Peace Keeps Its Distance From Fishy People
A sermon based on Jonah 3:1-5,10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 21, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Three years ago this Lectionary text came up and I preached on it. The story as a whole is a pretty funny and back then I focused on the humor because American Christians and churches seem to be afraid of finding humor in the Bible and the truth is there is a lot of it – and intentionally so. The humor I focused on last time was mostly about Jonah himself, because Jonah is a story about a guy who disobeys God and ends up being eaten by a fish and then literally thrown up on shore. That’s not your ordinary fire and brimstone stuff, but it is a little gross – and if we are honest, the image is a bit funny. That was some of what I focused on, as I pointed out then, we don’t have to secretly laugh at funny Bible stories, they are often meant to funny and humor is a gift from God.
Since my sermons are always memorable I suspect some of you may be cringing because you remember the puns last time Jonah CAME UP. Let me put your mind’s at ease, and assure you that you will not have to STOMACH those particular puns again. Because in this sermon I focus a little less on Jonah, and more on the fishy people of Nineveh in the story. Which is something I have not done in a sermon on this text before.
I like Bible research because I always seem to find out neat new things. I discovered this time that the name for the very large city in our story –once the world’s largest city– Nineveh, was indicated in ancient picture writings as a fish inside a house, and that the name is thought to refer to the city being a place of fish and it’s patron goddess of fish, Ishtar (who was called Nina in Assyria where the city was located on a river). I find that interesting. It gives a new ANGLE to why a fish is used in the Bible story to help God REEL in Jonah to help Nineveh when Jonah runs way from the call by God to go help the fishy people.
A fish is used to help the place of fish and worshipers of the goddess of fish. The fish swallowing Jonah portends he will go inside the Fishy City whether he wants to or not. Jonah’s not meant to be fish food – and his role is not even de- BAITable. He’s to save his enemies. As we heard, the three-day “time-out” God gives Jonah in a fish belly works. As eventually Jonah’s GILL-t gets the better of him and he FINally goes to Nineveh as God required.
But Jonah remains a real stinker, a peevish grump. In the whole of the story he’s asked by God to go to Nineveh but has fits like a child about it, running away, doing the job begrudgingly, and then moping about it afterward.
And this is also really interesting and surprising, the name Jonah has only one meaning in Hebrew, it means “dove.” At the time our story was written the dove was both a symbol of peace and a symbol of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah, who curiously enough is evidenced by both the Bible and archeology to have been considered Yahweh’s female companion way back when polytheism was still a part of ancient Hebrew theology. It is even thought that she eventually melds into being understood as the spirt of God that we recently talked about hovering over creation in Genesis 1 giving birth to our world.
The dove of course is also in other Biblical texts. Noah has a dove fly from the Ark three times to check for peace from God in the form of the flood receding. That’s an old sailor trick to toss a bird overboard to fly and locate land and the promise of peace from the chaos of the sea. Notably Jonah the dove is famously thrown overboard and of course cannot fly (which is probably also supposed to be funny), but as a defective dove falls into the chaos of the sea where – like any other dove in the water – is swallowed by a fish.
Doves are also featured in Scriptures about prophets and the sound of their “coo” even represents the Hebrew people suffering. (see Isaiah 38:14, 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16 and others). Of course doves were also sacrificed by God’s people as a part of Torah’s call for atonement and repentance. 1
All of this Biblical meaning for a sweet little bird. We can understand all that it as adding up to hearing the story of Jonah, the dove, as a metaphor, as a poetry (if you will) with humor and irony about sending the symbol of peace and a part of God’s own self, as well as the word of God, and those meant to carry it, are all very hard to get to places like Nineveh, a city that is not only deeply involved in wickedness and worships another god, but is an enemy of Israel and peace. Peace just seems to be stubborn to get to go in. In modern times we have a similar sense in the Mid-East the same geographic area Israel and Nineveh are in.
At the time of our lesson Nineveh was the biggest city in the world in the very powerful country of Assyria, an enemy of God and God’s people. Peace just won’t go there, won’t roost there and take hold . . . Or so it seems to human bearers of God’s Word and Shalom.
To God’s envoys of peace, Nineveh seems a very lost city and a lost cause and a lost people. But not to God, at the end of the book of Jonah we learn how God cares very much for all of the folks in Nineveh. This is what the story is really about, God trying to get peace to a place hostile to peace.– because God loves everyone even the enemies of peace. So in the story, if God can just get Jonah, who carries the name of dove, a symbol of peace – a part of God’s self– even a third of the way into the city to be just a smidgen of God’s presence; and mumble even an inkling of God’s Word, it might have an affect.
And, as we heard, it does have affect even if the bearer did not want it to, even if he tried to sabotaged the effort with a half-hearted short speech in a sullen tone and in a language the listeners did not understand. Just a trickle of God opening up in the heart of a town can open hearts and minds and transform lives. It can turn people away from evil and wrongs and wickedness it can turn anyone toward God.
Repent means to turn. That is what the word it means. Unfortunately many of us hear that word “repent” and get the hebbie-jebbies because it’s often a word used by fire and brimstone judgmental preachers and churches to try and brow beat people to their way of understanding God. “Repent or go to hell” is often the connotation associated with repent. But repent actually means to turn, alter course, to move toward God.
It is important for us to notice that even though God’s working through a judgmental, fire and brimstone, brow-beating prophet, in Jonah, God is not like that in the story. God does not give up on Nineveh but holds out hope for them and keeps doing whatever is needed even using symbols of other gods to get peace to the wicked behaving people to cause them to repent. As I mentioned the Book of Jonah ends with God expressing concern about Nineveh. We are told that God loves its 120,000 inhabitants. It is that concern that caused God to call Jonah to go to the people Jonah hated and represent God to them, to bring them peace which has stubbornly refused to visit them.
Some sermons on this text this morning may point out how awful Jonah’s sermon was, but I doubt many will point out that Jonah’s sermon, and his attitude toward the people he does not like are reminiscent of many preachers we see and hear and read about in history and the media today. The hateful way Jonah approaches his call as a symbol of peace, and a prophet of the God of Shalom to the people of Nineveh is a lot like the hateful way many modern pastors in the news – whom God asks to help all people– have messages and TV shows and books laced with uncaring judgmental meanness and hate. Jonah, whom God honored with a call to be sent to the people curtly gives this message ““Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. That sounds a lot like the “time is running out, you are going to hell” messages angry religious leaders in our country preach in one form our another.
God’s call to Jonah to go to Nineveh did not in any way ask him to behave like a jerk, but he did– and frankly so have a lot of religious leaders in our lifetimes. And in our lesson we are meant to laugh at, not laud, the curmudgeon whiney way of the preacher Jonah. And we are to laugh at how God keeps at him to do what is right to bring the symbol of Shalom, God’s peace, to those who need it, those whom God cares about, whether they are enemies of Jonah and Israel or not. We are even meant to laugh at Jonah’s ridiculous behavior and message.
While I am being hard on Jonah, the early listeners to this story would have sympathized with him. Nineveh was an enemy city, the biggest one in the empire of Assyria that destroyed the upper kingdom of Israel and dominated and threatened the lower part of the kingdom of Judah. The Ninevehites were no friends of the Hebrews. And they were also not objectively well behaving people, but rather full of wicked conduct. Peace was very hard pressed to get in there. But God wanted the people saved and God’s love was relentless– and boundless. See God loves every one, whether they don’t want God’s love or we don’t want God to love them, that will not stop God from loving everyone. It also will not stop God’s ocean of love that surrounds us from seeping in, somehow, some way.
Sullen and angry prophets disobeying God and bad preaching and theology can still help God’s love seep in. My own faith journey reminds me of this. And if you think about it maybe some of your journey stories do to. As a young child my parents used to send my older sister and me on a long bus ride to the First Baptist Church in downtown San Jose. My parents were not Christians or even religious. I am pretty sure a part of it was to get a break from us on Sunday mornings. At that Baptist church we heard and learned good old fashion hell and damnation theology. That lasted I am guessing a year or so. Then we were told we had to walk to a local Reformed Church of America about five blocks from our home. We did this every Sunday whether we wanted to or not– mind you my parents did not go with us.
As young very shy and introverted kid I really did not enjoy leaving my family and home early on Sunday mornings to go to a place filled with a bunch of strangers who had no meaningful relationship with me. I know I put up a fuss and I was finally told I didn’t have to go to closest church to the house, but could pick my own. I actually walked 2 miles by myself to attend a church where a Sunday School teacher and class were friendly to me.
Once my siblings and I no longer needed baby sitting we did not have to go to church on Sundays. But church teachings, even fire and brimstone ones, seeped God into my life. The people were not mean, the message just often was. But that message included a notion that you could ask God for things. In my mind God was like a genie. As a young adolescent I prayed and prayed to God that my father would stop drinking and I promised that if he did I’d go to back to church.
He actually did stop drinking. So I upheld my promise. I went back to the Reformed Church and the message I heard in the theology taught in the youth group sometimes included the message that God is love. There was damnation stuff but that phrase stuck with me. God is love.
I stayed in that church for a number of years hoping to see that message played out. It wasn’t in my opinion. So I left. I went to many other churches hoping to find it there. I didn’t.
I left church all together for twenty years until (and I’ve told you this before), I walked into the UCC church like this and heard the message repeatedly that “God is love” and I saw it being played out. I was so excited. It turned me toward God, not to save my soul from damnation in hell–a God of love could not damn anyone let alone create hell and send someone to it. Rather I turned to God and it saved me from a lesser way of being. I was not a bad person before. I just think I am a better one now.
Had I not heard from Jonah-like pastors and churches little nuggets of truth buried in their grumpy messages, I would not have understood that God is love and glommed onto one that preached and practiced it . . . I would not be here today.
I know a number of you left churches in ways similar to mine and are here because you too heard somewhere in another church or from another pastor something that made you want to turn toward God and this church helps you do that.
See, here’s the thing. God’s soaking every space that we live and move and have our being. This place this church, this worship time is not about bringing God’s presence. It is about making God’s presence known and bringing that awesome loving presence into such high relief that the gathered are transformed. And help transform the community and the world. Even Jonah-like pastors and churches can help us know God’s presence, but, they are often petulant when we do not become what they want, believers in their narrow way of understanding God.
We may not have noticed this before, but the people of Nineveh do not believe as Jonah does at the end of the story. Who would want to? What they do is turn to God and that is what actually brings their salvation and peace about. Repentance and salvation are not dependant on believing this way or that. They are about turning to God and transforming from lesser ways of being to better ways of being through love.
And GOD IS LOVE.
1. The information on doves in ancient times and the Bible can be found in a wonderful article by Dorothy Willette called “The Enduring Symbolism of Doves: From ancient icon to Biblical mainstay,” Biblical Archeology Vol. 07/01/2017 found on the web at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-enduring-symbolism-of-doves/
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