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Rethink Everything

Background: Today’s reading consists of the second-half of the story of Jonah. Many of you, I suspect, know the outlines of the first two chapters: there is a prophet named Jonah who is sent by God to declare the impending doom of the city of Nineveh. But Jonah resists that mission. Rather than heading to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. And when God sends a storm to trouble his journey, he confesses that he is the cause of the storm and convinces his fellow sailors to throw him overboard. The storm then ceases and Jonah is swallowed by a large fish. He prays to God from the belly of the fish and ultimately is thrown up onto the shore.  That’s where we pick up this morning. Listen for God’s word to the church.

 

Jonah 3-4

 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

 

Jonah is a fascinating book to study in community because it invites us to confront our assumptions about scripture—and how we understand the authority of this ancient, unruly book.

When studying Jonah in a classroom setting, I often start with an exercise inspired by Phyllis Trible. We begin by thinking about a daily newspaper, and then list all the various kinds of writing it might contain: news articles, opinion pieces, obituaries, advertisements, comic strips, want-ads, weather reports…you get the idea. The next question is: “And which of these do you consider to be true?”….After lots of conversation, we usually get to the place of acknowledging that truth could come to us in any of those forms: sometimes there is more truth revealed about human nature in a comic strip than in the most carefully researched article—but we do not read comic strips and news articles with the same expectations. We engage those forms of literature with different assumptions.

Part of what makes reading the Bible complicated is that we forget that there are many genres of writing included here, too. And each genre has its own conventions. The psalms make their way into our hearts by different paths than genealogies. We enter the world of a parable with different expectations than we read historical accounts. A proverb is different from a poem, which is different from a letter, which is different from law, which is different from prophecy.

So, what do we notice about the book of Jonah? It is included among the short prophetic books, but it is a story written in the most exaggerated terms: a human being spends three days hanging out in the belly of a fish, animals engage in rituals of repentance, a single sentence spoken by a reluctant prophet is enough to transform a vast city—from the monarch all the way down to the mice. It is as though the author wants to paint a picture so clear in its contours that the only ambiguity left to consider—will be the ambiguity contained in our own complicated hearts.

If we are to be blessed by this strange tale—this holy writ—which we know was precious to Jesus because he referred to it by name—if we are to be blessed by it, we must enter the world of its grand assumptions. We must let it have its way with us. We must expose our lives to its questions.

You may have noticed that God asks three questions of Jonah in today’s reading. The first two have to do with anger. We don’t talk much about anger in church, but God is interested both in what causes our anger, and in what we will do with it. But in order to understand why Jonah is so angry at the thought of being sent to Nineveh, we need to know something about that city.

As the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh was a place of terror for the Hebrew people. The historic Ninevites were known to display in public the severed heads of their enemies. They engaged in cannibalism. So if we dismiss the book of Jonah as child’s play, we miss the point. Any ancient audience would know that Jonah had every right to be angry.

In fact Jonah is not the only book of the Bible focused on Nineveh and its destruction. If you were flipping through your Bible, and after finishing with Jonah, were to skip over the Book of Micah, you would come to the book of Nahum. I will forewarn you that it is a hard read; it is never included in our lectionary. It seems to revel in the cataclysm that is on the horizon. It ends with this condemnation of the city: “Your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?”[1]

You may have just noticed that the book of Nahum ends with a question. That’s another thing it has in common with the book of Jonah. In fact, these are the only two books of the Bible that conclude with questions.[2]

Think about that: both brief prophetic books, both concerned with the destruction of Nineveh—both end with questions. I think they’re meant to be in conversation with each other. Nahum is believed to have been written first, Jonah maybe a century or two later. I suspect the book of Jonah is an invitation to rethink the theology expressed in the Book of Nahum.  But is re-thinking something that goes on in the Bible?

Remember how many times Jesus said, “You have heard it said…x…but I say to you…y…”?[3] Those strike me as invitations to rethink.

I suspect that the Church is called to continual re-thinking, because we have a way of putting fences around God’s mercy—and God has to keep tearing those fences down.

Remember what Jesus said to his followers as his death approached: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”[4] Jesus told us from the outset that the revelation of God’s will would be an unfolding process,  ultimately fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.

Gail O’Day, Dean of Wake Forest’s Divinity School, suggests that “rethinking everything” may be the best definition we have of the word repentance.[5]And in the book of Jonah, everyone has occasion to repent: Jonah, the Ninevites, the animals, even God.

In his anger, Jonah longs for God to exact vengeance on his enemies—to balance the scales. But God is inclined to repent, to turn and rethink everything at the first sign of change in the Ninevites. God is willing to sacrifice God’s own self, God’s integrity, for the sake of God’s beloved creation. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t that precisely what happens on the cross?

The Book of Jonah offers us a vision of a God whose compassion for creation is so great that this God will not give up—not on enemies—and not on angry prophets. God is willing to pursue us even when we are more committed to our anger than we are to our God.

So the Book of Jonah invites all of us to pay attention to the places where our anger surges, and particularly where our anger cuts us off from relationship. Did you notice that Jonah becomes so angry he refuses even to engage God in conversation? Fixated on his enemies, he simply withdraws.

When Jonah withdraws, God finds other ways to reach out to him.

First there is a plant that grows over Jonah’s head. The Hebrew says it delights Jonah a great delight. But delight is not enough to send Jonah back to God.

Then God appoints a worm that comes and attacks the plant. The plant withers and dies. But loss is not enough to send Jonah back to God.

Only when the wind and the sun cause Jonah to suffer directly does he turn to God in prayer, but even then, all he can talk about is death.

So God tries one more time.

God’s final question to Jonah gives us, as readers, new information. God tells us that Jonah’s delight in the plant was more than self-interest, more than the pleasure of shade. God tells us that Jonah had compassion for the plant. Jonah’s delight in the plant gave him the experience of caring about something beside himself, and God doesn’t waste that moment of compassion.

God says if you can feel compassion for a plant—which you didn’t labor over—or even have much time to come to know—why can’t you understand that I would have compassion for a whole city full of people, and animals, which are my creations?

Jonah’s glimmer of compassion is his window into the heart of God.

So this strange little book asks us to pay attention not only to our anger, but to the places compassion rises in us. Who or what causes you to step outside of your own experience and care instinctively about the life of another? Those places are your windows into the heart of God.

In our own day, a lot of anger is welling up—triggered by all kinds of inequity. Anger has a place. The scriptures attest to Jesus’ anger. Anger helps us to identify where change is needed. But Jonah reminds us that anger that cuts us off from each other leads to isolation and death.

I am moved by the wisdom of those who preserved these scriptures for us—that they would honor the cry of pain and the stand against oppression that is the Book of Nahum, and also the invitation to mercy that is the Book of Jonah. As you and I befriend our own anger, and receive the witness of a suffering world, may we continually open our hearts to the God who meets us in each and every circumstance. May we rethink everything in the light of God’s love.

 

[1] Nahum 3:19

[2] according to the NRSV

[3] see Matthew 5:17-48

[4] John 16:12

[5] from a presentation by Gail O’Day in Asheville, NC in 2012

 

My reading of Jonah leans heavily on Phyllis Trible’s translation and exegesis as set forth in Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994. Always, I will be grateful that she was willing to take a weekly train from Union Seminary in New York to Princeton to teach a class on Old Testament narratives. She forever changed the way I read scripture.

 

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.