Sermon Ideas For Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Part 2
To read through the book of Jonah is to journey across the landscape of parable, where the unexpected becomes commonplace. We sense that this landscape, so unfamiliar, nevertheless is one against which great secrets are kept. These secrets are the mysteries of ourselves and our lives which lie hidden in a more commonplace world.
Lewis Carroll is author of the children's classics, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In these books, Carroll has used imagination to construct a fanciful realm of magic, mystery and adventure for the protagonist in his book, the young Alice. The curiosity of this young woman leads her into investigations of the imaginary worlds she stumbles into. Like the book of Jonah, Carroll's tales use reversals of expectation in the narrative to disclose the more illusive truths of our lives.
One episode in Through the Looking-Glass involves the encounter of Alice with the Red Queen. In the distance, Alice sees the Queen and decides to go have a talk with her. A friend advises Alice to walk away from the Queen.
"This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once toward the Red Queen (whom she spied out at last, a long way off). She thought she would try the plan, this time, of walking in the opposite direction.
It succeeded beautifully."
Like Alice and the Red Queen, Jonah encounters God in running away from God. The more stubbornly Jonah resists God, the more God's purpose is fulfilled through Jonah. Preaching the impending doom of Ninevah, this city Jonah so passionately despises, only serves to rescue the city, its inhabitants and its flocks.
This comic narrative in Jonah succeeds not because it presents in the prophet a model of human behavior and obedience to God. Jonah "works" because it reveals how God's sovereign grace shines through even the most muddled and ambiguous human lives. God's purpose remains the fixed point in this book. Jonah is up and down, obedient and defiant, successful and tragic. He shows forth all the mixtures of hope and disappointment that mark our lives as human beings. But, through it all, Jonah is the one who brings to others God's reconciliation.
Secretly, Jonah seems to have known all along that God was keeping open the way of hope for Ninevah. As Abraham J. Heschel writes of Jonah in his classic study of the prophets,
"It would be easier if God's anger became effective automatically: Once wickedness had reached its full measure, punishment would destroy it. Yet beyond justice and anger lies the mystery of compassion."
Soren Kierkegaard is a theologian who uses stories and parables in his attempts to speak of our relationship with God. Many of these stories have been collected in the helpful book Parables of Kierkegaard edited by Thomas C. Oden.
One story in this book is titled Kernels and Shells. The title Kierkegaard originally gave to this story was, "To what may the
relation of God and the world be compared?"
In this tale, two men are seated across from each other at a small table, cracking and eating nuts. It turns out that one man likes the shell while the other would eat only the kernel. Kierkegaard instructs the reader to notice how well these two suit each other. Then we are told that this is how God is related to the world. What humans frequently despise, reject or cast away, God uses. In this strange relationship, the mystery of salvation is somehow disclosed.
That which Jonah despises, like the hated city Ninevah, God values and redeems. Held up as a comic mirror, we see in Jonah our own relationship with God. We see God making claims to much in our lives which lies outside the small spheres of our self-interest. So often, in our salvation, it is the presence of the enemy or the stranger that brings back to us our own, best hope.
In Matthew 25, Jesus links his own self-disclosure to the presence of those we are most apt to turn away from the naked, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner and the hungry. It is important to note that the context of these words does not merely concern the imperative of doing good to others. The context of this passage involves being received into the kingdom of God.
One of the finest examples of German statuary is the prophet Jonah. It is a found on the cathedral screen of the Cathedral of Bamberg, Germany, and it dates from the early thirteenth century.
This Jonah conceived in this statue is a man with a shaven head. His gathered brow, wrinkled forehead, intense stare and half-opened mouth communicate the tension of this life. We sense deeply as we look upon this face, the humanity of the prophet.
The book of Jonah contains a strange landscape and its narrative moves forward through a series of reversals of expectation. The face of Jonah is revealed in all its comic tensions and humanity. It is a face which displays the spiritual tensions of our lives and a face we may well recognize as our own.