Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When I think of an epiphany, I think of light, glory, clarity, exhilaration, joy, running to find someone with whom to share the news!
But epiphanies are not always like this. Sometimes they come in the midst of chaos and despair, in the darkest moment of our life. Or when we are all-out running in the opposite direction. Can there be an epiphany if we don’t notice?
Once upon a time there lived a man named Jonah. His home was in the land known today as Israel, a small country in the western arch of the fertile crescent. West of Israel is the Mediterranean Sea. East of Israel is the Arabian desert for hundreds of miles. And on the other side of the desert is the eastern arch of the fertile crescent, the land of the Assyrian empire. Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh was in the north eastern part of this fertile crescent along the Tigris River, 500 miles from Israel.
One day, God called Jonah to go to Nineveh in Assyria and tell her that God had noticed her evil ways and was going to do something about it. Assyria was the superpower of Jonah’s day. It had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and had held Judah, his home, as a vassal state for nearly a hundred years. Assyria was not just an enemy, but a nation known for its crushing cruelty. They believed that the way to control a conquered people was to make them afraid, very afraid, of their overlord. A call to go to Nineveh, was a call to go to the enemy’s stronghold. Imagine! Could there be any assignment more terrifying?
So Jonah decided to go the other way. He went down to Joppa, a Mediterranean port city in the southern part of Palestine and got on a ship headed as far in the opposite direction of Nineveh as it was possible to go. Jonah’s people were not sea-going people. They saw the sea as the place where danger comes from, the place of chaos, wildness, powerlessness. No wonder he was hiding down in the hold of the ship! Such water was mysterious and terrifying.
While he was sleeping, a great storm came up and the ship was in trouble. The crew was getting desperate – throwing cargo overboard, lightening the load, praying to their gods, finally casting lots to see whose fault this storm was. The lot fell to Jonah. “What are you doing that your god would bring such a torment upon us all?,” they demanded. Jonah confessed that he was running away from God. He told them that they would have to throw him over into the sea before it would be quiet and the rest of them would be allowed to live. Was he that desperate not to go to Nineveh that he would rather die? It seems so. The sailors tried everything else, but in the end, they threw Jonah into the raging water.
Immediately, the sea calmed and they were safe. But Jonah was sinking into the depths. It was Davy Jones Locker for him.
But no! A humongous fish swims by and swallows him up! From the belly of the fish, Jonah does some serious thinking. He changes his mind about a few things. I imagine there’s nothing like being swallowed by a fish to make a person see more clearly. After three days in the belly, the fish is so completely nauseated by Jonah that she throws him up onto the shore.
Now Jonah is back where he started from – somewhere on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, more than five hundred miles from Nineveh! And again, God tells him to go to Nineveh.
In the cartoon version, Jonah walks up the beach to Nineveh, still covered with fish-belly seaweed. But he still had five hundred miles to go, and I imagine he stewed in his anger and fear the whole way. By the time he reached Nineveh, he was still a very angry man! His miraculous rescue from the sea had not changed his heart. He still hated the Assyrians and wanted them all to be destroyed, probably with as much suffering as possible. Imagining their demise probably energized him for the long journey.
When he reaches Nineveh, he goes partway into town and delivers his proclamation, five words in Hebrew: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Not a great sermon, but the response is electric. Immediately, the people of Nineveh believe God. They declare a fast. The king, when he sees what is happening, orders human and animal alike to fast and put on sackcloth. Then all those sackcloth-covered cows and sheep and people bellow out their repentance to God
They change their hearts and so God’s heart is also changed. God decides not to destroy them.
We would think Jonah would be ecstatic. After all, he’s the only really successful prophet in the whole Bible! He has brought about a mass conversion! But Jonah is furious! He rails at God for being who God is: “Ah, LORD, is this not what I said would happen when I was still in my own territory? That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. Because I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. I no longer want to live!”
The epiphany dawned for the people of Nineveh, but the prophet who brought it was anger-blind. Jonah raged: This is not fair! These people deserve to die miserably for what they have done. I cannot live if they live!
So he goes and sits on a hill east of the city, builds a make-shift tent and waits to see what will happen. Will he die? Will the people be killed after all?
And this parable ends with a parable. God gave a bush to shade Jonah. It sprang up overnight. But then, overnight, God sent a worm to attack the bush and kill it. Now Jonah is so hot and miserable again that he returns to his refrain – I want to die!
And the moral of the story is in God’s last words to Jonah: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
And so the parable ends, largely unresolved. We don’t know what happened to Jonah.
God cares for everything God has made. What we declare unforgivable, God says, I forgive you. What we judge as evil, God says, I love you. What we consider untouchable, unclean, God says, I hold you in my arms.
This seems to be an odd epiphany story because the main character doesn’t get it. But the people, the enemies of God’s people – they get it. They are completely changed. The ah-ha, I see the light experience came for the enemies, not the hero.
What a message for our times! As humans we create scales of justice, like Jonah did. We create systems which help us to feel like we are better than others. We can always find someone to look down on so that we can feel better about ourselves. This has never been more obvious than it is today, this week. Our government makes outrageous statements about immigrant people and their countries of origin, sounding very much like Jonah. Do we really believe that they are unloved?
Jonah is not just a whale tale for children. It has a sharp, sometimes painful message for the sturdiest of adults. God’s forgiveness and love are unbound by our judgments and prejudice (pre-judging). God’s arms are wide open with welcome.
The Jewish people read Jonah at Yom Kippur services every year – their high holy day of forgiveness. No matter how much they believe (or we believe) every day of the year that we are God’s chosen people, God’s own family, on the day of forgiveness, we repent our self-centeredness and are reminded that all are God’s beloved, no matter how we may act as judge.
How do we live this epiphany in our times? When our political system is reactive, resistant, and judging? When we want to put up walls to keep people out. Is anyone unworthy? This story says, No!
It is hard to notice an epiphany on the run. When I am too busy, it will shimmer in the corner of my eye, or in a fleeting thought through my mind. When I am running away, I am too determined on my own direction to see. Sometimes, it is not running in the opposite direction, like Jonah, but just running – too fast, too busy to see. Too stuck on the hamster wheel of my own opinions to let God’s astounding grace leak out.
Is there someone in your life who is hard to love? Or a group of people? Today we are called to take an honest look at ourselves. And we are offered the opportunity to repent, to change our minds.
What specific action any one of us is called to take, I cannot say right now. But I have an idea of a place to begin. Set an intention this week to repeat one little phrase: God love them. God love her. God love him. This may not change the world. But it might change us.
I have imagined with you Jonah fuming all the way to Assyria about how he hated the Assyrians, and saw himself as an instrument of judgment. What if he had spent that 500-mile journey praying, God love them? Even if I don’t.
Jonah may have seen his epiphany when it came. And so might we.