I don’t know what you remember about Jonah’s story but what comes first to my mind is not this story of powerful preaching but all that stuff about the whale. Jonah in the belly of a whale.
In some way the whole book of Jonah is a kind of joke. The story begins with Jonah getting a message from God calling him to be a prophet, calling him to do just what today’s reading shows him doing—preaching repentance to the great city of Nineveh. That meant Jonah had to head east but what he in fact does is turn and run to the docks to find a boat to take him to Tarshish the proverbial farthest west anyone could go. He’s running away. But God won’t have it. Once the ship is at sea there are such storms that the sailors, always superstitious folk, begin to believe they are cursed and doomed to drown because of someone on board. Eventually Jonah owns up and tells his story and lets himself be thrown into the sea to save the ship. And here, what had already been a tall tale, turns fantastic. A massive fish comes along and swallows Jonah whole. And there Jonah stays for three days and three nights until the poor fish cures its indigestion by vomiting him out onto the shore where Jonah finds himself within a stone’s throw of Nineveh. You run in one direction and God delivers you somewhere else.
When you tell the story like that it sounds like a cautionary tale—when God calls you’d better listen because God will get his way in the end. But there’s a deeper story underneath, altogether darker and stranger.
Why does Jonah not want to go to Nineveh? Is he just lazy? Is he afraid of making a fool of himself? Is he scared of the lonely journey? Afraid of a foreign land? None of those excuses really capture what is going on.
The thing we need to understand is who God is asking Jonah to go to. God wants Jonah to go to his nation’s worst enemies; to preach to them—who are pagans in Jonah’s eyes—so that they may be saved from God’s punishment. God want to forgive the Babylonian people of Nineveh and Jonah doesn’t want them to be forgiven or saved. Jonah wants them dead, wants them to get the punishment they deserve for killing his people, enslaving the survivors, for taking their land, for forcing them to break their own laws and customs, for making it impossible for them to please God themselves. God is calling Jonah to get up and go into the very heart of the great nation of Babylon, to its centre of power, and tell people he hates that God’s good news is theirs for the asking.
It would be like asking a relative of someone lost in the Twin Towers tragedy to get up and fly to Osama Bin Laden and offer him amnesty, a clean slate, forgiveness. Or imagine a survivor of whatever war might be in Iraq, someone who has lost family and friends, hearth and home, and her whole future through the war machine of a vastly more powerful empire. Imagine her asked to travel to Washington DC and stand before the American President offering God’s blessing if he asks for it.
And this is what Jonah refuses to do. He refuses to forgive his enemies, he refuses to be as forgiving as he knows God is forgiving. It is no small thing God is asking him to do. How would you feel in Jonah’s place? Could you bring yourself to enter the heart of your enemy and extend a hand of peace? Could you let the slate be wiped clean? Could you forgive and forget? Even if you knew God wanted it?
Jonah couldn’t. He tries to go as far West as Nineveh is East. So God gives him a second chance—storms, fish, and all. Maybe three days inside a fish softened him up but there in sight of Nineveh, the great city God, when God renews his call to preach repentance and forgiveness, this time Jonah says ‘yes’. At least a begrudging ‘yes’. At least he goes through the motions.
The way the book tells it Jonah walks across the city stopping every now and again to make a half-hearted attempt to preach. I imagine him hardly raising his voice, mumbling his message, trying not to be heard, let alone effective. But the story says that even that whisper was enough. The whole great city hears his message and all—each and everyone—repents—asks God—a God they only knew as the God of their own slaves—for forgiveness. They all start fasting. They take out the hair shirts. They get on their knees and pray for mercy. The storyteller says that even the farm animals and the pets repented. That’s the bit we heard today. But that snippet doesn’t tell us how Jonah felt about his unwarranted success? In fact, he is furious! He rages against God, so angry that his life’s enemies will get off scot-free that he goes off into the desert to let the heat of the sun kill him. But God makes a tree grow up to shelter and shade him. Even Jonah, full of curses, is under God’s forgiveness, God’s protection.
The message is so sharp it is almost painful. God is good. God wants no-one to suffer. God wants to save all people. Even our worst enemies. Even the most unpromising cases.
That’s the sign of Jonah. And it’s a sign worth taking to heart when we are readying our hearts for war. God loves Saddam Hussein as much as Tony Blair. God is waiting to forgive both of them. And you. And me.
Jesus claims that sign as his own in the gospel today. His is the sign of forgiveness, the sign of blessing, the sign of healing. In this gospel you can almost hear Jesus getting angry with his hearers who are wanting a sign but not seeing the sign under their nose. Jesus is forgiving. Jesus is blessing. Jesus is healing. But the only ones who see the sign are the ones on the outside—not the religious people with their certainties of salvation. Jesus is like Jonah. He preaches and those who are beyond the pale are forgiven and healed and welcomed home—while the comfortable and the confident can’t see what the fuss is all about.
It must have been like that too for the first Christian churches. The people that Luke wrote his gospel for where mainly Greeks of one kind or another. Jesus was a Jew, a devout Jew, preaching to his own people, offering them the fulfilment of their history but the people who came flocking in the years after his death were not Jews at all but people outside the law: slaves and women and foreigners. Imagine how that must have looked to the orthodox men of Jesus own people. Laughable! Disgusting! A sign of failure. A sure sign the early Christian communities were not God’s chosen people at all.
That’s the sign of Jonah. The angry prophet goes mumbling the message to the hated Godless enemy and they do in an instant what God’s own people had never done—they hear, they see, they see the sign. They turn to God and ask forgiveness and get it. They come home.
Jonah’s story has all sorts of echoes of St. Francis Xavier’s. It’s always my place of entry into Francis’ story to see him there on the docks about to leave for good for foreign parts. Leaving behind all he knew, his friends, his family, and setting off so ill-prepared, for a world he hardly understood. What gets him moving is the sign of Jonah. A zeal for souls, we once would have called it. A passion to preach the good news of God to the ones outside. A confidence and hope that even his mumbling the message in a foreign accent would bring them in their droves, like Jonah to Nineveh. In some ways he was a great success. He preached, he baptized, he moved on to do the same all over again. In other ways he failed. He made hardly a dent on Japan and none at all in China. And late in his short life he wondered whether he was going about it all the wrong way. But still he followed his zeal for souls.
It’s always easy at the end of a homily to ask ‘where does this leave us?’ Easy, but important.
Where does the sign of Jonah leave you and me? Well at one level it asks me who I don’t want to forgive, let alone have God forgive—it asks me what I am holding on to. Remember that bit of the Our Father, ‘forgive us as we forgive others’? If we want to be forgiven this Lent, put right with God, we have to let go of our resentment, let go of the hurt we hang onto.
At another level, the sign of Jonah must make us wonder about war—if the women and men on both sides are forgiven children of one God, killing each other has got to be the wrong way to settle differences.
And the last thing I have to say about the sign of Jonah is this: we worry about our shrinking churches, about closures and consolidations; we wonder where the world is going and what God is doing and why things can’t just stay the same; we worry about our children abandoning the church; we worry that God seems to be on the losing side in our world. But if the sign of Jonah really is claimed by Jesus as his own we shouldn’t be surprised if today the ones who are hearing and turning to God are not the ones like us inside the fold, inside the church but the ones on the edge, on the outside, outside the church, outside all churches; maybe people we fear, maybe the kind that makes us roll our eyes; maybe ones who embarrass us. If that’s the case we should not be surprised and we needn’t resent it—only look, only listen—and who knows what we might learn about the living, loving, forgiving God.
March 10th, 2003