Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jonah Moments and Ninevite Responses

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.’ So 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. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then 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. Human 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. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 When 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.  - Jonah 3:1-10 (Reading from the commemoration of Phillips Brooks, Bishop and preacher)

The story of Jonah is one that everybody remembers a little bit about. Jonah was a prophet and prophets frequently get messages from God that they usually don't want to hear much less follow. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. If the repentance didn't come,  God was going to destroy the place. Jonah listened and then ran the other way. He got on a ship headed in the opposite direction and all sorts of things start to happen.

The ship ran into major turbulence that got worse by the moment. The sailors drew lots to see whose fault it was, and guess who drew the short straw? They resisted throwing overboard because, after all, he was a prophet, but eventually, after Jonah pressed the issue, he was tossed in the drink and the sea calmed down immediately. The boat sailed on   and Jonah found himself inside a giant fish. Three days later the fish tossed him up onto dry land and the next part of Jonah's story begins.

God again said go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, or else. Jonah went, and there he found a city which Scripture tells us took a three-day walk  just to get to the other side of town. The place was huge! On the first day he walked all day and then stopped preached to the people to repent with sackcloth and ashes and they would be saved, every man, boy, woman, and animal, from the highest to the lowest. Prophets seldom hit a home run the first time they speak and prophesy, but somehow or the other Jonah did. From the king down to the barnyard animals, everyone fasted. The people prayed, sacrificed, and repented.

It's not in this reading, but following this prophecy, Jonah climbed the hill overlooking the city and was looking forward to watching Nineveh burn to the ground or be destroyed in some other spectacular fashion. When the people actually did what Jonah had told them God expected them to do, God cancelled the pyrotechnics and Jonah was disgusted.

That image reminds us of times in our lives when we were hurt or damaged in some way, especially if we felt we were in the right. We waited for the wrath of God to smite those who injured us, and wanted see them get what we felt was coming to them but it didn't happen. Of course, we don't want that punishment for ourselves, even if we have committed the same sort of offense. We just want it to happen those who have wronged us. Short of taking matters into our own hands, though, things don't always go as we want them to. Luckily for us, God doesn't do a lot of smiting these days, especially on request.

What made the king and people to listen to Jonah and repent? Perhaps it was that the king saw the risk and made the decision that some sackcloth and ashes were a small price to pay for avoiding oblivion. The king made his decision and the people followed. Perhaps, though, the conversion was sincere and lasting. At any rate, this time God didn't have to carry through with the promised destruction.

Each of us probably has Jonah moments from time to time. When we are hurt or feel under attack, it's not always so easy to stop everything and change directions. It's not easy to put away the feelings of wanting vindication for ourselves and punishment for someone else. Jonah wanted to see that punishment and that caused him to go outside of town, build a booth and sit there and sulk when it didn't happen. It's hard to think of someone sulking because a huge city was safe from destruction and all its citizenry were saved, but it does happen.

It's almost shameful to acknowledge that, but like so many other negative things and feelings, logic and empathy often go out the window and the urge for revenge becomes paramount, The human side of us beats the Godly side, even when we know we are not doing what God wants us to do.

It is good for us to have the Nineveh moments that counteract the Jonah ones, moments when we acknowledge God and turn to doing God's will. Perhaps the act of forgiving those who have wronged us instead of waiting gleefully for them to get what we feel is coming to them is a repentance we can do, a turning away from evil and toward Godliness. It's attainable, but not easy. But, like almost everything else, we won't know we can do it until we try.

We need to listen to the message of Jonah, just not follow his example. This time, words can speak louder than actions -- unless you're a Ninevite.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 23, 2016.

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