"God's in Nineveh, We're in Tarshish"

1st Sunday of Lent

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We are in the season of Lent and at Grace we are going to learn from the story of Jonah this year. Some of you might be thinking, Jonah, come on, it’s a kids story, it’s a Sunday school lesson, aren’t there more important things for us to talk about. Maybe you’re thinking that Jonah represents everything that’s wrong with the Bible. How is anyone supposed to believe a myth about someone spending three days in the belly of a fish. It’s a fairytale, and in 2021 we don’t have time for that.

Lent is typically a season of darkness, it starts with Ash Wednesday where we remember we are dust and to dust we will return. During Lent, we repent, we fast, we give things up, all to prepare for Easter, for this promise of resurrection. We have the experience of these 40 days being aware of our grief, loss, and pain so that when Easter arrives we can have the experience of being conscious of resurrection, renewal, restoration and the promise that the worst thing will never be the last thing.

The life of Jesus shows us that we can’t get to resurrection without first going through death. In the early church, Lent was set aside as a somber season to provide contrast to Easter. If you turn the contrast on your screen all the way up, you lose the image, same thing happens if you turn the contrast all the way down.

Without contrast, we can’t see things as they are.

Lent is this season of contrast, of entering into our darkness. Lent is a season of repentance, and of grief, of acknowledging and experiencing the places that scare us, but we’ve been in these waters for more than the 40 days of Lent.

And that’s what brings us to Jonah. Jonah deals with everything that Lent is meant to deal with, but the book of Jonah is a comedy, it’s satire. There are some serious things that we will look at in the story of Jonah, there is a bitterness within this story that is also within us, and the comedy of Jonah is like the cream and sugar that makes a burnt cup of gas station coffee tolerable.

Jonah is hilarious and I hope you will laugh along with me, but I’m not expecting anyone to keel over in laughter. Comedy changes over time, it’s shaped by culture and context so with Jonah being translated between two languages and being roughly three thousand or so years old, I’m going to have to explain most of the jokes to you. That’s never as quite as funny, but it’s still kind of funny.

There are a couple things to know about the book of Jonah before we jump into it. The first thing is that Jonah is a satire, a parable, but that is not to say that the story of Jonah isn’t true. Jonah is profoundly true, there is a depth to the truth of Jonah because it asks over and over again, how far does God’s grace go? If grace is true, what does it mean for us and for everyone else?

I would also say that the story of Jonah is full of truth because Jonah is a prophet. As we will see, Jonah is a very odd kind of prophet, but they are still prophetic, they still show us and challenge us with the message of God’s justice and grace. When it comes to books of prophecy in the Bible, Jonah is unique because the prophetic nature of Jonah comes from the narrative instead of Jonah announcing, “This is the word of the Lord”. Jonah is also a different kind of prophet because most of the prophetic texts in the Bible are related to a very specific time and place in history. In many of the books of the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we read that this prophet makes a statement to this king. Prophets speak truth to power, they hold up a mirror and to remind us who we are and who we can be and with every other prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures, prophecy is set in a certain time and place, but that’s not true of Jonah, probably because the lessons of Jonah are timeless.

Jonah is such a fun book, and I don’t know about you, but for this Lent, I need some fun. Lent is all about prayer, fasting, repentance and mindfulness, and we will see all of that and more in Jonah, so let’s jump in.

“The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son…” In the original Hebrew, just by looking at Jonah’s name, you can tell that the narrator is setting us up for a joke. In Hebrew, Jonah is יוֹנָ֥ה and the meaning of the name Jonah is dove. In the romantic poetry of the Song of Solomon, dove is used to describe their beloved. In Song of Solomon chapter 6:9 it’s written, “…my dove, my perfect one, is one of a kind.” In Psalm 55, the poet writes about longing to be a dove, “I say to myself, I wish I had wings like a dove! I’d fly away and rest.” (Psalm 55:6-8). The prophet Isaiah writes, “Like a swallow I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes have grown weary looking to heaven. Lord, I’m overwhelmed; support me!” (Isaiah 38:14). After 40 days on the arch, Noah knows that their fears can fade when the dove returns with an olive branch (Genesis 8:10-11). Jonah, dove, is a symbol of love, of peace, of safety, of finding support and strength in God.

Jonah’s last name, in Hebrew, בֶן־ אֲמִתַּ֖י (ben-Amittai), son of Amittai, in English would be best translated as son of truth.

If you were going to name a prophet, I don’t know if you could come up with a more symbolic name than Dove, child of the truth.

I know I told you not to expect belly laughs, but Jonah’s name is funny.

“The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: ‘Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

Nineveh is not in Israel, in fact, Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. Today, the location formerly known as Nineveh is Mosul, Iraq.

Just like you might have complicated feelings about Iraq, in the ancient near east, they had complicated feelings about Nineveh. Nineveh, to the people of Israel, was an emery empire and a threat.

There is something evil, something cruel, something sinful that is taking place in Nineveh, which is why God says to Jonah, in Israel, get up and go to Nineveh and cry out against it, name, protest, bring to the attention of the people this evil and injustice.

רָעָתָ֖ם (rā·’ā·ṯām) is the Hebrew word for evil that’s used in this passage. Whatever this evil in Nineveh is, as Rabbi Steven Bob notes, “This is only the third time in the Bible in which the evil of the people moves God to speak of destroying them. The others are the generation of Noah and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

This evil and injustice is serious, but the Hebrew suggests that this evil and sin and injustice has not completely overwhelmed the people of Nineveh. In Genesis, the evil that brings about the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is violence, cruelty, and greed that have become so entrenched that they are the norm, so much so that kindness, peace, and hospitality are aberrations and anomalies instead of our ideal.

The Hebrew word to describe that kind of entrenched and systemic evil is חָמָס (chamas).

The difference between רָעָתָ֖ם (rā·’ā·ṯām) and חָמָס (chamas) is the difference between being a helper and an enabler.

There was once a woman, we’ll call her Carla, and Carla came to me to see if I could help her get some diapers. So that’s what I did because that’s what church is for. We want to be a place of safety, comfort and care any way we can. Carla told me what size she needed and I told her that I would have diapers and baby food for her by the end of the day.

A couple months later, Carla came back to the church and wanted more diapers. I asked what size she needed, and she said the same size as a couple months before. Even as someone that will never have a baby, I know babies grow, but I didn’t think it was my space to question a mother that was having a hard enough time taking care of herself, let alone a baby, so I got her more diapers and baby food.

Eventually, Carla was coming to me monthly for diapers and baby food. After multiple months of the diaper size never changing, and Carla never brining her baby with her, I started to ask Carla some questions that I should have asked from the start.

That’s when I found out that Carla once had a baby, but when that baby was the size of the diapers she was asking for, the baby was taken away from her because of her addiction and she hadn’t seen her baby in 16 years. Carla didn’t think she would every see her baby again and was taking the diapers and baby food that I was giving her and trading them to feed her addiction.

There was a רָעָתָ֖ם (rā·’ā·ṯām) that I could help Carla with, there were some things that I could name and help Carla with, but I couldn’t do anything about the חָמָס (chamas), the evil that had overtaken her.

God tells Jonah that the people of Nineveh have a רָעָתָ֖ם (rā·’ā·ṯām), a sin, a wrong, an injustice that they can find a way out of. And if we look closely at what God asks of Jonah, God doesn’t say to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and fix this”, God doesn’t say, “Go to Nineveh and solve their problems”, God says to Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it…” God simply asks Jonah to וּקְרָ֣א (qara), to cry out, to name the evil that is among them.

This is how Jonah responds to God’s call, “So Jonah got up – to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went abroad to go with them to Tarshish away from the Lord.”

With the prophets, there is this pattern we see in the scripture where the word of God comes to them, get up and go, so that’s what Jonah does, Jonah just happens to go in the opposite direction.

Again, funny.

We don’t know for sure where Tarshish was, but it is generally agreed that Tarshish was a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea, likely in southern Spain. In the ancient world, Tarshish was spoken of like we would speak of going to Cancun, this paradise where we can escape from all the worries of the world and relax.

This is the first of many examples of Jonah’s foolishness, but it’s also a profound moment in the text because Jonah wants to escape from God, who apparently is in Nineveh and to escape from God, Jonah flees to Tarshish.

The best place that Jonah can think of to escape from the creator of the cosmos is to visit a paradise where the beauty of creation is most on display. Jonah flees to Tarshish because in their mind, God is in Nineveh, this city where wickedness, evil, and injustice are on display.

If we were to imagine that there are places in the world where God is present and there are places in the world where God isn’t present, which is not something I actually believe, but let’s just imagine there are places in the world where God is and where God isn’t, where do you think God would most easily be found? In Cancun or in the slumlord apartment complex that is so overrun with crack that Carla can trade diapers for her next fix?

For Jonah, the answer is clear – God would choose Carla over Cancun just like God would choose Nineveh over Tarshish.

It’s as if the narrator in Jonah is saying, if you want to flee God go to paradise but if you want to find God, go into the darkness.

It is in the shadows of our hearts, in the back alleys of our souls, in those places within us that we repress, deny, and are ashamed of where God is most comfortable. It is in the darkness, God is not offended, surprised or shocked, that’s where God is at home.

But let’s be honest, that’s not where we’re the most comfortable, it’s where we feel vulnerable, it’s where we feel afraid, it’s where guilt and shame can overwhelm us. And yet, in Jonah, God is found in the darkness.

There is a simplistic happiness that many of us keep searching for, because we’d rather spend our time in Tarshish than Nineveh and that’s OK. God did not create us for guilt and shame, God did not create you so you could beat yourself up, God says you are very good and God needs you to share that goodness and grace with the world. God does not give us this life so that we can be spectators of it. There is a reason why we seek comfort instead of discomfort. There is a reason why we strive for liberation instead of oppression. And yet, often the comfort that we seek, the happiness that we long for just sits on the surface of this life.

If you have ever get a promotion, you know how good it feels to get that pat on the back. It’s real joy, it’s not counterfeit, it’s a happiness that we should cherish, but that happiness fades if your workload increases and your joy vanishes if your job does too.

We often seek pleasure in things and situations instead of the depths of our souls where God created us to have joy and grace and peace even and especially in Nineveh.

Think about it like this – in the middle of the day you don’t really need to light a candle. It can be nice, a candle can give your space some ambiance, it can make you feel cozy and comfortable, but the light that the candle provides doesn’t make much of a difference during the day. But at night, if your power goes out and you don’t want to stumble your way through the darkness, a candle can make all the difference.

The candle at the middle of the day – that’s a surface joy, it’s nice, it’s good, it matters, but we need that candle during the dark night of the soul, we need a joy even in the midst of pain and shame, we need joy in Nineveh. There is a joy that God has for us that can be found in the darkness. As Jesus says to the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, “…whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.” (John 4:13-14).

The invitation of Lent is to go to Nineveh, to enter into the dark shadows of our soul, not to wallow, not to beat ourselves up, it’s the invitation to find the well of God’s love and light within us.

There is one practice and two questions that I want to share with you today. One practice and two questions that will become the wick of the candle, the water of the well, one practice and two questions that help us find our way into the depths of joy that God wants for us.

The practice is gratitude.

How often do we find ourselves searching for joy because we miss the ways it is already with us? At Grace, every week we have a guide to prayer and study on our website and Facebook page. Each morning on facebook we post a reading, thought, and prayer that all ties back into the service and this week the readings are about gratitude, counting our blessings and being mindful of everything that we have to be thankful for.

It is so easy to complain about how we are stuck inside our homes that we forget how amazing it is to have a home in the first place.

The practice of gratitude does not mean ignoring or minimizing our pain, grief or loss, rather, the practice of gratitude is about not giving our pain, grief and loss the last word. So take the time, each day this week, to practice gratitude, to not simply acknowledge but to cherish what you are grateful for.

Our practice is gratitude and the first of our two questions is this – what is your Tarshish?

In Jonah, Tarshish is a symbol of escape, Tarshish is the eject button that Jonah uses to get away. What is that for you?

We all have them, and they aren’t, necessarily bad.

Is it:

eating,

drinking,

a relationship,

exercise,

volunteering,

‘helping’,

social media?

In and of themselves, those aren’t bad. We can all imagine any number of additions that are used as an escape, but the problem with Tarshish isn’t Tarshish, it’s how Jonah is using Tarshish.

When you ask yourself, “What is my Tarshish” the question is, do I use this to escape from my reality or do I do this to enter into and embrace my reality? Are you fleeing from your life or are you participating in it.

Sometimes exercise is just exercise, a chocolate bar is just a chocolate bar and a drink is just a drink, but every now and then ‘helping’ is meddling and we all know and felt the difference.

I know sermons aren’t intended to be therapy for the preacher, but I’ll tell you my Tarshish. My Tarshish is preaching, it’s this moment we share because this is about the only thing I feel competent in because it’s one of the few things that I have control over. I hope I am not fleeing from the places that scare me, but I know the more I focus on writing, rewriting, filming, editing and posting a service online, the less time I have to think about everything that scares me.

That’s my Tarshish. So what about you? What is your Tarshish, what do you do to avoid the darkness where the divine dwells?

The second question to ask ourselves is this, can you name your Nineveh?

This question is a bit harder than the first because this question is not can you fix your Nineveh.

Don’t rush towards a solution. Don’t try to solve anything. Simply name your Nineveh.

That is all that’s asked of Jonah and this week that is all that’s named of you.

Can you bring into your awareness the things that you would rather deny, hide, and repress? Can you let yourself name and even befriend the dark alley of your soul?

Simply let your Nineveh rise to the surface this week so that it can be fully exposed to the radiant light and love of God, because God is already there, and God is waiting for you to realize that grace and redemption are waiting for you in Nineveh.

The thing about this one practice and these two questions, the thing about living with gratitude and being aware of our Tarshish and our Nineveh is that you begin to see how God is always present in both. Just like Jonah will learn, we learn there is no place to we can go to flee from God.

God is in Tarshish like a wick to a candle and God is in Nineveh like water in a well. When we find God in our Tarshish, these places and things that are used as the surface joy of our life become the spark of the depths of joy that can be found even when we find ourselves in Nineveh.

There is an eternal joy that we can all tap into, a grace and peace that is with us even here, even now, because God is with us, even here, even now.

During this season of Lent, may we all come to terms with our Tarshish as we travel to our Nineveh. If you find yourself in Tarshish or Nineveh, the God of grace and peace is waiting for you. This week, instead of fleeing from your life like Jonah, may you embrace the fullness of your life finding God’s goodness, joy, and redemption everywhere you go.

Jonah 1:1-3

The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”  So Jonah got up–to flee to Tarshish from the LORD!  He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.

February 22 – 27, 2021

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Luke 22:14-19, John 11:35-42

Notice – The creator of the world, the ruler of the universe, chose to “become flesh” and live on earth as a human being (cf. John 1:14). Would you expect such a being to have the ultimate attitude of “entitlement,” to demand everything that was his by right? Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus gave us a model of what it means to be fully human, the gospels showed that his healthy human life included giving thanks in many different settings. The Greek root of the word “Eucharist” meant “to give thanks.” As you read Luke 22:14-19, picture Jesus eating with his disciples, with the cross just ahead. On what realities do you think he focused to be able to “give thanks” at that moment? In what ways can you include the healing, strengthening power of gratitude in your prayers, even in hard times? Do you think Jesus’ reasons for praying were different from your reasons for prayer? Why do you believe Jesus prayed at all, and didn’t just say, “I’m the son of God—I can handle this on my own”? If you had been one of the first disciples, what difference, if any, do you imagine you would have noticed in Jesus after he had been praying?

Pray – Jesus, at one point, praying, you said, “Thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me.” Help me share that confidence and say “thank you” for it more often in my own prayers. Amen.

Tuesday

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18

Notice – We often think gratitude is purely a feeling, a reaction to something outside of us. That makes “give thanks in every situation” puzzling—some situations do not trigger positive feelings. But psychology researcher Robert Emmons wrote, “It is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful….being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives.” * Scholar William Barclay wrote, “There is always something for which to give thanks; even on the darkest day there are blessings to count. We must remember that if we face the sun the shadows will fall behind us but if we turn our backs on the sun all the shadows will be in front.” ** As you reflect on gratitude’s benefits, are you finding yourself more inclined to resist changing the direction your life faces, or to seek to increasingly “face the sun”?

Pray – God, you are like the sun, always shining your love and mercy into my life, whatever may happen in my family, my workplace or my health. Help me learn how to keep my focus on you every day. Amen.

Wednesday

Read Philippians 4:6-7

Notice – Paul did not write this consel from some abstract ivory tower, sheltered from all trouble or conflict.  He was in prison when he wrote Philippians (cf. Philippians 1:13).  Even from prison, Paul found a way to give thanks in every situation.  Artists and photograpers know that oftern how we frame a picture alters what we focus on in it.  Paul urge a kind of framing in Philippians 4.  “When we bring the things that cause us stress into prayer, we put ourselves and our troubles inside a much bigger picture: the story of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ…And that leads to thanksgiving.”*  What helps you remember to look at life’s big picture more than the unpleasant little details?

Pray – Lord, the Psalmist wrote, “I keep your word close, in my heart” (Psalm 119:11).  I as for your help as I, too seek to keep your teaching close in my memory and my heart.  Amen

  • Cynthia M. Campbell, sidebar article “Stress” in the CEB Women’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016, p. 1492
Thursday

Read Psalm 95:1-7

Notice – Israel’s understanding of the one God they worshiped developed over time. At times, they adapted language from the cultures around them, as in verse 3 of today’s reading. They tended to refer to all supernatural beings, who the New Testament and most Christians call “angels,” as “gods.” But God was the great person they worshiped and thanked, the “great king over all other gods.” Verse 7 echoes many other psalms (including the beloved Psalm 23) in identifying us as sheep for whom God cares as a shepherd. The image may have been clearer to pastoral Israelites than to modern city dwellers. Sheep are utterly dependent on their shepherd to keep them fed, watered and safe. Left to their own devices, they tend to be helpless to ensure their own survival. How grateful are you that in a big, complex universe you are one of God’s sheep, watched over with caring and love?

Pray – Jesus, thank you for promising to be the “good shepherd” who cares for me, who doesn’t run away in the face of trouble but is always there. I gratefully worship and praise you. Amen.

Friday

Read – Psalm 96:1-2

Notice – Worship is not limited to one hour (or even one day) each week. Psalm 96 anticipated much modern psychological research as it invited us to express gratitude for God’s saving work “every single day.” The apostle Paul similarly urged Colossian Christians to “overflow with thanksgiving” and “be thankful people” (cf. Colossians 2:7, 3:12-17). Each day and hour of our week can be a time of gratitude, an ongoing act of worship. Some of us are musically gifted, and we like the idea of “sing to the Lord a new song.” Others, of course, suffer in silence through the singing parts of worship. Regardless of our musical aptitude or tastes, what is the inner spirit of gratitude expressed by the poetic imagery of singing to the Lord a new song? How can all of us join in that spiritual experience?

Pray – Lord of my life, continue touching and transforming me to make my everyday, ordinary life an offering of gratitude to you, an ongoing act of worship. Amen.

Saturday

Read Psalm 92:1-5

Notice – The psalmist wrote long ago: “It is good to give thanks to the LORD.” Here’s some research that supports the goodness of giving thanks: “Take just a few minutes each day to jot down things that make you thankful, from the generosity of friends to the food on your table or the right to vote…. List-keepers sleep better, exercise more and gain a general contentment that may counteract stress and contribute to overall health.”* The ultimate source of joy in Psalm 92 was God’s loyal love and faithfulness, realities that are always with us if we just recognize them. In verse 2, the psalmist spoke of expressing gratitude to God in the morning and at nighttime. In what ways have you, or will you, build recognizing and expressing gratitude into your habit patterns, so that you don’t always have to try to remember to do it? Spend some time today praying about choices you can make to incorporate gratitude more fully into your daily practices as a Christ follower.

Pray – Jesus, you made me for praise and gratitude. When I’m tempted to grump my way through a day, remind me to worship you—to give you thanks for your ever-present love and faithfulness. Help me to be grateful. Amen.

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