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Epiphany III 2012 Sermon
Jim Campbell

The theme used by most preachers for the readings today from Jonah and Mark is that they show us “extreme” examples between disobedience to and following the call of God.  Ok, I’ve covered that theme for today’s readings!  Now I can talk about just the book of Jonah, the best (or worst) example I can think of in the Bible of being disobedient to God, how God can take that disobedience and turn it around, and what we can learn from this example.
Maybe you’ve heard this saying before:  God has three answers to your prayers—1) Yes!  2) Not yet!  and 3) I’ve got something better in mind!  Maybe all of these answers are used by God in this story about Jonah.  Another saying, a Jewish proverb, which might apply here is: “Whenever someone says, ‘I have a plan.’ God laughs.”
We read only a tiny bit of Jonah’s story today--too little to understand what was actually going on with God and Jonah. I think everyone knows the story of Jonah and the Whale, a different small part of the story of Jonah which makes a nice kid’s story.  Here is the Godly Play whale that Corby uses for this story with the kids; this is not helpful today except for sight value.  I’m going to talk more about the full story of Jonah--the actual history of the places and people in this book, and how God worked through Jonah for goodness and mercy, and doing what is right, whether Jonah liked it or not.
A Bible survey which it turned out only a few of us actually filled out back in October asked about our views of the Bible—its truthfulness, its usefulness, and its impact in our lives.  There was one question that asked whether the story of Jonah and the Whale was written about an actual event, or was just a story used to explain a point.  All three responders selected the story answer.  This is probably the least believable part of the whole book of Jonah; it is more possible that the rest of this four chapter book is about real places and actual people and events.  I’ve given you a map, a Ninevah city layout, and a couple of classical art pictures to help illustrate this story of Jonah.  Map-City Layout-Pictures
God called on Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim judgment to its people, but Jonah resisted and attempted to flee.  He went about 50 miles the opposite direction to Joppa (on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea) and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish (probably a city at the far west entrance to the Mediterranean near Spain, what they considered to be the end of the known world at that time).  God called up a great storm on the sea, and the ship's crew figured out by casting lots that Jonah’s disobeying his God was the reason for the intense storm.  Even though the crew was all nonbelievers, they decided to pray to Jonah’s God to calm the seas.  Jonah did not want the crew to die because of him, so at his request, they threw him overboard and the seas were calmed.  A whale swallowed Jonah, and for three days and three nights Jonah despaired inside the whale's belly.  He said a prayer in which he repented for his disobedience and thanked God for His mercy.  God spoke to the whale, which then vomited out Jonah safely onto dry land. 
God then called Jonah again to prophesy against Nineveh, and he grudgingly obeyed this time.  However, he only told the people, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  No mention of God!  No more details or explanation!  To his surprise and shock they all repented, from the lowest servant up to the King, and God forgave them. [This last little bit is basically what we read about Jonah today!
Jonah was furious when he saw the people's repentance and God’s salvation for them.  So Jonah went out of the city to pout and see if maybe God would destroy them anyway.  It was very hot, so God caused a tree to grow and give Jonah shade.  Jonah was “extremely happy about the tree.”  But his anger returned the next day, after God sent a worm to eat the tree, withering it, and Jonah told God that it would be better if he were dead.  The story ends with God confronting Jonah with the question: “If you are so upset about the death of a tree, which you didn't even plant, how much more should God be concerned about the death of human beings, his own creation—maybe 120,000 of them?”
The story of Jonah is set in ancient northern Israel in the 8th-7th centuries BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II.  It was probably written after the Israel exile period, sometime between the late fifth to early fourth century BCE, maybe 300 years later, when Israel is given a prominent place in the expansion of God's kingdom to the Gentiles.
Jonah was also mentioned in II Kings 14:25, where it says he was from the city of Gath-hepher.  This city, now modern el-Meshed, is located only a few miles from Nazareth, in northern Israel. 
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, a good 500 miles NE of the Jewish kingdom, and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  Its ruins today are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul, in Iraq (We’ve heard that name in the War in Iraq!).  Occupying a central position on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, uniting East and West, wealth came to Ninevah from many sources, so that it became one of the greatest of all the region's ancient cities.  It took three days to walk across Nineveh. The walled city had fifteen great gates, and an elaborate system of eighteen canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh. Several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct were discovered at Jerwan, about 40mi away.  The enclosed area of Ninevah had more than 100,000 inhabitants, about twice as many as Babylon, placing it among the largest settlements worldwide at the time.
The Assyrian empire came to an end by about 605 BC, the Medes and Babylonians dividing its colonies between them, and Ninevah was torn apart.  Following its demise, the site remained largely unoccupied for centuries with only a scattering of Assyrians living amid the ruins.  A few Assyrians continue to live in the surrounding area to this day.  The city of Mosul on the opposite bank of the river Tigris became the successor of ancient Nineveh.
Here are some interesting items about this book of Jonah and Ninevah:
·        The name Jonah means “dove”, representing a passive weak figure; that is not what other prophets’ names infer.  Others have strong, decisive names, like Isaiah and Jeremiah.
·        The book of Jonah is different than those of the other prophets because it is not full of prophecies by the prophet; it is instead about the life of the prophet.  Little attention is given to what he actually said. 
·        While most of the other prophets prophesied to Israel and Judah (the Jews themselves), Jonah’s task was to go to Ninevah and prophesy to the Gentiles.  The Ninevite Assyrians were enemies of Israel and also Gentiles, so Jonah had much hatred for them. Some say that Jonah was mad at God because Jonah was made to look bad by God--he had prophesied the Ninevites demise, then God turned around and forgave them.  I don’t think Jonah cared at all what the Ninevites thought of him. He KNEW that God would forgive the people of Ninevah if they repented, but Jonah hated the Assyrians so much he didn't want to even give them the chance to repent.
·        In the first part of the book, God is shown to be relentless and wrathful; in the second part of the book, He is revealed to be truly loving and merciful.  In a really strange twist, basically kicking and screaming, Jonah was led by God to become one of the most effective of all prophets, turning the entire population of Nineveh to God.
·        Nineveh's repentance and salvation is noted in the Gospels of Matthew (12:41) and Luke (11:32).  To this day, churches in Iraq commemorate the three days Jonah spent inside the whale by fasting.  The faithful fast by refraining from food and drinks.  Churches encourage followers to refrain from meat, fish and dairy products.
A couple of ways to look at Jonah and his actions: 
1)    The lives of many people today parallel Jonah’s experience and actions. God calls them, but they rebel.  They search for life in everything else but God until they come to a point in their lives where they are so low that they finally recognize their own inability and come to the conclusion that their salvation and forgiveness is from God.
2)    Jonah gives us a negative illustration of love. Jonah is a good example of how people can tend to judge others and consider themselves to be better than others.  All of the prophets were actually more concerned about the present failings of the people to follow the law than with future predictions.  Jonah’s life illustrated this failure.  Jesus summed up the whole law in one phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jonah definitely illustrated not loving one’s neighbor.  Loving involves forgiveness. Jonah would not forgive the Assyrians for their evil.  Instead, he clung with pride to his heritage as a Jew, the chosen people of God, and he condemned the Assyrians.  He failed to forgive the Ninevites and therefore was unwilling to help them see their evil so they could repent and have a relationship with God. He failed to love.
I think our best lesson from Jonah and his story comes from the second idea above.  We see it every day--where we point out the failures in others and want them to repent or change, and we hold onto that sin of judging others, rather than looking at our own failings and asking for help from God to change us.  In America, this shows up as we continually argue (me among them!), among the various religions or especially within our own people who all call themselves Christians, about who practices their faith best and who has the only true faith. This is not following the will of God!
Just as God confronted Jonah with the question about the importance of a tree vs. that of lives of human beings, how important should it be that we all focus on God’s love, and to live by following what Jesus later taught us.  I wonder if Jonah actually ever got the message--we're not told that.  Maybe he's still sulking. 
Maybe even if we do not follow as joyfully as God would like, God will take our reluctant obedience and turn it into something good!  Let’s all decide to do better!  AMEN