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Sunday Worship 5 May | Jonah 3: Jonah Preaches

Jonah 3 (NIV)
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

So Jonah has been spat out onto the shore, and now God tells him again to go to the city of Nineveh with the message he has been given. It's interesting that the text specifically says that God speaks to Jonah a second time, because that suggests that God has not spoken directly to Jonah since the first time he was told to go to Nineveh, and that means that God has not told Jonah that his rescue is dependent on his promising to go to Nineveh after all. As I said last week, God has not controlled Jonah but convinced him, and has done so not through fear, but through a remarkable act of faithfulness. 

I have spoken before about prophetic imagination, which I use to mean engaging with scripture in a way that looks at the gaps and the possibilities in the text, asking what happened between the stories, or what might have happened if people had made different choices. Here I wonder how the story would have played out if Jonah had remained defiantly opposed to going to Nineveh. Would he have run away again? Would God have brought him back again? How many chances would God have given Jonah before he chose someone else to be Nineveh’s prophet? I can't know the answers to any of these questions, so perhaps it is pointless asking them, but they are a starting point for more personal reflections. How many times have I shied away from doing the right thing? How many chances has God given me to make the good choice? Are there tasks I have left undone that others have picked up?

Bringing ourselves back to the story, Jonah sets off for Nineveh, and here is a gap that is crying out for our prophetic imaginations. I said last week that Nineveh was hundreds of miles inland, so how did he get there? It would have been a long walk, so did he find a donkey? Did he brave another boat and sail up the Tigris River? If you want to try and track Jonah's journey, you won't find Nineveh on a modern map, because the city was mostly in ruins by the thirteenth century, but what was left was absorbed into the city now called Mosul in northern Iraq. If that name sounds familiar, that is probably because it was captured by Islamic State in 2014, and the fight to retake it in 2016 was the largest military operation since the capture of Baghdad in 2003. In fact that operation was called “We Are Coming, Nineveh”, and it was marked by human rights abuses such as the use of chemical weapons and child soldiers. I first heard David Benjamin Blower's musical setting of the Book of Jonah at around the same time as the Battle of Mosul, and I remember thinking that the prospect of preaching to that city sounded as terrifying now as it must have done to Jonah. 

However he makes the journey, Jonah enters Nineveh, and after all the trouble it took to get him there, we might have expected a noteworthy piece of oratory, but instead we get an eight word warning. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” At least it's eight words in English, it's only five in Hebrew. Surely he must have said more than that, otherwise the Ninevites would have had no reason to think that their repentance could redeem them. But then, did he say those exact words at all? I said his message was five words in Hebrew, but Hebrew was not the language of the Assyrian empire. A little research suggests that Nineveh was a bilingual city with people speaking Akkadian and Aramaic. The latter is a sister language to Hebrew, and so it is possible that Jonah was either speaking Aramaic, or his Hebrew was intelligible enough to enough of the city for word to get around. 

There is another possibility though, which seems particularly interesting when we remember that Pentecost is only two weeks away. On that occasion, the disciples spoke and were understood by everyone in their own language. Could something similar have happened here? Did Jonah speak and the Spirit interpret? It certainly seems that there must have been a move of the Spirit, because the response to Jonah is extraordinary, and it is hard to imagine that even the most brilliant speech could have achieved it alone. Our words are important and we should use them carefully, but it is reassuring to remember that the Spirit speaks alongside us, and can work through even the most faltering and imperfect speech.

So the Ninevites believe God and the entire city fasts and puts on sackcloth. That fact that this includes the animals is an odd little detail, and some scholars have used it to argue that the book was written as a satire. Maybe so, but even then perhaps we can read into it something about redemption being for the whole of creation. At any rate, the fasting and the sackcloth are an outward sign of an inward grace, to borrow the language often used to describe the sacraments of the church. The people are instructed to call upon God and renounce their evil ways, in the hope that God will act with compassion, which of course God does, because as the prophets have long told us, the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about the fact that this repentance and redemption appears to be won through threats of violence. It does look rather more like controlling the people through fear than convincing them through faithfulness. And yet there is another way of reading Jonah's message of doom. Perhaps he was not warning them of punishment but of consequences. Perhaps it was not so much that God would rain down fiery judgement on an unrepentant city, but that a violent society would inevitably bring about its own destruction. Perhaps God was always trying to save them from themselves, and the city's change of heart came from recognising the consequences of its own cruelty.

The theologian Walter Brueggeman also uses the phrase ‘prophetic imagination’, but in a different way to the one in which I used it earlier. For him it is a way of seeing the world with both lament and hope, recognising it for what it is, but also seeing in it all it can be. I wonder if Jonah called the Ninevites to use their own prophetic imaginations, to really look at themselves and think about what they could be. I wonder what would happen if we used our own prophetic imaginations. What is it that we need to see about ourselves and the world we live in? What is that we can be? What do we need to lament and what is God calling us to hope?

I said last week that David Benjamin Blower described Jonah as a radical story about interrupting empire and redeeming it through the politics of enemy-love, and it is in this chapter that we really begin to see that play out. Jonah appears as an outsider to interrupt the violence and oppression of the Assyrian Empire. He is alone and he is a stranger and he has lost everything to the sea, and that makes him incredibly vulnerable, and yet he makes himself more vulnerable by standing up and speaking out. That must have been unthinkable in a city known for delighting in executing those who stood against it, so no matter the content of his words, this act says that another world is possible. One in which people are willing to risk themselves for the other, to love them in deed even if they are wary of them in spirit.

David Benjamin Blower ends the main section of his book Sympathy for Jonah with the following words, which I will also end with for this morning: “One day there will be an interruption, and imperial time will stop, as it has done many times before, and everyone will wait for it to start up again, but it won't. It finally won't be able to fool itself into being anymore, and all its machinery will be hammered into something good and beautiful, or thrown onto the fire. And then we will know that the world to come is finally here.” May that day come, and way we do all we can to participate in it.

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