Sunday, March 25, 2012

From Vine to Whine

Jonah 4
Preacher: Mr. Ken McGarry, Director of Youth Ministries, Wilton Congregational
Jonah at Ninevah by Ulrich Leive
Happy spring, everyone! Can you believe that we made it through the winter months without a whole lot of snow?...Maybe because we received it all in one hefty lump sum in the fall...and remember how much we received over last year’s winter months? Well, I, for one, am very glad that we’re now into spring, not because I dislike the winter weather, although shoveling mountains of snow is not one of my favorite hobbies, but because it means that professional football, which is one of my favorite hobbies, has started its new year. And with that new start has come some happenings that were about as wacky as our last couple of winters. I’m quite happy about one of these: Peyton Manning is now playing quarterback for my favorite team, the Denver Broncos. And young Timmy Tebow is now a quarterback for the local-ish New York Jets. It is wacky, but I’ll take it!
Who knows what the future holds? Life, like football and the weather, is unpredictable. Fortunately, I brought a “fortune teller” today. My young friend, Alyson Schuerkogel, made this for me yesterday, and I thought that I’d bring it in and give it a test run this morning. So, who wants their fortune told?
In last week’s message, we learned about another surprising event that was wackier than a fortune teller, any athletic teams’ trades, or winter weather events and non-events. Nineveh, a great city of the mighty Assyrian Empire, repented from its wickedness after one lonely, foreign religious man, smelling of fish guts, came into town proclaiming his message of its impending destruction. You would expect that the Ninevites would have laughed a bit and then Jonah tossed out of city walls, or maybe had him publicly humiliated, tortured, or killed. But after only one day of Jonah’s visit, the people of Nineveh, from the common folk to the king, believed Jonah’s message, humbled themselves, mourned about their wicked ways, and called out to God for mercy.
Today’s message comes from the fourth chapter of the Book of Jonah, in which we read of the prophet Jonah’s response to this wacky, repentant behavior. Hear the story from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message:
“Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, "God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That's why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
God said, "What do you have to be angry about?"
But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.
God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.
But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah's head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: "I'm better off dead!"
Then God said to Jonah, "What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?"
Jonah said, "Plenty of right. It's made me angry enough to die!"
God said, "What's this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can't I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don't yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?"

And so ends the Book of Jonah...with this question from God to the prophet: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The answer should be obvious. Of course God should be concerned about Nineveh and its sackcloth-sporting livestock: The people of that great city as well at its animals were created by God. God is the Father of all the living; God gave birth to the world around us. Just as a parent lovingly cares for his or her own child, God cares for all that has been made.
Sure, Jonah recognized that he was loved by God when a great fish was created to sustain his life. For three days he sang out in the fish’s belly: “Salvation comes from the Lord!” We remember that his fish-borne prayer consisted mostly of “I, I, I’s” and “me, me, me’s”, but at least he recognized that it was God who provided life and cared enough about Jonah’s to save him, even in his rebellious flight away from God.
And Jonah was quick to recognize the blessing of God’s provision of a little shade on a hot Assyrian afternoon. Ancient Nineveh is on the outskirts of modern Mosul, which has an average daily high temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Jonah certainly would have appreciated the little bit of shady comfort as he sat upon a hill outside of that great city, while eagerly hoping and praying for its destruction. Once more, God comforted Jonah even while he was once again running away—this time, running from the truth—that God is forgiving and compassionate and does not want to bring destruction upon people. Well, God created a vine to grow up and over Jonah, to protect him from the blistering sun; then God created some fast-acting vine-chewing critter to take it away—and we went from vine to whine in one day. “I want to die!” Jonah whined. But did Jonah really have anything to complain about?
What if God chooses to bless the land with a vine, or to take it away? What if God chooses to bless a wayward people? Or a wayward prophet? One of the main lessons that we’ve learned throughout our Lenten exploration of the Book of Jonah is that God is unfair.
Children have great “justice-sensors”, or I should say “injustice-sensors”. If a sibling receives something and the other doesn’t, cries of “unfair!”will pierce the air, usually with great volume.
I have an old dog at home, Roger, who doesn’t like to get off the couch and go to his crate when it’s bedtime. The phrase,“it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie” certainly applies to Roger, who is very cranky and does not like getting touched when he’s comfortably curled up in his favorite spot. Rather than just flinging him off the couch, I set a little doggie treat, just out of his reach on the couch, which forces him to actually stand up to be able to enjoy it. Once he’s up, it’s a lot easier to get him to move to where I want him to go without him getting all crazy on me—he has been called the Devildog on more than one occasion!
Our other dog, a puppy named Opal, is absolutely angelic, happy, and compliant. She doesn’t need a treat to move, and so she doesn’t get the tasty morsel that Roger does at that moment. I do give her one moments later when she takes care of her business outside, but I’ve been told by the other human living in our house that my treatment of the two dogs at bedtime is very unfair. The undeserving one gets the treat, while the good one goes without! Unfair!
Life is filled with acts of injustice, and fortunately for us, God is one of the main culprits! God will pardon the undeserving Ninevites. God will provide life and comfort to a grumpy, wayward prophet, even as he runs away. Jonah recognizes just how unfair God is in his beautiful complaint saying,“I knew you a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jonah is a very human prophet. He forgets to see the unfair blessing of God giving him mercy, but he is quick to point out the injustice of God giving mercy to his enemies. We are Jonah: wanting God’s blessing on us, but not so eager to see God bless others, especially those we don’t like or who are different from us in some way. Do you celebrate when that co-worker just got the promotion that YOU deserve? What about someone who is wealthier than you who just won the lottery?
God’s blessing comes to all, because all are God’s children: Jonah, ancient Ninevites, modern Iraqis, Muslims, people who are gay, Conservatives, Liberals. And if we are all God’s children, we are, then, all brothers and sisters. As God’s children and followers of God, we are called to be ambassadors of God in this world, bringing God’s grace and compassion to all of our spiritual siblings.

The world is filled with uncertainty, but this is true now and always: “God is gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah knew that it was mercy was to be the fortune of Nineveh. Let us embrace this truth as a certainty in our own lives, and let it live through you, so that you can be God’s agent of compassion, love, and mercy in an unpredictable, wacky, and needy world.


Monday, March 19, 2012

If at First You Don't Succeed

Jonah 3
Along I 95 there are many billboards that can catch your eye.  There are some in particular that are sponsored by an organization called and they are grouped under the title, “Pass it On”.  They are always very clever and inspirational.  One in particular I remember spoke to me.  It had a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and next to it the billboard read, “Failed, failed, failed.  And then…”[i]  and underneath those words was the word Persistence in bold red letters.  Simply put.

What we know and what the billboard does not explicitly say is that Abraham Lincoln first ran for non-public office for the Illinois State Legislature in 1832 and was defeated.  In 1834 he ran again and served four executive terms.  In 1846 he was elected to the House of Representatives but lost his reelection.  He practiced law until in 1854 he ran for the US Senate and lost and again in 1855 he lost for a different Senate seat.  Finally in 1860 he was nominated to run for the Presidency and of course, the rest, they say is history.  He was one of our finest and most influential presidents ever but it took several defeats and failures and 28 years for him to get there.  But his persistence paid off. 

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”[ii]  God could be the poster deity for perseverance. God could clearly occupy a space on one of those billboards because in today’s lesson from Jonah chapter 3 we see that God did not give up on Jonah and some very good things came out of it, for the people of Ninevah at least.  This is the third of four sermons from the Old Testament Book, Jonah.  It is read during the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur for what it tells us about repentance so it is fitting for us to reflect upon during Lent because Lent is a time of repentance and reflection for us too as we journey to the cross of Jesus. 

You will remember that in Jonah 1 he’s asked to go to Ninevah and preach repentance but he flees in the other direction, hops a boat and then is tossed overboard only to find himself in the belly of the whale.  What we learn from this is that God sticks with us even when we are obstinate and do as we please, God never gives up on us.  God may get a little perturbed at times with us, who wouldn’t?  But God is in hot pursuit of us and we are never left alone to our own human devices.  We also learn that God saves us when we are drowning even if it comes in the form of a really big fish. 

But even inside of the belly of the whale Jonah did not really get it.  Repentance does not come easily for him, he’s pretty thick headed.  Yet God sees some potential with Jonah and God has a job that needs doing.  You have to hand it to God for trying once again. 

Today we will think about Chapter 3 and what nuggets of learning and inspiration that it holds for us.  I believe that today’s chapter focuses much more on God than it does on Jonah. 

I share with you now from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ chapter 3 of Jonah. 
 Jonah entered the city, went one day's walk and preached, "In forty days Nineveh will be smashed."
The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God.
They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance.
Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: "Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands.
Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us,
 quit being angry with us and let us live!"
 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn't do.
"Forty Days to Destruction"
This is not what Jonah expected when he stepped foot in the great city of Nineveh. Only eight words of prophecy here, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” and the entire city, which apparently was huge, repented.  The king really took it to heart and traded in his royal duds for some not so fashionable burlap and sat down in the dirt.  This is how the ancient people repented of their sins.  He declares a fast for all the people including the animals!  Then he decides everyone should dress in burlap like him even the animals, once again!  I can’t say that I’d want fasting animals dressed in burlap around me but the king was insistent, NO ONE will go without repenting.  Those must have been some pretty big sins.

“Who knows?  Wonders the king, maybe this foreign God will change his mind, maybe God will turn around and let us live”. (v. 9)  God was taking note of all these repenting people and bleating sheep and forgave them all proving that God can change the divine mind and that God forgives all people, even non-Hebrews as these Ninevites were, and calls them into the covenant of love.  God perseveres, Jonah went, Ninevah repents, God relents, Mercy extended.

There truly is a “Wideness in God’s mercy…for the love of God is broader than the measure of our minds”, as the old hymn reminds us.  We cannot possibly know the mind of God and the ways in which our God loves and forgives and the people whom our God chooses to forgive.  That is beyond our human capacity.  I’ve taken that off my to-do list and I encourage you to do so also.  What we can know is that God does forgive generously, and faithfully without conditions.

God’s theology is revealed in verse 10, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” 

Now we know that God is no longer responsible for the calamities of our lives, that God doesn’t send tornedo’s to regions who espouse gambling and drinking no more than does God send tsunami’s to countries who might display lewd and lascivious behavior.  That is just old theology.  We have progressed much further along in our understanding of ourselves and nature. 

We do find ourselves however in these foreign lands of gambling and drinking and lewd and lascivious behavior, and if not that we find that we no longer lead a life that we might be proud of, for whatever reason, no matter how you got there, and if not that you are just no longer attentive to God’s call upon you. 

We all are there at one time or another and when you realize that you have lost your way it is time to perform t’shuvah like the Ninevites.  T’shuvah is a complete turning around of your ways, of changing your behavior, of letting go of bad attitude and starting a newer, healthier one.  T’shuvah asks that we clean the windows of our soul and return to a view of life that once made us so happy. T’shuvah is to turn away from that which destroys yourself and others and return to a God whose arms are open and waiting to embrace us in love not anger, kindness not malice, acceptance not rejection.  T’shuvah is a way in which we clean up our lives so the light of God’s love can be received.

Lent offers you an opportunity to do that.  It provides a time to empty, to clean, and to return to what is good and wholesome for you.  Do some honest soul-searching.  Get down on your knees.  Pray with your tears if you have no words.  It takes work, yes, like the Ninevites who put on burlap and sat down in the dirt, we need to feel the scratchiness of the burlap and the grittiness of the dirt upon our skin, upon our soul.  It will not last forever though.  The Psalmist reminds us, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30: 5b)

Joy does come, and will come and that's where we are ultimately headed this Lenten Season, to the empty tomb of the risen Christ.

Throughout all of this, throughout all of your life God is persistent in pursuing you.  Like Lincoln who finally won in the end and accomplished great things, God will continue to look for you, engage you, and accomplish great things through you.

Just be ready, that's all God asks.

[i] Abraham Lincoln billboard,
[ii] T.H. Palmer, ‘Teacher’s Manual’, 1840.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In the Belly

Jonah 2
Today we encounter Jonah in the belly of a whale.  This was probably not a pleasant experience with all those gastric juices swirling around him.  If anything would make a person turn from their old ways it would be an experience like this.  How did Jonah find himself in this predicament?

A quick review of chapter one from last week reminds us that God tells Jonah to go to the evil city of Nineveh and prophecy repentance.  Jonah flees in the opposite direction on a boat to Tarshish.  A storm arises.  Jonah, it is discovered because of his fleeing, is the cause of the storm.  Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, they did and the sea calmed down.  And as luck, or providence would have it there happened to be a big fish just underneath the boat to scoop Jonah up. 

Let’s move on to chapter two from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’, the Bible in contemporary language………….

            Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish. He prayed:

"In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God.
He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, 'Help!'
You heard my cry.
You threw me into ocean's depths,
into a watery grave,
With ocean waves, ocean breakers
crashing over me.
I said, 'I've been thrown away,
thrown out, out of your sight.
I'll never again lay eyes
on your Holy Temple.'
Ocean gripped me by the throat.
The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.
My head was all tangled in seaweed
at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root.
I was as far down as a body can go,
and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever—
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive,
O God, my God!
When my life was slipping away,
I remembered God,
And my prayer got through to you,
made it all the way to your Holy Temple.
Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds,
walk away from their only true love.
But I'm worshiping you, God,
calling out in thanksgiving!
And I'll do what I promised I'd do!
Salvation belongs to God!"

10 Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore.

This is quite an experience to live through! 

Once hitting the brackish cold waters Jonah begins his descent into the deep dark waters.  To death one would think and then God commands a whale to rescue him from drowning.  While God is present, there is something still a little disturbing about this episode because there is this lingering struggle between God and Jonah.  There is something that is unresolved between the two of them.  It is Jonah’s will over and against the will of God.  Usually that’s not a good place to be in. 

Even though God provides a means of rescue you know that God continues to hold Jonah in the whale’s abdomen vacillating between life and death.  While we cannot claim to know the mind of God we can have a look at this character named Jonah and begin to build a portrait of him.  Parts of his entire story might resonate with you because his weaknesses and qualities display some of the most basic human emotions and attributes. 

Jonah is a complicated man and I believe he wrestles greatly in his relationship with God.    He displays a very willful disobedience when God asks him to perform something that he just flat out doesn’t want to do.  Jonah is a fool to think that he can run away from God.  He couldn’t run and he couldn’t hide in the bottom of the boat.  Yet Jonah knew what needed to happen when that storm blew in.  He also knew what to do in the belly of the whale.

He prayed.  He prayed in the cadence of a Psalm which would have been deep within his Hebrew tradition.  This could have been a ‘dark night of the soul’ experience for Jonah where he would be able to painfully look at his life and the ways in which he placed self over God.  But no.  Jonah’s Psalm of Thanksgiving reveals very little of a penitential heart. 

Rather than take these three days to really re-examine his life he prayed, “When my life was slipping away, I remembered God, and my prayer got through to you.”  Pretty doggone boastful if you ask me.  As an aside, some scholars believe that this Psalm was added much later than when the rest of the book of Jonah was written which is why he seems to already know the end of his story.

The question for all of us is if we had three days in a vile and hopeless place would you take that time to re-examine your life?  Would you or could you be honest with yourself?  What would your prayer sound like? 

Reviewing your life and faith is what these forty days of Lent are calling us to do; they are our ‘belly of the fish’ experience.  They beg us to look at the ways in which we have been willfully disobedient, when we have not trusted God with our whole hearts when we have not walked in the path of Jesus.  These days beckon you to be brutally honest with yourself about every aspect of your life.  They bid you to chip away as the mistakes that you have made in the past and in the present and to realign yourself with the God who created us.

Michelangelo painted a lot in his lifetime.  But the Sistine Chapel was particularly challenging because it was not an oil painting but fresco painting which is much more difficult using pigment and plaster.  When you make a mistake it’s not a simply matter of painting over it but you must take a hammer and chip away at the plaster and remove it entirely before repainting the correct image. 

This process in fresco painting and indeed all painting is called pentimento, which is related to the word for repent.  The artist is in effect repenting for the mistake in the fresco that he has made.[i]  When Michelangelo made a mistake he had to chip away at his work before he could realign it more properly to make a pleasing image, before this great masterwork, the Sistine Chapel ceiling could be called complete.

We must chip away the plaster mistakes that we have made and begin to paint fresh an image that is pleasing before the Lord. Pentimento is not for sissy’s. Repentance is not easy work but if we are to walk with Jesus toward the cross of salvation it indeed must happen.  Before we taste life we must experience death, death to our old ways, our ineffective manners of communication, our inability to live to our greatest potential that God has lovingly given to us.

Three days and three nights in the belly of a whale and even the whale, in the end, could not stomach Jonah.  Jonah knew what to do it’s just that his experience did not change him as we will see.  He missed the mark.  And with a great, whale size heave, out Jonah comes onto the seashore and still the tension between God and Jonah is unresolved.  Let us learn from this.

May these days in the belly for you be provocative and move you to a different place of understanding.  May your Lent be a time of introspection, examination and pentimento.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you as you contemplate and envision the transformation that is possible with God who makes all things new. 


[i] MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  Fellowship of Prayer, Saturday March 10, ‘Chipping Away’.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Luke 15: 11-24
Imagine if you can that one day you woke up and looked out your window only to discover that you could not see anything with clarity whatsoever.  The trees are hazy and vague and the sky is a steel grey.  You cannot tell the landscape from the sky.  You rub your eyes.  Hmm, curious.  Your windows are very dirty.  And it wasn’t just one of the window panes but it was all of them.  You could not see out whatsoever.  You discover that the windows had not been washed in over a year so they hazed over perhaps with a cobweb or two strung across a couple of them.  How can you possibly see the sun shine unless the glass is made clear?

You can’t.  You need to get the Windex out, give a few sprits, and wipe until they are squeaky clean otherwise the panes of glass will get hazier until one day there will be no light that can shine through.  So too it is with our souls. 

It can get pretty murky there if we don’t do some soul searching, spiritual housecleaning from time to time; actually on a pretty regular basis.  It’s like emptying the recycle bin on your computer or clearing the cookie jar cache that has been filling for a while.  To do faster, more efficient work you need to clean out and clean up. 

Lent offers you an opportunity to do that.  It provides a time to empty, to clean, and to return to what is good and wholesome for you.  It is a time to realign yourself with the divine presence of God because God delights in us when we do.  It is a time to turn yourself around, do an about-face towards a Godly life and receive forgiveness and acceptance.

T’shuvah.  It is the Hebrew word for turn or to return.  There are many places in the Old Testament where people were seriously encouraged to perform t’shuvah, to repent and turn yourself around.  Ezekiel says to the people, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” (Ezekiel 18: 30)   Jeremiah proclaims to the house of Israel, “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord.  I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, I will not be angry forever.” (Jeremiah 3: 12)   

T’shuvah asks that we clean the windows of our soul and return to the view that once made us so happy. T’shuvah asks us to return to a God whose arms are open and waiting to embrace us in love not anger, kindness not malice.  T’shuvah is a way in which we clean the hazy glass so the light of God’s love can warm up our lives.

The beloved parable of the prodigal son shows us that repenting and turning around is possible no matter what your state of internal affairs may be.  We like to look at the younger son in scorn for his immature squandering of his inheritance.  A fool he was but I’m afraid that we too squander the riches that God entrusts to us, or even worse cause harm with them or do nothing with them at all.  When this happens our lives become alienated much like the son who becomes separated from the source of his living and being. 

But he repents, when he hits bottom he turns his life around, when he tries to look through the panes of the window but could not see he did some spiritual housecleaning and it was painful for him.  “He came to his senses”, the passage goes on. (Luke 15: 17 NIV)  And when he returns home he is received by a father who throws his arms around him and kisses him, a father who embraces him with forgiveness and love.  The son performed t’shuvah.

God’s love and grace are always offers forgiveness, we can count on that.  But how much sweeter it will be when we have aligned our souls to accept it.  MaryAnn McKibben Dana notes, “Flannery O’Connor reminds us that human nature resists grace, ‘because grace changes us and change is painful.”[i]
What do you need to do this Lenten season that will bring about t’shuvah? What changes need to be made in your life (no one else’s) so that you can live more gracefully and lovingly?  Ask for the grace to see the deepest part of you that hurts, that has sinned.  How might your life be changed when you’ve examined yourself thoughtfully, thoroughly?  And then after the examination ask yourself if you will perform t’shuvah, if you will repent and return. 

Tonight I leave you with questions.  They are questions for which you only have answers.

May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you as you begin to clean the panes (pain) of your soul.


[i] MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Fellowship of Prayer: 2012 Lenten Season, March 10, “Chipping Away”.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

You Can Run but You Can't Hide

Jonah 1

A childhood memory is not complete without at least one of the grand stories from the Old Testament etched in your mind’s eye.  My childhood memories are quite vivid from Ascension Lutheran Sunday School days of sitting around a small table with my teacher, who sometimes was my mother.  We heard some pretty gruesome yet awe filled stories from the Bible.  Characters came to life as they were carefully placed on a flannel board. 

Noah somehow coaxed all of those animals to orderly march up and board the ark, in pairs they say.  Daniel was tossed into a fiery furnace and also a lion’s den but lived to tell his story or rather lived to tell God’s miraculous story.

And what child has not heard the story of a big fish, a whale some say, swallowed up in one big gulp, a man named Jonah?  What child has not giggled and eeuuuuuw’d when they heard that Jonah was spewed out of the whale onto the seashore?  He must have done something really wrong I always surmised and vowed that I would be a good little girl!  With each generation the tale of Jonah gets told over and over again because it appeals to our wild and adventuresome imaginations. 
Jonah and the Whale by He Qi
For a book of the Bible that cannot be placed in any certain historical setting except for maybe around the 6th  or 5th century BCE, or can it be said that it is one type of literature over another, the story of Jonah has taken on epic proportions throughout time. 

But it is more than a bedtime story or some folkloric tale and I hope that it will garner your attention as we think through it together this Lenten season.  There are a mere four chapters and we will carefully examine each one because there is a lot to consider.  It is particularly apropos for Lent when our attention is focused on introspection, repentance and transformation. 

I share with you now the first chapter of Jonah from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’.

One day long ago, God's Word came to Jonah, Amittai's son: "Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer." 3 But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God.

He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get. 4-6 But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering.

The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship.

Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, "What's this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we're in trouble and rescue us."

7 Then the sailors said to one another, "Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who's responsible for this disaster."

So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw.

8 Then they grilled him: "Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?" 9 He told them, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land."

           At that, the men were frightened, really frightened, and said, "What on earth have you   
           done!"     As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.

11 They said to him, "What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm?" By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control. 12 Jonah said, "Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It's all my fault. I'm the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you'll get rid of the storm."  

13 But no. The men tried rowing back to shore. They made no headway. The storm only got worse and worse, wild and raging. 14 Then they prayed to God, "O God! Don't let us drown because of this man's life, and don't blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best."

15 They took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately the sea was quieted down. 16 The sailors were impressed, no longer terrified by the sea, but in awe of God. They worshiped God, offered a sacrifice, and made vows.

17 Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish's belly three days and nights.

Dear old Jonah.  God tells him to go to Nineveh and to prophesy a message of repentance.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, what is now Iraq and at that time and public enemy number one of Israel.  The Ninevites were rather shady people engaging in acts of violence, murder, warfare, rape and plundering, not a stellar record.  It was time to straighten them out and to get them to recognize the one true God who could save them from their sinful ways and Jonah was to be the prophet to speak on God’s behalf to offer this redemption.

Jonah thought differently, he didn’t want any part of it.  He gets on a boat bound for Tarshish which, back in the ancient world, was the other end of the earth.  God was not happy with Jonah’s very willful disobedience.  This was a case where human freedom of choice did not work out so well. 

But God did not ignore Jonah’s running.  God sees that Jonah is not doing exactly what God had in mind.  Surely a storm at sea would get Jonah back on track again.  High winds and a storm would certainly curtail Jonah’s efforts to flee.  As the boat was being tossed back and forth Jonah fell asleep in the bowel of the ship.  In order to assuage the storm the sailors threw him overboard and the rest, they say, at least for now in our four part sermon series, is history.  God has gotten Jonah’s attention.

This is quite a story so far and already we have much to think about.  You might ask why it is that Jonah defiantly runs the opposite direction.  Why does he do everything in his power to evade the divine charge?  Well we could ask ourselves that question.  We all have our Tarshish, a place to go where both metaphorically and physically we know we won’t have to do what is asked of us.  Tarshish is that place where you want to embark for when you don’t want to face the reality of a God who is mightier and greater than you.

Jonah chose to flee to Tarshish because he knew God would forgive the Ninevites; that divine redemption would be offered to them if they repented.  While you think that would be good news, Jonah didn’t see it that way.  If God could forgive these disparate people, these foreigners then Jonah would have to forgive them also.  Perhaps Jonah was just too afraid of change and we know all too well that to forgive is painful business.  Something I can relate to and I’m sure you can too.

We find ourselves in places that we do not want to be and are asked to do things that we just don’t want to do or we feel as if we are not qualified to do because that’s what God expects of us if we are to name ourselves as followers of the way.  Yet in spite of our foibles and our attempts to say no we are still called.   It is not of our choosing but of God’s choosing.  We are to be witnesses embodying God’s divine mercy and justice in a world that desperately needs God’s TLC.

So you see God doesn’t just let us get away with running to Tarshish.  We cannot escape God’s eye.  Whatever God wants God gets!  And that is reassuring because God wants forgiveness, love and grace and mercy.  God wants you.  The Psalmist speaks of an inescapable God in Psalm 139, a God who is ever present. He says, ‘You know me when I sit down and rise up…where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven you and there and when I make my bed in Sheol you are there, you search me and know me.”  God is always present even when we run to our Tarshish.  That is the unmistakable beauty of God’s grace.

Jonah’s God is the same God who guided Noah’s ark to Ararat to rest, who saved Daniel from being consumed by the flames or eaten by lions.

Jonah’s God is the same God who, in time, sent us Jesus Christ through which we are saved.

Jonah’s God is the same God who will send storms in our lives to jar us back on track again and will never give up on us because wherever we are God is.