Belly of the Beast
The Book of Jonah is well known. It’s story is able to be told from memory. It is a story about a rebellious child of God. It is also a story about God’s expansive, relentless grace. A strong reminder that we are better off deconstructing our images and idea’s about God. As God is only going to break through the box we have created.
Text: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
The Belly of the Beast
Since having my knee surgery I’ve been doing my best to rehabilitate my knee and get back to full strength. This means visiting the gym and doing exercise. I spend some time running of the treadmill and the elliptical machine. These are not my favourite activities and so to distract myself I usually tune into the TV screen on the machine. Usually, I watch sports.
As we are in the middle of winter there are a lot of hockey highlights. I am always astounded, surprised even by the skill of hockey players. Their ability to control the puck and the shots they make on net. It is incredible how some of these shots end up scoring. What is even more surprising and perhaps even more pleasing is watching a goaltender make a well timed save. When this happens I’m surprised, the player making the shot is surprised and sometimes even the goaltender is surprised.
Strong offensive and defensive plays make hockey, or any sport, exciting to watch. I find it is always more enjoyable, more surprising when the outcome is in doubt, when we don’t know exactly who will win.
Our passage from the Old Testament is full of surprising outcomes. It is the story of a rebellious child of God. The tale of the man swallowed by a whale. It includes a prayer of thanksgiving. And it is a story of repentance. Jonah is a book which has endured in the imagination for centuries. It carries with it certain elements of myth that persevere and tell us something about ourselves.
The end of the story, where God spares the Ninevites would have been a surprise to those who first heard this story. The people of Nineveh and the people of Israel were not friends. That God would spare them from destruction would have been surprising. They may have been scratching their heads wondering what to make of this story.
I find the story surprising for other reasons. To me it is always refreshing to be reminded just how wide God’s love for us is. It is a surprise which never gets old and is always fresh.
The real surprise in the book of Jonah is that Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches. Jonah has spend the first two chapters of the book doing everything in his power to avoid preaching in Nineveh. He has rebelled against God’s commands. He’s chartered a ship to take him in the opposite direction. When a storm rages up the sailor’s toss him overboard, rightly recognizing that God is not pleased.
Jonah is swallowed by a whale and it is only there that he comes before God in prayer and is rescued. He then goes to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance. I have to imagine that in his heart of hearts Jonah does not want to do this task. I also believe that it was likely his hope that the Ninevites would not repent and that God would destroy them.
One thing is clear at the beginning of our passage today. Everyone in it, Jonah and the Ninevites, are all as good as dead. Jonah is certainly spiritually dead. Having rebelled against God and choosing to follow his own desires. Jonah is unwilling to see God’s goodness and loving purpose.
Jonah only goes and preaches once he’s been vomited from the whale. Then God once again says to him, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This is the same command that God gives to Jonah at the beginning of the book. The message has not changed. Go and preach.
Which makes me wonder what Nineveh was like. Why did God take an interest in the people there? Why was Jonah so set against going there? Was Nineveh the proverbial town on the other side of the tracks? Was it the last place on earth you’d willingly go to?
I suppose the real question is what is our Nineveh? What is the place where we do not want to travel to? The place that we are trying to avoid? Part of the message of Jonah is that we can try to avoid a thing, but eventually it is probably going to come around anyway. And when it does how are we going to react to it? Are we going to proclaim a message of good news or are we going to clamp up, slink out of the room and hope we aren’t noticed?
It’s a powerful message. Earlier this week in the United States it was Martin Luther King Jr. day. An important day for a variety of reasons, for understanding how Christians can act in response to issues of social justice, to recognize the cost that can come with such action and also to think how we can respond in our own time and circumstances to issues that are important.
Martin Luther King didn’t go looking for a cause. However, a cause came looking for him. He was thrust, led by God to be the figurehead for the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. If you read about Martin Luther King you realize that he had moments of doubt, moments when he wondered if he was up to the task. While I won’t say he tried to flee like Jonah did, I do wonder if he ever asked that age old question, ‘Why me?’ Why does it have to be me that leads this charge.
Yet he did. He preached a message of equality for all people, as he understood it, as he believed God wanted it for all people.
Jonah didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites, but God wanted to remind the people of Israel that God’s love was available for all people. There were and are no favourites. What we witness is God acting as a radically free agent, unrestrained form human expectations. God moves outside of Jonah’s theological understanding. In other words, God’s actions inform Jonah about how God works in the world. God breaks free of the box that Jonah had constructed. Jonah learns that God is interested in more than just Israel. God is concerned with all of creation, will all people.
What else might God be concerned about that is outside of our vision of God? Might God have concerns to things which we have hardened our hearts? The story of Jonah tells us to check our expectations and to be open to broader understanding. We don’t know where or how God is going to chose to act, of where God is going to lead us. What the story of Jonah tells us is that no matter how hard and how often we resist, God will lead us to where we are supposed to be. The good news is that God has provided us with a message of good news that we can preach. News which I encourage you to share with words and actions at all times. Amen.