(Jonah 3: 1-10)
It was a summer day, I was probably around seven or eight years old, and I had had enough of my older siblings bickering and picking on me. They were driving me nuts and apparently my mom too. While they were sent to their rooms as punishment, I hid in my closet listening and infuriated by everyone! Why couldn’t they just leave me alone? So, I grabbed a duffel bag and packed up a few important items – my beanie babies and my blanket. I peeked around the corner of my room. The coast was clear, and I snuck out the back door. I remember opening my arms wide, feeling the warm, humid breeze on my face. I was running away, and no one was going to stop me! I made it as far as our giant magnolia tree around 200 yards from our house. I climbed to the branch shaped enough as a recliner, hung my duffel on the branch and thought, yes, I could make a life for myself here. No siblings, no bickering, no nuh-uh I won’t be bothered here. I closed my eyes, reclined back and the guilt started to sink in. I didn’t last 10 mins before I was dragging my duffel behind me back up our driveway and into my room. Until now, my parents never knew. I’m sure we all have our stories of running away from or towards something. Maybe your story also comes from your childhood, maybe it’s a story from your adulthood, maybe it’s a story you’d rather not talk about. Whatever it is about running away, we’ve all been there in some shape or fashion, notes written or leaving the door hanging wide open behind us. Jonah is a classic example of a beloved child of God, running as far away from God and God’s call as humanly possible.
Now, we might expect more from Jonah if we knew the meaning of his name and his father’s name. Jonah means dove and throughout the Hebrew Bible, a dove is a sign of God’s peace. Jonah’s father’s name is Ami-ttai, which means faithfulness. So, the first line of Jonah reads, “Now the word of the Lord came to dove, son of faithfulness…” With these names and their meanings, we might expect an eager and willing prophet ready to go and do God’s work… that’s exactly what we do not get. Jonah is called as a, one tiny prophet to go to Nineveh, the most powerful, militant, full of wickedness metropolis of the Ancient Near East. And Jonah is supposed to tell them to turn towards God for change or risk destruction. Jonah instead flees and boards a ship in the opposite direction of Nineveh. While he is fleeing, a severe and dangerous storm crashes into his means of transportation. As Jonah sleeps through the raging storm, the captain desperately shakes Jonah awake and says, “Perhaps, your god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” At this moment, Jonah still does not speak, Jonah still does not act. So, the crew cast lots and it fell on Jonah. They interrogated him, asking him question after question about what he has done to cause this storm and although, Jonah has been called as a prophet to speak God’s words, it’s not until this point that Jonah, the dove, speaks. He says, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land…Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” So, they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, yet, another opportunity for Jonah to escape God. This is when our children’s Bible storybooks show us that God used a large fish to swallow Jonah from the depths of the sea. And Jonah sits in the belly of the fish for three days bellowing out his prayer to God, “I called out to the Lord in my distress, and YHWH answered me. From the belly of the underworld I cried out for help; you have heard my voice.”
If we are not challenged by Jonah’s story yet, more is still to come. The Lord spoke to the fish and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land. So God spoke to Jonah for the second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city….”
Covered in sand, dirt, fish guts, and probably embarrassment and guilt, Jonah trucks the three days to Nineveh, preparing with shaking knees to face the wicked Assyrians. One theologian writes about the great city, “Nineveh would have evoked powerful impressions of the Assyrian empire that dominated the ancient Near East as the ruling superpower…Nineveh remained for centuries a powerful symbol of an evil empire.”So, no wonder, no wonder, Jonah, a small prophet, call by God was reluctant to go to Nineveh, a powerful structure that could eliminate him with one snap of a finger. We’ve got to give Jonah some credit, yes, he ran, and he ran hard, but in the end, he went to Nineveh and just barely, just barely does God’s work. Jonah, still a bit reluctant, stands on a busy street and calls out one sentence, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Jonah’s choice of the last word, “overthrown,” hapak, is obscure. Hapak could mean “destroy,” which might have been Jonah’s wishes, considering her anger in the last chapter of this book. But hapak can also mean “change.” God was revealed in those five Hebrew words, and it was enough to make the entire city of Nineveh, cows included, to turn towards God and change their wicked behaviors. The Ninevites chose change over destruction.
And it wasn’t just the simple people, selling their goods at the market, the leader of the great and powerful city changed his ways as well. God looked at Nineveh and God changes God’s mind too, instead of destroying the city, God gave them life and love and the grace Jonah thought they did not deserve. We’re seeing a true glimpse of God’s nature in this passage. And Jonah’s reaction gives us a glimpse at the true nature of God’s broken children. In the next chapter, Jonah is mad, boiling mad. He says to God, red in the face, “Come on, Lord! This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate, God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” This anger for the other, this hate for the enemy, this fear and lack of hope that change is possible is exactly where we are in our world and nation today. We are at risk of pulling a Jonah and deciding who should receive God’s grace, God’s patience, God’s love and who shouldn’t receive those good, good things. We are at risk of being overcome by hate out of spite instead love out of the awe of who God is and all that God can do. We are at risk of even deeper divisions that will make it impossible to find racial reconciliation and peace among our siblings in Christ. For months, you’ve heard Steve and I name the state and stress of everything we are experiencing right now – from the pandemic to systemic racism and white supremacy, from deeply divided friends and families over politics to violence towards one another because of systemic lies and disagreements. I’m coming to you today with these same issues heavy on my heart, weighing my nightly rest and griping my own human soul because I am deeply challenged by this Jonah text. I’m challenged by what it is teaching us because it’s easier to be spiteful than it is to trust God and God’s transformation.
Brené Brown, a researcher on shame, vulnerability and courage dives deep into dehumanization and accountability as we face the polarizations gripping our nation today and I would argue, our organized faith as well. She referenced David Smith and Michelle Maise, who have both done extensive research on the act of dehumanization. Maise, according to Brené Brown, “defines dehumanization as the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. Dehumanization often starts with creating an enemy image…As we take sides, as we lose trust and we get angrier and angrier, we solidify an idea of our enemy, and as we solidify this enemy image, it becomes harder and harder to listen to…who we’ve framed as the enemy, harder to communicate, and almost impossible to practice any empathy with this enemy image, because we’ve dehumanized it.” Brown says, “we’ve just shamed it out of its humanity.”
I say this not taking sides, I say this because it’s happening everywhere, from every side, ever dichotomy, every polarized system. We have sunk deep into the belly of dehumanization and the fear of the other. We have sunk deep into the belly of lies, to put us up against the other. We have sunk deep into the belly of disbelief and apathy when human souls are being ripped by hate and bodies murdered by ingrained racism. We have sunk deep into the belly of creating a good versus evil culture. We have sunk deep into the belly of risk. We are at risk of running up against the line of dehumanization, that many have already crossed, on all sides of opinions about politics, religion, and faith. Nineveh was a city of wickedness. We could argue there was dehumanization within that city that feared Jonah to the depths of his being. Jonah, when he can’t wrap his head around why God would forgive and love the wicked Ninevites, Jonah was up against the line of dehumanization and shaming the Ninevites out of their humanity. Our story today turned deeper into a good versus evil scenario. When the Ninevites turned to God, that still wasn’t enough for Jonah. What’s enough for us?
Friends, I’m not saying this easy. It wasn’t for Jonah and it won’t be to us as well. So we start small. Where do we converse and listen? Where do we attempt to have empathy? Where do we sow justice and where do trust God? And this is mostly surface level stuff. The basics of seeing each other as equally as God sees us. We haven’t even touched on justice. But I would like to imagine that, the God who calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…And the God who calls us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, that God…that God holds us accountable. The Ninevites were heading in the right direction. They confessed and sat in the midst of earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. They sat in their sackcloth, recognizing their sorrow and communal pain. They sat understanding their mistakes and wickedness, learning from and turning towards the glory and love of God. They changed. They were transformed, heading in the direction of justice.
Each week, Steve, Jodi, or I stand up here and lead you in our Prayer of Confession. It’s familiar and can feel like artless words because we do it every week. It is also a ritual, something we lean on when we can’t face what we need to face that day. But mostly, the purpose of that ritual is so we can lean into it each week, recognizing how we are part of the aches and pains of this broken world. It’s a ritual that I love dearly because we can say with confidence as a community, with complete transparency to God and each other that we have messed up and are willing to be transformed again. Beloved, when we sit in midst of our dust to dust – our communal and individual mess ups…When we sit in the midst of the pains we have caused through ingrained racism and white supremacy culture…When we sit in the midst of othering and shaming our enemies out of their humanity…When we sit in the midst of our actions led by fear instead of our actions led by love…we are embracing and choosing to be changed and transformed by God. And when we are transformed, we clasp all of who God is and all that God gives us and all that God can do with us without any doubt, fear or anger. With hope, pray and true intent followed by action, this will lead us far from the line of dehumanization and into the realm of reconciliation, justice, and a kindom on earth as it is in heaven.
To end, Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, gave us a glimpse of this kindom on earth as it is in heaven in her poem The Hill We Climb. She writes, “We close the divide because we know to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony to all.
Let the globe, if nothing else say this is true:
that even as we grieved, we grew.
That ever as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division.”
Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.
 John C. Holbert, “Third Sunday after the Epipany: Commentary 1: Connecting the Reading with Scripture,” in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year B, Volume 1 ed. Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, and Carolyn J. Sharp (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), 199.
 Jonah 1:1.
 Jonah 1:6.
 Jonah 1:9; 12.
 Jonah 2:2.
 Jonah 3:1.
 James D. Nogalski, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: The Book of The Twelve Hosea-Jonah (Macon, Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2011), 414.
 Holbert, Connections, 200.
 Jonah 4:2.
 Brené Brown, Unlocking Us with Brené Brown: Brené on Words, Actions, Dehumanization, and Accountability, https://brenebrown.com/transcript/brene-on-words-actions-dehumanization-and-accountability/.
 Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, Wednesday, January 20, 2021, at the inauguration of the 46th president to the United States of America.