We began our teaching time this week by reading the story found in Jonah Chapter 3, while everyone was wearing a little square of Sack Cloth on a string,
Jonah Series – Week 3
by Randell Neudorf
January 24th, 2016
Scripture Passage: Jonah 3
Over the last 2 weeks we have been journeying with this prophet named Jonah.
The first week Nick told the story of Jonah the runaway. We got a picture of how violent the society of Nineveh was and why Jonah had good reason to not want step into that city out of fear for his life.
Last week Jeanette talked about Jonah relenting to God in his prayer. She drew a parallel to Jonah with some thoughts from Henri Nouwen. I especially liked this quote,
“Whenever you pray you profess that you are not God nor want to be God, that you haven’t reached your goal yet, that you will never reach it in this life, that you must constantly stretch out your hands and wait for the gift of life.”
(Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands p.26)
At the Commons whenever we decide on a book of the bible for our teaching focus we always buy a commentary from Menno Media’s “Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.” They are written from an Anabaptist perspective.
We can use the word “Anabaptist” as short hand for valuing:
- and Following Jesus.
The Jonah commentary is by a guy named Eugene F. Roop (Any quotes I use unless otherwise noted are from his commentary on Jonah).
A great example of this Anabaptist flavoured interpretation of scripture can be found by looking at the idea of “God’s Judgement” in today’s story.
Eugene talks about the word we translate as “judgement,” the judgement that God will bring down on the people of Nineveh, actually being the same word used for Evil in the original language.
Now the Judgement-Evil of God isn’t the same Evil-wrongdoing of Nineveh, but the violence of judgement is still wrapped up in the evil of this fallen, broken, messed up world. (P144).
God’s Judgement or Violence isn’t Sin but it also isn’t part of God’s ultimate desire for us.
That is where an Anabaptist interpretation differs slightly from some other Christian interpretations. There is this lens of God as Jesus:
- who forgives
- loves enemies,
- who called us all to be a people of peace.
This Anabaptist lens colours all that we read in scripture. I’m not saying that Anabaptists have the only or best interpretation, but it definitely has a different colour or flavour. It is enough of a bend that if you follow the path through it takes you on a different course. And that excites me, because it helps me reconcile the big scary war like God of the Old Testament with the crazy, radical message of love that we see in the life and teachings of Jesus.
I know this is getting off topic from Jonah, but I think with so many of us taking turns teaching from the front, it is good for us to talk about why we pass these commentaries around each week. It is also good for us to recognise that there is sometimes a bias introduced into the stories we read by both the people who translate the bible and the people who write the commentaries.
With all that being said let’s get back to Jonah…
Eugene’s Commentary observes that,
“…Jonah has not repented in his prayer in the great fish (2:2-9). His prayer is one of thanksgiving not repentance. Furthermore, his later action—in Nineveh and outside the city—suggests that any change in the prophet’s attitude towards his vocation [his calling] is [at] best partial. …Perhaps Jonah has simply [accepted or] acquiesced to God’s inescapable power…” (p.134)
Now Eugene doesn’t say this is a given, because the narrator leaves Jonah’s motives mostly up for debate, but if we take a sneak peek ahead to Jonah’s eventual temper tantrum in chapter 4 (he actually gets mad at God for forgiving Nineveh and not destroying them), we can see that repentance and asking for forgiveness are suspiciously absent from Jonah’s vocabulary.
In today’s story we see that the unrepentant Jonah is also a bit of a slacker. I had never noticed this before but Eugene points out that yes Jonah “…carries out his prophetic responsibility, but with only minimal effort.” He takes one day to travel into the city, a city that is so big that it would have actually taken three full days to go from one side to the other, and during this one day trip he doesn’t actually say anything to anyone until he reaches the end of that first day. When Jonah finally does say something he just announces a very flat uninspired judgement statement, I can hear him say his message in a very quiet monotone voice, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4).
There is no call for repentance, no accusation of wrong. So much is missing from this message from God. A successful prophetic message was always seen as a chance for the judged to repent and be saved (p139). That is the point of warning people of the coming destruction. A warning of destruction isn’t God’s way of saying “I told you so!” it is God’s call back to life, a life lived well. In Jonah’s rendition of a prophetic message, its like he is saying, “Oh by the way, you suck, you are all going to die. Not my problem. I’ve had a long day, I’m going to bed.” Eugene points out that,
“If we assume that Nineveh’s government is in the middle of the city, then Jonah does not even go that far.” (p.140).
Jonah is following the letter of what God has asked him to do but not the spirit of what God has asked. He’s not really telling the city about God’s warning. He doesn’t tell City Hall, he doesn’t take an add out in the paper, he doesn’t get a bull horn and stand on a street corner like scary street preacher. He just whispers it to a couple people in one little unimportant part of town. So Jonah is really dropping the ball on this one.
Jonah’s message is so small that he is actually a side character with a bit part in his own book. Today’s chapter isn’t really about Jonah, it is actually about the people Nineveh. Jonah was just clocking in his hours to get the job done but the people of Ninevah hear something in Jonah’s lack luster message and rise to the occasion. It is a grass roots movement of change. We read in Jonah 3:5 that,
“The people of Nineveh believed God’s message. So they decided that everyone should fast, and all the people, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth to show that they had repented.”
This is a change that starts from the bottom and explodes up through their social and political system. The King soon hears about the people’s movement and institutes it as law. Repentance and fasting are taken on by everyone, even their animals. Sack cloth for everyone. The Hollywood twist in our story today is that the repentance, fasting and sack cloth actually worked!. We are told that,
“God saw what they did; he saw that they had given up their wicked behavior. So he changed his mind and did not punish them as he had said he would.” (Jonah 3:10)
Should we be surprised that the people of Nineveh recognized their wrongs so quickly? Maybe it is surprising, there are times when we are blind to our own short comings, the times when we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m not so sure though. I think many times (maybe ever most of the time) we have a pretty good idea of where and when we have screwed up. People don’t usually like to admit their sins out loud, and we are all very good at making up excuses to justify away things that nag our consciences, but if we are being really honest with ourselves, and push came to shove, we know our own sins and wrongs. We know it deep in our bones, in our souls, the stuff we do that we know we shouldn’t do.
When God changes his mind in this story, Eugene says that the word often translated as relented, or changed is actually the word used for “Repent” (p.143). So God sees the people’s repentance from their evil ways and so God “repents” of the “evil” God was preparing for Nineveh. We are made in God’s image, and in today’s story God strangely “repents” from “evil.” God’s very nature is a repentance from evil, by this I mean a continual and eternal move towards the good, the better. I know this sounds a little heretical but that is because we are playing with words here that are standing in for very big divine ideas.
To boil it down, what I would like you to take away from this is that:
- We are made in the image of God.
- At our best we reflect the Nature of God.
- God always moves toward the Good (in a strange way this like God Repenting).
- Since we are made in the image of God we have the built in ability and desire to Repent, to move towards the Good.
Now, we don’t always reflect our maker well, so repentance isn’t a forgone conclusion, but we were made to move towards the good.
It is interesting that Jesus talks about something called the Sign of Jonah. In Matthew 12:38-41 we read that,
“Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a sign from heaven.”
But Jesus replied:
You want a sign because you are evil and won’t believe! But the only sign you will get is the sign of the prophet Jonah. He was in the stomach of a big fish for three days and nights, just as the Son of Man will be deep in the earth for three days and nights. On the day of judgment the people of Nineveh[a] will stand there with you and condemn you. They turned to God when Jonah preached, and yet here is something far greater than Jonah.”
Eugene connects this idea of the Sign of Jonah by saying that,
“Evil persists in every generation, as does the call for repentance. People do respond to the call, often people whom we would not expect to answer. Others do not.” (p.144-145)
At The Commons, (for better or for worse) we don’t generally call people out on their wrongs, their sins. I would hope that we have honest conversations of concern to encourage people to make healthy decisions that move us closer in our relationship with God but we don’t kick people out of the community for falling short of what we see as God’s expectations. Some churches have rules and codes that are public and accountable. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that, I’m held accountable by our denomination and MCEC Area Church – and that isn’t wrong, that is a good thing.
I read Jeanette’s notes from last week and I saw that she called you Hypocrites. Well, not quite, she diplomatically asked, “Aren’t we all hypocrites?” I’m going to be a little less diplomatic and let you in on poorly kept secret…
“You suck!” It’s true. You mess up, you sin, and everyone knows it. I know it, because I know I suck, I sin, I mess up on a daily, perhaps hourly, maybe even on a minute by minute basis some days. I’m horrible.
Sometimes we like to pat ourselves on the back at The Commons,
- look how community minded we are,
- look how progressive,
- look how participatory and inclusive we are.
- we are church for people who don’t fit into church.
- Look how great we are.
- We aren’t judgmental.
And I hope that those things are true (though we all know they often aren’t). But that judgmental part, there is something there. Perhaps we have room for healthy judgement, for a call to repent, to turn ever more towards the divine good.
Have you ever noticed how The Commons has a bent towards lament, towards dark topics? What is the most meaningful Gathering each year at the Commons? For many it is our annual Lament gathering on Good Friday. We often joke about how The Commons likes a good “dark and mournful” gathering. I think that is us honestly feeling God’s judgement and our own authentic desire for repentance. We don’t publicly call out people on their wrongs but I think we do leave space for repentance, room to interact with God and to point everyone toward God’s forgiveness and God’s power to provoke change.
Why do we not point fingers and name deeds? Just like the Ninevites we already know we stand judged, we don’t need Jonah to list what are wrongs are. We just need to be give space (perhaps 40 days) to repent, and to start to change our ways.
40 days of Lent are coming. In just under 3 weeks we are entering a season of sack cloth and ashes, of a call to repentance. I would suggest over the next week that wear your sack cloth square. You could wear it:
- Under your shirt
- Pin it to the inside of your jacket
- Put it somewhere like on a mirror that you look at every day
Do it for the next week, or up to the start of Lent, or whatever is useful. But I would highly suggest at least trying to let this sack cloth hang around you for the next week. Let it be a reminder that we all need to repent, we all need to change our ways. Perhaps seeing the sack cloth over the next while will be your own Sign of Jonah. A gentle reminder (or perhaps a not so gentle reminder) of what God is calling you out of and into.
We all have a need for repentance. As we keep this Sign of Jonah with us for the next little while we might start to feel strange. We might feel convicted or judged about something. That is ok. That is our chance to change, to pray, to ask God for forgiveness and the strength to try again when we don’t get it right.
This might be opening up a can of worms, and I’m sorry about that.
God might end up convicting you about something that you need outside support with, and that is ok. We are made to live in community so sometimes we can’t manage change on our own, sometimes we need to enter into accountability with each other to make change happen. If that seems to be where God is calling you to, then come talk to someone about that. It could be me or someone else that you trust at the Commons.
Maybe someone from The Commons wouldn’t work. We could still help you find a spiritual director or an accountability resource outside of us Commoners.
That might be getting ahead of things right now. I just wanted to make sure it was said out loud and that we all know that we don’t need to face these kinds of things alone.
What you are being asked to do today is to take some space and listen to the change you are being called into.
Fish Story: the tale of Jonah