Sometimes I wish I heard God as clearly as Jonah did.
But sometimes I also wonder if I would do exactly what Jonah did even when God literally spoke to him with some pretty unquestionable language: Go at once to Ninevah.
Because in this broken world, even when the creator God calls us by name and speaks audibly with words we cannot doubt, sometimes we run in the other direction.
And after a pretty bumpy boat ride, he finally surrendered and admitted that he was running away. He spent a few days inside a fish and even sang a song of praise to God. He got spit up and headed straight to Ninevah, his calling still crystal clear, but just in case, God reiterated: Go at once.
Ancient Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The same Assyrians who conquered the Northern tribes of Israel, taking them captive and never allowing them to return. As you can imagine, the Israelites and the Assyrians were not fond of each other. Into this, Jonah is called to tell the Ninevites to repent.
Jonah did his job in Ninevah, exactly as God had told him to, and in God’s marvelous and mysterious mercy, Ninevah repents and is spared.
But that’s not what Jonah wanted.
In fact, Jonah can’t believe that God would spare these people who have caused so much harm and pain to God’s own people. Jonah waits and waits for the destruction of the city, which is never to come.
This story is the ancient equivalent of God telling Jonah to go to the Middle East and pardon all of the members of Al Qaeda that he can find, to tell them about forgiveness and mercy and tell them to stop doing the evil they have been doing. After initial doubts, Jonah hops on a plane heading for Iraq and stands on a street corner unenthusiastically handing out tracts. And terrorists burn their weapons and tear their clothes and apologize publicly.
But Jonah, even seeing the repentance, still wants Justice. Those men, they have destroyed his family, his friends, his home. Surely God would protect A Nation Under Him? Surely God wants these men brought to justice too, and surely God’s Version of justice looks just like My Version of justice.
So what can we learn from Jonah and his reluctant travels?
1. That God calls us to serve and love our deepest enemies. Those who have hurt or offended us most deeply, those who we fear and hate. You can be sure that God will confront Hate wherever it can be found, including in His children.
2. That God’s mercy is unlimited by our own understanding of what is Fair and Good. No matter how much we believe that someone deserves what they have coming to them, we cannot pretend that God’s mercy could not or does not extend to them. If we can learn anything from God’s response to Ninevah, it is that God’s mercy is not limited by race, ethnicity, gravity of sin, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief. God is Merciful. Period.
3. That we are free to accept and love those who we formerly called enemies. This is the lesson we learn from not following Jonah’s example. While Jonah waited for the Ninevites to be destroyed, we can learn from his mistakes. We can accept the unacceptable and love the unlovable within and outside our midst because God already has. When we are called to serve and love our deepest enemies, that doesn’t mean unethusiastically handing out tracts like Jonah, but instead making them like brothers and sisters and friends. It means spending time with them and watching God use them to love others. It means expecting Big Things from a Big God.
The Jonah who fled from Ninevah, who waited to see it destroyed, whose story ended with being reprimanded by God, I see him today. He supports the discriminatory bill in Arizona, because he cannot support or love those who he believes are breaking God’s laws. He forgets that God’s mercy is limitless and that our justice is flawed. He forgets the God outside the camp, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. He remembers hate.
He protests at mosques and he burns Qurans because he remembers fear and he knows what justice means. He forgets that God’s justice is not our justice.
God is still among his people today, and he still speaks. I pray that we would hear a still small voice prodding us to Go At Once. I pray that unlike Noah, we would not delay and that we would love whoever we are sent to. I pray that we would see Justice and Mercy flowing out of the church instead of Fear and Anger. And I pray, above all, that the church would someday be known for its Love.