Probably the best-known part of the book of Jonah is that he got swallowed by a whale. But that’s just one part of one of my favorite books of the Bible. See, Jonah son of Amittai was a prophet in the days of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who preached military success and conquest for his homeland. His book isn’t like the other prophets’ books because instead of poetic prophecies, it tells a story. It’s this story of the nationalistic prophet Jonah being called to preach doom on his country’s mortal enemy, Assyria.
Now, if you haven’t read his book or it’s been a while, it goes something like this. Jonah was called to preach doom to Nineveh, the biggest city in the Assyrian Empire. Instead of going up to Nineveh, Jonah immediately ran down to the nearest port town and booked a ship going to Tarshish—on the other side of the world. It was during a storm on this ship that Jonah agreed to be thrown overboard to save the rest of the crew from God’s anger at him, and that was when a whale swallowed him. Then the whale puked him up on the shore, and that’s how we got to today’s reading.
I’m a really big fan of maps. I think it’s really cool when someone can take the outline of a country and tell me something really interesting about that place. Like this one series of maps that I saw, that had the fifty states overlaid with different, interesting “most” or “best” rankings. One of them was a picture of the commonest fast food restaurant in each state. Another was the favored football team. And one of the most interesting was the one that showed Google’s autofill answer to “why is this state so…” It can be eye opening to see what others think of where we live or where we come from. And sometimes, those opinions can be less than kind.
Take Nathanael’s words from our gospel reading this morning for example. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, admittedly, he might have had a point. See, Nazareth was so insignificant a town that it didn’t even show up in any historical record, anywhere, until 200 years after Jesus. Archaeological digs there suggest there weren’t more than 400 people living in the town. And Nazareth was set in the region of Upper Galilee, which was part of the rough-and-tumble frontier of Jewish settlement. It would be like saying someone who just emerged from far western North Dakota was going to change the world. No one important, much less the Messiah himself, was ever expected to come from that kind of place.
Baptisms are always among my favorite days in the church, and I’m pretty sure most every parent or grandparent has happy memories of their own children’s or grandchildren’s baptisms—the gathered family, the white baptismal gown, comments on whether the child was well-behaved or cried or squirmed at the water, the pictures and the general joy of the day. Lexie, today your family is getting the chance to remember that day with you, too, when you were baptized and now, when you take on those promises for yourself. And due to the crazy circumstances of this year, it just so happens to fall on the day that we celebrate the baptism of Jesus himself!
But, y’know, Jesus’ baptism wasn’t quite like the joyful, happy-gathered-family-with-photos-followed-by-an-egg-bake-luncheon baptism so many of us had. It took place in the dusty wilderness, hundreds of feet below sea level, along this muddy creek called the Jordan River. Jesus was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people who had flooded in from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside, compelled by the calling of John the Baptist to repent. And, of course, there was that little detail of the heavens being shredded in half and the Spirit of God in the form of a celestial dove dive-bombing into Jesus. So, y’know, different from ours.
Jeremiah is a mostly doom and gloom book. The prophet spent most of his career when the kingdom of Judah was in a state of crisis, until it completely collapsed with the invasion of the Babylonians, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of anyone important to Babylon. Jeremiah doesn’t have a lot of happy things to say through most of the book. But the particular part of Jeremiah that we read this morning comes from words he spoke way at the beginning of his time as a prophet, when this king named Josiah was on the throne.
Now what we need to know about Josiah is that he was a truly good king. He restored the Temple in Jerusalem and brought back worshipping God alone to the kingdom. He held the first Passover meal in the kingdom since the days of King David. And because the great empires were really weakened when he was king, he expanded the kingdom of Judah to include lands that used to be in the Northern Kingdom. It’s this particular situation that Jeremiah is writing about in his prophecy.