“On Going to Nineveh”

“On Going to Nineveh”

Pentecost 23 (NL3) John B. Valentine
Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10 November 8, 2020


If you were to ask me what my favorite book of the Bible is ... no doubt I’d say “Jonah”.

You know:

Jonah ... That short little story from the Old Testament of which Steve actually read almost half of as our lesson for today.

Jonah ... That short little story that features a really big fish and a persistent little worm and a particularly problematic prophet.

Jonah ... That short little story that blows the doors off many of our preconceptions and misunderstandings about God.

I love Jonah ...

In part because it’s about sailors ... and I love to sail.

I love Jonah ...

In part because it’s shot full of satire ... and satire done well is something that I find funny.

I love Jonah ...

In part because the lead character is someone with whom I can definitely ... DEFINITELY ... empathize.

But mostly I love Jonah because its speaks to me in a way that I can’t help but hear ... and I’ve been known to be “hard of hearing” ... or maybe “hard of listening” at a number of points in my life.

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You see ... this morning’s lesson began by introducing to us a fellow named Jonah ... “the son of Ammitai” ... along with the assertion that the word of the Lord came to him ...

From which we can deduce:

A) That this Jonah ... this “son of Amittai” ... based on his name and family name and that fact that his story is recorded in the Hebrew scriptures ... is a Jew ... an Israelite ... he’s a member of the people of God. And ...

B) That this Jonah ... based on that opening phrase “the word of the Lord came to” ... and the fact that that is the opening line of at least eight of the other “prophetic books” in the Old Testament ... is a prophet ... that he’s been called to the particularly awesome and unpopular task of being a spokesperson for the Lord.

And the Almighty appears to Jonah and says ... “Now listen to me, Mister Spokesperson, I have a message for you to deliver. I want you to get up and go to Nineveh.”

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NINEVAH ... you ever heard of that place before?

Probably not ... unless of course:

• you’re a Jeopardy champ ...
• or a someone who’s recently read a sixth-grade social studies textbook ...
• or someone who majored in Ancient Near Eastern History in back in college.

You see ... Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria ... an empire that collapsed back in like 330 B.C.E.

On the other hand ... you may perchance know Nineveh by its modern name ... Mosul ... in the nation of Iraq ... as that city which we’ve heard far too much of over the course of the past two decades or so.

And it may or may not surprise you that both back in Jonah’s day and up here in our own ...

The inhabitants of Nineveh-slash-Mosul have been the archenemies of the people of Israel!

To the end that ... for years ... the ancient Israelites identified ancient Ninevites as a primary threat to their existence ... even as modern Israelis feel the same way about those who live in that city now.

And you can thus well-imagine that God’s call to Jonah to Jonah to “go to Nineveh” went over like a lead balloon.

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So what does Jonah do?

What did it say there next?

“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.”

• God says “Go east” ... Jonah heads west.

• God says “Take a hike” ... Jonah takes a boat.

• God says “Go to Iraq” ... Jonah says to himself “I’m going to Spain!”

Bottom line here ... Jonah says he doesn’t want to job ... he isn’t gonna’ go ... he’s not gonna’ pay attention to God’s Word.

But you want to venture a guess as to WHY Jonah doesn’t want this “spokesperson for God” gig?

• Because he can full well imagine the sort of reception he’s going to receive from the locals ... right?

• Because he doesn’t want to head into hostile territory ... right?

• Because he doesn’t want to die ... right?

Actually .... NO!!!! Jonah is afraid of something far more terrifying than that!

If we were to flip forward to chapter four of Jonah ... you’d see this spot where Jonah says:

“See ... I knew it! I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

• Jonah’s problem with going to Nineveh here isn’t that there might be trouble if he goes ... IT’S THAT THERE MIGHT NOT BE TROUBLE if he goes!

• Jonah’s afraid that if he goes ... God is going to be gracious!

Jonah wants God to play the greatness card on those Ninevites ...

To act like a judge and get out the paddle .... and give them exactly what they deserve ... which is hellfire and brimstone and death and damnation.

Jonah is afraid that God is going to play the graciousness card ...

And be kind and loving and forgiving to a bunch of people that Jonah just can’t stand!

You see ... Jonah knows that lost people matter to God ...... the problem is that they don’t matter to Jonah!

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Can you relate to Jonah on that one?

Is there some group of people or some individual who doesn’t matter to you like they matter to God?

Is there someone ... or someones ... whom you’d really rather not see experience the fullness of God’s kindness and love?

For Jonah ... it was an entire country of people ... an entire ethnic group ... those Assyrian folks ... that he wanted to see suffer ... or at least not enjoy the abundance of God’s blessings perhaps.

And honestly ... I suspect for some of us it may be that way too.

I mean ... this week we’ve sat through the culmination of what has to have been the most emotionally-exhausting presidential election that our nation has faced in the past hundred years.

And depending on which cable news source you spent most of your time watching ... I can’t help but think that you witnessed someone defaming a group of people whom they just couldn’t stand ... and perhaps inviting you to do the same!

So ... for instance ...

• One channel flashed a screen of the returns from northeastern Wyoming ... where nine out of ten voters opted to support Mr. Trump ... and kinda/sorta implied “How could they be so stupid .....”

• While another channel flashed a screen of the returns from our nation’s capital ... where nine out of ten voters opted to support Mr. Biden ... and kinda/sorta implied "How could they be so naive ....."

• One channel showed video of a parade of pick-up trucks ... decorated with pro-Trump paraphernalia and visible gun racks ... and suggested they represented everything that was wrong with our country ....

• While another channel showed video of a parade of peaceful protesters walking down an urban thoroughfare ... and suggested they represented everything that was wrong with our country.

My point being ...

There’s nothing wrong with having political opinions ....

There’s nothing wrong with expressing our political opinions ...

But when our political opinions allow and even invite us to de-humanize other human beings ... something is seriously messed up ... and we’re in the same boat with Jonah.

When the media we consume harden our hearts to the point that we no longer see the left or the right ... the red or the blue ... as human beings ... we’re in the same boat with Jonah.

When our hearts are so hardened that we put labels on people so that we don’t have to acknowledge their names ... we’re in the same boat with Jonah.

Problem is ... if you know the arc of this story of Jonah’s ministry .... “In the same boat with Jonah” is the LAST place I’d think any of us really want to be!

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Think about it this way:

In the Bible there are what ... sixty-six? ... books?

And of those sixty-six books ... thirty-nine of them are in the Old Testament.

And of those thirty-nine ... thirty-eight of them are about the particularly wonderful covenant and commitment that God made with the people of Israel.

But ONE of those thirty-nine books focuses not on God's love for the insiders ... the chosen people ... the people of Israel ... but rather on God's care for those beyond ... the outsiders ... the non-Israelites ... the Gentiles.

And that one little book is JONAH!

You see ... the point of this story is that God LOVES human beings:

• Not just some people ... but all people.

• Not just Hebrew people ... but Gentile people.

• Not just the ‘good’ people ... but the misguided people.

• Not just small-town people ... but big-city people.

• Not just safe, sane and sensible people ... but whacked-out and wacky people.

• Not just “our kinds of people” ... but “all kinds of people”.

• Not just the kinds of people we wish we were ... but the kinds of people we really are!

And maybe the overarching question that hangs over this Book of Jonah is simply this:


“On Going to Nineveh” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine in conjunction with our worship video on November 8, 2020.  The text upon which it is based is the story of Jonah, as recorded in John 1:1-17 and Jonah 3:1-10.

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.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “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.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.