The Scripture reading this week is Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11. But it may be helpful to read the whole book, it is not that long all together -- in fact this reading is only missing the 10 verses of chapter 2.
The Sermon title is Love Your Enemies
Early Thoughts: How do you move past a tribal God? How do we love our enemies and accept that God also loves our enemies?
Jonah is a great story to explore these questions. Because it is about far more than the big fish (the word whale never actually appears in the text).
Jonah is called to witness to the people of Nineveh. It is only slight hyperbole to say this is akin to a mid-20th century Jew being asked to go witness to the guards at Auschwitz. Nineveh is the seat of the Assyrian empire:
If you visit the British Museum, you can see spectacular wall reliefs depicting Assyrian sieges. The famous siege of Lachish shows multiple images of Judeans being impaled, and stacks of Judeans heads (yes, disembodied heads) that were counted by Assyrian scribes, presumably for a pay per head policy with the soldiers. Archaeologists discovered this relief in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (you can read about them more about Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18-21). [SOURCE]
And so Jonah makes an entirely logical decision. Rather than walk to a place where he is likely to be slaughtered (what ARE you thinking of God?) he goes the exact opposite direction. Then there is a storm at sea, Jonah takes the blame, gets thrown overboard and is swallowed (through God's grace and protection) by a large fish. That is the part of the story we know best.
After three days in the fish belly Jonah relents. And he goes to Nineveh to preach their imminent destruction, something I have always thought Jonah is looking forward to watching.
But there is a problem. The king and people of Nineveh take Jonah seriously. VERY seriously. And so they put on sackcloth and ashes and show that they truly repent of their wickedness. Upon which God takes their repentance as valid and chooses not to destroy the city and slaughter the people.
Poor Jonah. He is most distressed at the very idea that God would show mercy to those horrible Assyrians.
Which brings us to our opening question. How do you move beyond a tribal God?
For most of the Jewish Scriptures God is, essentially, seen as a tribal God -- The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel. This is the God who actively fights for the tribe, as in the story of the Exodus. But over time a new understanding of God erupts. Most often see it in the writings that come during and after the Exile, when the people discover (almost as a surprise) that even though the temple has been destroyed God is still with them.
They re-understand God as much more the a tribal God, they start to see God as, well, God, the God not just of Israel but of the people. And I have to believe that in some ways this forces them to start to wonder how they should see other people.
Then along comes Jesus saying:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)Once we see that God is not just the God of our tribe, our people, those who are like us then we are forced to admit that maybe we should love them. Even if for no other reason than because God loves them. In this month when we pause to remember, when we remind ourselves Never Again, when we recall the horrible cost of hatred and fear of the other, it is good to remind ourselves that we have moved past a tribal God. And that God calls us to a higher way of living:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)--Gord