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JONAH 3:1-5,10; MARK 1:14-20
Why did Jonah run? When God called, Jonah ran away and ended up down in the mouth of a whale. Why did Jonah run? We heard last week how the boy Samuel heard God calling him. Samuel responded by following Eli's instruction to answer, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus called fishermen, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Immediately Simon, Andrew, James and John left their nets and followed Jesus. But, when the call of God came to Jonah, Jonah ran.
The book of Jonah is a parable. The author lived in Jerusalem after the Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon, which today is known as Iraq. This was a time when the Jews were in great fear of being absorbed by the neighboring cultures. They had resisted being swallowed up by Babylon. They were very concerned about preserving their identity, their traditions and beliefs. And so they began to make laws prohibiting intermarriage, and even limited social contacts with foreigners. They forgot that God was the God of the world, and began to think of God as their private possession.
The author of Jonah, opposed to the trend of isolationism, opposed to the introverting of their religion, wrote the delightful story of Jonah. God called Jonah to, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the ancient enemy of Israel. And, no way would Jonah go to Nineveh.
Jonah ran. He hopped board a ship headed in the opposite direction to Tarshish. The Lord sent a terrible storm. The wind blew. The ship rolled. The sailors, in fear for their very lives, and anxious to appease the wrath of the gods, threw lots to find who was responsible for this calamity. The throw of the dice picked out Jonah as the culprit. To Jonah's credit, he told them to throw him into the sea. The sailors tried desperately to control the ship, but finally, reluctantly, threw Jonah overboard, where he was swallowed by a huge fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed a very popular prayer. "Lord, if you get me out of this predicament, I'll do anything you say." The Lord heard Jonah, and took him at his word. The fish threw Jonah up on dray land. He was saved.
So, Jonah, keeping his promise, went to Nineveh and preached, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" To Jonah's surprise the people of Nineveh heard him, believed him, and acted. They actually listened to his sermon, and did what he told them to do! Unbelievable! They repented of their wickedness. The King made a proclamation that the populace should wear sackcloth and fast. When God saw how the people repented, God changed his mind about the judgment, and Nineveh was saved.
Was Jonah thrilled about the effectiveness of his reluctant message? No way! Jonah ran again. This time he ran emotionally. He withdrew into himself. Jonah went outside the city, sat on a hillside to watch the city get the judgment it deserved, but it didn't come. Jonah sulked, unleashed his anger to the Lord, and told the Lord to take his life.
Why did Jonah run? Jonah told the Lord his reason. (4:2) "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."
In other words, Jonah ran because he disagreed with God's super goal. (This is Super Goal Sunday!) Jonah ran from God's loves. Jonah ran because God forgives, because God loves even the enemies, because God loves even the Ninevites. God even loves the Iraquis. And, God most certainly loves the Arab Americans who are being harassed and terrorized here in our own county and Bay Area. God's love was too much for Jonah to handle. Jonah was unwilling to forgive Nineveh. Assyria had conquered Israel. The Ninevites had sacked Israel's cities, and massacred women and children. No way would Jonah forgive Nineveh! Jonah ran because he could not handle the love of God.
Jonah ran because he was more righteous, more just than God. It wasn't fair, according to Jonah's standard of justice, for Nineveh, the wicked city to be forgiven. Israel had attempted to follow God's laws. Jonah, from his birth, had obeyed the law, performed sacrifices, prayed to God, while Nineveh had "fun" reveling in wickedness, and victory in destroying their enemies. Now, Nineveh was going to be treated the same as Israel. It's not fair, cried Jonah.
Can you see God shaking his head in sorrow? Oh, Jonah, don't you see that justice in itself can be evil. Justice without being tempered by love and mercy can defeat its own purpose. When I returned home from my three-year missionary term in Japan, my parents, sister, and fiance by the name of Ellie came from Minnesota to Seattle to meet me. As we were in Washington, we decided to drive north to Bellingham, and there my father was introduced to his elder brother whom he had never seen. When my grandfather's first wife died, and he proposed to marry again, his eldest son was very indignant because this new woman would get the inheritance, and he would get nothing. It's not fair, it's not just, he cried! In his anger he ran like Jonah; he ran about as far away from Minnesota as he could get; he ran all the way to the west coast, until he was stopped by the ocean.
My father was the son of the new marriage. He had never seen his elder brother because the brother never returned to Minnesota. He never even wrote to his father. 55 years is a long time to live with one's sense of justice. 55 years is a long time to harbor bitterness and anger. When I looked at my uncle, I saw an old, pitiful, bitter Jonah. He said very little the entire afternoon we spent with him and his family. One of the few remarks he made was to me. He said, "Well, I bet you're glad to get away from those damn Japs!" He was a bitter old man who had let his self-righteous indignation master his life, a man who refused to love and forgive. The irony of the situation was that by the time my grandparents died, the depression had taken care of whatever inheritance the eldest son might have received. All that was left was a small farm which could not even provide a living for our family. All for nothing!
Jonah also was angry and bitter because God's idea of justice differed from his. God forgave Nineveh, held off the hand of judgment, and gave Nineveh a second chance. Jonah went outside the city, sat and pouted. God caused a vine to grow and shade Jonah from the sun. This Jonah liked. Then God sent a worm to chew on the plant until finally the plant withered and died. This made Jonah angry. The Lord said to him, "So you're angry again." Jonah replied, "You bet!" God said, "Why should you care about a vine? You didn't plant it. You didn't take care of it. You didn't work for it." Jonah had not enjoyed the pleasure of planting, watering, watching it grow. The only reason Jonah loved the vine was because it shaded him from the sun! Jonah invested none of himself in the growing of the vine. He only took. He lived a self-centered, inverted life.
About a hundred years ago a Japanese woman, Akiko Yosano, fell in love with a man who did not love her in return. Some of you may have had that experience. In her misery, she wrote a poem,
Of the numberless steps
Up to my heart,
He climbed perhaps
Only two or three.
Of the numberless steps up to the heart of God, to the life of salvation and discipleship, Jonah climbed perhaps only two or three.
Isn't it interesting that Jonah knew what God was calling him to do. Jonah understood God's super goal, but Jonah was unwilling to follow. Jonah said, "I know you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to forgive, and change your mind about enforcing judgment." Did you hear the words of God's super goal? Hear and heed what God calls us to: mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love, forgiveness, second chances.
We are living now in the midst of war. I don't believe God changes the super goal because we are now engaged in war. Each of us must decide what it means today to be called to mercy, love, forgiveness, second chances. Then, when we have understood the call, we still have to make a decision about action. Jonah understood, but he refused to follow God, and ended his days angry, bitter, resentful and alone.
Do you hear and understand God's call? Will you be like Jonah and run away? Or, will you be like the disciples, leave your fishing nets, and follow Jesus?
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris