Old Testament Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10 (NRSV)
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 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. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 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. 8 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. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 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.
“If you build it, he will come.” For Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, this message is mysteriously spoken to him to one evening while he is walking through his cornfield. And for us, this remains one of the best known film quotes of all time, even twenty-five years after the theatrical release of Field of Dreams.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the movie, the story centers on Ray’s need to build a baseball field in his cornfield, in order to fulfill a vision that he has had. Ray seeks to do this, even while everyone around him doubts the credibility of his vision and even he himself questions the validity of his mission. And yet, each time I watch the film, the character that truly draws me into the story is that of recluse Terrence Mann.
Portrayed by James Earl Jones, Terrence is a celebrated author in the vein of J. D. Salinger. Having once written a book that some consider to be a masterpiece and others regard as offensive, his celebrity and infamy have driven him into a life of solitude. But when Ray has yet another vision, he becomes determined to convince Terrence to come out of his self-imposed isolation, so that together, they might pursue Ray’s dream. Ray comes to Terrence seeking his help, but the author has no interest in helping this stranger to fulfill his ludicrous vision. Clearly this is a “fool’s errand” taken on by a man caught somewhere between nostalgia and hopeless idealism.
I wonder if this is perhaps where Jonah thought that God was dwelling when he received the call to go to Nineveh…between nostalgia and hopeless idealism. The Lord knows the “wickedness” of the people of this city, just as his prophet does. And Jonah also knows that God’s righteousness would justify the complete eradication of such a sinful population. So why then, does God call his servant to speak words of warning?
Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they once were. The Lord sees in the city more than one hundred twenty thousand of His children. These are the Sons and Daughters, whom God had fashioned. They were the pride of God’s creation. And when God looks upon them, even in their present, corrupted state, the Lord’s first impulse is still love.
Perhaps God looks at the people of Nineveh and sees them for who they will become. The Lord looks in the city and sees a multitude of souls who wait for the offer of redemption. These are the faithful servants who will turn back to their God. They will repent of their iniquities. And when God looks upon them, even in their present, broken state, the Lord’s first impulse is still mercy.
But Jonah does not share God’s vision of love and mercy. The immoral people of Nineveh deserve the Lord’s wrath, not His compassion. God should crush them under foot, not welcome them to return with open arms. Even as God speaks to His servant Jonah, the prophet can’t understand what the Lord is saying to him. And in his frustration, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, on a boat bound for Tarshish. But escaping from God isn’t that easy.
As I was thinking about Jonah’s inability to understand the command of his God, I realized this past week that I was faced with a communication breakdown of my own. I’ve recently found myself engaged in some extended conversations with Rebecca. There’s just one little problem: I don’t have a clue what she’s saying!
We’ve reached the point where my daughter clearly has thoughts and ideas that she is prepared to share with us. But unfortunately, her speech development isn’t as advanced as her overall language comprehension. And so, while I can clearly recognize that she is sharing some truly complex thoughts, I can’t understand much of it.
I used to be able to buy myself a pass with responses like, “Oh, I see” and “Is that right?” But now, I’ve learned that such replies simply won’t do. Rebecca doesn’t just want to talk; she wants to know that I’m listening. And she can be pretty persistent in her attempts to make you understand! If there’s something she wants, Rebecca will pursue from one end of the house to the other, telling you about it time and again, until you get the message. And if that’s what it’s like dealing with the resolve of my two-year-old child, I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jonah to try to evade the perseverance of the Almighty God.
God thwarts the attempted escape of His prophet by sending winds and waves against his boat. And in his stubbornness, Jonah actually allows himself to be thrown overboard to suffer certain death, rather than simply listening to the command that the Lord God has issued. But having determined that Jonah would be the one to carry the warning to Nineveh, God saves the prophet from the sea by sending the most unlikely of rescuers. A fish swallows up Jonah and carries him safely through the sea for three days.
During his journey, the prophet recognizes that this strange protection is the Lord’s doing. And while Jonah remains convinced that Nineveh is irredeemable, he still confesses in prayer that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” After his prayer, the fish returns Jonah to dry land. And having rededicated himself to his vow of prophecy, he goes to the city of Nineveh when the Lord issues a second call.
As I think again about the Field of Dreams, I am reminded that even when Ray convinces Terrence to join him in fulfilling a vision by going to a game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Terrence remains skeptical. He doesn’t want any part in this bizarre mission of Ray’s. That is until both men experience a new vision. After this shared revelation, Ray and Terrence are united in the work ahead.
Sadly, despite God’s efforts, we don’t know whether or not Jonah ever truly shares in the Lord’s vision for Nineveh. Even after he fulfills his work as prophet, Jonah still laments God’s decision to spare the city. While he acknowledges that the Lord is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” Jonah’s anger leads him to a hill outside of the city, where he sits and waits, anticipating the destruction that he believes is surely coming. But even as he waits in vain, that pesky God of his continues to come to him, inviting the prophet to share in the Lord’s vision of love.
Today, I believe that God is offering to share that same vision with all of us. We are called, not only to return to God, but also to be a loving voice of repentance, which welcomes people to make their own turns back to the Lord. And yet, even as we are invited to share this vision of love with our God, we are also faced with “Ninevahs” in our own lives.
These are the places and the people and the situations that we have no desire to engage. And I know that we don’t like to admit it, but these places exist for each of us. We look at the convict and see a man who is deserving of his sentence or worse. But God looks with hope for one who might be rehabilitated into society. We look at the addict and see a woman who deserves no pity for the condition she’s in after abusing her own body. But God looks with compassion and sees a sick child who needs somebody to offer her care. We look at the unemployed single mother and see a woman who is fittingly trapped in a situation of her own doing. But God looks with love and sees a daughter who wants to provide for her child, just as much as the Lord wants to provide for his own.
But even as we struggle to enter Nineveh, the Good News for us is that our God is a pesky God. The Lord is not only “abounding in steadfast love,” but God is also determined to call us to share in this love for the world! With eternal perseverance, God is going to annoy us and irritate us and pursue us with all the love there is, calling us to share in his vision, so that we might stand in the midst of Nineveh and be God’s presence, calling people to receive God’s love and to return to God’s ways.
Friends, as we continue to seek to hear God’s call in our lives, let us acknowledge the places where we struggle to go and the Lord who calls us there anyway. May we consciously ask whether the vision we follow is truly that of our God. And may we trust in the Lord, who leads us to see people not as they are, in their poor, crumbling states now, but as they once were in God’s loving act of Creation…and as they shall be again in the fulfillment of God’s redemption.
To the Lord who speaks to us, and strengthens us, and blesses us with peace, be all glory and honor forever. Amen. (Psalm 29:1, 11)
This sermon was delivered at Bowling Green Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 25, 2015 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany).