Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

We don’t cook a lot of fish at home these days.

The aquarium is in the kitchen, and the approximately 17 fish are very sensitive. And on the rare occasion that I bake some salmon or open a can of tuna, I can see them looking at me—judging me—and it doesn’t feel good.

I try to talk to them, and praise them, but this seems to backfire too. I’ll say something like “you fish are so sweet, so tender,” and then they’re looking at me again with deep suspicion. Maybe we need to find a new place for the aquarium.

I share this because the story of Jonah features perhaps the most famous fish of them all. The poor fish, compelled to eat a prophet, and listen to his muttering for three long days, and then forced to spit him out on the beach. He didn’t even get a decent meal out of it.

But the story begins long before Jonah become fish food: it begins—as these things often do—with the call of God. God has noticed the great wickedness of the people of Nineveh (more on that in a moment) and commands Jonah to go and prophesy to them.

And you recall his response: Jonah heads to the coast to find a ship heading in precisely the opposite direction. At Jaffa he finds a ship bound for Tarshish (likely in modern day Sardinia, about as far from Nineveh as you could possibly travel) and begins his escape.

Of course, God has other ideas. A great storm comes up, and the sailors decide that someone on board must be to blame. They draw lots, and the lot naturally falls to Jonah. First, they do everything they can to save the ship without throwing poor Jonah overboard, but eventually they relent. Our fish friend is waiting.

By the time he ends up on the beach, Jonah has resigned himself to the task God has appointed for him, and his journey to Nineveh begins. It would be easy enough to label Jonah a shirker or a coward, or someone not up to the important job of prophet, until you consider what he was called to do.

Nineveh, at that time, was most likely the largest city in the world. Located on a major trade route that linked east with west, and situated on the banks of the mighty Tigris, Nineveh flourished and became the capitol of the Assyrian empire. Think of it as the London or New York of the 8th Century BCE.

The city covered seven square kilometers. The Bible’s description, and the city uncovered by archeologists, seem to match. The population is estimated around 150,000, twice the size of Babylon. The king’s palace had eighty rooms adorned with beautiful relief sculptures (now in the British Museum), resting on a foundation made up of 160 million bricks. This was the centre of the world.

And their wickedness? Well, the city was the centre of the worship of Ishtar (not the bad film) who was an Akkadian goddess (no, not those Acadians). She was the goddess of a number of things, and these things either fit perfectly together in your view or seem completely random (like a personality test). The main four were fertility, love, war and sex. People and animals fell under her spell, but she was regarded as a fickle goddess (according to Gilgamesh) and even other gods seduced by Ishtar came to great harm.

So it was time for an intervention. The people of Nineveh needed to be convinced to set aside their love for Ishtar and embrace the One True God. Jonah was hand-picked for the job, and it now seems entirely reasonable that he might try to run away.

Now, it’s important to remember that we are not the first generation to practice the art of cynicism. Being cynical is as old as Nineveh, or Eden (also on the Tigris) and so it seems entirely likely that Jonah was proclaiming a message that he cynically believed the people of Ninevah would not embrace.

For three days, we are told, he travelled the breadth of the city shouting “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.” It’s hard to know how this message was received. “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Were people angry? Did they ignore him, assume he was demon-possessed? Could they even hear him over the din? And then something incredible happened:

5 The people of Nineveh believed in God, and they declared a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and said, “In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, cattle or sheep, is to taste anything; they must not eat and they must not drink water. 8 Every person and animal must put on sackcloth and must cry earnestly to God, and everyone must turn from their evil way of living and from the violence that they do. 9 Who knows? Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we might not die.”

I just want to pause for a minute and allow you to picture the whole city in sackcloth, the king, the leading nobles, ordinary folk, their livestock, their pets—all wearing sackcloth. Imagine all animals from the little beagles, to the Bernese Mountain dogs, and even the proud Cavalier King Charles Spaniels covered in sackcloth. How could God say ‘no’ to beagles in sackcloth?

And of course God couldn’t. But poor Jonah, voice still hoarse from three days of shouting, still smelling vaguely of the inside of a fish, was unimpressed by small dogs in sackcloth. Even the king sitting in ashes failed to move him, owing I expect, to his feelings about their former devotion to Ishtar. Or was it something else? Could it be based somehow on the circuitous emotional route that brought Jonah to Nineveh. Consider this:

Your kid’s room is a mess. Clothing strewn everywhere, dishes missing, and some obviously still covered in rotting food and hidden in the room. You have spent weeks saying ‘clean your room, clean your room, I can’t believe I’m asking you again to clean your room.’ Then the moment arrives when you decide you are at the end of your rope. Maybe you’re in the car, or sitting somewhere else in house without rotting food under the bed. You head upstairs, because you’ve finally had enough. You have the words you will say well rehearsed in your mind, and you’ve already created brilliant counter-arguments for the fight to come. Then you open the door, and the room is clean. A smiling child is standing by, waiting for your approval and praise. What do you say? I can tell you Jonah said:

“Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish!—because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!”

It’s obviously easier to stay angry, because nothing is quite as annoying as a God who forgives people 120,000 at a time. Like the most famous older brother in history, Jonah was pretty invested in being angry, and uniquely unimpressed with all that forgiving. I’m not saying he wanted Nineveh to burn, but he certainly didn’t want all to be forgiven so quickly.

To quote moral theologian and country singer Lyle Lovett:

God does, but I don't
And God will, but I won't
That's the difference between God and me.

And here is one of those occasions when we need to let God be God and allow ourselves to not be God. Try your best, forgive where you can, but don’t expect to outdo God in the forgiveness department. We’re always more Jonah than God. More older brother than gracious father, more in need of forgiveness than the forgiving people we aspire to be.

In the end, God gives Jonah a bit of an object lesson and some last words. We don’t get Jonah’s response, but it’s safe to say that perhaps by then the fight was finally out of him. And then God says something that sounds vaguely familiar, the last word on Nineveh that needs to be said:

Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Amen.


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