Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Sign of Jonah (Sermon 10/04/09)

Matthew 12:38-42, 16:1-4; Luke 11:29-32

The Sign of Jonah?

We're not talking political-rally signs. No signs saying "Vote for so-and-so for such-and-such."

We're not talking ASL.

We're talking a signifier signifying a signified. A reader interacting with a signifier to see how and what can be signified. The process of meaning, however (im)possible.

Words are signs. The word "sign" means different things, as just shown. Consider the word "literally," too. If I tell you all I "literally" ate a whole pie last night, you'll understand the signifier "literally" to mean I actually ate a whole pie. On the other hand, If I say, "I literally ate 20 million pies last night," then you're going to understand "literally" to mean quite the opposite of what it signified in the previous example. Signs don't always mean one thing. Sometimes they mean one thing or another. Sometimes they mean multiple things at the same time to different people.

Three times in the gospels, Jesus mentions the "sign of Jonah." And as the gospels are wont to do, none of these stories are the same. In two of these instances, Jesus is asked for a sign--something to point to Jesus' identity and mission. Each time the sign of Jonah is mentioned, it is surrounded by stories of a compassionate and teaching Jesus and stories evoking questions of Jesus' identity--is he of God or the devil?

The sign of Jonah is juxtaposed with these other signs, signs that reveal his glory, as the Gospel of John puts it (2:11). Although the sign of Jonah points to the same things these other signs point to, it is a different sort of sign as it specifically alludes to a book of the Bible whereas the other signs are provisions of food for the hungry, the healing of the lame and sick, the exorcism of the demon possessed, and such.

In Matthew 12, Jesus explains the sign of Jonah as foreshadowing his death and resurrection: "just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the son of man will be in the heart of the earth" (v. 40). But the sign of Jonah is not just about the fish.

In Luke, Jesus describes the sign a little differently. Jesus says, "just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the son of man will be to this generation" (11:30). Whereas Jesus actually explained the sign in Matthew, in Luke, he only complicates the matter further, comparing the sign of Jonah to the sign of the son of man.

Here and in Matthew, the sign of Jonah is somehow wrapped up with the people from Nineveh and their repentance. Jesus isn't telling us everything, expecting us to know more about the story of Jonah. So, let's take a deeper look by reading the whole story--it's short. Feel free to read along if you like. It's one of those small books near the end of the Old Testament: "... Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, ..." Don't be ashamed to look in the table of contents to help you find it.

As I read, pay attention to things that are weird. Jonah is a weird story, I think. I think we are drawn into the story of Jonah by being forced to explain things the story leaves unexplained--what I call filling in the gaps.

Read Jonah.

We've already heard an explanation from Matthew about the sign from the first half of Jonah's story, so I'm going to focus on the latter part of the story, which is just as fishy as the first if you ask me.

Why did Jonah deliver such a short, harsh message? The message in the book leaves a little bit to be desired. Did Jonah really deliver the whole message and nothing but the message that God gave him? Or does the book give us a summary of what Jonah said?

"Forty days and Nineveh is overturned!" Not really the most eloquent of sermons. No hope. No call to repentance. Why even deliver the message? Why give them a timeline? Since when is the God of Israel--Jonah's God and our God--a sadist? Certainly God didn't want the Ninevites to run around town panicking for forty days as they await their ineluctable doom.

I just can't imagine God sent Jonah only to bring news of destruction. Maybe Jonah didn't learn his lesson after the fish and doesn't say what God wants, or maybe the book emphasizes or summarizes Jonah's message. I don't know. But, whatever Jonah said, I doubt it was all rainbows and butterflies, but in spite of Jonah's message, God still held out hope for the Ninevites.

And so did the Ninevites. After one day of a depressing message, the whole city somehow manages to repent. I have no clue how word got to the whole town without someone tweeting, updating their facebook status, or taking the story to the weekend update. What exactly compelled them to believe? What compelled them to fast and wear sackcloth? Did their discomfort and hunger grab God's attention by proving their genuineness? Did it prove genuineness to the community, thus holding each other accountable? Maybe a little of both?

Here's a better question: Why did they make the animals fast and wear sackcloth? Was their too much gossip going on in the barnyard? Too much oppression? Maybe the white sheep were treating the black sheep according to some poor stereotypes. Maybe the bulls wouldn't associate with the steers. And surely the ostriches were ostracized.

Cheesy puns aside, God's reaction is crazier than animals being forced to fast and wear sackcloth because of a message of destruction from an angry prophet who probably smells like fish guts.

According to Hebrew scripture, repentance involves sacrifices and in order to be in God's favor you have to obey the law, be circumcised, and engage in worship at the temple. The Ninevites likely had little knowledge of Israel's covenant relationship with God and likely stayed ignorant of that relationship and the subsequent laws. And God still accepted their repentance. And boy did it make Jonah mad.

God wasn't bound by how Jonah read scripture, even the straightforward parts. Regardless of what Jonah thought, God knew about God's love. God knows everyone is redeemable. Despite God's love wasn't emphasized in Jonah's message, it was still given away freely and in abundance. It seems our God is a God who refrains from destroying the penitent, even when the penitent aren't even completely sure what they are repenting from and how to repent from it.

While Jonah preached hellfire and brimstone, God was singing, "Come just as you are." And brothers and sisters, let me tell you Jonah didn't like that hymn one bit. He was irate. He wanted Nineveh to be destroyed or at least to have to respond to God the same way Israel did. He didn't want to hear "come just as you are," he wanted to hear, "come just the way I asked Jonah and Israel to come."

In all this anger and bitterness, what kind of sign was Jonah to Nineveh? A sign of human judgment and nonacceptance? A sign of trying to put God into a theological box? A sign of reluctance to accept God's actions?

I hope not.

There must be more.

Yes, Jonah had a grudge against Nineveh, a grudge that somehow put him in an awkward situation. Nineveh was part of this empire that bullied Israel and eventually took them over, forcing the people to leave their homes. I don't think we can completely understand that sort of grudge today. Nations, empires, nationalism, and patriotism operate too differently for us to understand Jonah by comparing Israel to the US. For Jonah, his ethnicity was his citizenship and his religion. Being Hebrew meant being Israelite and being in a covenant with God. For us, ethnicity does not necessarily mean you're from the US and neither does it mean you are Christian. We have to get at Jonah another way.

I think Jonah was called to minister to those who had wronged both him and those he loved. And not just those who wronged him and those he loved. He was called also to those he associated with them--people who did nothing wrong but be born who Ninevites. Jonah was sent to those who validated a stereotype and those who simply wore the label.

It's like God calling us to minister to any group of people we judge based on a stereotype. Since I don't know any of you, I can't say who is your Nineveh. And even if I knew you, it isn't my place to judge. But knowing qualities of Nineveh, I can give a few possibilities.

For some of us, it could be another race, nationality, or skin tone. For others, it could be those affiliated with a certain political party. Maybe it is people who dress a certain way or listen to certain music. People who use words we might not use. It could be people with a certain amount of money--rich or poor. Perhaps it is anyone whose ever been to jail--thieves, murderers, sexual offenders. It might be people who believe things you don't believe, do things you don't do, or approve of things you don't approve of.

Part of the message of Jonah's story is the redeemability of all humanity. No matter what we do, we still carry the image of God. That, my friends, is what I see as the sign of Jonah and the sign that Jonah became to Nineveh. He walked in despising those around him, preaching hellfire and brimstone, but found out God loves the people Jonah doesn't. And no matter what Jonah did, no matter what he said, God still showed mercy to a whole city of people outside of God's covenant relationship with Israel.

And so did Jesus, praise God. Without him, we may never have realized how far God's love extends and we wouldn't be part of a different covenant relationship with the of God Israel. Jesus ministered to those who were the sores on Israel's society: the tax collectors who cheated and lied; the prostitutes, adulterers, and others sexually different from the norm; the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the other elite who thought they knew everything about God; the Samaritans, Romans, and other Gentiles who, according to much of the Old Testament, had no earthly right to be loved by God; and Jesus also went to the ever ambiguous "the sinners," which, as we know, is everyone. Everyone. Not just people who respond to God the way we expect them to. Everyone. Literally.

Now, as Jesus says in Luke, "something greater than Jonah is here" (11:32) and the story of the Ninevites bears witness to it. God loves whom God loves and we can't do a thing about it, no matter how much we pout and misunderstand.

Jesus referred to himself as the something greater than Jonah. After his ascension, another thing greater than Jonah came: the Spirit who dwells within us.

The Spirit dwells within us, Church. Because of that indwelling, today, we are the something greater than Jonah. We embody Jesus the Christ. We are called to be filled with the spirit: to die to ourselves and be raised from the belly of a sea monster, to love--to really love with our actions--the Ninevites wherever they be and whoever they are, which is everybody, everywhere.

We can judge however we want,
but God's love isn't bound by us.
Our judgments destroy,
but the Spirit heals all.
No matter how we judge them,
Jesus still loves them.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah. The whole book during a sermon. Sermon was just over 26 minutes and the church was used to 27-33 min sermons.

    Also, two people mentioned they liked that I read the whole book.