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Jonah 3:1–5, 10 | 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 | Mark 1:14–20
Although we don’t hear much about it, even in regular history classes, one of the main forces in the ancient Mediterranean world before anyone ever heard of Greeks and Romans and besides the Egyptians (well-known for their pyramids and enslaving the Israelites) were the Assyrians. (Not Syria, but in the same area, along with Iraq.) First heard of well over 4,000 years ago, we actually have a lot of information given that writing began in the area—and because the Bible records wars with them. Assyria’s dominion ebbed and flowed with the constant rise and fall of power in the area, taking over the northern kingdom of Israel (that is, Judah) before the bigger fish, Babylon, took down them AND Israel around 600 B.C. In records of their laws on tablets, it’s noted that Assyria had much harsher laws than most of the region: execution, torture and forced labor were common; rape was not punishable if the victim was of lesser social status. It was even thought to bring good fortune. They were also known for particular brutality and cruelty in war.
Maybe it’s not so hard to understand why the prophet, Jonah, ran. Who would want to GO to the capital of Assyria—that is, Nineveh? So, in Jonah 1:1, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah; “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” God finally noticed and it’s finally time for comeuppance. But—what does Jonah do?—he goes down to the coastal town of Joppa and buys passage on a boat going far far away. Of course, AS IF, he could run from God. The Lord raises an epic storm, there’s a whole lot of praying to various gods and Jonah is at least honest when the “lots” (a way of determining all things mysterious in the ANE) fall on him: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you. For I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” And over the side he goes.
I find this story particularly poignant right now: I think it’s easy to blame Jonah for his cowardice or think that WE would never not do something that God outright told us to do—or that we are SAFE from such callings and responsibilities. What we find is that Jonah isn’t so much afraid—even though he very well could be—he just knows God too well. And here’s the problem as we hear later in Jonah 4: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” What Jonah objects to, is God’s mercy… He’d prefer to see the Assyrians suffer and better yet, just have them be destroyed.
For the first time, I noticed a sense of reckoning in Jesus’ call to the fishing disciples. In this process of catching fish, Jesus invites his followers to—not a rosy new career—but to both judgement, repentance and mercy. For themselves and to be spoken—without any changes to what God says. To be caught—or to be the catcher—creates tension. Commentator who grew up in Argentina. (re: Ched Myers “binding the strong man”) Amos and Ezekiel use catching fish with hooks as a way to talk about judgement upon the rich and powerful. AND ALSO we still got problematic statements like this: Jesus says things like “love your enemies” and “do good to those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5 and Luke 6). And most of the time, we don’t have reasons that are nearly as offensive as the Assyrians. What we have is what we think is true and deplorable about people “on the other side.” Out of prejudice and fear come stories that may or may not be true.
Which is going around. Maybe some of you heard about the coffee shop in Five Points that received a call this past week with a man saying he had guns pointed at the coffee shops and was going to kill at the “n—“ and all the people of a certain political persuasion. The owner, Ryan, said he keeps things a-political in his shop, and was sharing this incident because this kind of thing happens and he wants people to know that it does. While this may be an extreme example of people who demonize others, it will thrive in an environment where attitudes and stories about the other whom we don’t like can grow and become hateful. We don’t even want God to show mercy to our “enemy”—which isn’t isn’t up to us. Mercy, I might add, doesn’t mean that change isn’t needed when behavior is violent and de-humanizing.
What’s it going take for us to lighten up and let go and experience mercy ourselves? Three days in the belly of a large fish is a start. Being remade. Being formed for the work of God. This is a death and resurrection story. Jonah 2 are these wonderful verses of lament and confession “… Out of the belly of Sheol, I cried. And you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, in the heart of the seas…. the waters closed in over me, the deep (tehom, primordial chaos) surrounded me…. yet you brought my life from the pit. O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you… Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” This is a baptismal moment.
The transformation has happened and now the Lord speaks to the fish. It spews Jonah on the land and… he gets the same task. But now he goes to do it—with what’s been described as “the world’s worst sermon”—for both content AND delivery: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The result is immediate and comprehensive: From the king to the animals. There’s no excuses, no hedging their bets that they can wriggle out of it. There’s not even a guarantee of anything in return for their repentance! All fast, put on sackcloth (again, including the animals…) In other words, in this story of irony and even humor, these pagans who know not the Lord, do what the people of Israel never do until they have not other choice- like being conquered and carried off to Babylon. They—like us—just aren’t motivated when the system is working for them. The result of the total repentance is that God does not destroy Nineveh.
Jonah is so angry! These people don’t deserve anything! He sits down outside the city and waits/ hopes for the city to be destroyed anyway. God gently makes a bush to shelter him. Which then dies—and Jonah is angry about that! The book of Jonah ends, “Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”
The good news is not “fair.” It’s not our way of counting and keeping score. It’s for “those people over there” as much as for us.Maybe the process of calling is not to take people out of a hostile world as the paradigm of God’s Kingdom, but rather to change the world so it’s not a hostile place. People of Israel would have loved to have the Assyrians (Ninevah) wiped out—actually, they were… but the message is mercy and love in the extreme. Which is what we are called to: Thanks be to God. Amen.