Jonah and the Lingering Question – 7,15,07, Jonah chapters 3 and 4

When was the last time somebody asked you a really good question?  Not the kind of question that you can look the answer up in a book or on the internet, but the kind of question that sticks with you and keeps asking itself over and over again.  This last week we had some friends from seminary who stayed with us for a couple days and we had good time in the evenings to talk and catch up on thoughts and experiences from the past year.  And we had plenty of questions for each other, some small some big.    Some of the best questions were about what we all have learned in the past year, questions I will keep asking myself and pondering.  One of the evenings my friend Mike and I even had a conversation about questions.  He mentioned how he thought it was important for friends and especially people of faith to be asking each other certain questions.  One example he offered, given the busyness of our lives, was to be asking each other “How do you experience Sabbath rest?”  This is the kind of question that not only lingers in the mind, but also helps focus our thoughts and even point us in a positive direction.  Scripture has a number of these kinds of questions.  I think of Jesus’ question to Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”  Pilate’s rhetorical question to Jesus, “What is Truth?,” the lawyers question to Jesus “and who is my neighbor.”  These questions are just as important today as they were then.  Two of the first acts of communication between God and humanity in the book of Genesis are such questions.  After gaining knowledge of good and evil through eating the fruit the man and woman are trying to hide from God.  And God poses the question, “Where are you?”  It wasn’t that God didn’t know where they were and was trying to find them, but they didn’t know where they were.  They had lost their bearings.  It’s a question we’re supposed to keep asking ourselves.  Where are we?  Where am I? Another question God puts to humanity early on comes after the first sibling rivalry ends in a murder, Cain standing over his slain brother Abel.  God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  Again, a question that is meant to stay with us.  Where is your brother, where is your sister?  Because as we have come to learn, we are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, and our siblings include those well beyond a biological relation.  How we respond to these questions has effects on everything from our nation’s foreign policy to how we raise our kids to how we spend our time and money.  Where are you?  Where is your brother? Some of the questions up for discussion at the San Jose convention were extensions of these questions:  How we can maintain spiritually vital congregation in the midst of the rapidly changing world?  How can we continue practicing our value of mutual aid, especially when it comes to health care?  How do we help make immigration reform fair for families?   Coming up with a good question helps focus the mind in the right way and is a break through in itself. Jonah is one of the better known stories from scripture, yet has one of the most bizarre endings of any story I’ve ever heard, where a question plays an unexpected role.  The first part of the story is the most familiar, so much so that it is hard to think of Jonah outside of ‘Jonah and the whale.’  I’ll be working through most of the book of Jonah and if you’d like to turn there in your Bibles you are welcome.  It begins on page 844 in the Bibles in the pew, right in the middle of all those short prophet books.  As is often the case with OT prophets, his story begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah.”  Jonah, as we soon learn, is the son of Amittai, which in Hebrew means “My truth,” and throughout the story Jonah remains a child of his own version of the truth — the world as he would like it to be, which of course sets him up for a series of adventurous and often humorous encounters with this God whose word has come to him and whose truth is so much bigger than his own.  Jonah is commanded to go to “that great city of Nineveh” and warn it to turn from its harmful behavior.  Jonah, like all other non-Ninevites of the time, would have despised Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, that had invaded, conquered and carried off the people of Israel and relocated them in foreign lands.  After being commanded to go preach to them, a journey that would have taken him east, Jonah promptly sets out for the western most part of the known world, Tarshish, in Spain.  This is sort of like being commanded to go to northern Canada and instead catching the first flight south to Argentina.  He sailed to Tarshish to go quote “away from the presence of the Lord.”  Not surprisingly, he is unsuccessful in fleeing the presence of the Lord.  Things soon start to get stormy for Jonah and his ship mates.  After reading through their sailor manuals of how to placate an angry deity, everyone agrees that Jonah must go overboard.  Perhaps throwing Jonah to his death and feeding him to the storm god will help things calm down.  God, of course, is much more interested in Jonah’s redemption and conversion than Jonah’s death.  So instead of Jonah getting munched by an angry storm god, God sends a friendly, large, fish.  We usually think of this as a whale, but the Hebrew simply says it was a “dag gadole,” a great big fish.  This famous fish, as we know, swallows up the wayward prophet and gives him a three day and three night all-expense-paid private retreat for prayer and meditation to reconsider his path.  Chapter two of Jonah is a prayer that Jonah somehow manages to compose from within the fish belly.  It’s hard to tell whether to interpret the prayer as an honest plea for help, or a series of pious statements meant to get what he wants from God so he can get spewed up onto land and get on with his life.  Either way, after the prayer God has a few words with the fish who, no doubt gladly, upchucks the undigestible prophet and goes back to doing more normal kinds of things that big fish do.                This would be a nice place to end the story.  Maybe just a quick note about Jonah heading off to Nineveh and doing his thing there, then we would have a nice, tight story of rebellion and redemption with that big fish making all the difference.                  It’s actually not that simple and clean.  The story does continue, with the word of the Lord coming a second time to Jonah, for the same task, and Jonah does go to Nineveh this time, but aside from this the prophet shows little sign of having been remade by God.  He is bitter, pouty, and missing the spirit of this whole offering new life to a city in the same way that he was offered new life by God.  The fish, as it turns out, did not make all that big of a difference.  And the story doesn’t have a nice and tight ending.  It ends completely unresolved.  It ends with a question.                That storm and big fish incident is only one in a series of attempts of God trying to get through to Jonah who is set on remaining inside “my truth.”  Jonah goes to Nineveh, as the Lord has asked.  That wicked, sick, repulsive city full of filth and arrogance and everything Jonah despises.  Jonah walks into the city and delivers one of the shortest sermons on record – only one sentence long, only five words in Hebrew: (clears throat) “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”    and then he’s done.  He’s fulfilled his duties, he’s delivered the Word of the Lord, probably even without notes or much prep time.  The response from the Ninevites is Jonah’s worst nightmare.  They actually listen to him, that they’re in trouble if they don’t shape up, and they start changing everything.  The writer goes to great lengths to display that all of them are repenting to the extreme.  Fasting, putting on sackcloth, putting ashes on their heads.  Even the Ninevite animals repent of their evil ways as verse 8 in chapter 3 describes.  They fast, put on sackcloth, and cry out to God.  Instead of being pleased that he can preach a one sentence sermon and have this much effect on an entire city, Jonah is very displeased.  Most people complain about the Old Testament being too violent and God having all this wrath and anger.  But Jonah’s complaint is just the opposite.  He says in verse 2, “Oh Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”In the last scene, Jonah has gone outside the city, maybe up on a nice hill, looking out over Nineveh, waiting to see if just maybe they’ll all go up in smoke and make his trip worth his while.  While sitting, a nice plant grows up over his head and keeps him shaded from the sun.  Jonah is delighted.  This is great.  Some nice shade, a nice view, now all he needs is some fireworks destroying this city and things will be perfect.  But the plant soon withers and sets us up for the question.  God says, Jonah, “you are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  (then the question) And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, right from wrong, and also many animals?”  A question made bizarre and even humorous by the fact that God can’t seem to get those lovable repenting animals out of God’s mind.  But a question nonetheless.  One that both Jonah and the reader are meant to have lingering in their minds.  If Jonah can care so much about that little plant, and if we can care so much about the little things that are here today and gone tomorrow, shouldn’t God care deeply about cities and nations and those so lost they barely know up from down.  And the animals.  Shouldn’t God also care for all those creatures?      Jonah’s concerns kept getting more and more narrow, even while God was trying to open him up to the vastness of divine compassion.  Jonah has no sense of humor, even while God is playfully speaking through the worlds of oceans, big fish, animals in sackcloth, and miracle grow plants, and reminding Jonah in the end about just how important those animals are.  But God has the final trick for Jonah.  Rather than giving him a lecture or a prescription for how to be a better prophet, God leaves him with a question.  The question is one of God’s greatest creations.  And the best kind of question is the one that lingers, the one that stays with you, even upsets you, takes a hold of you, and won’t let go.  The kind of question that shapes how we go about our lives, how we see the world, what we look for and who we look with.  Questions that are intended to make their way into our consciousness, to be put into the mix of our thoughts and ponderings, to work through our brains, firing through our synapses, until they allow everything to appear in a new light.  Perhaps the whole story of Jonah can be summarized as God playfully working to break through to a human being who has determined to live by “my truth.”  The smallness of the human’s vision being cracked open slowly by one from whose presence we cannot escape.  And the best way of God doing that, better than a raging storm, better than causing us to be swallowed alive, even better than having our enemies and their animals repent in front of us, is leaving us with questions that slowly work their way into us and change us.  Jonah and we are left with unanswered questions ringing in our ears.  Not questions that can be fulfilled with a simple reply and not questions that even demand an immediate answer.  But ones that hang with us, and maybe even bring us down from our perch looking out over the world in judgment so we can do a little more walking alongside people in their struggles.  Where are you?  Where is your brother, your sister?  If we can get so concerned about little fleeting things in life, shouldn’t God, and also we, be concerned about lives of cities, human beings, and other creatures?  Consider for a moment, some of the questions in your life.  I’d like to end by leading us in a brief guided meditation with this, so feel free to get comfortable, close your eyes or leave them open, and think about some of those lingering questions that you live with.  Think first about questions that have been important to you in the past.  Maybe questions about calling, about relationships, about how to live with integrity in a world where so many are in need.  A question somebody asked you a long time ago that has stuck with you.  Maybe deep faith questions and maybe even some of those mentioned in scripture.  What is truth?  Who do you say that I am?  Whatever these questions have been, let them come to mind.  Give thanks for these questions.  They are gifts from God.  They have been lights on your path, helping direct you.Call to mind now lingering questions that God has given you recently.  Embrace these questions as gifts from God.  Let them crack through you and be a part of you.  Know that God is in both the question and the answer.     Consider now what kinds of questions you may be able to be asking other people, to friends and family and church family.  How can you give the gift of offering lingering questions to people you care for?  The question maybe one like Mike suggested – How are you experiencing Sabbath?  Asking a meaningful question is a way of being God’s presence to others.For all these questions, for how you upset us and how you comfort us, and for your persistence in guiding us away from our small vision toward your wide wide vision of compassion we give you thanks O Lord.  Amen.