let there be grace

Jonah 3:1-10

It’s such a familiar story
with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah son of Amittai,
saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city,
and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’
(Jonah 1:1-2).
It’s actually, though not translated that way, a threefold imperative:
rise (get up), go, and then call out (proclaim).

Now did Jonah do that?
Do what God commanded?
No.
What did Jonah do?
Well, he did get up.
He obeyed the first command,
but then he ran away—
sailed away.
And why?
He didn’t want to go to Niniveh.
Why not?
Because they were the great enemy.
Yes.
They were the great enemy,
but it wasn’t fear for his life—
for his safety that motivated him to run away.
They were the great enemy,
but neither was it the fear that, were he to go,
his facebook page would crash
from the number of vile comments
questioning his patriotism, his faith, his sanity, his God.
No, they were the great enemy,
and he was afraid God loved them too.

Now we won’t find that out until later,
but later, Jonah will explicitly say,
“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” (Jonah 4:2b).
So he ran away.
Ran away from love extended to others—
ran away from love extended to them
ran away from a story too big for him to accept.

Now could he escape God?
No. Of course not.
And there’s the whole thrown-overboard,
swallowed-by-the-great-fish part of the story—
the three days and three nights in the belly of the fish—
the psalm prayed from the belly of the fish—
the being spewed forth onto dry land from the belly of the fish.

And so it is, with today’s text, already well into the story,
we begin again—
with essentially a repetition of Jonah 1:1—
except Jonah’s father’s name isn’t repeated,
and the phrase “a second time” is added.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,
saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”
Again that three-fold imperative:
arise (get up), go, and call—proclaim.
Literally, God says, “call to her the calling I am wording to you”
(Phyllis Trible, The Book of Jonah: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 510).

It’s also true that chapter one, verse two
stresses preaching against the city—stresses the wickedness of Niniveh,
while the second command, chapter three, verse two
stresses preaching to the city and stresses Yahweh’s message—
not the wickedness of the city
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve
Hosea-Jonah
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 438).
Now whether that’s a change in God,
or a change in what Jonah hears listening to God,
we can all consider.
Just let that simmer.

So this second time, Jonah was told to get up,
and Jonah got up. (He did that the last time, too.)
And Jonah was told to go to Niniveh,
and Jonah went to Niniveh. (That’s new; he didn’t do that last time.)
And Jonah did all this according to the word of God.
The repetition of the phrase “the word of the Lord” in verses one and three
creates an inclusio—a set of parentheses—
within which God’s word is first relayed and then obeyed—
at least the first two of the three commands are.
What about that third one—to call out—to proclaim?
Well, we have to wonder about that one.
Something else to consider—to let simmer.

Niniveh, we are told, was an exceedingly large city.
That’s how our translation reads: “an exceedingly large city.”
You want to know how the Hebrew actually reads?
“A city great to God!”

I trust you’re noticing over time
how often our translations shortchange or even totally fail us.
Makes you question taking translations literally, don’t you think?
Makes you question taking them at face value.

So Niniveh, the city representing the great enemy of Israel,
was a city great to God—a city important to God—
consider that!
And so big it took three days to walk through it.
Now that’s just ridiculous!
Nineveh was certainly not an insignificant city,
but it wasn’t the capital of Assyria at the presumed time of Jonah.
Nor was it as big as it was going to get—
with eventually an archeologically verified circumference
of seven and three quarter miles—
which is big,
but with an average day’s walk comprising
somewhere between 20 and 25 miles,
three days would mean somewhere between 60 and 75 miles.
Y’all ready for this?:
circumference equals diameter multiplied by pi. Remember that?
So a diameter of between 60 and 75
would mean a circumference of between 189 and 236 miles.
Baltimore’s beltway is 51 1/2 miles.
Washington’s is 64 miles—as is Atlanta’s perimeter.
This isn’t truth. And it isn’t just exaggeration. This is ridiculous.

Now how much ridiculousness does it take
before you begin to acknowledge it?
So looking back do we now say:
swallowed by a giant fish and alive in the belly of that giant fish
three days and three nights? Ridiculous!
That’s Pinocchio! That’s a fairy tale.
Just consider it, okay? Consider it ridiculous. Let that simmer.

Jonah walked one day into the city.
Now it’s not about distance, right?
So it’s rather about a not even half-hearted venture into the city.
Whereupon he did, in fact, call out
(the third part of the commissioning—the third imperative)—
he did call out in in apparent obedience to God’s command,
but outside that inclusio formed by the word of God—
the inclusio that included obedience to the first two commands.
This proclamation was outside that obedience,
and consisted of only five words—
y’all would probably love a five word sermon!
Five words that it’s very hard to believe, in light of this story,
would be the calling God worded for him.

Within those five words, there’s nothing like “this is the word of God”—
no “thus says God”—
no kind of prophetic formula whatsoever.
Nothing about repentance.
Nothing about the possibility of redemption.
And there’s nothing in those five words about God either—at all.
Just: “within or after 40 days, destruction.”

But the Ninivites, we read, believed God!—
the God unmentioned by Jonah!
Something we wouldn’t know in even the best translation
is that the verb “believed” (the Ninivites “believed”)
has the same root as the name of Jonah’s father,
whose name means “belief” (Jonah 1:1).

Now one scholar I read made the point
that the Ninivites didn’t believe Yahweh.
She points out it reads they believed Elohim
which she suggests is “a generic term for god
rather than the particular Israelite name”
(Trible, 513).
My theory is sometimes scholars think they have something
and then they go with it even if it doesn’t make much sense!
Preachers do that too!
Elohim is the most common Hebrew term for God/god
(Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, general ed., The New Interpreter’s
Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 2
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2007] 248)

But that did lead me into further word study,
And I know that y’all are all rejoicing inside.
You’re just not showing it!
But you’re rejoicing inside
because we’re going to do a word study!
Basically in the first chapter,
there are 12 references to Yahweh and five to Elohim,
but two of those occurrences of Elohim do not refer specifically to God
(Jonah 1:6 the captain asking Jonah about his god
not knowing who that God was).
One other occurrence of Elohim is used in conjunction with Yahweh—
as in Yahweh Elohim—the Lord God.
So in the first chapter, Elohim is only used once for God by itself—
compared to Yahweh’s twelve references.
In the second chapter, Yahweh is used six times,
Elohim twice, but only in conjunction with Yahweh—
so not once used by itself to refer to God.
Then in our chapter, Yahweh is used twice at the beginning
(the word of the Lord forming that inclusio).
After that, it’s all Elohim in the mouths of the Ninivites.
Let it simmer.
The fourth chapter, if you’re interested,
reverts back to the predominant use of Yahweh.

We’ll let that simmer too,
but I think it is legitimate to suggest that the Ninivites
were not in relationship with the Lord—were not converted.
They did not know the Lord as Jonah did—
as even the sailors did (since Jonah did mention Yahweh to them,
and they did refer to God as Yahweh)—
not the Ninivites.

And yet the people of Niniveh responded immediately—
no sense whatsoever that they had 40 days.
They act like the destruction’s imminent—
tomorrow or later today!
They proclaimed a fast,
and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the king heard about all this
(somehow the last to hear?!),
he removed his robe,
he covered himself in sackcloth, and he sat in ashes.
Then he had a proclamation made in Niniveh
that there would be no tasting—
that meant no eating
that meant no drinking
(you weren’t allowed to taste)—
anyone—no one in Niniveh—
human or animal—of the herds or the flocks.
He proclaimed that all humans and animals would wear sackcloth
and would all cry mightily to God
turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.

So see I have to wonder if there’s some suggestion
that to do evil and to hold violence in your hand
means your destruction is at hand?
More for the simmering!

But basically, the king issued a redundant proclamation—
ordering the people to do just what the people were already doing.
He just added the animals, the herds and flocks—
which—I mean, I’m thinking—ridiculous—again, right? Are you?

And yes, I’ve heard and read that this was all to indicate
the absolute seriousness—indeed the desperation
with which Niniveh received Jonah’s news.
The absolute seriousness? Seriously?
After the whole alive in the belly of a fish three days and three nights?
After the city big enough it would take three days to walk through—
a city bigger than Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta put together?!
After babies in sackcloth diapers?
(I’ll just bet they were crying mightily out to God!)
And cows and oxen and goats and sheep
coated with ashes, wrapped in sackcloth? Seriously?

It’s all exaggerated.
It’s extreme—it’s ridiculous—
it’s cartoonish—buffoonish—absurd—hilarious.

“Who knows,” says the king, “God may relent.
God may change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so we do not perish.”

When the biblically literate person heard or read this—
that bit about how God might relent and change God’s mind—
turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish,
well, there’s all kinds of significant resonance with Joel—
a prophetic word addressed
to the people of Judah, the people of God.
And in Joel, Yahweh asks for fasting—for a returning to God—
who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
abounding in steadfast love. Sound familiar?
And who knows if God will turn and relent. Familiar?
Put on sackcloth—sanctify a fast.
Even this—
how the animals groan—even the wild animals cry to you
(Joel 2:12-14; 1:13-14, 18, 20).
Isn’t that fascinating?
And in Joel, after we’re told the people of God,
were invited to repent,
we’re not told if they do—
just like Jonah!
We’re going to let that simmer too.

That’s an important “who knows,” by the way.
Who knows, God may relent.
“Who knows” keeps this from being manipulative.
This is not cause and effect.
This is hope and grace.

When God saw this,
God did change God’s mind about the calamity …
hmm. Elsewhere that word is translated evil.
God changed God’s mind about the evil—
the doom—the judgment that God was going to bring.
And God did not.

Now you remember Jonah’s five word proclamation
foretelling destruction?
The word translated “destruction” or “overthrown”—
well, it can mean that. It can.
It can also mean “turn”—
and it can be associated with deliverance!
From Deuteronomy: Yet … the Lord your God
turned the curse into a blessing for you,
because the Lord your God loved you
(Deuteronomy 23:5).
From Jeremiah: I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow
(Jeremiah 31:13).
The word Jonah proclaimed as threat—
as destruction—
“overturns itself; it holds countermeanings”
(Trible, 512).
Isn’t that marvelously rich?

So do you hear it?
Not evangelistic affirmation that the enemy was converted.
No, no, no. What I hear is that these Ninivites
were more children of the faith of Jonah’s fathers than Jonah was—
even if they did call God by another name.
Preach that church!
Preach that!
God cares more about a contrite heart than about what people call God.
God cares more about evil rejected and violence renounced
than the words of religion.

A lot simmering, isn’t there?
So considering all we’ve got to consider—
what all we have simmering—

the ridiculous doesn’t mean the meaningless, does it?
Because here’s the thing: we don’t question the ridiculous.
We don’t question what we know doesn’t make sense.
And this story’s not about the parts we accept but don’t believe.
It’s not about the man in the fish, the immense city, the five word sermon.
It’s about the parts we don’t want to accept but can’t not believe:
that a prophet, that a child of God, that the son of belief doesn’t believe.
It’s like the players in Hamlet:
“the play’s the thing to uncover the conscience of the king.”
The make believe (ha!) reveals who does and who doesn’t believe.

Because believing is not about claiming God,
believing is about being claimed by God.
And because it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of love—
to realize there is no one excluded.
There is no them; there is no one to blame;
there is no one to mock; there is no one to reject;
there is no one to whom to feel superior.

This is not the story of a city that changes,
but about one person who may or may not change.
It’s not about the enemy,
but about whether the children of God can love the enemy.
It’s not about them, it’s about us.
It’s not about “the extent of God’s grace,” as is often claimed
(Nogalski, 413)—
that’s a given!
It’s rather about the faithfulness (or the lack thereof)
of those who claim God’s grace as theirs—
that foolishness of the world’s that is God’s wisdom—
the foolishness of loving the enemy.
Given the extent of God’s grace—
given the extent of God’s love,
when God loves them—when God loves all of them,
will we celebrate, or will we sulk?
Will we share or will we hoard?
Do we proclaim God’s love to others
or claim God’s love all for ourselves?

Niniveh, you see, is just across the river from Mosul,
a city now controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
It remains a city great to God—
its people beloved of God.
And while we pray most earnestly
for their rejection of evil—for their rejection of violence,
the question Jonah raises is what we do—
when beyond ridiculous absolutes—
beyond stark divisions into us and them,
God reminds us they are my wayward but beloved too.
The question we hear God asking is this:
do we reject evil?
Do we put down the violence in our hands and in our hearts?

And maybe we hear God saying this:
it’s destroying not only you—
but me—
who I revealed myself to be in the world—
what I taught—
who and what I entrusted to you.

Don’t cheapen my dream by what you deem reasonable!
The dream instilled in my people
has always been a non-violent alternative
to any smallness of vision
that invests in what is only part of the whole—
has always been a surprising wholeness—
a challenging integration—
seen by eyes that see it is only in all of creation’s interdependence
that evil is defeated—that violence is defeated—
that calamity is averted.
Now that is a story ever deepening—
ever expanding—
ever challenging us to grow—
to discover what we do not yet know.
“Dream with me.
Dream my dream with me,” says Yahweh Elohim,
“and change the world.”

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