I preached this sermon this morning at my home church of Brookwood Baptist in Birmingham, Alabama. It expands upon the material in this sermon that I posted the other day. It was the last sermon I will be able to give there before I leave for seminary. Brookwood has been one of the most nurturing communities I have ever been a part of. This work is dedicated to them — not because it applies to them more than anyone else (it applies to us all) but because they were some of the ones who taught me some of the most important things I’ve learned along the way.
Since I come from an academic context, the first question most people ask me when I talk about Jonah is quite direct, “Did Jonah happen?” Usually what they mean by that is something along these lines: Is this a literal story? Was Jonah in a fish? Could God actually do that?
Well, yes, I think God could do all that if God wanted to do all that. However, I think we are asking the right question in the wrong way. When we ask ourselves “Did Jonah happen?” we are typically talking about the particulars of this ancient short story. We mean the individual details. But when I come to the passage today and ask “Did Jonah happen?” I do not need to consult archaeology, historical criticism, biblical languages, chronologies, or anything academic at all. I have done that, but it does not help us very much this morning. I think all we need to do in order to answer that question is pick up the morning newspaper, turn on the television, or pull up the news on the internet.
Consider some of the things that happened this week: Sunni and Shia Muslim divisions in Bahrain continue to result in fighting and killing — this week in the death of a police officer by car bomb. Egypt is in chaos after a majority group ostracized other groups and now the tables have turned on them. North and South Korea ended talks this week that would have resulted in some economic cooperation along the border. A court in Nigeria sentenced four Islamist militants to life in prison for a terrorist attack. Nigeria is roughly divided north and south between Christians and Muslims. The trial of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber begins soon, lest we forget the devastating attack borne out of intercultural hostility. Immigration reform sits before a skeptical House of Representatives who will decide how Americans can treat the people of Mexico: bring them in or keep them out.
Jonah did not preach in Nineveh this week. There was no conversion in Nineveh. If there were conversion in Nineveh, Sunni and Shia Muslims would not kill each other. If there were conversion in Nineveh, Christians, Muslims, and secularists would not throw each other in jail in Egypt. If there were conversion in Nineveh, thousands would not be dying in North Korea and two countries would not be in perpetual war. If there were conversion in Nineveh, two young men from across the world would not have bombed the Boston Marathon. If there were conversion in Nineveh, our immigration debate would look very different. If there were conversion in Nineveh, our poverty rate would not be so great, our income disparity not so wide, our children not so hungry, and our captives not so chained. There was no conversion in Nineveh, and I can see evidence of it all around.
If you want to know if Jonah happened, look around. If you want to know if Jonah happened, consider the whole story. Consider that story that starts in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. Consider that story when God made humanity and we mess up, mess up, and mess up. We run away, run about, and run to anything but God. In the beginning, God called a man named Abram. God called him Abraham and he called his wife Sarah and he told them that they would have as many children as there were stars. God told Abraham he would be able to count his children as he counted the stars, as he counted the hairs on his head, as he counted the grains of sand on the shore.
God lived with Abraham’s people and they passed down the promise from generation to generation. God lived with them while they prospered and while they were enslaved. He brought them out of captivity in the wilderness where they wandered for forty years. When they did inherit their land, things went awry. The people became possessed with the idea that the promise — the promise that they would number as the stars in the sky — that the promise would be fulfilled by the possession of land and cities. They believed that the promise was one of power. So, they conquered and fought; the days grew dark and bloody.
These days dragged on and on until the people of God forgot that they were not kings. They looked to their neighbors and saw their kings in all their splendor, and they told God they wanted their own. They forgot all of the hubris that came with a crown, and all of the prejudice, anger, violence, and exclusion. Even when they crowned a just king, he killed a man and took his wife. David, a man after God’s own heart, bore sons who killed sons and sons who raped sisters. Then, the kingdom fractured under David’s son Solomon. Even the wisest man on earth did not understand the promise. He could not count the stars even with all the knowledge and things of the earth … and so the nation split in two.
We find Jonah in this fractured world. We ask if Jonah preached in this world. Jonah, the story goes, comes from the North. God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh, but Jonah had no desire whatsoever to do that. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the empire of the hated enemy. To Jonah and the rest of Israel, Assyria was the epicenter of debauchery, idolatry, violence, and all that a pious Israelite despised. So Jonah hated Assyria and he tried to run away. He got on a boat and ended up in a fish. He set out to sea and ended up in the sand looking up at Nineveh. Begrudgingly, Jonah got up and preached to Nineveh. He preached to the people he hated and he told them how to avoid destruction. He told his enemies how much God loved them. And they repented.
There is conversion in Nineveh. The king issued a proclamation and the whole city and all its animals donned sackcloth and ashes to weep at their impending doom. There was conversion in Nineveh. But Jonah hated it. He could not stand for these people to enter the Kingdom of God. Jonah huffed and puffed, mad as hell, totally content with the fact that he would rather watch 120,000 people die than come into the love of God.
Whoever wrote the book of Jonah did not write it while Jonah was alive. You see, years after the story of Jonah takes place, Nineveh’s armies march on Israel and destroy it. Those tribes are lost to history. The Assyrians wiped them out. There was no conversion in Nineveh. Almost three thousand years ago, Israel saw the consequences of not preaching in Assyria. When the people returned to Palestine and heard this story, they looked around and asked themselves the same question we did: Did Jonah happen? And I guarantee you, when they looked around at devastated houses, a ruined temple, and scorched earth, they knew one thing: today, there was no conversion in Nineveh. They heard the story and wept before its consequences. They rebuilt, but they wept, for there was no conversion in Nineveh. Many lost hope and thought that Abraham’s promise, the counting of the stars, was dead.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, Assyria destroyed Israel.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, Sunni and Shia Muslims are at war in Bahrain.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, Christians, Muslims, and secularists imprison each other in Egypt.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, thousands die in North Korea and two countries are in perpetual war.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, terrorist attacks rock our nation and others.
Because there was no conversion in Nineveh, our debates around poverty, immigration reform, welfare, healthcare, income disparity, hunger, and education focus more on politics than people.
There is no conversion in Nineveh, and I can see evidence of it all around.
Centuries after these people read Jonah, their descendants sat in a synagogue in Palestine. They had heard about a man with curious teachings wandering about the region. They decided to question him and see if his work was of God. When it was their turn, they asked him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “I give you no sign except that of the prophet Jonah.” Sure enough, when one greater than Jonah came, the response of God’s own people was not that of these fabled Assyrians. Instead of repenting and rushing headlong into God’s Kingdom, they killed their prophet and buried him, casting him into the seas of the earth and into the belly of the tomb. Just as no sailor expected Jonah to return from the whale, no one expected Jesus to return from the earth, but I believe that we all know how that panned out. So, “Did Jonah happen?” This time it did, and it was spectacular.
From that point forward, the Kingdom of God began to expand in the world in unprecedented ways. In this crucial period of the church’s infancy, I believe we find the meaning of the story of Jonah. Consider the journey of the Apostle Peter. One day, he sat on the roof of his building so that he could pray uninterrupted. Despite his best efforts, God interrupted his prayers with a vision: He saw the heavens open and a large blanket descended before him. On it were all kinds of animals, reptiles, birds — including all sorts of things Peter was not supposed to eat. But Peter heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter objected to God, calling some of the food unclean, but God replied, “What I have made clean you must not call unclean.” It took three times for Peter to get the message, but when he did, he went downstairs and there was a man at the door.
The man and his companions told him that a centurion, a Gentile, a Roman, named Cornelius had sent for him. An angel of God had appeared to Cornelius and told him to find Simon Peter. Peter took the messengers at their word and travelled to Cornelius’ house. When Peter sat with Cornelius, he heard him tell his story of how God was at work in his household. Undoubtedly at first confused, at some point in their conversation, it all clicked for Peter. God was not talking about food when he said, “What I have made clean you must not call unclean.” So Peter stood up and said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what it right is acceptable to [God]” (Acts 10:34-35, NRSV). Peter stayed with these first Gentile believers and celebrated with them. Then he returned to Jerusalem. The church gathered to hear what God had revealed to Peter. He stood before them, he walked between the rows of people gathered, stopping before each one of them, and he said:
“There has been conversion in Nineveh.”
[pointing at myself] “There is conversion in Nineveh,” he said, “There has been conversion in Nineveh — the Nineveh of my heart; the Nineveh of my soul.”
What do all of these stories have to do with each other? What do they have to do with us? If these narratives tell me one thing this morning, it is that conversion starts with us. Conversion does not begin with those outside the church. It starts with those within her walls. Conversion starts in the cold places of your heart and mine, those places that are the true Ninevehs of the world. Nineveh is not some far-flung city on the other side of the world. Nineveh is not some unreached people group. Nineveh is not the sinner but the saint. That is what Peter learned in that vision. Jonah is not a book about evangelism. Jonah is not about the conversion of others. Jonah is a book about the conversion of our own souls. Did you hear Jonah’s attitude in the Scripture reading? The book of Jonah is about the conversion of our prejudices, our biases, our preconceptions, our judgments, our souls. Jonah’s example demands that we are the first to convert.
No matter how good we think we are, we all have a little Jonah inside of us. Whether we are a Republican who hates Democrats or a Democrat who hates Republicans, we all have a little Jonah inside of us. Whether we are a little bit sexist, a little bit racist, or even just the littlest bit hateful, we all have a little Jonah inside of us. Every time we judge someone on the street, every time we take someone’s rights away, every time we push people down, every time we think someone’s not worth it, less than, or inferior, we realized we all have a little Jonah inside of us. We all have a little Nineveh inside of us. And there needs to be conversion in Nineveh. For if there is no conversion in Nineveh, we destroy our own selves. If there is no conversion in Nineveh, our walls will come crumbling down. If there is no conversion in Nineveh, we will tear down our own temples and our own homes. If we keep treating people as less than people — subtly or not so subtly — because of their race, their sex, their immigration status, their sexuality, their economic standing, their political opinions, their religious inclinations, because of who they are, there will be no conversion in Nineveh and Nineveh does not convert at its own peril.
Even the best of us throw up walls. We like to set up sentries at what we think are the borders of the Kingdom of God. Whoever we are, we like to keep people out of God’s city. Some people are just too different, too sinful, too not like us, to be in the Kingdom. That is why those people are not sitting in the pews next to you. We are better at building walls than we ever thought possible. The problem with our metaphoric masonry is that those walls we are building are not part of the Kingdom of God. God is building the Kingdom all along, whether we are helping or not. Those walls are not God’s and the Kingdom is expanding far beyond them, whatever our opinion might be. How do I know that? God went and talked to Cornelius before God talked with Peter. God talked with Paul before he talked with Ananias. God was at work in the hearts of the people of Nineveh long before Jonah got there. Just so, God is at work all over the place, including the places we don’t expect God to be. Our job is not to set up the borders to the Kingdom of Heaven. Our job is to rush toward those borders, the new places where God is at work. Our job is to dive into those marginal spaces where God is doing a new thing. But we cannot find those places, we cannot find those spaces, before there is conversion in the Nineveh, in the Jonah, of your soul and mine.
What does that mean for you? I think it means we need to ask ourselves a few questions. Who is it that we do not love? Who is it that we think God can do no new work in their lives? Who is this person, who are those people? It is time for conversion, my brothers and sisters, and not for their conversion but for ours. Pray with me:
God of all people and all nations,
Be with us in our hearts today.
Be with us in our souls today.
Convert our hearts to your love.
Convert our souls to your kingdom.
Help us to mean it when we ask for your kingdom to come.
Help us to mean it when we say we want all to come in.
Christ of the margins,
Christ of the borders,
Forgive us of our prejudices.
Forgive us of our walls.
Heal us of our hatred.
Heal us of our sins.
Help us to bring all people into your kingdom.
Help us to love all people just as you do.
Holy Spirit of new places and spaces,
Reveal to us your work when we do not see it.
Rebuke us when we call your work another’s failure.
Save us from our own destruction.
Forgive us all our sins,
and, God above, may your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Also it occurs to me that I never answered your question.
Did Jonah happen?
I think that’s up to you.