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Sun, Aug 05, 2018

Where is My Enemy?

“Where Is My Enemy?”

Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – 4:11 (Luke 4:16-28)

Sermon #6 in a Series: “Biblical Landscapes”: Foreign Lands

                When God called the prophet Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh, in what is now Mosul, Iraq, Jonah headed the other way. He tried to go to Spain, which was the farthest he could go in the opposite direction in the world he knew, but it still wasn’t far enough away to escape from God. As we know, his journey was thwarted by a storm at sea and a great fish (not a whale, as the story is usually told). The fish swallowed and then disgorged him so he would have a second chance to obey God’s call.

            Jonah is the Bible’s most successful yet most unwilling prophet. As a character, he’s what today we’d call an anti-hero: timid, irresolute, sulky and resentful. He is not at all like Isaiah, the eager student with his hand up, saying “Send me, Lord!” At the end of the book we see Jonah sitting under a bush and moaning about the misery of his life. He’s the shadow side of another biblical prophet who sat under a tree and wanted to die: Elijah. But Elijah was suicidally depressed because his mission had failed, while Jonah’s has succeeded beyond imagination.

            Other prophets had been cursed, run out of town, thrown in prison or worse, but all Jonah had to do was walk into Nineveh, predict its destruction, and the entire city – which was huge, the Bible tells us -- proclaimed a fast of penitence. “When God saw how they had changed from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and did not do it.”

            It is not hard to understand why Jonah would not want to go to Nineveh. Like any normal Hebrew of his time, he would have hated Nineveh and the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, which had repeatedly invaded Israel in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. The prophet Nahum described Nineveh as “a city full of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of plundered booty” from the nations it had conquered. Nineveh had a reputation for wickedness and violence.  It was not just foreign and pagan and therefore to be distrusted – it was hateful. To be told to go to Nineveh would be like one of us being told to go to an ISIS territory and preach to them.

            But the Bible is full of stories of God’s messengers being sent to “undesirable” people: Elijah gets sent to cure Naaman the Syrian general; Jesus gets sent to Samaritans and Canaanites; Paul gets sent to pagan cities throughout the Mediterranean where he is mocked, beaten or imprisoned. 

            It’s too bad we can’t read the entire book of Jonah in the time we have here, but I recommend that you do so – it won’t take you very long, and you will notice as you read that the story is populated by God-fearing non-Israelites, from the sailors, who cry out to Israel’s God to save their ship in the storm and then offer worship afterwards, to the Ninevites, who cover themselves and their livestock in sackcloth, and fast and repent at one word from Jonah. “Who knows?” they say. “God may relent and have a change of mind; God may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

            And this is exactly what is so upsetting to Jonah: the good faith of these reprehensible Ninevites, and the mercy of God toward them. Our translations say it was “displeasing” to Jonah, but the Hebrew is stronger: it was “evil in his sight, a great evil, and his anger burned.” “I knew this would happen!” Jonah says indignantly. “I knew you were a merciful God, and would let these scoundrels off the hook, and that’s why I didn’t want to go to Nineveh!”

            The precedent for God’s action toward the Ninevites is in Jeremiah: if God pronounces judgment on a nation but then it repents, then God can change the divine mind (Jer. 18:7-8). The question for Jonah was Just how far does this principle extend?  Jonah probably assumed such a mercy loophole was available only for the covenanted people of God, not foreigners, and certainly not foreigners like the Ninevites. A frequent refrain in the Hebrew scriptures is that God is merciful, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah was shocked to discover that God’s “lovingkindness” was not a unique covenantal possession of one people.  Jonah is angry at God for the very qualities God’s people have depended on: God’s steadfast love and mercy.

             The theme of God’s mercy to outsiders and foreigners just gets amplified in Jesus of Nazareth. The story of the sermon he preached in his hometown is a good example. Jesus read to the people one of their favorite Scriptures, all about how God was going to bring good news to the poor, the oppressed, the captives – they assumed he was talking about them, and their situation under the Roman occupation. But then he told them two Bible stories about God’s mercy to foreigners, a Sidonian widow and a Syrian general. That’s when the folks in the congregation lost it. They flew at Jesus like angry hornets whose nest has been disturbed and chased him out of town.

            Just as with Jonah, it’s not hard to understand why the townspeople were so upset. They were suffering unjustly under the Romans. Sure, there were widows and lepers and sick and hungry people just about everywhere, but this was a question of God conferring blessing in the appropriate places. The trouble with the Sidonian widow and the Syrian general (to be clear, the general of an enemy army) was not that they were ethnically and culturally different, it was that they were godless. They knew nothing of God’s holy commandments, nothing of the Scriptures. In the whole framework of expectation about God and humanity, they didn’t figure in. And yet, Jesus was saying, God has fit them in, and will continue, stubbornly, to do so. God fits them into the story, and in so doing, skips over some of the very people who were expecting to get preferential treatment. It’s enough to make you want to sit under a bush and die.   

            If you were here last week for our reading of Job, you may remember that Job was challenged by God to see the animals of the wilderness – even those animals usually considered fearsome and ugly – as God saw them, and so to see them as fellow creatures with him, Job. God’s questions to Job shattered Job’s narrow conception of justice. God also asks a question of Jonah meant to shatter his narrow conception of mercy: “You are concerned about the bush…[which you did not make]…Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city , in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

            The Ninevites looked like enemies to Jonah, but to God they looked like ordinary, fallible creatures to be pitied and cared for. In the end, Jonah is the one who ends up suffering. He is his own worst enemy, burning himself up in anger because God has extended mercy to some mostly helpless people and their innocent animals.

            I have learned that the Book of Jonah is traditionally read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins to each other and to God. This choice seems wise and appropriate, for this book opens the door for the broadest kind of confession: of the ways we offend God and the ways we offend each other, often in the name of God. We always stand in need of forgiveness for too little mercy, too much self-righteous judgment. 

            The people of God – Israel and the Church – exist for the sake of the people of the world. That means that no one can be considered truly foreign to us, beyond the reach of our care and concern. In Christ God comes to us to heal and transform our point of view, so that we may see, and rejoice in, the wideness of God’s mercy.  

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

August 5, 2018

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