Tag Archives: Jonah

What Now?

What Now?     It’s a question, that, over the past week, I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

I had the incredible fortune on Tuesday of attending the inauguration of our 44th President in Washington DC.  Not only did I attend the inauguration, I had a ticket. Not only did I have a ticket, but I actually was able to make it, through security, to my seat. That’s right, not only did I have a ticket, but it was a ticket to a seat!

Being amongst some two million people extending from the Capitol Building toward the Lincoln Memorial was an awe inspiring and humbling experience. Have you ever heard the stillness of two million people as they draw in a collective breath of expectant anticipation? It was both eerie in its quiet, and at the same time, sacred.

Wednesday I had quite a long journey back to California, first driving four and a half hours from Washington DC to New York’s La Guardia airport, then a flight to Houston, and finally from Houston to Orange County where I arrived some 15 hours after the journey began.  And what kept going through my head was the thought, the question really, “What Now?”

Our text comes from the book of Jonah, the third chapter. But before we read it, I need to give you a bit of background.

Odds are, no matter who you are, you’ve heard about Jonah before.  You know, the guy who gets swallowed up by a large fish.  Jonah, son of Amittai, literally meaning “son of faithfulness,” which, it seems, is a bit of a pun that the narrator shares with us, right at the beginning of the story, because Jonah is not exactly the most faithful of prophets.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah and said “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”

And Jonah, son of faithfulness, goes in the opposite direction…

Instead of going up to Nineveh Jonah goes down toward Joppa and buys a ticket on a ship sailing down to Tarshish to flee the presence of the Lord. The image of an ostrich with its head in the sand comes to mind…

Everything is going fine with Jonah’s plan, he’s even napping through a mighty storm that the Lord sent upon the sea, a storm so intense that the sailors have begun to throw cargo overboard.  The sailors cast lots and determine that Jonah is the cause of the storm.  Jonah confirms that yes, this is true, he is the cause, for he is fleeing from the Lord. Terrified, they ask what needs to be done to quiet the sea. “Throw me overboard,” says Jonah, which they end up doing, reluctantly, only to have the sea calmed instantly.  Now, instead of fearing the sea, the sailors feared the Lord, and were in awe.

Jonah, meanwhile, wound up in the belly of a large fish, where he stayed for three days until the Lord commanded it to literally vomit him up on dry land, which is where our texts picks up.  “Jonah, Go to Nineveh, take 2…”

Listen to the Word of God, found in Jonah, chapter 3:

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.

The story of Jonah is one that has been the subject of much debate. Is it true? Did Jonah really exist, and if he did, did he really get swallowed up by a fish? Was it a whale? How in the world could someone live for three days in the belly of a fish? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you. But I do have a suggestion. The most shocking, unbelievable, and even scandalous part of this story has nothing to do with the fish.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet, utters what is in Hebrew five words. He says them once. From those five words an entire city, one of the most powerful and most notoriously vicious in the Biblical record, Nineveh, repented. Nineveh, within the Assyrian Empire, believed the word that Jonah spoke.  It was a five-word sermon and it inspired total conversion, not even the animals were left out. Everyone, great and small, fasted and put on sackcloth as a symbol of their repentance.

The estimate is that something in the range of 2 million people converged on the mall in Washington DC to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Steven Spielberg is said to have looked out onto the flag-waving crowd on the mall, amazed, saying, “Look at all the people. They are real. They are not even computer generated!”

Many have been quoting the fact that in spite of the massive crowd and the difficulties in moving amongst so many people, there was not a single inauguration related arrest.  But the most shocking and unbelievable, and even scandalous part of this story has nothing to do with the law-abiding nature of the crowds.

People gathered from near and far. They were from all walks of life, rich and poor, white, black, brown and everything in between, Democrats, Republicans and Independents.   It was a coming together across those borders which normally keep us walled off from one another and isolated. People stopped to let others pass, said excuse me, and smiled. My friend Erica and I shared our honey-roasted peanuts with the man in front of us, who shared a bottle of water with us. We found out later that man was Bill Bradley, retired basketball player and US Senator who ran for president in 2000 and who happens to have also been a Sunday school teacher at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.  There was a spirit of open friendliness amongst strangers, a spirit that seems to be so often absent in our world today.

If only the book of Jonah ended with chapter 3.  It really would make a great movie.  Sweeping vistas of repentant Nineveh—120,000 people, plus animals, is no small number back in Jonah’s time.  Even the king bowing down, in ashes, covered in sackcloth, humbled, and seeking to help the nation turn from its wicked ways.  A humble king? It seems almost absurd, doesn’t it?  Cue the epic song for the soundtrack, maybe something along the lines of Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, or the Lord of the Rings… slowly fade to black and roll the credits…it’s a great ending.

Except for the slightly inconvenient fact that the book of Jonah has a fourth chapter, a chapter that opens with the words, “But this all was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became furious, lost his temper, and yelled at God.” Why in the world would Jonah be angry? He was a success. In fact, he was much more successful than the big time prophets of old…Moses, for one. No other prophet in the history of the people of Israel had tried so little and yet accomplished so much as Jonah, son of faithfulness.

The name Jonah, most often is taken to mean ‘dove.’ But, it can also be translated as ‘complainer.’  Jonah the complainer lashes out at God: “You see?! This is why I did not want to leave home in the first place! I knew that you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” Weird, somehow I have always thought those were good things…

Why in the world would Jonah be angry with God for being gracious? Why would Jonah stand against God being merciful? The text does not say it in so many words, but we can only assume that Jonah did not want Nineveh to be saved.  Nineveh did not deserve to be saved. Nineveh, because of its wickedness, deserved to be punished. Nineveh deserved to pay for its evil ways. Nineveh did not deserve grace. And yet, there was Nineveh, repentant, listening to God, and obedient…better at listening to the word of God and more obedient, actually, than the prophet Jonah.

The question is, what now?  It is a question being asked of us as a nation, and of us as individuals. What now? The word repentance literally means a turning, to turn around. And we seem, at this particular point in time, to be in the midst of what can only be described as a sort of national turning, a turning toward service, a turning toward something larger than ourselves.  Have you seen it? Have you noticed?

•    Starbucks is offering a free tall coffee to those who would pledge to donate 5 hours of service to their community.

•    Oprah Winfrey on a recent show, promoted a campaign called “I pledge” which asks all Americans to make a pledge for how they will, in the words of Gandhi, be the change that we wish to see in the world.

•    A glance at the covers that line the magazine racks conveys this sense of opportunity and responsibility being presented to us as a nation.

The now President Barack Obama, in his campaign and since the election has repeatedly said that this turning must come from all of us, it is not something that can happen simply by coming from the top down.

So, I think it is appropriate for us as individuals, for us as a nation, but also for us as the church, people who are striving to follow Jesus, to ask ourselves, what now?

The Starbucks offer of a free cup of coffee for pledging 5 hours of community service ends today. Why not stop by after church and pledge your five hours? There are over 100 different opportunities available, just in the Placentia area. If you go to the Starbucks website you can see the list which includes everything from working with children, landscaping assistance, office support, or leading a Habitat for Humanity work crew. As of earlier this morning, over 1,240,640 hours had been pledged.

I am a part of the presbytery’s Odyssey Group. Eight of us have been meeting together for the past year to help discern what it means for us as churches within the Los Ranchos Presbytery, to be the church in our changing world.  The mission statement that we’ve been working on for the Presbytery begins like this…

The Mission of Los Ranchos Presbytery is

to further the Kingdom of God

by serving our congregations through

cultivating partnerships,

brokering resources, and

securing and nurturing effective missional leadership,

This is just one way that our presbytery is seeking to discern, how can we best further the Kingdom of God, through service? Just a plug, if you’re interested in this you can come to Refresh and Renew on February 7th at Trinity Presbytery Church to hear more.

MTV is hosting a campaign called “I pledge” asking every American to pledge what each of us will do. If you watch the video (you can search for it on google or on YouTube) the pledges are as simple as “I pledge to turn off the lights when I leave the room” to as complex and profound as “I pledge to help end human trafficking.” “I pledge to help end hunger by volunteering at a food back” and “I pledge to be a great mother, to be a great father.”

So, I think it is appropriate for us as individuals, for us as a nation, but also for us as the church, people who are striving to follow Jesus, to ask ourselves, what now?

For this message of service, of a calling beyond ourselves, to something more, this is not a new message for the church, is it?  Isn’t this the message that we have been based upon? Isn’t this the message that we have been called to proclaim from the beginning?  That we are all equal.

That we are all loved by God and called by God. That we gain something in the giving of ourselves, rather than the storing up for ourselves.

That God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?

That no matter who we are, whether a disobedient prophet, repentant evil doers, a nation in crisis, or someone who is  cynical of what might seem to be an empty promise of change, conservative, liberal or apathetic, formerly enslaved or formerly the enslaver…that God’s grace is for us all, unmerited, undeserved, and unconditional.

We don’t know how things turned out for Jonah. Or for Nineveh, for that matter. The story doesn’t tell us. Instead of the epic ending we were left with at the close of chapter 3, at the end of chapter 4, the end of the book of Jonah we are left with a sort of disjointed  ambiguity.

Will Jonah be angry forever?

Will Nineveh’s repentance stick?

What’s next?

The text gives us no assurances.

The question we are left to ask ourselves, each other, our church and our nation is,

What Now?