Think for a moment about what you think the role of a prophet should be. You no doubt thought that it might mean to speak a word that feels directed by God as a message. Often such a word is a call for change, radical change. It is often unsettling although sometimes a prophet is called upon to speak words of comfort to God’s people as well. In both the Introduction and this reflection I’ve been helped greatly by a commentary written by Professor Roger Nam, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Chandler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta…a city that has featured large in the news this week as the US election ballots have been counted and it seems will be re-counted in Georgia if not elsewhere.
Professor Nam suggests that Jonah seems to be one of the strangest prophets in the Biblical story. He is reluctant to announce what God has told him to announce and that, generally speaking, is the role of a prophet. Not only is he reluctant but he runs away from both his task and his God. Why was he so afraid to go to Nineveh?? In his commentary Nam suggests that to understand Jonah we should go to the British Museum in London and look at the wall reliefs to be found there depicting the Assyrians impaling the Judeans and even worse stacking their decapitated heads as well. The battle on these reliefs was incredibly one sided and incredibly brutal. The reliefs were actually recovered from a palace in Nineveh so they are something like war sketches from Jonah’s time. I have seen those reliefs and they are pretty gruesome by any standard. Who indeed then would want to go Nineveh—the likely outcome would be death, a painful death leading to having one’s head cut off? Our readings from Jonah are the “adult” version of the story we tell our kids.
The kids’ version of the story is all about Jonah. The adult version is all about God. It is tempting to put ourselves in Jonah’s place and to wonder what we would do if God asked us to go to some place that likely promised a terrible and painful death. We ask ourselves if we could do that. The temptation then is to focus on Jonah and would we be like him, afraid to do God’s calling, or would we be better than Jonah, braver, more trusting, more faithful? I suspect that is a road best left to others. For there is something to be found in both parts of our reading for today that is so much more than Jonah’s struggle and that is, God’s mercy. We see God’s mercy for the sailors whose lives are saved. God’s mercy for the Assyrians of Nineveh whose entire city is saved. God’s mercy for Jonah himself, whose life and faith are saved. Everything that happens in the story is intended to have us recognize God’s mercy. So the story is not so much about Jonah in the belly of the fish as it is about God showing mercy time and time again—even to the most vile of warriors and empires such as represented by the citizens of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire.
Nam suggests that the book of Jonah teaches us three things about God: “God calls us to surprising, even ridiculous things.” “God journeys with us, even in our stubborn rebellion.” And, “God’s love is extraordinary.” Jonah must have wondered if he had heard God correctly. Why would God, who had entered into a covenant with the people of Israel, send Jonah, one of their spiritual leaders, on a task that would lead to certain death? I doubt when Jonah woke up that morning and thought to himself ‘I wonder what God has planned for me today?’ that he would have imagined that he was to go to Nineveh! If nothing else Jonah must have felt just a little confused about the task God had given him. Yet that happens to us all the time. We often find ourselves in a situation or a place that comes to us as a surprise and we make a decision to either stay and figure out what to do next, or to flee in order to avoid that surprise because it scares us to death.
Jonah found that fleeing was a bad choice in part because fleeing was impossible but also because ours is a God that journeys with us. Jonah forgot that God was part of the journey and, fearing that he was alone and that every success depended on his success alone, Jonah fled. Clearly Jonah was not alone. The sailors were not alone. God was with Jonah even when Jonah was too frightened to remember or recognize God’s presence with him. Our United Church creed opens with the line: “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.” Three days in the belly of a fish might be a pretty light burden compared to some of the burdens some of you have been asked to bear. God journeys with you, always.
Eventually, with God’s help, Jonah found the nerve to go to Nineveh. His words of warning, given him by God, were heard and the people changed their ways. They repented of how they had lived their lives and now lived under a new order where they would live for life rather than for death. God gave these most despicable people a second chance. In fact they were treated in the same way that God had treated Jonah. Jonah was close to perishing and the Assyrians way of living was going to bring about their downfall…but both Jonah and the people of Nineveh turned to God. This compassionate God surprised all of us by forgiving Jonah and forgiving the people of Nineveh. Compassion is the nature of God and that is why we know God as a God of love and mercy.
We gather today to remember the terrible wars known as The Great War and World War II. Canada has been present in numerous other battles in faraway places in recent decades as well. Some of those battles have happened while on peace keeping missions such as in Cyprus while others have occurred in battle zones found in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syrian. No one can fully understand what motivates an individual to respond to a call to service in battle, whether on the front lines or in the zones where intelligence is gathered, people are trained and wounded bodies are healed. Nevertheless people have responded and continue to respond even today. We recognized earlier in our own congregation 5 people who served in five quite different capacities. The call to arms has generally been in response to a perceived threat not necessarily to us but to our shared values, historic relationships, and an unrelenting sense of what is fair and not fair within the community of nations.
Building a society which might honour the lives of those who fought and died, a society which lives for others over self, was both the greatest battle and the greatest victory at the end of each war. To do less would have meant that they died in vain. So we remember the battles, of course we do, but we remember as well the peace and the challenges that continue to part of our community and nation as we live as benefactors of that peace. Battles past and peace present.
Our neighbours, families and friends in the United States have just been through an election that many would describe as a battle between two sides that seem to hate one another. As with the Assyrians and Hebrew people, as with those who find themselves at war in any form and over any cause, the battles can be brutal and victory is hard won, often at significant cost to the fabric of society. The most difficult task is always preserving the peace and that takes a willingness to repent. Repentance begins by being willing to hear the other sides’ words and taking them to heart. The battle is well and truly lost if we fail to communicate meaningfully after the battles with one another over issues that separate and divide us. It can be a daunting task and some rush to run away or find new ways to defeat the peace. We see that in many parts of central and Eastern Europe today. We see it in our own political divisions and take-no-prisoners battles.
Somehow God in God’s mercy found in Jonah the one person necessary to win the battle. Somehow God in God’s mercy found enough compassion to forgive and accept the people of Nineveh. Where there had been opposition between these two peoples God offers each of them an equal portion of God’s love. Nam notes they are both loved by God, both are created in the image of God, and each have a rightful longing of fellowship with the Creator. So too those who were once bitter foes now share with us in caring for refugees, for world trade, for the global environment and in support of the agencies of the United Nations. It is hard for our children to believe, let alone understand, the reason why the world suffered through two great wars. Perhaps that is proof that we have succeeded in building the peace—our children can live with one another without fear and without rancour. They feel free to travel, to exchange ideas, to sing, to laugh and to protest racial and social injustices and that is a sign that we won the peace and despite it all continue to live under God’s compassionate, loving, mercy.