Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Should I Not Pity?

Jonah 1:1-3 and 4:1-11

One of the most common perceptions about the differences between the Old and New Testaments is that the New Testament message is for everyone, but the Old Testament Message was only for one people, only for Israel. But that’s not really true. God’s people have always been called to be a blessing to all nations. God told Abraham at the very beginning of these people called Israel, "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you." And there are plenty of stories in the Old Testament of Israel being a blessing to people of other nations and of foreigners coming in and becoming a part of the covenant people.

But Israel did not always remember that they were to be a blessing to other nations. They frequently became self-centered and "parochial" in their thinking. So it should be no surprise that Jonah resisted God’s calling when he was told to go to Nineveh.

Nineveh was one of the most prominent cities in the Assyrian Empire, and at times it served as the capital. But it was in Assyria. And Assyria was both an empire on the march and an enemy of Israel. Within about 50 years of this message, they would destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And they would almost do the same to Judah, the Southern Kingdom. And they were not very kind or of good morals. They did the same wicked things that other nations did: Idolatry, prostitution, etc. But what Assyria was really known for was their cruelty in war. They prescribed to the idea of war that if you are so terribly ruthless, so bloody, so over-the-top vicious to your enemies, then no one will want to fight you. They’ll just surrender.

So when Jonah was called to preach to Nineveh, he went the opposite direction. Not because he was afraid to preach, but rather because he hated Assyria. He was happy for God to destroy them. And he certainly didn’t want to preach a message of repentance there.

Nineveh was about 600 miles to the northeast of Israel, so he went west. First he went down to the coast, to the town of Joppa. Then he went down into a ship. Then he went down below the deck and went to sleep. Eventually, we know that he went down into the ocean and down into the belly of the "great fish."

Maybe the author is trying to tell us something there: Running away from God’s will is always a downward journey, a journey away from relationship with God. God is known through obedience to his will. So we can’t know God if we are going against his will.

Jonah’s journey away from God’s will began at Joppa. Joppa, and here’s today’s interesting fact, is the only natural seaport on the coast of Israel. He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. Tarshish was a Phoenician city, the Phoenicians being the sea-going peoples of the ancient Near East. But we don’t where Tarshish was. It was the farthest known point, but we don’t know where. Most scholars think it was in what is today Spain, which was as far west as one could go before venturing out into the Atlantic. But some people think the Phoenicians went even farther than that. Some think they came all the way to the Americas, though that’s just conjecture. Regardless, it was a long way away.

There’s a storm at sea. The sailors ditch the cargo and cry out, each to his own god. By their way of thinking, someone’s god must be mad at them, so they each cry out to their own, hoping one of them will save them.

And meanwhile, Jonah is asleep below the deck. While others face mortal danger, the prophet of God sleeps carelessly, and all the while, he is the one to blame! They wake him up and tell him, "Pray to your God, too! Perhaps he can save us!"

They cast lots to determine which of them has brought on this calamity. And the lot falls to Jonah. Finally, despite his best efforts, he is compelled by God to preach to pagans! He tells them that it is his fault that the storm has come upon them. He is to blame because he is running away from God.

And of all the things, the pagan sailors show more courage and compassion and nobility than the prophet of God. They are unwilling to throw him overboard. They try to save his life, at the risk of their own. While he refuses to save lives by preaching God’s word, they try to save his life. But to no avail. Finally, they relent and throw him overboard.

The sea calms and a "great sea creature" swallows him whole. According to the understanding of people in the ancient Near East, both the sea and its creatures represent the powers of death and chaos. Yet God controls them both.

We have no way of knowing exactly what kind of creature swallowed Jonah. The Hebrew word is just a generic word for "sea creature." Most people figure it was a whale, since whales are about the only thing big enough to swallow a person whole! Of course, the skeptic can say, "It’s impossible for a person to survive being swallowed by a whale." Well there actually was a case from the 19th century of a whaler being swallowed alive and found alive in the whale the next day. Weird. And of course, we believe in a God who can do the impossible.

Finally humbled, Jonah prays to God. He has been cut off from the land, from the realm of the living, and from the Temple of God. But nonetheless, he has been saved by God. So he says to God, "I will praise you, make sacrifices to you, and I will fulfill my vows," referring to his prophetic office. "For salvation comes from the Lord alone."

He is spat up and heads off to Nineveh. We are told that the city is so large it would take him three days to preach in Nineveh. Either that refers to the whole district of Nineveh, which was larger than just the city, or it means it would take three days to preach in every part of the city. It was a big city, 120,000 people, and the city wall was 8 miles around.

But Jonah is a rather half-hearted messenger: 40 days till destruction! That’s it. But it works. People repent. People respond to his message because God’s Holy Spirit was already at work among them, moving them to repentance. And they repent, the whole way: ashes, sackcloth, fasting. From the king on down to the animals, they repent. I mean, the animals probably didn’t know they were repenting, but they did fast!

And of course, Jonah was over-joyed that his message was so gladly received. Um, not so much. "I knew you’d do this" he cries to God. "I knew how gracious and compassionate you are! That’s why I didn’t want to come here and preach to these people!" He wanted Nineveh to be destroyed. "Just kill me now."

And he goes out from the city and sits down to wait and hope God might yet destroy it. He builds a little shelter to protect himself from the sun. And God is gracious to Jonah. A plant, a castor bean plant, grows up to shade him from the oppressive sun. And it makes him feel a little better.

Till the next day, when God sends a worm to destroy the plant. God gives life and God takes it away. And once again, Jonah wishes to die.

"Is it right for you to be angry?" God asks Jonah.

"Yes, angry enough to die." See how self-centered Jonah is. He is upset about a plant dying because it gave him a little shade. But he’s not upset about a city of 120,000 people being destroyed.

"Should I not pity?" God asks.

There’s no answer. There’s no answer to that question because it’s up to each of us to answer it. And I think the truth is that there is a little Jonah lurking in the heart of every person. We all have at least a little bit of desire to see disaster fall on the wicked, especially if they have been wicked to us.

How do we treat the worst of people? How do we treat the most vile offenders? What do we think of people who murder, rape, abuse children? Are we eager to share the good news of God’s salvation with them? Or would we rather they just got what they had coming to them!

No matter what a person has done, this is still true: Each and every human being in this world has been created in the image of God. They are loved by God. And Christ died for them. No matter what they’ve done. God still desires them to repent of sin and come to life in Jesus Christ. And that should also be our desire.

Should we not pity? Yes, we should.

Verse of the Day...