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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield is often remembered for his catch phrase, “I get no respect!” If there is one prophet who could share that same sentiment, it is poor Jonah. Many of the best known characters in the Old Testament are remembered because of their actions, but not Jonah. Adam and Eve are remembered as the first humans to walk upon the earth.. Noah is remembered for building the ark. Moses is remembered for standing up to Pharaoh and leading his people through the sea and wilderness. Joseph is remembered primarily because a musical was written about him. Then, there’s Jonah. Jonah is remembered not by his deeds as a prophet, but rather because he was the unfortunate soul who was swallowed by a great fish. And ever since then, he has “gotten no respect.”
Consider the things said about Jonah. For example, “Why should we be encouraged by the story of Jonah and the whale? Because Jonah was down in the mouth, but he came out all right. Or “Why couldn’t Jonah trust the ocean? Because he knew there was something fishy about it
To modern, western ears and sensibilities Jonah’s entire story sounds a bit like a cross between a comedy of errors and a Greek tragedy. Surprisingly that is not how the story has always been interpreted. In the Orthodox Church, the first three days of the Great Lent are still known as the Fast of Nineveh recalling the days the great city of Nineveh fasted after Jonah had successfully called them to repent. On the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the entire Book of Jonah is read as meditation before confession. In the book, Jonah preaches a theology of Teshuva or repentance. It states that if one returns to God, he will forgive. By example, Jonah’s entire life was one of repentance of returning to God. Even in our own western Christian tradition, Jesus’ descent into the tomb after his crucifixion for three days was likened to Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish. Jesus’ resurrection was the New Testament’s story of Jonah’s rescue and restoration. So what happened to poor Jonah?
My friends, this morning let us take a new look at the story of Jonah aagin, and perhaps, you will see why the poor prophet deserves more respect.
Jonah’s name is mentioned twice in the Old Testament scriptures. The story that we know of the prophet being swallowed alive isrecorded in Book of Jonah, and his name in mentioned in passing in 2 Kings, “(The king) restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet.” This places Jonah in the court of Jeroboam, the King of Israel in the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century BC, the same king who was challenged by the prophets Amos and Hosea. That may be what has caused such confusion about Jonah’s work. Why didn’t Jonah speak to the nation of Israel about repentance and God’s forgiveness? What business did Jonah have of going to Nineveh? It was a tumultuous time for the people of Israel. Despite the relative peace and prosperity, all was not well. The nation’s systemic neglect of the widow and orphan, and injustice toward the poor, was stoking the fires of the Lord’s wrath against Israel. Without repentance at home, exile would surely be its end. The few Israelites who actually listened to the prophets knew that the neighboring country of Assyria would be their captor. There was no love lost between Assyria and Israel.
Historians suggest that during the reign of Jeroboam, Assyria was racked by famine, popular uprisings, and an earthquake—all of which, scholars note, would have made the people willing to take in Jonah’s threat of divine judgment. Regardless of how Jonah felt about the Assyrians, and his own lack of enthusiasm to call them to repentance, these events gave credibility to God’s word and everyone in Nineveh so by order of the king everyone was allegedly cut off from food and drinks, including animals and children. Yes, Jonah, deserves a little more respect for such a great fast in Nineveh.
There is, however, another twist in the story. Jonah wasn’t simply hiding from God, but he believed he was actually running away to a place where God had no old over him. It was true of much of the ancient world. People believed in their own national God only. It was why the people of the Northern and Southern Kingdom always referred to Lord as the God of Israel and Judah. They believed that God had no power on the high seas or in another country. The story of Jonah, however, teaches us that God can be heard and seen everywhere, in the waves upon the water, in the depths of the sea, and even in the belly of a great fish. And God is always waiting for your return. That is actually good news, my friends, you can run like the reluctant prophet Jonah, and avoid living out your call to follow him. But let me assure you, “you cannot hide.”
You see, God may not be calling you to convert the great city of Nineveh, but he is calling you like Jonah to use your gifts of time, talent and treasure wisely. So since you cannot hide, consider instead setting great goals for your life. Embrace your own prophetic call- even if you too view yourself as only a minor prophet.
Over the past 25 years of ministry I have learned an important lesson. Never set your goals based solely on who you think you are or what you think you can accomplish. Instead, set your goals based on who you know God to be and on what God can accomplish in you. As a holy child of God, you can afford to dream great dreams. You can dare to do great things for God, not because you think you can, but because you know God can! Indeed, God can accomplish in you far more than you can ask or imagine. So what are worthy goals for your life? Let me suggest five meaningful criteria:
Consider first: God’s Presence. As you are serving your neighbor, ask yourself, “Is God’s presence being made known by what I am doing?” If friends, family, co-workers and colleague cannot see God’s presence in your work or service, your goal is too low. If you cannot share God’s holiness and presence with others than you are too occupied with the wrong activities and tasks.
Restore Life. “Does your work restore and ennoble life, or does it destroy and cheapen life?” Following our Lord as a prophet, you are called to be a model of wholesome, and a healthy life for others. Yes, we may need to cut down and pluck up, but your main aim is always to build and plant, and ultimately to restore life.
Educate the Poor. Several years ago, I was offered a word of wisdom which has stayed with me. If you are searching for a meaningful life, look to the place where your gifts meet the needs of the world. Working to educate the poor and disenfranchised is praiseworthy goal.
Author Artistic Beauty. For many the gift of beauty and music may seem a frivolous luxury. Beauty- frivolous? Did not God send the beauty of his only begotten son our Lord, into your tired and sin-sick world? Did not God send the music of the angels to comfort the restlessness of your heart? Author artistic beauty, and discover what Friedrich Nietzche knew to be true, “Without music life would be a mistake.”
Train the Unskilled. There is no greater goal than giving a future hope, livelihood and purpose to the unskilled. One of the tragedies of modern globalization is the loss of meaningful work and potential livelihood. For many people, the future is bleak. Strive towards a goal that trains the unskilled and offers a noble future.
The American President Harry S. Truman once wrote, “I studied the lives of great men and famous women, and I found that the men and women who got to the top were those who did the jobs they had in hand, with everything they had of energy and enthusiasm and hard work.” He may be right, but I would dare say, that the great men and women that I have known began by setting great goals for their lives.
My friends, the prophet Jonah deserves more respect. The story of Jonah teaches us: there is no place where God’s active word cannot lead you where he cannot do amazing thing through you- Yes. God is inviting you to use your gifts and to experience such greatness- and hopefully to earn a little respect along the way. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.