The book of the prophet Jonah is an odd book and not just because Jonah is swallowed by a big fish and animals put on sackcloth and ashes. Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet sent to proclaim to a foreign nation. And it’s not just any foreign nation. It’s Assyria – the cruel enemy that will conquer Israel and Judah in the centuries ahead.
When God tells Jonah to go and tell the people of Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria, that they should change ways Jonah doesn’t want to go. He runs away from God, with a one-way ticket on a ship to Tarshish. After spending time in the belly of the beast, Jonah goes to Tarshish. But, he’s not happy about it.
He delivers a terse message to the Ninevites: “Just forty more days and your city will be overthrown.” Despite a lack of persuasive tactics the people listen and everyone – from the king to the animals – repents of their wicked ways. They have been given a second chance. They turn over a new leaf, for a new way of life. At least, for a century or so.
Jonah is angry that God has not destroyed the Ninevites. He stalks off to the top of a hill overlooking the city and sits down in a fury. God finds Jonah there and twice asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah says he knew this would happen because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. If God won’t kill his enemies, Jonah says, he just wants to die.
The book ends there. Jonah has a choice.
And so do we.
When we turn on our TV or scroll through our Facebook feed or check the email or talk that neighbor, or pass by those yard signs, we see the other. We see Indians fans and Cubs fans. We see Republicans and Democrats and those independent voters. There’s Breitbart, and “I’m with her,” the NRA, and Black Lives Matter and Blue Pride. We see the media, and the military and Wall Street. We see the people who march, the people who kneel, the people who stand with Standing Rock and the people who stay home. All around us are people who have it coming – Ninevites, every one of them.
We sit up on some hill we have constructed, where we can survey others and, from our perspective, we see people who don’t deserve mercy. Not from us. Not from God. They are wrong. They are savage. They created their own problems. They have it in for us. And, you know, we may be right – they may wish to do us harm.
We are so busy trying to buy a one-way ticket to a place where everyone agrees with us that we might not hear God running after us with grace that God is ready to give away. The story of Jonah suggests – shockingly – that God still cares for those other people.
The gospels say that Jesus came as a “sign of Jonah”. He came bearing good news to those people – the ones religous people believed didn’t deserve much of anything. It was such revolutionary good news of God’s grace for all that people either ran from him, were so angry with him they were determined to cast him away or followed him.
So when we are up on our hillside looking down on all those Ninevites – those people – let’s remember that God doesn’t let us choose where God’s grace goes. We can see people from Jonah’s lonely, angry perspective or from the appallingly generous, gracious perspective of our God.
Conversations in the next few days, the reports from the polls, and whatever is said after the elections, and the unfolding events in the world and in our lives, will tempt us to forget the lesson of the sign of Jonah and the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
We know it will happen.
So as the week unfolds, when you open your computer or pick up the phone or watch the news and see red – or blue – when you have a disagreement with someone you can’t stand or a fight with someone you love. When you are tempted to say “Two more days and you will be overthrown” or a fire off a forty-word condemnation or deliver a four-letter curse, take a deep breath and tell Jonah to find himself another one-way ticket to Tarshish and invite Jesus to sit beside you. Ask Jesus to look with you at all those Ninevites – those people. For they are people. Ask Jesus who he sees. Ask Jesus what he knows about those people you are so afraid of and so angry with. Ask him if he cares for them.
When we do that, we stop running. When we do that, we see with the eyes of God.