Dean Baxter: “Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet of Peace”
This morning I want to talk about “Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet of Peace”. But first let me tell you a story about little Susie in her Biology class. The teacher was discussing mammals that live in the ocean, specifically whales. The teacher explained that whales have very small throats and cannot swallow large objects, certainly not a man.
Little Susie raised her hand and informed the teacher that the Bible says a whale swallowed Jonah. The teacher explained that they were not in school to discuss the Bible but biology, and biologically it is impossible for a whale to swallow a man. Susie replied, “But the Bible says ‘God prepared the whale”. The teacher reiterated his earlier response. Susie said that she was confused but when she got to heaven she would ask Jonah. The teacher replied, “what if Jonah didn’t go to heaven”? “Then you ask him,” was her reply.
We often think of this biblical story as the “Jonah and the Whale” story (or “God prepared a large fish…” as the Bible actually states). At times in American religious history this has been part of a “Fundamentalist Litmus” test for biblical inerrancy; as little Susie suggests, true believers will query Jonah in heaven, and doubters, elsewhere!
However, Jonah is actually an expanded parable or a divinely inspired moral novel written to the Jewish people many generations after their exile. Independent Israel was still not significant among her strong neighbors, including former conquerors. Yet, history had proven that no matter what the oppression the Jewish people would overcome — whether slaves in Egypt or the Babylonian or Assyrian exile (areas we know today as including parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The one thing the Israelites had was their God and his promise to their father Abraham:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great; and so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
But at the time of the Jonah story Israel had remembered the blessing yet forgotten the responsibility. Thus the writer of this “novel” was concerned with keeping Israel true to the full understanding of faith according to the covenant. But survival, revenge and restoration were the prime concerns of this people with painful memories of the past at the hands of foreign conquerors. That the God of Israel was a God of Grace to foreigners was not part of the Israelites’ agenda or operating religious or political philosophy. This was especially true of the Assyrians, for whom Nineveh was the capital (across the river from what we know as Mosul, Iraq).
Now, the first readers of the Book of Jonah had great sympathy for the hero, for they knew the Assyrians were to be feared for their great reputation for brutality in war and conquest. One of the pioneering archeological scholars of the 20th century was James Henry Breasted who wrote: “wherever the terrible Assyrian armies swept through the land, they left a trail of ruin and desolation behind. Around smoking heaps which had once been towns, stretched lines of tall stakes, on which were stuck the bodies of rebellious rulers flayed alive; while all around rose mounds and piles of the slaughtered, heaped up to celebrate the great Assyrian King’s triumph and serve as a warning to all revolters.” And Nineveh as the Assyrian capitol was the belly of the beast; and not even God had power in Nineveh.
But readers knew God was really the villain in this story because God was sending Jonah to this horrible place and people. And more than escaping his mission — Nineveh — Jonah wanted to escape God. If he went to Nineveh, God could not protect him against such heathens. History had proven that Yahweh had no real power in Assyria, or anywhere outside of Palestine. Furthermore, he could not believe that his God had any compassion for such proven barbaric heathens. So Jonah figured he could get away from God if he went to Tarshish — the farthest known place in the opposite direction from Israel—west across the Mediterranean Sea to the southern-most part of Spain.
But in a storm that threatens to destroy the entire ship, cargo and crew, Jonah realizes that his God is everywhere. To a fugitive this is not comforting news, but adds to Jonah’s distress. So he asked to be thrown overboard — perhaps death could free him from the “Hounds of Heaven.” But Jonah only discovers what many of us know who have tried to run from God: that we cannot escape the holy. The 139th Psalm states so clearly what the Jonahs’ of every age have come to confess:
“Where could I go to escape from you, [God]? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; If I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east of lived in the farthest place in the WEST, You would be there! (Psalm 139:7-11 GNB)
I wonder this morning, what limits have you given God? Is your conviction about the power and demands of God limited to the church building, to polite religious settings such as worship? Is it limited to your homes? And where is God off limits or powerless in our daily world? Is it on our jobs in the complicated world of political, commercial, and legal dealings, or our places of pleasure? Have we deemed these worlds too complex, wicked, or important for the simple tenets of our faith?
But more than a lack of faith, the limitations of God’s will and power in our lives can be simply a matter of convenience. It’s hard being a faithful Christian — to bear witness in social circles or professional settings. It’s hard to risk saying what we believe and allow it to influence decisions and behavior where we would otherwise wish to succeed or be accepted. But on a personal level the story of Jonah tells the faithful, it is naïve to assume we can escape God or the purpose for God in our lives. So many have said to me, “I do not know what God’s purpose is for my life.” As I listen, I often think it is not a matter of knowing, as it is a matter of not liking what we know or suspect.
Well, regardless of what little Susie’s biology teacher said, according to the Bible story Jonah spends three days and nights in what seemed like hell, in the belly of a large fish.
When Jonah is finally vomited up on dry land there is no doubt in his mind and the mind of the story’s readers that God is omnipotent and omnipresent. Now he knows God is all-powerful and everywhere present. However, Jonah now understands that his God’s power is intended to destroy the worst people in the world. So he now is motivated to prophesy: “Repent or in forty days God will destroy the city!”
Now symbolism is important in considering the writer’s choice the name of Jonah as the main character. Because of the reference in II Kings 14:25-27 to Jonah, “son of Amittai” this was a heroic name in Jewish lore… However, the writer uses another twist, for the name Jonah also means “Dove”, which was a symbol of Israel. A dove, a courier of good news peace, safety, hopes). (Genesis 12:2.3.). Even the Encyclopedia Judaica states that particularly in light of Nineveh’s repentance Jonah’s message of doom was really a message of good news, of God’s grace to the dreaded Assyrians. (1971, vol. IX).
Centuries later, our Lord Jesus picks up on this theme when referring to his sacrifice and universal atonement. “For 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. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of the Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:40, 41). God’s mercy and grace knows no boundaries of history, creed or nationality for those who heed the voice of peace, even from a reluctant prophet.
This is true for us today. For the Christian, in a secular world, peace and justice, not nationalism, are the chief purposes of God. In our society, we must be the voice of peace, of reconciliation of justice. We must not believe there are places where God’s power does not extend— not the White House, Congress, Supreme Court, Pentagon, even the battlefield. As Christians, we must keep hoping for and working for peace, reconciliation, and justice — before, during and after war.
As Christians, we must be those in our society who are always willing — yes, even compelled—to push for the extra mile when a nation is contemplating war. We must be those, no matter our station, compelled by God to speak of reconciliation and forgiveness even when our nation and our citizens have been violated. We must be those compelled to find no acceptance or justification in collateral damage even when it is unavoidable. Evil, even in the cause of peace, must be acknowledged, confessed and repented at some point. We must be those citizen voices recognizing that having the power to destroy does not automatically give us the moral authority to do so; nor does the fact that we have such power implies a favored status above other children of God regardless their religions and cultures. It is too easy, Christians, to describe the religion of others as evil based upon its abuse by some adherents.
So with the knowledge that his God could destroy the Assyrians, Jonah goes through the pious ritual of prophesying and then camps out on a hill to watch the pleasureable show of Wicked Nineveh’s destruction. “What a lesson,” he must have thought, “This was going to be for the Assyrians and the other heathen nations, which threatened Israel’s security.” But Nineveh relents. It repents and Jonah is angry! The power of Israel’s God is Grace! Yahweh’s power is that which saves Nineveh rather than destroys it — God is not complicit in Israel’s hunger for revenge.
Finally, the lesson God teaches is not to Assyrians, but to his angry prophet and his people — Israel. And what was the lesson? God says to angry sulking Jonah, in the very last verse of the very last chapter of the book:
“….should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand person who do not know their right hand from their left, and so many animals?”
Who in Nineveh did not know their “right hand from their left? These were 120,000 young children! And furthermore God tells Jonah his mercy extends to animals too! These are what in war today we call “collateral damage.” In God’s economy “collateral damage” can never be calculated as part of price of security, the accepted price of war. Indeed, war happens; in an imperfect world sometimes unavoidably. Yet we must never be at peace with such sacrifice, even when a war is deemed just.
We all enjoy some of our freedoms today (even the freedom to protest) because of war. But as Christians, we are never persons to find complete or ultimate peace and comfort in war and its effect even upon our proven enemies. We hope for Grace before, during and after war. We must be the salt of the earth to preserve the notion of civility and grace in the national conversation.
I think of the American Atomic Bomb, which brought the Japanese aggressive political militay leadership to its knee in fear. That decision of President Truman did indeed save hundreds of thousands of young American soldiers, including my father (which means that had it not been dropped there is a good chance that I would not be standing in this pulpit today — a chilling personal thought!).
But the fact that the bomb saved thousands of American lives for me and for our beloved country should never give us complete personal satisfaction nor moral or theological justification for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians — essentially children, women and elderly Japanese. Doing what we believe we must, does not make us blameless or uncompromised by evil effects, even in the cause of peace and security.
I believe President Truman agonized over this decision more than any theologian or pacifist of his time. He did so not only because he was a good Christian, but also because only he could make the decision with so many hard and complex issues at stake. He knew there was no purely moral or perfect answer and no result could free him from the burden of any choice he made in this ominous issue. Although President Truman said in his l955 Memoir, “Once a decision was made, I did not worry about it afterwards.” I do believe that at least in part the moral weight of the subsequent horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki strongly motivated him towards the Marshall plan and the rebuilding of Japan. Mr. Truman wrote of his hope that these actions would “go down in history as one of America’s greatest contributions to the peace of the world”. And this, I believe has proven true; for the rebuilding of Europe and Japan ultimately made allies of enemies and our world more secure. (World War II was a direct result of post war neglect of an economically devastated and politically vulnerable Germany). Commitment to restoring dignity to an enemy, when possible, is not only a matter of national security, it is part of the moral burden of a wartime leader.
My favorite statute in this Cathedral is at the entrance to the North Parclose steps. It is Abraham Lincoln kneeling in prayer. Its inspiration came from the sculptor, Herbert S. Houck, whose grandfather saw Lincoln kneeling in the woods just before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Whenever I see this magnificent statute I think of the words ascribed to a great President in the time of America’s most painful war: “I have often been driven to my knees by the knowledge that I had no place else to go.”
Today our President, whom I believe is another good and Christian man, has a similar burden regarding Iraq and its very dangerous dictator. Even as the war on terrorism continues he must make the decisions for action only he as President can make. That is not our job as Christians or citizens. Ours is to pray for him, for the burden and issues are more than we can know. But as Christians and citizens we must also challenge him, his advisors and congressional leaders to be certain we have exhausted every prudent non-military effort; to be honest in weighing the collateral cost and the additional suffering we can bring to an already oppressed people; to seek the wisdom of other nations in addressing what we believe is our security responsibility to the world. Furthermore, should war happen, we as “doves” are no more exempt or less responsible than “hawks” for even the “necessary” evils of war. Our voices must be heard!
Working for peace is not unpatriotic. It is what Christians must do, even if we feel our national cause for war is just. Even if we are dutiful soldiers — as I have been and many Christians throughout history —our ultimate hope must always be for peace, reconciliation and ultimate justice, even for our enemies, including children and people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an imperfect world our faith does not assume that war and its horrors will not happen, but it does insist that it is the only way war’s evil and the soul of a nation can be redeemed. We cannot ignore the current evils that threaten our national security. But neither can we allow ourselves or our nation’s heart to be hardened by such realities. We ar