The Reluctant Prophet

Matthew 12:38-40Jonah

Dave didn’t blend into the crowd.

The two of us stood in the center of Hebron. The bustle of the conservative Palestinian Muslim city swirled around us. In the heart of the West Bank, I’m not exactly the one to speak about passing for a local. But Dave, with his well-over-six-foot frame, red baseball cap, oversized brown plastic eyeglasses with tape on the bridge, scraggly beard, un-tucked flannel shirt, crumpled jeans, and scruffy work boots would look more at home on a Midwestern farm than in a Middle Eastern city.

As we walked through town, an old man stopped him: “Dave! Where have you been? We’ve missed you!” Dave responded in stilted Arabic, “How you, Muhammad? I am happy see you! I you come soon tomorrow for coffee drink.” It would be hard to find two more different characters in the world. Muhammad’s starched white kuffiye head dress and gray full-length gallabiye robe might have made him stand out a bit in an Iowa cornfield. But in the West Bank, life is surreal and the unlikely becomes the norm.

Dave was in Hebron as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Founded in 1984 by members of the Church of the Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites, the Teams are an embodiment of the commitment to non-violence that these Christian communities share. They have been in parts of the world whose names are synonymous with conflict: Haiti, Colombia, Chiapas, Bosnia, Iraq, Chechnya, Israel/Palestine. They come to these regions as a matter of conscience, willing to risk injury and even death – in their words – “in a bold attempt to transform lethal conflict through the nonviolent power of God’s truth and love.”

Dave’s red baseball cap, emblazoned with the CPT logo, is their recognizable uniform. The flannel and everything else seem to be his touch, not a requirement. We grabbed a couple of falafel sandwiches for lunch, and Dave, a Mennonite by background, explained what drew him to this ministry: “Growing up, I heard the Biblical passages over and over again: transforming swords into ploughshares, turning the other cheek, loving the enemy. I realized at a certain point that it was not enough for me to speak about non-violence as an ideal. If I really believed in it, I should be willing to put my life on the line for the sake of that ideal. CPT’s motto is ‘getting in the way,’ and that’s exactly what we do. We physically put ourselves in the way in violent situations. And we spiritually put ourselves in the way, the truth, and the life, who is Jesus himself.”

The risks that CPT takes aren’t abstract ones, either. In November, four members of their Iraq Team were kidnapped from their Baghdad apartment. The deadline for the militants’ demands passed a month ago. No news – neither good nor bad – has come since then. Many fear the worst. But CPTers know the risks they take when they enter these places of entrenched violence. Their conviction lies in the hope that their lives and, if need be, their deaths, would give witness not to themselves, but to the redemptive power of God’s mercy and healing.

It may be naïve for CPT to enter places of entrenched violence armed only with a red baseball cap and a Tarzan-like grasp of the local language. But there is a profound and challenging theological, ethical, moral, political integrity at work. They go to these places in this way because they take seriously the redemptive call of Scripture to remold swords, to love enemies, and to turn cheeks.

I bring the story of Dave and the ministry of CPT today simply as a counterpoint to our Old Testament text. Very few of us have the boldness to act on our faith convictions to our own peril, and the integrity from belief to practice they represent is rare indeed. More of us would likely find ourselves in looking at Jonah, the reluctant, almost comical, prophet.

In many ways, our text today picks up where we left off last week with Samuel. Jonah is another in the long line of stumbling, imperfect prophets whom God chooses to deliver a message. The story is familiar, perhaps too familiar, and the plot line takes intricate twists and turns through its four chapters. The call first comes to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” It is a large city, the story tells us, and was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a powerful regional enemy of the Hebrew people. No doubt the whole idea of following through with this sounded like a death wish. And so hearing the call to head East, Jonah hops the first boat he can find for – Spain.

The storm rages; Jonah is tossed overboard; the fish swallows him; Jonah gets spit out; Jonah gets a fresh start. The call comes again; Jonah obeys; Jonah preaches; Nineveh repents; God forgives; Jonah sulks.

The writer of Jonah seems to enjoy making him the anti-hero. In some ways, he’s similar to many of the other prophets in the Hebrew Bible: he’s an imperfect vessel through whom God speaks faithfulness. But Jonah is the only prophet sent not to the Israelites, but to foreigners. And while disobedience is always part of the prophet’s character, Jonah takes it to a whole new level.

Looking at the story and how Jonah responds, we can begin to enter his thoughts. Surely certain death faced him if he, an Israelite, walked the streets of enemy Assyria preaching doom and gloom. Many of us would choose to run in the opposite direction, too. But three days in the belly of a fish has a way of changing a man. And as Jonah obediently heads toward Nineveh, perhaps he’s thinking: “I’ve got no choice: it’s either this, or back in the fish. But at least I get to go out telling Assyrians that they’re going to be destroyed. That’s a positive!” As he walks the streets of Nineveh, Jonah probably looks as out of place as our friend Dave back in the streets of Hebron. And as he preaches, Nineveh hears and begins to repent. The scene, again, is comical – even animals parade the streets wearing sackcloth and ashes! “Good,” Jonah probably thinks to himself. “This will make the punishment all the more fun to watch!”

And then, the story takes a surprising theological twist – God relents. After promising destruction and overturning and chaos, God forgives Nineveh. Their repentance was heartfelt, and God extends mercy. And Jonah, ever the comic hero, gets mad at God for being merciful. “I knew you were going to do this! ‘Go tell Nineveh they’re going to be destroyed.’ I did what you asked! But that wasn’t good enough, was it? No! You have to go and be all merciful and gracious!”

This story is, in its simplest form, a satire. It lampoons the prophet, by casting hapless Jonah in the starring role. It mocks the Israelites, too, as pagan fishermen and gentile Assyrians turn to God because of Jonah, a feat no Hebrew prophet manages to accomplish among God’s people. And, perhaps most of all, it reflects back on us, the reader. Because as soon as we think we would’ve done better, we offer ourselves up as a comparison to Jonah and the Israelites.

How many of us would be willing to risk everything for the sake of a call, and go to Nineveh, to a place of physical, financial, emotional danger? How many of us would be willing to accept that God’s grace extends to the Assyrians, to those whom we despise, to those who despise us? And how many of us seek to make God in our image – destroying our enemies when we want destruction, forgiving us when we want to be forgiven – rather than acknowledge that all of humanity is shaped in the image of God?

The truth that stands at the heart of Jonah is that the story ultimately isn’t about him. Instead, it is about God. And throughout the story, the enduring character of that God is mercy. The fish saves Jonah. Jonah gets a second chance. Nineveh gets a second chance.

Friends, our life as Christians ultimately isn’t about us. Instead, it is about the God whom we seek to serve. We may be reluctant prophets, modern-day Jonahs with inconsistent theologies, comic foibles, human fears and weaknesses. But even so, seeking to respond to God’s call, we might just reflect a bit of that divine grace and mercy that shines on us. It is Jonah who is willing to cast himself overboard to save his shipmates. It is Jonah who spends three days entombed in the belly of the sea. And it is Jonah whose preaching ultimately gives life and hope, even to those who would be his enemies and seek his destruction. In all of this, as imperfect as Jonah is, we can see shadows of the story of the one we call Christ who was willing to give himself up for us, spent three days in the tomb, and ultimately brought life and hope, even to those who sought his destruction.

No one would ever confuse Jonah for the Messiah. But if we can glimpse this in him, then there is hope for all of us reluctant prophets.

sermonsMarthame Sanders