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.” The first time the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, Jonah did what most of us would do if God sent us to a place we didn’t want to go. He booked a cruise to Spain. He thought the Mediterranean might be nice this time of year. Anything was better than Nineveh.
Nineveh was a great city. A world-class city. One of the largest cities at that time. It was the New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles of the anicent world. Founded by a man named Nimrod, a bloody and brutal man who had a legendary reputation as a hunter and warrior, the city lived up to its founder’s reputation. It was a violent and cruel city, Plotting evil and mayhem against its neighbors and each other. For a Hebrew like Jonah, it was enemy territory, a political menace, a threat.
And so Jonah headed in the opposite direction to Tarshish (aka Spain). But the Lord kicked up a great storm on the Mediterranean Sea. The ship was threatened. The sailors all prayed to their respective gods. They threw cargo overboard to lighten the laod. Jonah lay below deck, sleeping, maybe sea sick. And the captain of the ship went down and shook Jonah awake. “How can you sleep at a time like this? The ship is sinking, all the men are praying. Call on your god. Maybe he can help.”
Sailors in those days were a religiously superstitious bunch. They believed in a cause and effect universe. Bad weather’s means someone’s to blame. So they cast lots to see who was responsible for the storm. And as holy luck would have it, the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him who he was and where he came from. And He said, “I’m a Hebrew who worships Yahweh, the God of heaven who made the sea and dry land.” That terrified everyone, because Yahweh’s reputation was known even by those who didn’t worship Him. Everyone knew you didn’t want to be on Yahweh’s bad side. They asked Jonah, “What have you done that Yahweh is made at you?” They knew he was running away from the Lord; they didn’t know why.
The storm grew worse; the sea grew rougher. They asked Jonah, “What should we do to you to make the storm stop.” And Jonah told them, “Throw me into the sea, and it will be calm.” But the sailors tried to row the ship to shore instead. When they couldn’t row anymore, and it was obvious they were going to sink, they prayed to Yahweh for forgiveness and tossed Jonah overboard into the sea. And the sea instantly became calm. And Jonah instantly became a sacramental sign of Christ, calming the sea by being swallowed up into it. And spending three whole days in the belly of death.
Or, in this case, the belly of a big fish. (At one level, the book of Jonah is about death and resurrection, and the mystery of Christ who works through death and resurrection.) You can do a lot of thinking about things in the belly of a big fish. And a lot of praying. Jonah prayed to God. He prayed this wonderful psalm about how God works life in death, how he raises people up from the pits of death, and how salvation comes from the Lord. That’s the hinge verse in Jonah. “Salvation is from Yahweh.” Put salvation and Yahweh together and you get the name Y’shua, Jesus.
Three days later, the fish burped Jonah up on a beach somewhere. And seaweed stuck in his hair, steeped in gastric juices, Jonah headed to Nineveh and preached the Word of God to the Ninevites. He preached but one day, and the entire city, including the king, repented in sackcloth and ashes. Everyone fasted in sackcloth and prayed to God for mercy. And God had mercy on the the great city and didn’t destroy it.
Now you’d think that they would all live happily ever after, wouldn’t you? That Jonah would be pleased that Niniveh repented and turned to the true and living God. But he wasn’t. He said to God, “See, I told you this was going to happen. That’s is why I ran off to Spain. I know how you are. You’re gracious and compassionate. You’re slow to anger, you abound in love. I just knew you’d let ‘em off the hook and forgive them.” Jonah sat down on a hill overlooking the city to see what would happen next. The sun became hot and beat down on Jonah. The Lord provided a vine with nice big leaves to keep the sun off of Jonah’s head. And Jonah was happy about the vine. And the next day God sent a worm to eat the vine. And Jonah wasn’t too happy about the worm.
God said, “Do you have a right to be angry, Jonah?” And Jonah said, “Yes, I have a right to be angry. I’m mad enough to die.”
But the Lord said, “Jonah, you’re more concerned about this vine, which grew up one day and died the next, than you are about 120,00 people who don’t have clue, not to mention many cattle. Don’t you think I should be concerned for them?”
And, you see, that’s how the book of Jonah ends. It ends with this question from God: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” We might push it a bit further: “This world is full of people who haven’t a clue, shouldn’t I be concerned about them?”
The book of Jonah is about God’s grace in Christ. Universal grace. Undeserved kindnes for the world. The story of Jonah reminded the people that Israel wasn’t some cozy country club of the elect. It wasn’t a private club of the chosen few. It was supposed to be elect sign of God’s salvation for the world. Salt and light for the world. It was supposed to be a nation of priestly people whose priesthood was to proclaim the name of Yahweh to the ends of the earth and declare that “salvation comes from Yahweh.”
But instead Israel treated Yahweh like a local deity, a national god, a private possession. As if they were God’s favored nation. And they acted as though they had a monopoly on God’s name, as if they alone could call upon it. And it angered them to think that God would have mercy on other nations, on their enemies, on people who made their lives miserable. Like those blood thirsty, whoremongering, uncircumcised Ninevites.
When we speak of God’s grace – His kindness undeserved, unmerited, unearned – we are talking about His universal grace in Christ. His kindness toward the whole world. It’s the amazingly gracious news that God was in Christ reconciling the world Himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them. That by the life, death, and resurrection of one man, God has made peace with the world, and the Church, like Israel, is supposed to be a messenger of that good news. A goodwill ambassador for God.
Think about it. There is no one who is outside Jesus’ reconciling death as far as God is concerned. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Savior of the world. The Redeemer of the world. The Light and Life of the world. It took Jonah three days in the belly of a fish to get the point. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit their grace.” Grace is already theirs. God is gracious. They have a million bucks of grace buried in their backyard, and someone has to tell them. And if they wind up short and run after idols, it’s their own stupid, stubborn fault.
God doesn’t play favorites. He showers salvation on the world like the rain and the sunshine. On the good and the bad, the religious and the unreligious, the respectible and the disreputable. Christ didn’t redeem only the redeemable, save the salvagable, reconcile the reconcilable. He saved the world. He absorbed every last sin of every last sinner. He took a world of sinners into his death. People like us, and people who aren’t. People we like, and people we don’t. And people who rub us the wrong way. Even our enemies and persecutors and slanderers. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you. Pray for them.” Jesus does. He loves your enemies. He loves those who hate you. He blesses those who persecute you. He forgives those who sin against you. That’s why he teaches us to pray, “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” He already has.
And that just rubs us the wrong way, doesn’t it? Try telling good church-going religious people that God is reconciled to the whole screwed up world in the death of Jesus, and they will think you’ve gone off the deep end of heresy. “You mean to say that God is at peace with you before you decide to follow Jesus, before you pray, before you come to church, before you even recognize it. . . .?” You mean you don’t have to do anything? That’s right.
There’s no one for whom Jesus did not die. There’s no one left out of Jesus’ death. And there’s no room for playing favorites. When Jesus called the fishermen to be “fishers of men” he didn’t have bait fishing in mind. Target marketing. Prospect profiling. Selective evangelism. He had net fishing in view. The fishermen were mending their nets when he called them. In net fishing you cast your net out into the water and then haul up whatever you haul up. That’s the kind of fishing for men Jesus intends for his church. Net fishing. Catch the whole world in the net of His death and resurrection, just as we’ve been caught. Preach the good news that God is at peace in the death of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Don’t pick and choose. Just cast the net broad and wide, and let God worry about what you hauled in.
Which brings me to another story, told by a Methodist minister at Duke University by the name of William Willamon. It’s the story of Helen and Gladys, a couple of retired school teachers in the eighties. They were part of a neighborhood canvass for their church one year. They went out in twos out into the neighborhood with pamphlets to hand out. Each pair was given a map with their assigned street and explicit directions.
Helen and Gladys were given a map. And they were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and make a right turn. The canvass leader had been very clear about this. Not left, but right. He was heard telling Gladys, “Now you two go down Summit Drive and turn right. Did you hear me, Gladys? Down Summit and turn right, OK?”
Well, Helen and Gladys, being old schoolteachers, were much better at giving directions than receiving them. And so they turned left instead of right, and headed straight into one of the housing projects on the west side of Summit Street. There they met a woman in her twenties named Verleen, who lived in a tiny, cluttered three-room apartment with her two children. Verleen had never been invited to church before, and she was eager to visit.
And so the next Sunday, Verleen came to church with her two children. They were noisy and restless, not being used to sitting through something like church. But Verleen liked it and came the following Thursday to pastor’s Bible study. The study that week was on temptation. Pastor Willamon asked the group, “Have any of you been faced with temptation?.” One woman told how she had accidentally left the supermarket with a loaf of bread she hadn’t paid for, and how she thought for a moment and decided to go back and pay for it. The pastor nodded approvingly. Another told how she had found a wallet last month, and was briefly tempted to keep the money. And again, the pastor smiled with approval.
And then Verleen spoke up. “A couple of years ago, I was into crack coccaine real bad. You know what that’s like! That stuff makes you crazy. Well, anyway, my boyfriend, not the one I’ve got now, the one who’s the father of my oldest, well, we knocked over a gas station one night – got two hundred dollars. It was easy. Like taking candy from a baby. Well, my boyfriend says to me, “Let’s hit the 7-Eleven down on the corner.” And something inside me says, “No, I’ve held up that gas station with you, but I ain’t going to hold up no convenience store.” And so he beats the hell out of me right there in the street, but I still said No. It felt great to say no, because that’s the only time in my life I ever said No to anything. Made me feel like I was somebody.”
You could hear a pin drop in the room. “Uh, well, thank you for sharing that, Verleen. Shall we close with prayer?” Gladys headed out the door with a smile on her face. “Pastor,” she said, “I can’t wait to get home and invite some more people for next Thursday. Your Bible classes used to be kind of dull, but I think I can get a good crowd out for this kind of stuff.”
The book of Jonah is a reminder that God has made peace with the world in the death of Jesus. The Ninevites and the Verleens of this world. People who can’t keep their life straight no matter how hard they try, who haven’t a clue that God loves them, that they have a life in Christ, that they have a Savior in Christ, until someone takes a left turn instead of a right and tells them. It’s about grace that knows no conditions, no lines, no boundaries, no walls or fences, no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s about stepping out of our own comfort zones, because the Son of God stepped out of His. It’s about seeing the world as God sees it, through the cross of Jesus. Looking at that other person as someone for whom Jesus died.
When we step over those boundary lines and scale those walls and climb over our fences and wander into Nineveh, to places we’d rather not go and people we’d rather not speak to, that we begin to realize how great and broad and deep the love of God in Jesus really is. And we realize that there is room for us in this kingdom which has no end.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.