Jonah 1, 3-4
I do not love the last line of the hymn “O Zion, Haste”: “Let known whom he has ransomed fail to greet him/ through your neglect, unfit to see his face.” That makes me itchy all over, in part because I think salvation is not my job. I don’t save people. Jesus has saved people. Isn’t that the point of grace? That it’s available to all people and we don’t work for it.
Yet what is grace, saving grace, costly grace, grace that comes from death and resurrection, if I don’t know about it? What does it mean to me? Furthermore, what does it mean to the person who knows, but doesn’t think it is worth talking about every day? What does it mean to the person who knows about grace, who believes grace is amazing and true, but not quite amazing and true enough to risk anything for it? What does grace mean to the person who loves benefitting from it, but not enough to take a message of grace to people who ache for grace, people in a place like Ninevah?
The story of Jonah has a very specific function in the Hebrew Scriptures. We tend to narrow it down to the part about the big fish, sometimes forgetting how Jonah ended up in that place anyway. A few people say the conversion of a whole city is a bigger miracle, especially with such a lousy sermon, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” We could talk about resisting God’s call in our lives, but that’s not why the story of Jonah is important or why it lasted for years and years, even to us today.
Jonah is written down in this very critical time period in the Hebrew scripture history, when things are going okay for the Israelites. With a righteous leader and the exile far off enough into the future as to be unpredicted, the Hebrew people can live for a moment into what it feels like to be “chosen people”.
Basking in God’s favor, as they see it, however, they are doing nothing to communicate the message of one God- creator and redeemer of all- to the people around them. They have forgotten that this is for what they have been chosen: to carry the message of Adonai to the world. They love the idea of a gracious and merciful God, as long as the grace and mercy are for them. Not the others nearby and certainly not the others far away.
Jonah has no interest in taking a message of grace to Ninevah, a city full of non-Hebrews, a city of infamous iniquity. Why should they get the grace he knows God will provide? So he goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish and, when that plan seems foiled, he’d rather die by drowning than go to Ninevah.
Why should Jonah go? If God will be gracious in the end anyway, why does it matter if Jonah goes or not? Why are you here this morning? At some point, we all have to decide if grace is an excuse or an motivator? Are we using the grace of God, the grace we believe that applies to all, to relieve us of responsibility? Are we skipping the third verse because we know that people will still get to see Jesus- no matter what we do?
Or is grace our motivator? Are we motivated by joy in our salvation? Are we stirred up in knowing that God intends something better for the world now, as well as the world to come? Not only that, but God chooses to use us in the bringing about of those improvements? Are we moved enough by the idea of grace to embrace a call to good works?
By hearing the story of Jonah, the Hebrew people of the time were reminded that God’s gift of grace to them was not to set them above others, but to bring them into the midst of a world that truly needed to hear about the one God- maker and redeemer of all.
The last couple sentences of Jonah are my favorite in the whole of the Bible. Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
They reveal God’s sense of humor and God’s boundless love for all. Furthermore, Jonah’s whole story reveals God’s intention to use each of us to share that love and the message of repentance and grace. For me, I have to consider these lines with the last line of that hymn. Even if I believe that people receive grace through the faithfulness of Christ, there is still work for me to do… for you to do… so that people may see a face of Christ in this life.
Are you moved enough by the gift of grace to go to Ninevah? To do the very last thing that you want to do? Grace is not simply for heaven later, it is to prevent feeling like hell is on earth now. Each of us has a call and gifts to help people experience the presence of Christ with them today. That’s why we’re here, not to simply see friends, have communion, and check off church for a week. We gather to be recharged so that we can go out and publish glad tidings… tidings of peace… tidings of Jesus… redemption and release.