Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jonah: Dove of God
First in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2009

Jonah 1

Now the word of God came to Jonah ...
But Jonah set out to flee ... from the presence of the Lord.

This is the first part of a series of four sermons on one of the most charming stories in the Old Testament, at least in my view. Probably it’s not as familiar as a lot of Bible stories except for the King James mistranslation of “fish” as “whale,” and children’s musicals with titles such as “A Whale of a Tale.” Parenthetically, I think it’s an odd story to choose for a children’s musical in many ways, because if we read it with even a small degree of understanding, it’s a pretty terrifying story.

Sometimes, when I preach from a story or passage in the Old Testament, people will ask me why I am not using the New Testament, especially in these next Sundays that the church refers to as the Sundays of Easter. Well here is a little New Testament connection and quiz for those who enjoy Bible games. Can you think of the man in the New Testament whom Jesus called “Simon bar-Jonah”? I’ll give you more of a hint than that. Simon bar-Jonah means “Simon, son of Jonah.” I hope this helps some cranial lights to come on. He is the Jewish man who, according to Acts, was in the coastal town of Joppa — incidentally where Jonah’s ocean voyage began — and who had been praying peacefully up on the roof when he came down for lunch and fell into a trance. In that trance he was instructed to be receptive to folks who, before, as a faithful Jew, he would have thought were unclean. He had no sooner come out of this dreamlike state, when representatives of a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius knocked at his gate. Who was this rooftop pray-er, named for the reluctant Old Testament prophet sent to the Gentiles in Nineveh by way of Joppa? It was none other than Peter, foremost of the disciples, the rocky apostle on whom the church was to be built.

So, Jonah is a story well-fit for fans of the New Testament as well as the Old.

About today’s sermon title: in Hebrew the word Jonah means “dove.”1 And what is a dove but an albino cousin of the common pigeon, something, colloquially speaking, that Jonah apparently was attempting not to be, a sucker, a dupe who travels on a one-man mission to Israel’s bitterest enemy to deliver a prophecy. To hear the name Nineveh the way the first readers of Jonah would have heard it, think “Berlin” for a mid 20th century Jew. Why wouldn’t he try to flee the task that God presented, to prophesy to the bitterest enemy Israel ever had? We shouldn’t forget, though, that it was a dove that Noah sent from the ark looking for land after all the wicked people of the earth were destroyed in the flood story. There’s more to this dove business than we might think. A dove is a sign of hope on tiny wings, which is the way hope often appears, tiny, vulnerable, and seemingly powerless, yet possessed of a power most often misunderstood by the world.

One of the very first examinations that I had to take in my very first semester of seminary was in an Old Testament class. The question was “What is the point of the story of Jonah?” It’s a really good question. What do you suppose this story of Jonah is really about, anyway?

I have discovered over the years that there is no one answer to that question, which is one of the reasons this little book is so much fun. To determine what a passages says, difficult as that is, is not impossible; there are ample highly trained translators who spend hours deciphering such things for us. But what is the point of the story of Jonah, what does it mean? Today and over the next three Sundays I’m going to talk about what I think the story means, but remember that it is supposed to mean something special, something unique to each of us as well as to all of us. Here are some starters:
  • Some would say that this is a story about God’s judgment. “Indiana Jonah and the Temper of Doom.” That’s really what it was, you know: a message of doom. Straightforward and dangling out there like an exposed nerve. No “Telling them what they want to hear,” so that the Ninevites might be more inclined to hear a pasteurized word of judgment and accept it. Lord knows, in the end Jonah had very little interest even in their hearing his message, let alone their being moved to repentance by it. Still, it obviously worked on the Ninevites. In fact, the message of doom, which comes on week 4 for us, worked better on the foreigners in Nineveh than it ever had back home in Israel. But since the narrative spends so much time on board ships, and in a fish’s tummy, and elsewhere, it is easy to lose track of the central message that Jonah was called to proclaim, which was — there is no getting around it, even in a Sunday after Easter — that God was upset with these people, and they were going to suffer for it.
  • Others might agree, up to a point. But they would add that judgment tells only half the story. Since the outcome ultimately was a happy one for Nineveh, they say the story is about disobedience and repentance. Disobedience, of course, brings on the wrath of God in the first place, but then the repentance brings about his broad mercy. Never mind such nagging little details as how the Ninevites were supposed to know what they were disobeying since they hadn’t been privy to the Hebrew covenant with the Lord in the first place. They were apparently just so bad that anyone should have known it.
  • Some might say the story is for sailors. Notice the subtle irony in the story that one outcome of the sailors’ encounter with their trouble-making guest was that, though they were pagans in the minds of Israelites, they were moved to offer a sacrifice to the Lord of Israel, even using Israel’s most sacred name for God, and promised to serve him. The chosen prophet of God couldn’t be counted on to head East instead of West, but so able was he at his unchosen profession that he converted even those who threw him overboard. Which brings us to another related interpretation.
  • Some folks might want to say that the story is about one of the greatest missionaries of all time. Without meaning to, he converted a whole shipload of pagans.
  • There are other interpretations. Some say it is nothing more than a fairy tale about a man named Jonah. Others say it is strictly a moral lesson about God’s mercy. I say it combines something of all these interpretations, but that it receives its most perfect interpretation from the preaching of Jesus.
Mark records that when Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God, his preaching could be summed up in one short verse: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Jonah preached a one point sermon which we could sum up, if we want to bother to sum up seven words, by saying “You’re going to get it.” Jesus said essentially the same thing, but added, “Repent and believe.” The fact is, the Ninevites did repent, and they were spared. God’s mercy is not simply a New Testament idea any more than judgment is solely a feature of the Old Testament. Any time the word of God is faithfully preached, there is an element of decision involved. The time is up, decision time is here, whether it is a decision to follow Christ made for the first time, or a decision to reaffirm, or a decision to hear the word of God to us today, as we have heard it in the past, and be renewed by his Spirit.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic novel, Father Mapple, the preacher at Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, specifies “willful disobedience” as Jonah’s sin. He declares that God more often commands than seeks to persuade because what God wants of us is too hard for us — if we must obey God then we must disobey our own desires, and it is in this disobeying ourselves that the difficulty of obeying God is found. The sailors, agnostic as far as Jonah’s God is concerned, still managed to behave so much better than the lone-ranger prophet. Together they have a conscience, while, on his solo flight West when God commanded him to go East, Jonah finds his sense of right and wrong too easily influenced by his own willfulness. It is a continuing theme that will play itself out over the next three sermons. By the way, for those keeping track, the four sermon series will finish in five Sundays, interrupted on Mother’s Day so that we can have a word perhaps more specific to that day.

So who is Jonah to us? In our world he is likely to be the one who does not bother to list Iraqi casualties while making daily newspaper tallies of our own. He is apt to be the person who exits the church services scratching his head and wondering why “there wasn’t a personal message for me today.” He is the person who sees in the sacrifice of Jesus only a personal salvation with little regard for all the others in the world who have not responded, or even who may have responded badly.

What is Nineveh to us? It is whatever person, nation, or force that threatens all the things we hold most dear, a terrorist with bombs strapped to her waist, a character assassin who belittles us at every opportunity, anyone who scorns and laughs at our most deeply-cherished beliefs. And no sooner do we start thinking about what that might mean than we realize this is precisely the sort of place to which God will direct his prophet, this person who perhaps had the absence of mind to have said once, “Here I am, send me.”

Yes, Jonah is a masterpiece of writing, and it is both captivating and terrifying in what it suggests about the nature of God, the nature of human life, and the nature of our call to serve God’s purposes no matter what. No wonder he headed West when God said East. Who among us, left to our own devices, would have been likely to have done any differently?

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 slang. Pigeon: One who is easily swindled; a dupe.