Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Sermon / Homily on Jonah and Nineveh Lent

"Hindering God"

by Pastor Dan

Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5

Today's Epiphany text is the story of Jonah, unique among the prophetic literature. Jonah's narrative has only seven words of preaching: "Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall perish!" Blinded by national prejudice, Jonah unwisely tried to avoid his calling. But God, who could "raise up stones" to proclaim his good news, this time used a "great fish." Jonah's mean-spirited reluctance to preaching to people he despised didn't hamper his effectiveness, as an entire city of Assyrians turned to God. The parable shows it's not the messenger that matters, but the message and the God who wants it delivered. Let the message of Jonah expand all our hearts as we worship together this Lord's Day.

The story of Jonah is a parody on prejudice, and how bad we look when our outlook is too narrow. A recalcitrant prophet is called by God to do a little mission work. So good so far. But it was in a place he loathed, so he wanted nothing to do with it. God needed Jonah to go to the Assyrians and preach his grace. "No way Hosea! I'm not your huckleberry!" It's not that Jonah was afraid to preach. He just despised the people God wanted spared. He wasn't afraid he'd fail; but afraid that he'd succeed!Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, (now Iraq) was as hostile to Israel as it is today. Jonah felt about Nineveh like Americans did about Berlin or Tokyo in the ‘40′s. But the Bible says God cared for the Assyrians as much as the Jews. That was t he root of Jonah's reluctance.

But nobody likes to tell the Almighty "no," so Jonah split for Joppa, (now Tel Aviv) to board a ship for Spain; as if he could hide from God. After they launched, a hurricane blew up and the sailors assumed somebody must be on board incurring the wrath of the gods. So they cast lots that pointed to Jonah. "You're gonna get us all killed! Who are you?" And Jonah admitted "I am a Hebrew, I fear the Lord God and serve him, the creator of the sea and land and all the inhabitants therein." With that they tossed him overboard. But God had plans for Jonah. There was a great fish down below waiting to swallow him. And after three days and nights, it spit him back out on shore. Then God said again, "How ‘bout it?" "I'm your huckleberry!" As you wish. God has his ways.

And though disinclined, he went to Nineveh to preach to that great city — hoping nobody would listen. But they did. It was such a numerically successful reformation! Everybody's reforming — except Jonah. The Ninevites repent. God repents. Even the cows and goats repent! Everybody repents! But Jonah does not repent. And the more they repent, the worse he looks. And his greatest fears came true. Because of the Gentile revival, God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh. And it made Jonah mad as a hornet! Not only did he want them to be damned, he wants to be right. It's very important for some folks, to be the one to be right. It confirms those who oppose you in their wrong-ness. Some people will die for that. Anybody who's had to do something they didn't want to do ought to understand Jonah. "That's why I didn't want to come here in the first place! I knew you're a God of mercy who repents of sending calamity."

What's Jonah's problem? The sin of unawareness? The same sin that did Jesus in, "They know not what they do." Jonah wasn't aware of the different components of his faith, no more than we are of ours. Elements from his culture and upbringing, his favored-nation status, vengeance, pain, loves, hates and prejudices, all mixed together. His faith was multi-layered and he had two theologies to boot! And that was his problem.

Carefully choosing which scriptures to emphasize leads to faulty conclusions. "You alone of all the nations of the earth have I called." The Jews loved that text! Israel's mistake of combining church and state, implies God cares more for Israel than other nations. Jonah's problem stemmed from one of the most common sins — the sin of superiority. Favoritism. The assumption that Israel is better than all others and that colored his outlook. Superiority leads to the arrogance of knowing who matters and who doesn't.

Jonah could preach how God favors Israel and curses Assyria to everyone's approval. There's nothing more powerful than preaching to the choir; to play on people's intolerance, affirm their assumptions, to be clear about who's in and who's out. Why draw a line if not to stand against somebody else? So a lot of folks are known more by what they oppose than what they embrace. That's why people parade those protest signs before the news cameras; it's easier to be against than for. Jonah's limited theology made his heart a few sizes too small. That's why he tried to hide from God.

But Jonah's Bible had another theology. This one was inconvenient because it was universal in scope and unlimited in grace. "I am a Hebrew, who fears the Lord, the God of all creation." An expansive theology, of a God who's not only the God of Israel, but called the Hebrews to be "a light to the nations" (Is. 42:6) Why not preach that? Inclusivism. So God works on Jonah through creation: a strong tempest, belly of a whale, an east wind to blast him, a vine grows for shelter, then a worm comes to cut it down. In fact, the KJV says "God ordained a worm" to do the chewing! That's my kinda worm! God shames Jonah for his sin of misplaced priorities. Even a worm has more compassion. "You're concerned about the bush? And Nineveh has 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left … and much cattle?" (That has to be the best last line of any book in the Bible!) "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?"

Jonah's problem was God's heart is a few sizes too big. He couldn't preach it because his heart wasn't in it. His heart was divided. Jesus said, "No man can serve two masters." Two theologies, one heart. It was so painful to him, he wished he was dead! Sometimes nothing is harder to take than seeing the grace of God being shown to somebody else! Especially when you're not getting any. It can make you suicidal. If you've never felt like that, then you probably won't get the author's punch line. She's poking a finger into the ribs of those who want God's grace for ourselves and God's justice for everybody else. Undeserved blessings are supposed to go only to the deserving! But that's not fair! If it were fair it wouldn't be grace. That's justice. Justice is getting what's coming to you. Grace is not getting what's coming. That's why it's amazing! God's grace trumps his justice and Jonah's problem was thinking God sees things the way he did. But God sees enough good in the worst of us, and bad in the best of us to send "his only begotten Son" to redeem all of us. Jonah was infuriated by the absolute impartiality of the nature of God. "I knew you'd forgive ‘em. That's why I didn't wanta come." A theology of universal creation alongside a theology of selective favoritism. Who can live with both? I do, maybe you too.

Professor Craddock notes how Dr. Luke made frequent use of Jonah in his gospel, embodied in a prominent character, Simon Bar Jonah. Remember him? And God wanted his church to go an preach to the nations. Easier said than done. And Simon Bar Jonah had a vision on the rooftop. In Joppa, of all places. A sheet is lowered from heaven with all kinds of cloven animals that were not Kosher. A voice said "Kill and eat!" And Simon Bar Jonah wouldn't touch it. "All my life I've refrained from eating unclean animals." And God said, "If I say it's clean it's clean!"

With the same reluctance of the first Jonah, Simon Bar Jonah went up to Gentile Caesarea, to Cornelius' house, and the Holy Spirit fell! Then somebody wondered, "Can anybody hinder these folks from being baptized?" There was no one to hinder and they were baptized. To be sure the big boys in Jerusalem noticed, "We understand you baptized an Italian military man." Simon Bar Jonah said "I did. But who am I to hinder God?" It's just different. Changing our methods is so painful.

Can ya'll identify with Old Testament Jonah; and the New Testament Simon Bar Jonah? The same impulses reside in all of us; particularism; cultural background, nobody outgrows completely our inbred tribalism, that shapes our lives in a certain way. God's love is universal and we want to be his faves. God calls us to move away from the familiar; saying goodbye to your roots. It means taking a new look at what you thought you had settled. "But this is the way I've been taught from childhood. These are my values. How I've always done it."

God is Lord of all creation, the sea and land, fish and cattle and worms! And he has a lot of kids in tough places, like Antioch. Paul and Simon Bar Jonah were up there to start a church and were sharing a pot-luck with Gentiles. Till James and the Jerusalem bunch showed up and Peter picked up his casserole plate and moved to a table of Jews only. This is the man who preached so powerfully on Pentecost when 3000 were converted? Yeah, but when it came down to it, "This is how I was raised." It's painful.

"Can anyone hinder?" Luke loved that word "hinder." My major professor Dr. Frank Stagg pointed out in his essay "The Epitome of an Adverb," how Luke used the Greek adverb; noting that it shows up every time the gospel breaks out of the prohibitive restrictions Judaism would impose upon it. The big question was "Could Gentiles become Christians without first becoming Jews?" It's a who's in and who's out issue. Even after Jesus ascended, they're still thinking one "nation." Too small. Too small. God's thinking "universe."

In Chapter 8 of Acts, Luke tells of an Ethiopian Eunuch in a chariot out in the desert and runs into Phillip who taught him a Bible lesson. The Eunuch asks "Can anybody hinder my being baptized?" Nobody was there to protest or hinder him. So he was baptized. So the God-fearing Centurion Cornelius, an Ethiopian Eunuch; and at the end, an outright Roman pagan, as Luke closes the Book of Acts with this final word. It's even in the English. You guessed it, "unhindered."

"Let it be known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen. And when he spoke these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves. And he stayed two full years in house arrest, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ openly and unhinderdly" (Acts 28:28-31).

You have to feel for Jonah and Simon Bar Jonah. They were called to deliver a message bigger than they believed. But the kingdom can never come as long as we pull everything through the knothole of our own stunted world view. I hope preaching something nobody can live up to is a hindrance. At least it's not running away. It's just accepting the call to deliver the message, till our own hearts can grow a couple of sizes along the way. But God loves all his children. It scares us to death. But who are we that we should hinder God? We – who know neither our right hand from our left … and much cattle!"

See Also:

"Jonah and the Whale"
by Pastor Edward F. Markquart

"The Phone's Ringing!"
by John Jewell

Jonah's Mission
by Larry Broding

Devotional thoughts for the 3rd Day of 3 days Lent
by Jose Kurian Puliyeril

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent

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