Preacher: Chibuzo Petty
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-9
Date: September 4, 2022
Jonah finally appears to be getting his stuff together. If chapter one saw Jonah running away from God, and chapter two saw Jonah, at least on the surface, running back toward God, this third chapter sees Jonah finally running alongside God. He is finally obeying. Jonah is finally working next to God – working with him to achieve his righteous goals in the world. Sure, it took Jonah three chapters into a four chapter book in order to get on the right path. But, he is, at least, making progress this week. I think it’s important to recognize progress. We all fall short, daily. We all have room for improvement. But doesn’t it feel good to have someone recognize your effort? Doesn’t it feel good to have your progress positively noticed. Goodness, yes. So, even though it took basically being hit upside the head with a 2×4 in order for him to listen, Jonah finally goes to Nineveh. Let us take note…Ok, that moment of silence honoring Jonah’s seeming repentance might’ve been a bit in jest. But, you know what I mean.
Chapter 2 shows us some less than flattering problems. Jonah doesn’t confess or acknowledge his wrongdoing. Even in the midst of the dire consequences of his actions, he is unwilling to go there with God. Where he does go, however, is the making of a new plan. In chapter 1, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach a message of destruction. In chapter 2, when faced with his own personal destruction, Jonah cries out to God. But, in his prayer, he doesn’t actually say if saved that he will follow through with the task God gave him. Instead, Jonah says he will provide offerings to God. He will provide some manner of outward worship while not necessarily following God’s commands. Well, chapter 3 starts off with God reorienting Jonah back to his command from chapter 1. In fact, the wording is nearly identical. Regardless, Jonah’s plan, even if we argue it well-meaning, is trumped by God’s plan. Even with our best intentions in mind, which honestly can’t be said all the time, God’s plans are superior to our’s. They take priority. And, God rightly reminds Jonah of that in this chapter’s opening verse.
This is very important for us to recognize and to translate into our own lives. How often are we sick of the direction our life is going so we pray. We cry out to God for help. For guidance. For a new direction. But, often, we’ve made the mess we’re in. Though God is eager to help, he requires our obedience. Often, had we been obedient in the first place, our lives would have already been on track. We want supernatural solutions to our problems. We want to pray and see God just work miracles in our lives. That’d certainly be easy, right? Sure, not every time we have issues in life are they issues of our own making. We live in a world with other people. Interpersonally, others impact us often in negative ways. We live in a world with systems and on broader scales these systems frequently weigh us down or even oppress us. But, fairly regularly, our mess is our fault.
We’re out of shape and rather than commit to lifestyle changes that include altering eating habits and starting to exercise, we just ask God to supernaturally intervene. But God has already largely taught us how to be healthy. We know what to do. We’re unhappy in our marriages or other types of relationships. Rather than commit to introspection and, likewise, further behavioral change, we look to God to fix it. But God has already shown us how to live lives of character that will bless those we’re
in relationships with. Again, we already know what to do. We’re worried about churches in decline all around us. We’re especially frightened by our own. Rather than deal with tough questions that bring to light our failures as disciples, we get our feelings hurt and say “well, we just need to keep praying.” All this even though God has already revealed his expectations of us in the scriptures. He continues to reveal himself and his will in our innermost spirit if we only turn from ourselves enough to hear him. We already have the answers. The truth is, we just don’t like them. They make us uncomfortable. They take a lot of hard work. They’re counterintuitive. They’re risky. Like Jonah, we have heard God’s command and we’ve run from it – straight in the other direction. Like Jonah, we can pray. We can make outward, if shallow and pretentious, service to God. We can come up with our own plans that suit us better. But, just like he did with Jonah, God reorients us to his initial command. We must listen. We must listen.
So Jonah finally obeys. Jonah finally goes to Nineveh. He finally goes and tells. The modern implications of this are important to note as well. While God might not be calling us to go and tell of literal destruction to a neighboring nation, he does certainly call us to go and tell. We’re to tell of the overturning of corrupt society. We’re to tell of hope in the midst of a broken and hurting world. We’re to tell individuals of the Good News of reconciliation with God and each other and of victory over the devil, sin, and death. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” That’s the crux of the whole New Testament right? The woman at the well is so shaken by her encounter with Jesus that she converts her whole town. The entire book of Acts is full of story after story of a Church living out the Great Commission. Too often, we have replaced the call to go and tell for a flacid response of come and see. We expect people to just show up rather than do the work of inviting them. More scandalous still, the biblical example wouldn’t even be to invite folks to church but rather to take church to people. But we might not be ready to hear that yet.
Back to Jonah. He gives his message. Or, rather, he gives God’s message to the people of Nineveh. And, what happens? They immediately repent. Wholesale. From the top down. They get it. They hear God’s commands and are changed. We see this with the pagan sailors in chapter one who act upon God’s commands. We see this with the anthropomorphized fish in chapter two who acted upon God’s commands. We now see a national response to God’s commands by Nineveh. God speaks. They act. Lest there be any doubt how thorough this change was, the scriptures tell us everyone from the most important to the least important was in on it. From the king to the beasts of the field!
The language here is definitely peculiar. It continues this theme of the fantastical we see throughout the text. Cattle and other animals fasting and wearing sackcloths? How bizarre! We’re meant to understand how all encompassing repentance is. How deeply we’ll need to change to honor God. How profound! Not only must we give up everything that separates us from God but so, too, must all those complicit in sin. So, too, should everyone in our sphere of influence. Even down to the ox and donkey!
Having spent a great deal of time sojourning among Quakers, I’m pretty skeptical of outward shows of faith. Quakers, also called Friends, generally don’t fast because they believe it’s hypocritical to deny yourself for a time, like during Lent for instance, only to live in excess the rest of the year. We should live by ethics of simplicity and integrity all the time. Quakers historically don’t practice water baptism because many are convinced that their water baptism saves them when really only true baptism of the Spirit which leads to allegiance to God can save a person. Likewise, they historically don’t practice bread and cup communion because a sacrament can become an easy replacement for true spiritual communion between believers and between the believer and the Divine. Brethren, similarly, recognize that communion is never taken outside of a full meal in the scriptures and have patterned our Love or Agape Feasts with this in mind. Rituals can be helpful. If fasting and wearing sad clothing aid your grieving process and assist you on the way toward regeneration then go for it! Too often, though, our rituals obscure what is most important – true inward change that leads to richer outward action.
For the Ninevites, their outward displays were backed up with genuine repentance. They turned! Even Jonah struggled to repent throughout the second chapter. He made a show of his faith but didn’t show spiritual maturity. Again, we see a pagan people respond appropriately to God’s revelation just as we did in chapter one. The outsider has shown contrition. And is our example. It doesn’t do any good to pray with words if we aren’t willing to pray with our actions. It doesn’t do any good to wash another’s feet only to gossip about them the next day. It doesn’t do any good to participate in these worship services yet, either through ignorance or malice, actively work against God’s perplexing and dangerous will for the Church. We must turn. All of us.
In today’s passage, Jonah finally turns. He stops running from God and obeys. The Ninevites, when made aware of their wrongdoing and the future consequences of it, also turn. Unlike Jonah, the Ninevites are eager to turn. The Light has revealed their wickedness. They are embarrassed by it. The rotting stench that is their lives has made them gag just as the fish gagged Jonah back to dry land. They were blind. Once they saw, however, their vileness repulsed them. Sin is repulsive. Let us be repulsed! When we waste money, food, or time. Let us be repulsed. When we are quick to anger. Let us be repulsed. In the face of bigotry. Let us be repulsed. By economic exploitation. Let us be repulsed. Let us remember, too, that Jonah and the Ninevites weren’t the only ones to turn in today’s text. God also turns. Sure, we aren’t used to thinking of God in terms of repentance. If God is perfect, what does he have to repent of? But, remember, repentance doesn’t only mean that we stop doing something bad. Ultimately, it means to turn. It’s visceral. And, God does turn in this passage. God turns away from his anger. God models for us how we should turn. God is always showing us the way forward. God is our teacher. God walks alongside us. Rather than be the sage on the stage, God chooses to be our guide on the side. He is eager to walk with us! Will we walk with him? Will we really welcome God into our lives in all his damning complexities? Will we continue to run from or box him in? Or, will we take God for who God is.
YHWH or Yod He Waw He is the four letter word, often called the Tetragrammaton, used as God’s proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Moses asks God who he is, God responds with ehyeh asher ehyeh which translates to “I am that I am” or “I cause into being what I cause to be.” When translated into the third-person formula, similar to he, Ehyeh becomes Yahweh. God is that God is. Let that sink in for a moment. God is that God is! Through the Jonah story, we have seen God’s power over and over. We have seen his sovereignty. We’ve also seen his great mercy. While we are all created in God’s image. And, I believe in taking it a step further by saying, there is truly that of God within each of us. God remains remarkably different from us. He stands alone.
As I think about this, I’m reminded of a passage from Numbers 23 when another servant of God, Balaam, is given the call to go and tell. As we near the end of our sermon, I want to share this other passage with you. I hope it brings you clarity. I hope you’re in awe at the marvel that is our God. The Word of the Lord:
Rise up and listen. Hear me. God isn’t a mere human. He can’t lie. He isn’t a human being. He doesn’t flippantly change his mind as mortals do. He speaks, and then he acts. He makes a promise, and then he keeps it. He has commanded me to bless Israel. He has given them his blessing. And I can’t change it. Didn’t I warn you that I must do everything the LORD says?
As we continue to work through Jonah and the rest of the bible, let us be reminded of other biblical characters who show us how to listen – how to obey. More so, may we look to God who is our ultimate example. Let us be like Balaam. Let us be like the pagan sailors. Like the fish. Let us heed God’s Word! Let us follow God’s lead!
Be sent with these words from Psalm 20:7 (and, please, join me): “Some trust in chariots. Some trust in horses. But we trust in the Lord our God.” Go! Love God. Love neighbors. Make disciples. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen? Amen.