As there are a good number of references to the text in what I want to say this morning, some may like to have the page open in the pew bibles, please feel free, it's on page 816.
Let me recap some of the main points of the story so far. Jonah is called by God to proclaim God's message to Nineveh. It seems much like many other prophetic calls, but Nineveh was a mortal enemy of Israel, being the Assyrians' capital and Jonah, it seems, did not want to go there. He does not want to deliver God's message and just in case there is any doubt he flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish instead.
Then Jonah's ship is beset by a storm and the sailors manage to determine the storm is Jonah's fault and throw him overboard in order to still the storm and save themselves - mind you, if I had paid my fare and was thrown overboard, I'd definitely be looking for my money back!
Jonah though, is swallowed by a large fish, he calls out to God in his distress - composing a rather nice psalm in the process by the way. He is then spat up onto dry land. And the book is halfway over already.
Now we have this little literary gem in the middle of the collection of shorter prophetic books of Hebrew scriptures, but the more I look at it the stranger this seems!
We are past halfway through and there hasn't been a word of prophecy yet! -just a funny yam about a prophetic runaway and a fish eats man, man is sorry and cries out to God, story.
And today we read of a huge city, a very short proclamation from the reluctant prophet and an unprecedented response by the whole population, that would make even Billy Graham blush. Even the animals are in sack cloth! From king in the palace to cow in the shed all respond to the call to repent. Wow! - but one does get the feeling there might be a little hyperbole present.
So it is not a regular prophetic book in the normal sense. It is more a book about a prophet and more than that, It is a book about attitude and outlook,
about God's all encompassing compassion,about the free offer of new beginnings and thechallenges that gives us parochial humans.
When the scribes and Pharisees asked him for a sign, Jesus reply, in Matthew 12 is:
"An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah, dead three days in the belly of the sea monster."And just like with the scribes and Pharisees where prejudice and doctrine could sour compassion, the book of Jonah deals as much with God's gracious offering of new beginnings to all and sundry as the Good news of Jesus does. It is no wonder Jesus quotes this parallel!
The story in Chapter 3
The theme here is New Beginnings.
Jonah concluded his psalm at the end of Chapter 2 with the affirmation that:
"Deliverance belongs to the Lord."Jonah experiences a deliverance from the great fish and the cycle of the story begins again with exactly the same call as in chapter 1, verse 2.
Then the prophetic proclamation Jonah gives to the people of Nineveh is only 5 words in the Hebrew. That's a short sermon by any one's measure!!
Not only is he brief, but the message is not made in God's name, there is no appeal made on reasonable grounds, no request, nothing about sin or why the punishment is deserved. Simply, he says, "Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown."
It is short, but effective.
Very effective. So why has Jonah been so reluctant?
With a success rate like this he ought to feel great, but no, Jonah is not happy at all!!
The writer has very skillfully set up a story full of the overtones of a key dilemma for the Israelites.
The story of Jonah bears witness to God having a very different attitude towards Nineveh than that which we see in the book of Nahum, where we read:
"Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty - no end to plunder. Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead - no end to the corpses. ... Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?"They were not the best of friends!
But what does God do to show his care for Nineveh? Gods sends one of his own prophets.
It seems likely that the original readers of Jonah would have had an outlook more like Nahum's than the offer of grace apparent in the story of Jonah.
This third chapter gives a stunning account of the real possibility of change. It tells of repentance and its effects on a massive scale. The response of the people is positively radical and it involves everyone. Perhaps it's exaggerated a little to rub the point in back home, that non Jews can respond to God.
Is this a story to make people of faith re-examine their attitudes to others, is it a confrontation of bigotry or xenophobia? Is the book of Jonah the first anti racist text? These are all open possibilities.
But regardless of the writers intentions or our preferred interpretation this is a stunning story of the gracious offer of God; the offer of a new beginning, of a second chance. Jonah, the runaway - the man who knew God and who should have known better than to try to escape his call, this disobedient servant of God is given another chance.
Nineveh, the great and terrible city, all it's inhabitants are given to opportunity to repent - to show that they are sorry and turn themselves around - the grace of another chance is given to them on a city - wide scale.
And for people of faith, who find this book in their scriptures, we have the opportunity to look again at our openness to God's calling, to think again about our attitude to the neighbors we might not like, to reconsider our prejudices and be astounded again at the all encompassing compassion of God.
In our world today there are many "great and terrible cities," terrible for many different reasons. There are currently millions of refugees across the world, violence, civil war and conflict in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. There is government repression in El Salvador and Burma amongst others. About 38,000 children die every day from lack of basic needs due to poverty. Latin America has over 30 million children living and working on the streets, child slavery is still rampant in many countries.
- Does the story of Jonah say something to us who are fortunate about what our attitude to "Nineveh's" of our day should be?
We can pray for people who need a second chance and a new start, as well as for people suffering in some of the terrible cities of our world today, there are things we can all do, as with Jonah, it might all come down to our attitude.
May God renew in us the openness and the whole breadth of the compassion of the God we meet here. For as Paul says, "I pray that you may have the power to comprehend... what is the breadth and length, and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." Amen.