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.
God hadn’t forgotten the commission given to Jonah to preach to Nineveh, so God called Jonah a second time. Jonah traveled to this awful city, the prosperous heart of his enemy’s empire, went about a third of the way through the city, and preached a half-hearted sermon—seriously, it’s five words in Hebrew (`Oud arba`im yom v’nineveh nepakhem!). And an extraordinary thing happened: everyone, from slave to king, “believed God” and immediately put on sackcloth and ashes and started fasting. God saw this universal act of repentance, and decided not to destroy the city.
Then we finally learn why Jonah, the nationalist prophet who would love nothing more than to see his enemy’s biggest city destroyed by the finger of God, ran away from his call. He knew, he says, he knew that God would do this! Jonah was a prophet, after all, so he had a better understanding of God than most. He knew that God was always ready to relent, always ready to forgive, always willing to give a second chance to everyone. And Jonah knew as soon as God called him that there was the chance that his great enemy, Assyria, would repent, and then all that destruction God planned—that satisfying rain of fire from heaven to consume Israel’s enemy—wouldn’t happen. He didn’t want to give them that chance, and he’s mad that God did.
That’s why Jonah is such a good, and challenging, book. God loves our enemies, and is ready to forgive even their sins. It’s this amazing picture of just how radically different God’s priorities are from our own. Grace isn’t something that belongs only to us and the people we agree with—it’s for those people too. And I think we may hear this radical command, whether God’s call to us through Jonah to preach repentance to our foes, or Jeremiah’s instructions to work for the good of the empire’s city, or even Jesus’ own command to love our enemies—and it sounds okay in theory. But it gets much harder when we have to start pointing to the Ninevites in our lives. When they’re not on dusty pages, but in our lives or on the news.
Just think of the anger of this past year. We’ve probably all had to take a break from social media, or watching the news, or delving into any conversation deeper than the weather or the Packers from time to time. Anger and vitriol have boiled over from arsonists burning down a police station in Minneapolis to insurrectionists storming the Capitol building. Talk of COVID has put us into camps thinking the other side is either trying to steal our freedom and destroy the economy, or deny science and risk the lives of thousands so they can go to the bar. It feels like we’re starting to see those who disagree with us as enemies, Ninevites worthy of the sulfur and brimstone.
But Jonah’s experience is a reminder of how God sees this. Frustratingly, infuriatingly sometimes, when we draw a line in the sand, God ends up standing on the other side. God loves those people—the arsonists and the insurrectionists, the sheeple and the science-deniers, the ones who are so wrong about everything all the time. God loves them, and what’s worse, God calls us to love them too. God calls on us to drop our nets, let go of our way of thinking us-versus-them, and find out why God could possibly love those people. Not to wait for them to say sorry, or come to us in repentance, but to make the first move. Be the embodied love of God that changes the world.
Because when Jesus proclaimed “the kingdom of God has come near,” he wasn’t talking about some far-off hope for the end of times. It’s come near, the kingdom is right here, right now, and the whole cosmos is falling to pieces because of it. When he called Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and told them to leave their nets, follow him, and become fishers for people, it wasn’t a cute metaphor for sharing the squishy, comfy love of God and the hope for heaven. It was a call to get people tangled up in the love of God, the kind that brings people together whether they wanted to or not, pulling us into the dangerous task of seeing our opponents as coworkers in the kingdom, and remakes us all to be guided by the self-giving love of God.
And one of those ways that God radically and uncomfortably changes us is by calling on us to have mercy on our enemies. Go to the Ninevites; don’t sit back and let them be destroyed. Extend the love you have for your next-door neighbor, your fellow congregation member, your good friends and family; extend that love to the one on the other side of the ideological divide; extend that love to the criminal figured beyond redemption, extend that love to that person, yes, that one you’re thinking about right now; extend that love because God loves them, and we need to know why.
It’s like Paul said, the time is short. We don’t have time to get bogged down in worldly disputes, worldly ways of taking sides and keeping score, worldly equations of tit-for-tat vengeance and grudges. We don’t have time for the brokenness of the world, because the love of God is breaking in and we are running out of time. The love of God is eroding away the foundations of brokenness, sin, and evil, so that everyone and everything will be brought into the new world God is making. The fullness of hope that is the kingdom of God is overturning the world, throwing out the ways of evil and hatred, and filling it with that life-altering love of God that blankets even the worst of enemies with grace to do better.
So this week I want y’all to do two things for me. First, especially if you haven’t already, I want you to read the book of Jonah—it’s only four chapters, so you can do it. I believe in you. And second, I want you to find one enemy, one person or kind of person that just boils your blood, and I want you to find out why God loves them. Not the general “they’re God’s child too,” but some specific good that is in them that God wants you to find. Learn what that is, and pray that you continue to see that one thing any time you feel that anger well up in you.
Because God sent Jonah to Nineveh knowing what they might do, and knowing that Jonah knew what they might do, too. And God wanted them both transformed by the experience, to draw them just a little closer to the fullness of God’s kingdom. God wants that for us, too. Because no one is beyond God’s grace, whether we like it or not.
Thanks be to God. Amen.