The Word of the Lord came to Jonah about God’s world – specifically about Jonah’s neighbors in Nineveh. God told Jonah to go at once and cry out against the wickedness in Nineveh. Like most prophets, Jonah resisted. He didn’t want to do what God wanted him to do because it was scary. What if the Ninevites struck out against him in anger? What if they attacked Jonah or arrested him? Actually, for Jonah, there was one possibility that was even worse: what if the people of Nineveh listened to what he had to say and what if God forgave them?
So Jonah famously fled. Instead of heading to Nineveh, he boarded a boat headed in the opposite direction and tried to escape God’s call. Then a giant storm, then a giant fish, then God saves Jonah and he has little choice but to head to Nineveh to deliver God’s message.
Like most prophets, Jonah resisted. Unlike most prophets, Jonah was actually successful in delivering his message. “’Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God;” Just like that, Jonah spoke a few words and the people of Nineveh recognized their sins and changed their ways.
But that doesn’t make Jonah happy. That’s not what he wanted. Jonah knew better than God.
God sent Jonah to change the world but Jonah knew better and said “No. I’m not going.”
God said to deliver a message but Jonah knew better and said “No. They’re not going to listen.”
The people of Nineveh changed their ways and turned to God but Jonah knew better and said to God “Punish them anyway.”
God forgave Nineveh and God forgave Jonah but Jonah knew better and said “Let me die because I’m angry and hopeless.”
Jonah is given an amazing opportunity to do God’s work but because of his ignorance and self-love and insensitivity he can’t see God at work in his own life. Because of suspicion and hatred he cannot see the wonderful world that God has created and given us.
We have taken God’s world and divided it up and built walls and borders to separate God’s people. And instead of giving all a just and equal sharing of God’s gifts, we hoard them and fight about them. We demonize our neighbors and declare pride in our own status or race or schooling above all others.
The Ninevites were different from Jonah. That’s not what made them bad – although they were, apparently, bad. God send Jonah to turn them from their wickedness. Jonah is called to speak out against the ways that they are acting against God’s will.
But even when the Ninevites responded to Jonah and turned away from their wicked ways and turned to God, even then Jonah chose to hate them. Jonah chose despair and hatred and fear over forgiveness.
It’s easy to look down on Jonah and judge him. We wish we could have the same gift of hearing God’s voice clearly tell us what to do. Maybe we’ve tried to tell others to change and turn away from their wickedness but odds are they didn’t listen or, if they did, they didn’t change as quickly as the Ninevites. But, like Jonah, we know better, we stubbornly hang on to our divisions and prejudices. We view others as our enemies, as less than human, as less than children of God.
The people of Nineveh change their way and Jonah say “I don’t care. I know better. They should still suffer.” And he goes up on a hill overlooking the city and he makes himself comfortable and he sits back and eagerly awaits watching God destroy the city and the people who live there.
Jonah could only see the people of Nineveh as enemies. He refused to see them as neighbors. He would rather see their destruction than witness – and participate in – their redemption. Jonah gets angry when Nineveh is not destroyed. Angry enough to die.
God showed mercy to the Ninevites after they repented and turned from their wicked ways. God showed mercy to Jonah even those he never does seem to repent or change his mind.
This story, like most of the stories in our scriptures and many of the songs in our hymnals, is part of our exploration of God’s world. It’s part of an amazing library of knowledge and wonder – an exploration of who we are and how we fit in.
The story of Jonah is yet another cry to love our neighbor. It’s a plea for us to look away from our own concerns to see how God is at work in our lives, the lives of others, and in this world.
We have taken God’s world and divided it with walls and borders; with ideological differences and religious differences and political differences. We look with fear and suspicion at others who don’t look like us or live like us or believe like us. We think we know better than God and that we can identify wickedness in others.
But time and time again, God counters our hatred with love. This world is a gift from God; a gift to all of God’s people; a gift that we are called to steward and to share.
We think we know better with our borders and armies and weapons but God’s way of hope is really the only way to survive.
Our Bible and our history books show how we have chosen to believe that we know better, chosen over and over and over again to sit on the hill with Jonah and pray for the obliteration of the ones we consider our enemies.
Since the beginning of time, we’ve divide ourselves into cliques and tribes and states and factions; choosing to categorize and classify ourselves based on our differences rather than what we have in common.
We know better; we must defend ourselves from our enemies, we must meet violence with violence and hatred with hatred, we must look out for people within the artificial borders we’ve drawn before we take care of others who live outside of them.
No matter how much we want to believe that God is only on our side, our story of war and hatred is not God’s story.
God’s story is the story of hope and forgiveness and love. The story of enemies like a Samaritan demonstrating a greater love than we would have expected. It’s the story of a Messiah who doesn’t appear in the center of power and fortune but is born in a manger to a family living on the margins of society. It’s not the story of a warrior Christ, it’s the story of a savior who chooses love over violence, who faces hatred and division with gentleness and compassion, who chooses his own death over the destruction of the ones who seek to destroy him.
God’s story is a story of hope and renewal. God’s story is a story of forgiveness and second chances. It shows us how – through care and goodness – fear will die and hope increase so that we can join in a common quest for justice, serving God’s world and all who share it.
God sends us to change the world, can we find the courage to follow the call?
God gives us a message to deliver, can we quiet the noise to hear what God is saying to us?
God calls us to respond to hate and fear with hope and love; to recognize all as neighbors and none as enemies; to accept grace for ourselves and trust God to handle forgiving others.
Can we accept God’s call or, like Jonah, do we think we know better?
Can we look beyond our own concerns, ignorance, self-love, and insensitivity to find God’s light healing our communities with love?
Can we find peace by getting rid of suspicion, hatred, conflict and fear so that we may be challenged by God’s goodness?
Or do we, like Jonah, think we know better?
O God of second chances, cover us with the shade of your hope. As we face a world of confusion and challenge, open our hearts to love and forgiveness. Take us down from our hills of judging others and send us into community to hear your call and to work with others to create the world that you intend for all of your people. This we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.