the bomb’s-away button in the end, only then would justice would be served. But – just in case – for now, when God said: “Go west to Nineveh;” Jonah bought a ticket to go east to Tarshish, in the opposite direction.

It reminds me of a story I once heard – which like the story of Jonah itself – might be true or false, history or legend. I heard about a pastor in our conference, who after a Charge Conference at which he said everything was rosy, later that night loaded everything into a truck and drove off into the sunset, until he was finally tracked down. That’s a Jonah story, and there have been times in my life and ministry where such a scenario seemed appealing, if not recommended.

If you know anything about the Bible, you know what happened next: Jonah was so miserable that even the ship’s crew finally threw him overboard, to save themselves. Which led to a profound religious experience, in the belly of a beast (or whale) by which he was swallowed. But while there he composes a Psalm, which suggests we can indeed have a spiritual experience anywhere, despite the smell. But really, it was Jonah – in his guilt-  that smelled, so bad that even the whale spit him out.

You can run from God, but you cannot hide. And so, “God says to Jonah a second time: ‘On your feet and on your way to Nineveh!” This time Jonah obeyed, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager taking out the trash.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, he obviously spends 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 one of the most boring sermons in history (with the exception of a few I’ve preached). “Maybe Jonah thought, “Let’s not go overboard, because after all, I’ve done that.”

What happened next surprises everybody, including Jonah. Despite his lack of enthusiasm or eloquence, it works. EVERYBODY in Nineveh repents, from the king down to the cows. So successful is Jonah’s preaching, even God repents, sparing the city from invasion.

Given what’s we’ve learned about Jonah, you may not be surprised at what happens next. Upon learning the city is spared, Jonah gets furious, losing his temper and yelling at God: “I knew it, I KNEW you were going to do this! When you kept saying “that GREAT city”, I wondered if you didn’t have a soft spot for the Assyrians. I KNEW you were rich in mercy, not easily angered, ready at the drop of a hat to turn plans of punishment into a program of amnesty!” Amnesty? Where have we heard that word before? (O wait, our government is shut down over it!)

Oddly enough, the thought that God is good to everybody sends Jonah into a funk, as indeed it still might to conservatives today. Jonah sits under a shade tree, which makes him feel better. Then God, who gives and takes away, who gives us not what we want but what we need, sent a worm to eat the plant, such that it withers and dies, and the sun beats down upon Jonah’s head, to the point he wishes he were dead. Once again, God speaks:

“So I take it you’re angry about the plant?”

“Mad enough to die”, says Jonah!

“Let me get this straight,” God says. “You feel sorry about a plant (which BTW you didn’t plant); but Nineveh (that GREAT city) has more than 120,000 people, (not to mention the animals), who don’t know their left hand from their right. “Jonah, shouldn’t I be concerned about them?”

The book ends without telling us what Jonah said, if anything. Did he say, “Maybe?” Or “Good point, but does that mean I have to like them?”

So, who knew? All this time we thought Jonah was a whopper of a fish tale, but who knew: 800 years before, it really a story of how God loves everybody, including our enemies. How did we miss that?

The Bible is a book, both human and divine. Human, in that it arises out of human lives and societies, sometimes projecting onto God our dislikes and prejudices, our tribalism and provincialism, in essence making God in our own image, rather than the other way around. When this happens, religion – including our own religion – can serve the baser forms of egoism, tribalism, and nationalism, as some Christianity and other religions do now.

On the other hand, the Bible also reflects an unfolding progressive revelation, and at its best moments – especially in the life and teaching of Jesus – becomes for us the Word of God: calling us to transcend egoism and tribalism and racism and nationalism; and to seek the common good of all people, because God loves us all. As Jesus put it in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’” (Matthew 5: 43-45)

Today we worry about the influenza epidemics, but I am equally concerned about the epidemic of xenophobia, nativism, and white nationalism spreading across our country. At its worst, the flu may be deadly to the body, but even at it least, hate is deadly to the soul.

At such a time as this it is useful to recall this ancient story of Jonah, called by God to preach and to save a people he didn’t like.

Reminding us that sometimes – like Jonah – we still confuse what we hate with what God hates, and forget that what we may hate, God loves, more than we can even imagine.

Reminding us 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.

Reminding us that “wickedness” springs not from the fact that you are not like me; or that your people are not like my people; but rather that none of us are like God, who loves all of us equally.

Jonah reminds us that God’s plan – even though we may not like it – is that all of us should turn from wickedness, toward the only God who can free us from a whale of a problem; toward the only God who can transform entire cities; toward the only God who can do the hardest thing of all: melt hateful human hearts, in order that we might love one another, as God loves us.

One last thing: your next Pastor? Pray they are not like Jonah!


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