Sunday, January 21st, 2024

Dove, Chicken, or Vulture

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen.  A Christian author, Chad Bird, once pointed out that while the name Jonah comes from the Hebrew word for dove, the story itself presents the prophet more like a chicken. You know the story, the story of Jonah and the whale. The Lord came to Jonah the prophet and said to him “Arise. Go to Nineveh that great city. Call out against it, for their evil has come up to me.” What did Jonah do? Jonah arose, but he went the opposite direction. He went to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Chicken. He went down to Joppa and found a ship. He paid for passage in the exact opposite direction from where the Lord had sent him. Chicken. Or was he? Was Jonah running away in fear, like a chicken? Well maybe, although by his own admission, later in the book, we learn that the thing Jonah was afraid of, might actually make him more of a vulture. We know the story. We know how the Lord caused a great storm to beat against the ship carrying Jonah, and how the sailors cast lots trying to figure out who was to blame, and the lot fell on Jonah. They cast him over the side into the sea, where Jonah was swallowed up by great fish. We know that Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, and we know that Jonah saw the error of his ways, and was brought to repentance. We know the fish vomited him back up on the shore, which is where today’s reading picks up. The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, this time saying the same thing it did the first time, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out to it the message that I tell you,” and this time Jonah goes. He enters that great city, and delivered to it the message from the Lord. Yet 40 days, and that city will be overthrown. Five simple words in Hebrew, an amazing thing happened. They listened. The people of Nineveh believed a God who was not their own. They called for a fast. They put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them, to the least of them, even all the way to the king himself.  The king removed his robe, covered himself with a sackcloth, and sat in ashes, and the king issued a decree that no one, not man nor beast, should taste food or water. He called upon the people of Nineveh to turn from their evil ways. “Who knows,” he said, maybe God will turn from this disaster, relent from his fierce anger, so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God did relent of the disaster that he said he would do to them. He did not do it. See Jonah, what are you afraid of? Chicken. The Lord not only protected you on your journey he gave you success in your message. Noah preached for 150 years, and no one listened. You were in Ninevah for all of the day, preaching a sermon of five simple words, and an entire city was brought to its knees. Why are you afraid Jonah? Why are you a chicken? What are you afraid of? That’s the problem, actually, is that is what Jonah was afraid of. This is the thing Jonah feared. Jonah wasn’t afraid of failing as a prophet, Jonah feared success. It displeased Jonah greatly. He was angry with the Lord, so he cried out against the Lord. “See this is what I said when I was back in my own country. This is why I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God, but you are merciful, that you are slow to anger, that you are abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore, O Lord, since you have spared Ninevah, take my life from me. I would rather be dead than see my enemies forgiven.” Jonah’s name means dove, and when we see him run away from the Lord’s call, we might be tempted to think of him as a chicken, but by the words of his own mouth, we see him for something else, maybe more of a vulture. Had the Lord asked him to circle the skies above Ninevah so that when the city fell under judgment, he might be able to pick the meat off the bones of his enemies, well then John would have happily obliged, but the thought of being brought to repentance, actually forgiven. The thought that they might get the mercy of God, that they might be spared from the wrath to come, well that was just too much for Jonah. That sent him running in the opposite direction. No Jonah was no chicken. The only thing he was afraid of was that his enemies might receive the mercy that he himself enjoyed. I wonder how we might have fared in the same circumstance. That’s the question the book of Jonah leaves us with. The book ends with God giving and taking away a vine to Jonah, something that provided shade for him, and when Jonah voices his displeasure with God over the fate of the vine the Lord responds. “Do you pity a plant that you didn’t plant or tend to? Should I not also pity the city of Ninevah, filled with life that I created, people who don’t even know up from down, right from left, should I also not have mercy on them?” The end. The book doesn’t give us Jonah’s answer. The book leaves us with no easy resolution, but the question really isn’t really just for Jonah.  It’s our Lord’s a question to us as well. God looks to us and says “Should I not be merciful, even to those that you consider the worst, even to those that you consider your enemies.” How do we answer that question? It’s a fairly easy question to answer here in this room, or in a Bible class, or anywhere else that we can tell ourselves, and feel fairly confident that it’s just a hypothetical question, but I wonder how we would fare if our Lord to came to us and send us into the Ninevahs of our own time. What would we say? What would we do? Now on the one hand, it’s a really important question to consider based on Jonah’s story. It’s one of the questions the book leaves us with. It warns us against writing people off. It warns us against assuming that there are some people who are so wicked that they’re beyond any hope of repentance or forgiveness, some people who don’t even deserve to hear the word of the Lord. The book of Jonah comes in and silences that kind of thinking, and it comes in and it comforts us with the assurance that our Lord can soften even the hardest of hearts. Whether we’re talking about the cruelest dictator we can think of somewhere else in the world or whether we’re thinking of the family or friend closer to home, who steadfastly refuses to believe the promises of Jesus. Our Lord can soften even the hardest of hearts. And so, on the one hand, there’s definite value in reflecting on how we think about the Ninevahs of our time, but truth be told, I don’t think that’s even the main point we’re supposed to take away from the story of Jonah. Rather, I think that what the Lord’s question at the conclusion of the book puts before our eyes, isn’t primarily a challenge about our behaviors or our attitudes, but the depths of our Lord’s own mercy. The book of Jonah shows us what our Lord thinks about this creation. It shows us what our God thinks about the Gentiles, the unbelievers of the Old Testament, show us what our God thinks about the Gentiles the unbelievers of our day, show us what our Lord thinks about us. We have a God who is gracious and merciful, he is slow to anger, he is abounding in steadfast love toward us. He showed his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Our Lord sees us through the death and the resurrection of his Son. You’re reminded of that every time you walk into this room, and see this Trinity sculpture behind the altar. You see the eye of God in the center of it looking out at you, his people only through his Son. The Father looks out of this creation, through the death and the resurrection of his Son. When God looks at you, he doesn’t see the stain of your sin, he sees the purity of his Son. When God looks at your life, he doesn’t see the successes or the failures you have in the face of temptation, he sees the righteousness of his Son. When God looks at you, he doesn’t see you as Ninevah or as Assyria, he sees the new Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for her husband. So, take comfort, for the Lord whose mercy extended even to the people of Nineveh, that Lord has had mercy on you. As the proclamation of his word changed even the most hardened Assyrian, hearts so it has changed yours. As the Lord relented of the disaster set to befall Ninevah, so also you have been spared from his wrath, for you are united to the death and the resurrection of his Son. You were washed at his fount, you are fed his altar, you are forgiven in his church and you are his people. So yes, the world around us still remains wicked as was the city of Ninevah, and yes we still struggle with the wickedness of our own hearts, as did the prophet Jonah. But the Lord, the Lord remains merciful, he was merciful to Jonah, even after the prophet ran away. He was merciful to Ninevah, even though they were the Gentiles, and the pagans, and the political enemies of God’s people. The Lord remains merciful, because that’s who he is. Merciful to Ninevah. Merciful to Jonah and merciful to us. So, give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever. In Jesus name, Amen.