Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Really Big Fish and A Really Big Wall

We’ve all grown up hearing Bible stories about Jonah. This was one my girls’ favorite bedtime stories when they were little. They had their own name for the story: “Jonah and the big honkin’ fish” It’s always been a favorite of children anywhere. But most of us adults recall only bits and pieces of the story.

We remember the whale, or “the great fish.” We remember “three days and nights in the belly of a fish.” Do you remember that Jonah ran away when he was called to preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh? But, why?

That is the question I want us to consider. Why did Jonah run away?

Maybe it would help to know a bit more about the Assyrians. Assyria had control of the world during this time period, and because Assyrians kept wonderful records, we know this about them: they were a brutal people. They made killing an art. To give you an idea of how they thought, here are some words from Assyrian kings from an archaeology journal. In the 8th century, Tiglath Paleaser III writes about a city he conquered:

“In strife in conflict I besieged and conquered the city. I fell 3000 of their fighting men with the sword. I captured many troops alive. I cut off some of their arms and hands. I cut off others--of their noses, ears, and extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living and one pile of heads, and I hung their heads on the trees around the city.”

Here is one more from a man named Sargon, another great Assyrian leader:

“I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives as one cuts a string. Like the many waters of storm, I made the contents of their gullets and their guts run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as into a river. The wheels of my war chariots, which brings low the wicked and the evil, will be splattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors, I fill the plain like grass.”

Don’t these Assyrians sound like nice guys? These are not inviting words. The Assyrians were not an inviting people. The closest analogy our culture has to the people of Assyria would be the Nazi’s of Germany. But the Assyrians might have been even worse. And what’s more... The Nazi’s ruled Germany for about a decade; the Assyrians ruled the known world for about 200 years!

Perhaps the reason Jonah ran from God was because he was scared of the Assyrians. This would be understandable, don’t you think? I would be a bit timid to stand toe to toe with Sargon. “Yes, excuse me, Mr. Sargon. I don’t think you know me. But I was sent here to tell you that your entire world empire will be destroyed if you don’t change your ways.” I would have been scared to death! So, maybe that’s it; maybe Jonah was too scared to go.

Let’s see what the text says…
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying  “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.  Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”  “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”  Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous.  He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”  Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.  Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”  So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1)
Verse three says Jonah was “running from God.”

But wait a minute, I thought Jonah was afraid of what the Assyrians would do to him? Here, it seems Jonah instead is afraid of what God would do.

Let’s move on a bit into the story…

After Jonah is thrown into the sea he prays to God for deliverance and he is “rescued” by a great fish. Listen to the last few words of Jonah’s prayer:
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD! (Jonah 2:7-9)
Is it just me or does Jonah sounds a bit arrogant in this passage? “I” remembered you. “Those other people” forfeit the grace that could be theirs. “But I” will sacrifice to you. Is this the same guy who just moments ago ran from God? For some reason, Jonah thinks he is more righteous than the other people of the world. After all, he is a Hebrew; he is one of the chosen ones.

I think we’re beginning to catch on to a theme here, but let’s move on a bit…

After the episode with the fish, Jonah finally gives in and goes to Nineveh. He preached one sentence and the entire city was saved.

I wish preaching was that easy today! Imagine a preacher arriving in the middle of Berlin during WWII standing outside the Nazi headquarters and simply saying: “Forty more days and Berlin will be destroyed” and the entire city was converted.

Everyone fasted. People wore sackcloth. Animals and pets wore sackcloth—that must have been a sight to see! The king was converted—he took off his robes and sat down in the dust. Then the King said this:
By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish. (Jonah 3:7-9)
Jonah must have been so pleased with the results of this ministry, right? In fact, listen to what happened next:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Church, here is our answer as to why Jonah ran. Jonah ran in order to keep the Assyrians from being saved! He didn’t want them to be saved! He hated them! These were the people who had murdered his friends and family. These were the people who had oppressed his people for so many years. The long and the short of it—it wasn’t fair! Jonah had spent his entire life living by the rules, following the laws, worshipping God. It just wasn’t fair that these barbarians could be saved at the drop of a hat!

Notice something else about this story…

Consider the “other people” in the book of Jonah. The sailors; crude, ungodly, pagans, sailors were not the boy scouts we make them out to be. Not flannel graph figures with smiles, clean boats, and full nets. Not a nautical scene from the East Coast. They were rough people; dirty people; criminals. But what do these sailors do in the book of Jonah? First, they tried to save Jonah’s life. Then, they offer sacrifices and make vows to God.

What about the Assyrians? We’ve already read about their brutality. They were in charge; they had it all together; the world power. What did they do in the book of Jonah? They repented after only one short statement from Jonah! They fasted; they put on sackcloth in reverence to God. The king issued a decree for everyone to call upon God.

Now let’s look at the actions of Jonah, the prophet of God. He disobeyed God. He ran. He tried to hide. He had no desire to save the lost souls of Nineveh. He hated those people and it was not fair that they received the blessings of God like him. And did you notice? Jonah never repented!

This is a great little story about a man that lived several thousands of years ago. But why focus on this story in the midst of a series entitled “Can You Hear Me Now?”—a series dedicated to looking at contemporary issues that are dominating the news? What might God be telling “us” through this Text?

Americans have a lot in common with Jonah. Just as the Israelites took great pride in their identity as “God’s chosen people.” We often take great pride in being “Americans!” And just like Jonah was resistant to share the blessings of his chosen-ness with others, sometimes we are just as guilty. Immigration reform is another hot-button issue that has dominated our headlines recently—especially here in Texas. The border separating Mexico from the United States is 1,954 miles long, and 1,241 of those miles are in Texas! Though it is impossible to say with any certainty, it is estimated that roughly 1 million illegal immigrants enter the United States each year. It is also estimated that American currently hosts between 10 and 30 million illegal immigrants. The United States Congress continues to debate this issue quite openly. Should we build a wall… a really big wall? Should we grant immediate citizenship to illegal immigrants? Should we provide a path toward citizenship? How does this discussion effect jobs? How does this discussion effect overpopulation? How does this discussion effect the economy?

As with all of the issues in this series, I’m not here to give you the definitive “God-inspired” answer! I think many of us have been conditioned to believe there is always a clear-cut answer to every question. In reality, when you take these issues off of the television, out of the United States Capital and view them on a close and personal level, you notice that all of them are messy. None of them have neat and tidy answers. I want to set the politics aside for a moment and instead of talking about walls or paths to citizenship, I want us to consider our posture toward outsiders.

Let’s return to the story of Jonah for a moment. What I’ve always found interesting about the story of Jonah is how it portrays Israel’s perception of outsiders. More than that… how different it is from earlier Hebrew narratives. What you find in Jonah is a glimpse of a progression of thought. For most of Israel’s history, they were extremely exclusivistic—“Outsiders are bad!” When they entered the Promised Land, they destroyed everyone in sight. They were always told to keep their distance from outsiders.

They were told not to marry outsiders. In fact, when they returned from Babylonian captivity, Ezra told them to send their outsider spouses back to their homelands. Jonah was probably one of the last, if not the last, book written in the Old Testament. We find here a different posture toward outsiders. In this story, outsiders are good. In this story, outsiders accept God. In this story, outsiders are welcomed. By the time we get to the New Testament, we find an even greater progression. Jesus came to save the whole world. The church is not just Jew, but also Greek. What we find in the story of scripture is a move from exclusivity to inclusivity and the church is a place for everyone.

Christians are those who see not political agendas or debates: we see people. We see not only drugs and crime entering our nation's southern border; we also see Hispanic families wrestling with how to make a life for themselves. We see not only a loss of jobs for American citizens, we also see Hispanic families in this country, perhaps for the first time, being able to put food on the table before their children.

Church, the question of immigration in this country is a messy one, and it always has been. Consider for a moment, that each of us in this room is here because of immigration. Consider that most, if not all, of our distant relatives took this land that was not their own. Consider the bloodshed that went into taking this land and keeping this land. I know it is a trite and worn out statement in our world, but can I ask you to entertain the question: What would Jesus do?

If Jesus were here, living in America in the early 21st century, how do you think Jesus would engage the topic of immigration? Well, Jesus didn’t spend much time getting in political debates, though there were many raging when he walked the dusty roads of Palestine. He did, however, spend a lot of time with people. He did spend a lot of time offering compassion to a broken world, and maybe that is where we should be too.

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