Jonah was a prophet in ancient Israel. We know nothing about him except what we are told in this short book of four chapters. In Jonah 1 God sent Jonah on a mission to preach in the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire was known for violence and brutality and Jonah was being sent directly into the center of enemy territory so he made a perfectly logical choice: he ran in the opposite direction.
Jonah got on a boat and fell asleep below deck. There was a storm and everyone else on the boat was afraid. Not Jonah—he was sound asleep. A common belief at the time was that when bad things happen, the gods must be punishing somebody so the sailors cast lots (drew straws) to see who had offended the gods. Jonah was picked so he came clean about trying to run away. The sailors threw him over has a human sacrifice. They felt bad about throwing him over. They asked forgiveness and offered other sacrifices. Jonah got swallowed by the fish. While inside the fish, Jonah had lots of time to reflect and pray. He probably thought he was dying and that God would abandon him because he had tried to run and wiggle out of his calling.
Have you ever felt like you should do something and you tried hard to avoid it? Maybe you thought you should visit or call someone? Maybe there was a difficult conversation you needed to have that you kept putting off? We often know the things we should do but they are not always convenient. Sometimes they are scary. Those moments when we avoid doing what we should do are the moments when we behave like Jonah.
But God didn’t give up on Jonah. God didn’t say, “Jonah you tried to run away so I’m just going to leave you there to rot in the fish.” God heard Jonah praying and still had work for him to do and so Jonah got spit up again.
In chapter 3 God speaks to Jonah again and sends him off to Nineveh. He still must do the thing he doesn’t want to do. So Jonah walks into the enemy capital and shouts, “Forty dies until you are all going to die. Forty days until your city is destroyed.” What do you think should happen? Why would anyone listen to Jonah? He is a foreigner—one of the conquered people who worships a different God.
But Jonah diligently preaches his message despite his fear of being in the middle of the enemy and a miracle happens. People listen to him. The next thing Jonah knows, the king is wearing sackcloth as sign of repentance and remorse and commanding the entire city to follow suite.
God decides they’ve heard the message and the city is not destroyed. As a side note, there is no archeological or historical evidence that the Assyrian empire ever changed from being a violent empire so it seems that the book of Jonah was written more to make a point than to remember history.
You would think Jonah would be pleased about this. He has just rescued an entire city from destruction. He has been successful in his mission. God is happy. The people of Nineveh are happy. Jonah is not happy.
In chapter 4, after Nineveh is saved from destruction, Jonah goes out and has a hissy fit. He complains to God. “Why didn’t you destroy them? They are the enemy. That’s why I ran away in the first place. I knew you were too nice and you weren’t going to destroy them. It didn’t matter whether I came here or not, the outcome would be the same. That city was not going to be destroyed.” Jonah is so upset about all of this he wanted to die.
God sends a vine that grows up overnight and shades Jonah from the desert sun. A worm comes and eats the vine and Jonah is exposed to the elements. Jonah complains to God about the vine dying so he is left without shelter. God reminds Jonah that it is God that causes the vine to grow and if Jonah is upset about a little vine dying, why wouldn’t Jonah be upset that God was going to destroy the whole city. It reminds me of a passage from Matthew 10 where Jesus is comparing the love that God has for people to the rest of creation: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
So if God noticed this little vine died and cared, of course God is going to pay attention to a whole city. Jonah on the other hand did not get this message at all. He continues to complain that life is not fair, that he was inconvenienced and that God didn’t destroy the enemy. But here’s the thing: God doesn’t exist to punish the people we want punished. God doesn’t exist to destroy our enemies. God loves. God encourages us to love. Jonah was asked to go and share love with his enemy. He did it but he wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t happy when they were changed because of love. He wanted to maintain his image of “those people” as evil, as violent and somehow unlovable. When we love others we need to be open to the possibility that they and we will be changed by the experience and that God is in the middle of it.
As we come closer to Remembrance day, we need to be mindful that war is often about destroying the enemy, punishing those we think need punishing. God doesn’t see it that way. God sees people and a creation that needs love. God sees people (ourselves and others) who need transforming. Remembrance Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on how well we share love. If there is not enough love and compassion in the world, people will be drawn into war and conflict. Remembrance Day is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to work for peace so that no one else needs to die in war. Just like Jonah got a second chance to spread God’s message, we get more chances but we also need to be open to God working through us. Sometimes the outcome of God’s work will surprise and startle us. It might not be what we think. We can be angry and annoyed that God has changed the world or we can be open and continue to work with God, knowing that we too are loved along with our enemies. Amen.