Sunday, July 24, 2022


It had been a long walk – over seven hundred miles to get here. Utterly exhausting, brutally punishing, even if that last stretch along the eastern bank of the Tigris was refreshing. Save now the Euphrates, he'd never seen such a broad, bountiful river in all his days. The scenery would, under any other circumstances, have been soothing; the trees by the riverside were almost Eden-like. But now, undeniably, he was at his destination. It loomed over him like the serpentine face of Leviathan, hungry to devour. He stood in the dust of the cursed earth and glared up in disgust and awe east of his taste of Eden, for his aching feet had come to a stop at the massive gates of a walled city, stretching out beyond sight in each direction. He knew where he was.  This... was Nineveh.

Jonah didn't want to be here. He'd tried his hardest not to be here. Then had come storm and sea, a great fish, a coerced prayer, and he'd been vomited up onto the beach in shame and disgrace (Jonah 1:3—2:10). He was yet stewing in fish muck when he'd heard the dreadfully familiar voice of the LORD again. It was the command as before; it was a second chance (Jonah 3:1).1 “Up!” God had said. “Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2). So Jonah had gotten up, dusted himself off, washed (or so I hope!), and – inwardly fuming – hiked the first of many miles through the nations. But he had to admit: doing something “according to the word of the LORD for a change made him feel more like a prophet again (Jonah 3:3).2

Yet Jonah trembled at his visions. All around him, he glimpsed dark futures in which Nineveh survived the year. If it did, then in a couple generations, Assyria's kings would make it their capital and expand it into the largest city on the face of the earth, able to gobble up twelve Samarias in its gullet. And from this monster city, they'd rain terror down on all around them, crushing the known world beneath their heel. Israel would be wiped from the map. Judah would be menaced and laid low. It was too much darkness for Jonah to bear to dwell on.

But even now... even as just a major city and provincial capital... Nineveh was big (Jonah 3:3). Bigger, for sure, than Jerusalem. Bigger even than Samaria! And not merely bigger, but two, three, almost four times bigger.3 It wasn't yet the capital of the empire, but was such an important city to them that, even centuries ago, their so-called “kings of the universe” had already been building palaces there. And not only the palaces, but the horrid temples. Even from outside the city, he'd seen the greatest from far away: Emashmash, temple of Ishtar of Nineveh, which he'd instantly hated. It had been standing there since before Abraham was born, and by now it was so large that the LORD's temple, built in golden splendor by King Solomon, could've fit in it several times over.4 “How dare these fools mock God by giving a bloodthirsty demon a greater house, by lavishing such beauty on the darkness?” thought Jonah.

For isn't it dedicated, in their own hateful words, to “the goddess Ishtar, mistress of war and battle, whose game is fighting”?5 And in her service, didn't the king's great-great-grandfather Ashurnasirpal made a custom of burning boys and girls?6 And didn't he capture one opposing king and brag about skinning him and hanging the skin right over there on Nineveh's walls?7 Wasn't it his son, the king's great-grandfather Shalmaneser, who – six years before battling Israel's king Ahabboasted of his battles in words like: “I felled their fighting men with the sword..., piled up their bodies in ditches, filled the extensive plain with the corpses of their warriors, and with their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool..., erected a tower of heads in front of his city, and razed, destroyed, and burned his cities”?8 And wasn't he the same king who forced Israel's king Jehu into submission and subservience?9 Oh, and didn't the king's grandfather Shamshi-Adad, who quashed Nineveh's rebellion some sixty-odd years ago, boast then of bringing captured Babylonian troops there, brutalizing them in these very streets, and “stripping off their skin”?10 Hadn't the king's father Adad-nirari continued the tradition by subduing Jonah's own nation of Israel, imposing taxes and tributes on King Joash forty years ago in exchange for 'saving' them from the armies of Damascus?11 Was Jonah now here to spare and serve these butchers and tyrants from the bloodguilt of generations of the LORD's chosen people?

Standing at the gate, Jonah could see so many good reasons not to pass through it. He was shaking in his sandals, scared the Ninevites might follow tradition and skin him alive. Isn't such fear a rational reason to turn back? And with so many temples and rituals, this very religious people was spiritually a million miles away from all Jonah knew. How was he to build bridges with them? They were mentally a million miles away, too – what did they know of Abraham and the promises, or Moses and the deliverance, or David and the anointing, or the prophets? There was hardly any shared context to preach from. And their traditions were so old, older than Abraham's call – can you get more set in your ways than that? Besides, if anyone wasn't worth the effort, it's them. Why come to rescue the worst people on earth, who'd inherited such guilt? Some of the old men of the city had once polluted the promised land with the blood of Israel's martyrs (perhaps even members of Jonah's family). And saving them would come at an unthinkable cost – Jonah could see that, if he succeeded here, he'd only be signing Israel's death warrant. How could the LORD ask it of him? This was unfair! And if that weren't enough, Jonah thought, I'm just one man in a city bigger than I thought cities could be. Even if I wanted to – and I don't! – I couldn't reach them all.

Jonah's excuses piled higher and higher as he lingered outside the gate. But sitting on the other side of the scale was just one thing, one gut-wrenching fact: that “Nineveh was a city great to God” (Jonah 3:3). So large was it, so full of life, that the LORD God had been keeping an eye on it.12 God had woven it inextricably into his plans for human history, had assigned it a role to play in his hands.13 More than that, God laid claim to it – it didn't belong to the governor or the king or even to Ishtar, but the city had been built up to its greatness by the hand of the LORD at his pleasure.14 Out of that, God had commanded. And Jonah had resigned himself to obedience, however begrudging.

So Jonah stepped through the gate into the lower city, the northern part, and began his southerly walk just a little way into the city (Jonah 3:4), steering clear of the great citadel looming over the town. He had no business at the mighty brick palace the king's father had finished,15 nor in any of the filthy temples, nor in the city arsenal.16 He was content to speak amidst the common men on the streets. Our book records the sum total of Jonah's message in just five Hebrew words, the “shortest prophetic utterance in the Old Testament.”17 Either it's just a summary, or – more likely – Jonah was so eager to get out of there that he preached the bare minimum and skedaddled.18 What we have of Jonah's message doesn't mention God at all. It doesn't single out the Ninevites' sins, so that they could realize what they'd done. It doesn't paint a picture of the peace and harmony they could have instead. It doesn't give any instruction. It doesn't offer any hope. It doesn't seem designed to do much!

What does Jonah say? “Yet forty days,” he begins – that's three words right there, he's already halfway through. Jonah probably mused that it was forty days like in the days of Noah, when rain fell for forty days and forty nights to flood the earth in judgment (Genesis 7:12), or forty days like in the days of Moses, when Moses fasted on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights in the wake of Israel's sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34:28). One set of forty days fulfilled judgment; the other, by prayer and fasting, turned judgment away. The next word Jonah said would perhaps make clear whether these days would be with Noah or with Moses. “Yet forty days,” said Jonah, “and Nineveh shall be turned!” (Jonah 3:4). The verb Jonah uses is the word always used in the Bible for “an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah..., which the LORD overthrew in his anger and wrath” (Deuteronomy 29:23). But the author changes the way the verb is conjugated, opening another possible way to read it: that in forty days, Nineveh will turn itself around!19 Now, that's not what Jonah himself means or hopes. But the prophecy is ambiguous: it can go either way, judgment or repentance. It's up to the Ninevites to unfold the prophecy and its outcome in their lives.20

As we'll find, the whole population of Nineveh in that generation responded to Jonah's message: “the men of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5), almost as Abraham had believed (Genesis 15:6). In spite of all Jonah's obstructionist foot-dragging, the word of God went forth and bore fruit all out of proportion to its messenger. God's grace filled in the gaps left by Jonah's efforts to sabotage his own ministry. “Jonah's minimal effort,” it's been said, “achieves maximum results.”21 I mean, so far as results are concerned, this is the greatest success story in the Bible! Think of Noah, preaching untold years, yet reaching no one but his immediate family. Or think of Jeremiah, perpetually unheeded by the people of Judah, told up front by God that “you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you” (Jeremiah 7:27). In between, here comes Jonah, who with five words saves 120,000 lives. It's the unpredictable flowering of grace. And so judgment was staved off for a time – although Nineveh would at last be overturned, destroyed, nearly a century and a half later.

Over six centuries after Nineveh was overturned, the Lord Jesus Christ came down from Jonah's neck of the woods, and he began his public ministry only after a Ninevite fast in the desert for forty days – not to turn himself around, but to turn the world (Matthew 4:2).22 But during his ministry, he censured those who heard him: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment against this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32). And then how did Jesus close his public ministry? By handing it off to his Body remaining on earth: “It is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16). “Having gone, therefore, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

So Jesus said to his apostles, the first leaders of his Church. And into that mission, the Church was led by one particular disciple whom Jesus pointedly called “the son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17) – one to whom, just as God had given Jonah a second chance after running away, Jesus gave a second chance after denying him (John 21:15-19). And, in the exact same port-town of Joppa where Jonah fled to the sea, this apostle obeyed God's vision to open the gate to the Gentiles, learning not to disdain them as unclean (Acts 10:1-16). That disciple, that 'son of Jonah,' was Peter.23 And we are called to cooperate with and follow Peter and his co-apostles as they lead us, generation by generation, in responding to the call. For no less than to Jonah, the Word of the LORD has come to the Church, saying: “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2).

And, to be sure, Nineveh is all around us. It's the world. And for us, it's what many Christian thinkers these days – I don't like it, I think it's too simplistic, but it'll do for now – but it's what many Christian thinkers these days are calling our “post-Christian culture.” And, to one degree or another, even our neighborhood, as resistant to our nationwide apostasy as we seem (or, at least, choose to see ourselves!) to be, is a part of that Nineveh. So what does Nineveh look like today?

In our neighborhood, surely we've got plenty of people who will tell you they're Christians, and yet something in their life doesn't follow through. Maybe they accept Jesus as an idea, as a theoretical truth, but they won't treat him as their way and their life (cf. John 14:6). Or maybe they've got a cozy devotional life in the comfort of their homes, but they don't want to hear or consider whether Jesus might want anything more from them. They steer clear of the church, not out of a thwarted desire to be among God's people, but out of a fulfilled desire to not be. They starve themselves of what Jesus wants to feed them (himself!), deny themselves his healing touch, shun his presence. Or they show up from time to time, so long as it's on their terms – and this, already, is a taste of Nineveh.

Or, how about this? Surely there are many others around us who once were stamped with Christ's mark, who were once-and-for-all baptized into him, and yet they've killed the life of grace within them. It's been a long time since they allowed (if they ever did allow) the grace of God to be active and living in them. The Lord's love falls on deaf ears; they hold back the faith they owe. And there are others, too, who, under waves of worldly appeals and in the name of virtues gone astray and run amok, compromise the faith, refusing to believe it could possibly say yes to this or no to that; they offer their pinches of incense to trendy idols and carve out the guts of the gospel to make more room for the world. This, too, is the encroachment of Nineveh.

Then there are plenty who, from a church's failure or just their own, don't understand the message half as well as they think they do. Perhaps they stopped learning it in grade school, and now think they know it well enough to judge it for all time, thinking their brilliant objections have never come up in the past two thousand years. And there are others who, swept away by rising cultural tides of anti-religious venom, simply hate the distorted vision of Christianity that demons puppeteer before their eyes – and they, too, are Ninevite, in desperate need of love and prayer. And we now have some neighbors who are so 'post-Christian' that they might as well be 'pre-Christian' – people who've maybe have never heard. It doesn't get more quintessentially Ninevite than that.

And just as Jonah could have rattled off a thousand excuses to not set foot in Nineveh, so can – and often do – we find excuses not to set foot out into the world and open up our mouths. The world's so big, and each of us is so small. People might yell at us. People might reject us. We might get caught by a question we weren't ready for. We might not know what to say. We don't know where to begin. They're so set in their ways. Or we're so set in our ways, and fear that letting new people into the church would risk changing it from how we like it. And maybe, temperamentally, we'd just rather keep to ourselves. What difference could we really make? We despair of success. All familiar reasons not to proclaim the proclamation we've been told. But over against it all is that this Nineveh all around us is a city great to God. And whatever anybody in this country has done to us, or will do to us, it's a lot less than Jonah could fairly accuse his Ninevites of. Still he was sent. So are we.

But what he did perfunctorily and quickly and in great resentment, we're to do well and slowly and in great love. Afraid of rejection? “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7), of “boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Afraid of their anger? “If you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed: have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14), but “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless” (1 Peter 3:9). Think they're too set in their ways to hear you? “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Cowed by the cultural forces looming over you like a giant temple of Ishtar? “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Don't know what to say? We practice every Sunday as we burn our faith from the backs of our bulletins [i.e., where we print the text of the Creed] onto the tips of our tongues. Go from there. Don't know how to say it? “Be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Worried the world is too big and you're too small? You don't go alone; the whole Church is sent, and each member is sent in accordance with that sending, each according to his or her station and order. Work with all of us to do what's collectively in our reach.

Despairing of success anyway? Be yours a Jeremiah story or a Jonah story, all God asks of you is faithfulness. What matters is that you say it, what you say, and how you say it. That they hear it, what they hear, and how they hear it – that's between God and them. But to go into Nineveh and proclaim in the hallways and the highways that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35); that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30); that “he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by... satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17); that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31); that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43); that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17); that, if we only endure in this grace to the end, we have the hope of eternally beholding God as our fullness of life and our perfect joy always and forever? To go, to tell, to show – that's on us; that's in itself success. May we go with more gusto than Jonah gave! And may God grant us to see as abundant fruit as Jonah saw. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2022


It was a summer afternoon, and the Geo Barents – that's a ship – was sailing on the Mediterranean. Alarm Phone reported an urgent need for their attention in the waters north of Libya, on Africa's northern coast, and so the ship changed course and reached the scene. The Geo Barents is a search-and-rescue vessel, chartered now by Doctors Without Borders. Upon arriving after a three-hour search, what they found horrified them. An inflatable white canoe filled with migrants from various African nations was going under; the wooden floor of the canoe had cracked through in the middle. People were drowning left and right, some having already fallen out into the deep waters and drifted far from the wreck. One heroic 17-year-old Togolese boy had scooped a four-month-old infant out of the waters, resting it on his back as he himself strove to keep himself and a couple others above the water, clinging to a fragment of wood. The Geo Barents crew managed to rescue 71 people; between 20 and 30 were missing, some just children – all irreplaceable lives. Those not rescued drowned. Their bodies couldn't be found. That was twenty-seven days ago. They rest beneath the Mediterranean waves.1

Unfortunately for him, Jonah lived in the days before Doctors Without Borders. No search-and-rescue vessels plied the Mediterranean in his time. There were to be no rescuers on the waves. You see, when we last left our hapless friend Jonah the wayward prophet, he was being thrown overboard – at his own suggestion, mind you – by the hands of the Gentile sailors who crewed the ship he'd hired to help him escape from God. As it turns out – surprise, surprise – that was a spectacularly ill-conceived idea. And so, with a splash in the storm, Jonah hit the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean, still choppy (for the moment), churned into a frenzy.

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the river surrounded me” (Jonah 2:3a). That's Jonah himself testifying to his experience. Jonah's not picturing himself in merely shallow waters. He's not at home in his bathtub. He's not in the kiddie pool. He hasn't waded out a little bit too far. This is “the heart of the seas” – it might as well be the mid-Atlantic, not that Jonah can even fathom that. And he's caught in the current. “All your breakers and your waves passed over me” (Jonah 2:3b). These are heaps, hills made of water, and the crashing movements that break ships in pieces. As Jonah tries to swim and get his head above water, the waves break over his head, dousing him, bit by bit inundating his lungs.

Then I said, 'I am driven away from your eyes, yet I shall look again upon your holy temple.' The waters closed in over me up to my throat, the deep surrounded me” (Jonah 2:4-5a). Jonah's disbelief at what's going on around him yields to him sinking into the water. It's a different word for 'deep' now – this is the word from back in Genesis, the original ocean when everything was ocean. Jonah can no longer surface to catch a breath. And he realizes that his is a fatal set of circumstances. As he sinks, his brain is losing oxygen. Everything begins to feel like a dream, and panic gives way to an eerie calm. His loosening mind, unwinding from all the walls he put up, turns to God's temple, imagining himself there. But that's not where he is. “Weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:5b). On the way down, he's gotten himself tangled in seaweed. But he claims to have reached 'the roots of the mountains.' That's the bottom, that's the seabed. Now, either Jonah is exaggerating wildly, or he's completely drowned, because there's only so low Jonah can get with air in his lungs, and even diving he couldn't reach the bottom before running out of air, to say nothing of the crushing water pressure. Whatever the case, the situation he depicts is obviously beyond any human help. The seaweed wrapping around him might as well be a shroud; he might as well be carried toward his tomb.2

And, sure enough, that's how he puts in in the very next lines: “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (Jonah 2:6a). Elsewhere he calls it “the Pit” (Jonah 2:6b) and “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2b). He's talking about the underworld. That's where he's claiming he went: the realm of the dearly departed, the land of the dead. All through chapter 1, we watched as Jonah kept going down, down, down – he “went down to Joppa,” he “went down into” the ship (Jonah 1:3), he “went down into the bowels of the ship” (Jonah 1:5), all while God and man are telling him to get up (Jonah 1:2, 6). Now he's gone down into the deep, down to the roots of the mountains, and finally down to the underworld. It is, by definition, the last stop on the line. There's no more down from Sheol's belly. Jonah's been gobbled up by death, he's in the Pit, he's as low as it goes. Nor is there an up for him: the prison bars of death have slammed shut “forever,” says Jonah. It's a permanent end. Jonah sides with Job, who declared: “He who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). And, according to King Hezekiah decades later, “Sheol does not thank you, Death does not praise you; those who go down to the Pit do not hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18). Jonah could easily believe there's no point in praying.

But on the other hand, isn't it also written: “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD (Proverbs 15:11)? Isn't it said: “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8)? Didn't Samuel's mother Hannah sing that “the LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6)? And so, says the drowned prophet, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD (Jonah 2:7a). “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress” (Jonah 2:2a). “And my prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (Jonah 2:7b), “and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2b). Yes, testifies Jonah, “he answered me” (Jonah 2:2a). “You brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God” (Jonah 2:6b). Jonah's itty-bitty prayer, not even audible, just a gurgle or a thought, outside the land of Israel, away from dry land at all, well beneath the face of the deep, perhaps as far away as the underworld – it zapped itself all the way to Jerusalem, to the house where heaven meets earth, from which God heard the prayers of his people. And where Jonah has no claim by merit to God's intervention, yet God doesn't turn a deaf ear to Jonah's distress. God helps Jonah switch from down to the first movement up.

What the narrator tells us is that “the LORD had appointed” a solution already. Even before Jonah began to call out, even when Jonah was sullenly silent, even when Jonah was at his most disobedient and his least deserving, already God had appointed a solution to his coming troubles – already God was setting a rescue operation into motion. God handed down an assignment to a creature he'd handpicked for just that task, a creature whose very purpose in life was this moment. Now, wouldn't it have been awful for Jonah if that creature had Jonah's heart? If that creature responded to God's call by swimming the other direction?

But Jonah's persistent pattern of disobedience is blessedly contradicted by this creature's timely obedience. He resuscitates, he revives, he regains life inside something submarine. You see, “the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17a). In Hebrew, it's just described as a 'great fish.' Later, when this story got translated into Greek, the Jews picked a different word, ketos, which by that time could mean specifically a whale, which is where we've come to get that impression. But actually, the word was broader, and meant, more generally, some kind of sea monster. In the oldest art we have of Jonah and this 'great fish,' it doesn't look much like any whale I've seen. Truth be told, we don't really know what God appointed to swallow Jonah. Maybe it was some species of whale. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was something we couldn't identify even if we saw it. For all we know, maybe it was something God made one-of-a-kind for just that occasion. As fun as it'd be to know, that's not the point the book's trying to make. All we can say is that this creature was fishy, and this creature was big – very big, like the storm was big. It was a 'great fish.' It was a sea monster.

Whatever that 'great fish' is, it swallows Jonah, it devours him whole. Almost never could that be a good turn of events! Nowhere else are you going to read a passage of Scripture where Thing A devouring Thing B leads to a positive outcome for Thing B. There aren't many health benefits to getting eaten. Except right here, where God has chosen to arrange Jonah to find a moderate air supply and shelter by it. Jonah has a place to breathe, revive, dwell. But it's also cramped, smelly, wet, and dark. In other words, it probably feels like waking up from being buried alive. You're not dead: hooray! – but you're still in the grave: not-so-hooray. The inside of the 'great fish' is at once the means of Jonah's sudden salvation and also the means of Jonah's continued chastisement. This is solitary confinement of a repulsive sort, and in the sleepless darkness, with no sound grasp on the passage of time, Jonah is forced to face his thoughts. It might as well be torture “in the belly of the fish” (Jonah 1:17).

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1). He's in the fish's innards, the bowels. Sometimes, this 'belly' can refer to the stomach, like when Zophar tells Job how a person's “food is turned in his belly” (Job 20:14). But sometimes this 'belly' can also refer to the inner source of new life, like when Naomi warns Ruth that she's got no further sons “in my belly” (Ruth 1:11), or when a psalmist says that God “took me out of the belly of my mother” (Psalm 71:6). When Jonah gets swallowed, the 'belly' surely is the stomach – but when Jonah prays, suddenly the word for 'fish' in Hebrew switches from masculine to feminine, which opens up the possibility of a womb once Jonah starts praying. If Jonah's a changed man, if he prays well, then his deliverance out of the great fish can be a new birth to a new life. But if Jonah's unchanged, if he prays poorly, then his exit is regurgitation as the same ol' sourpuss.3

And that's when we come to Jonah's psalm. I have to think that, for all the psalms David wrote, that shepherd boy never did his composition in such a setting. But Jonah is. His second prayer is poetry, a psalm. And on first blush, it's a beautiful one. Here's a man who can talk the talk, who prays well-placed words rich with piety and orthodoxy!4 But if we start to look closer, there are some odd things about it. To a Hebrew ear of the time, it would've come across with a mismatch. It's like... you know that it's technically possible to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan's Island, right? (Try it out yourself: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found; / was blind, but now I see – / blind but now I see....”5) Well, Jonah's psalm comes across like that. It mixes up the conventions for happy songs and sad songs – there were things Jews knew to expect in psalms of thanksgiving, and other things Jews knew to expect from psalms of lament, and this somehow manages to straddle the divide.6

A lot of the lyrics are ripped off of other psalms we know, sometimes down to exact quotes.7 And to be sure, it's progress insofar as Jonah is now at least talking at God.8 But whether Jonah realizes it or not, the pictures he's painting and the words he's choosing keep hearkening back to the song Israel sang right after the exodus, when they stood on the east shore of the sea in which their Egyptian pursuers had drowned (Exodus 14-15). To listen to those songs side-by-side is to get the impression that Jonah's been on a reverse exodus, a betrayal of Israel's most basic story, right up to the point where he cries for help.9 But for all that, nowhere in this psalm does Jonah accept responsibility for anything. He's constantly pointing the finger at God: You cast me into the deep..., all your breakers and your waves passed over me..., I am driven away from your eyes...” (Jonah 2:3-4). But Jonah wasn't driven away, chased away by an outside force; he ran, he fled! Jonah's mentions of God in the second-person here – where Jonah actually talks to God in this psalm – are principally about blaming God. Nowhere in it does Jonah show contrition or repentance. He's not sorry for how he behaved. He's unchanged.10

What's more, Jonah's focus in this psalm is carefully written to be predominantly about himself. First, it's all about his troubles, and God appears in the background as their cause. Then, it's all about Jonah patting himself on the back for praying, and crediting his prayers for being the defining change in his circumstances. Jonah yields barely half a verse to mentioning the actual rescue by God which he's supposed to be praising!11 And that impression is borne out by how Jonah ends his prayer. He refers derogatorily to other people who “cling to vapors of emptiness” – in other words, Gentiles trapped in their pagan ways, whose worship is directed to hollow nothings that don't last. And this exact phrase shows up in one of the psalms, but the next thing the psalmist says is, “But I trust in the LORD (Psalm 31:6). Jonah doesn't say that here. Instead, he condemns Gentiles for having “forsaken their mercy” (Jonah 2:8) – he suggests that their misguided lifestyle has surrendered an entitlement to God's favor that they could've had if only they'd lived like Jonah has. Jonah contrasts himself to such Gentile fools by saying that he, unlike them, is going to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good on whatever vows he made (Jonah 2:9a). But, quite unbeknownst to Jonah (but knownst to us!), the Gentile sailors will indeed do that, recognizing God's mercy. Will Jonah? Hard to say.

The point is, Jonah's prayer sounds good from a distance, but not so much with a magnifying glass. He flatters himself instead of accusing himself. He comes across as proud and self-righteous still. And that's nauseating. Certainly God seems to think so, judging from what happens next. Jonah's prayer sits about as gently on the fish's stomach as a few slices of week-old pickle-and-chocolate-chip pizza. It sickens God, and the great fish gets the distinguished displeasure of making that sentiment quite colorfully known when the fish spews Jonah to the sand, barfs him onto the beach. For “the LORD spoke to the fish” – here the word 'fish' is masculine again, cutting off the womb option – “and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). God is indeed faithful to bring Jonah back to terra firma, thus completing his rescue from this submarine voyage. But it's a second chance without a second birth. Instead, it foreshadows how, in just a few decades, Israel is going to be vomited out by the land, largely because of the same attitudes Jonah is bound up in (cf. Leviticus 18:28). So the prophet is upchucked onto the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, possibly near where his ship set out from.12

As we'll find, perhaps in keeping with whatever vows he made, he's now prepared to follow at least the letter of what God says, if not its spirit. Splatted onto the beach, covered in ambergris and sand, possibly naked if his clothes dissolved away, Jonah is a joke, totally humiliated by his mode of re-entry onto the land. And whenever he gets the chance to ask somebody what day it is, he'll realize how long he was inside the great fish, how long it's been since he was left for dead: “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).

Now, down through the centuries, as the adventures of Jonah were told and re-told, often people tried to gloss over some of his weaknesses, and they came to fill in the details with all sorts of legends. In a time of crisis, one Jewish teacher begged God to rescue Israel from danger, and appealed to the example of Jonah. He said to God: “When Jonah was pining away unpitied in the belly of the monster of the deep, you, Father, restored him uninjured to all his household” (3 Maccabees 6:8). A popular belief then arose that Jonah was the same person as another Bible character: the widow's son whom the prophet Elijah had raised from the dead (1 Kings 17:22).13 So, in one way or another, Jonah was becoming cemented in people's minds as someone who had seen the underworld and escaped to live again, as a man brought back from the abyss by the power of God.14 It had to be the power of God: without miracles all along the way, there's no chance for Jonah to be scooped up at the last second, or to avoid being digested, or to find air, and or to be returned to dry land. But with God, all things are possible. What's more, his emergence from the fish came to be interpreted, after all, as a “sign of rebirth.”15

And so when we get to the Gospels, we shouldn't be too surprised when Jesus points back and unfolds the story. Some of the local religious crowd, trained scribes and card-carrying Pharisees, press him to give them a sign from heaven. Now, Jesus has been working miracles all over the place, to help people. But the scribes and the Pharisees dismiss all that. They want Jesus to prove himself to them. But Jesus has no interest in sating their curiosity. He's about mercy. Their demands are markers of an “evil and adulterous generation.” But if they want proof of who Jesus is – proof beyond all that's in front of their eyes – then they can wait and watch, because “no sign will be given to [them] except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39).

And what is that sign? “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). If the Pharisees could recognize Jonah as one who went down to the abyss and was made a sign of God's power by coming back, then Jesus – One far greater than Jonah, and a trillion times more faithful – will do the same, not out at sea, but here on dry land, when he dies, is buried, and then returns to walk the world of the living. The sign of Jonah is that Jesus will die and rise again on the third day, voyaging to the underworld and then being restored. In him will be shown true the last words of Jonah's prayer: “Salvation,” or rescue, “is of the LORD (Jonah 2:9b)!

Those were the words with which Jonah closed his psalm. And while Jonah might have thereby painted himself into a corner, it remains a true statement, even on hypocritical lips. Which is good news for us! Because, let's be honest: Sometimes we strut through life a lot like Jonah. Our love for God is mingled with a focus on self. Our judgmental guts make a mess all over our pretty pieties. Our prayers can't decide what genre they are. In the same breath, we run to God and run from God. And without the sign of Jonah, all we little Jonahs are helpless and hopeless. But the sign of Jonah has now been shown forth in a much bigger way than this book of the Old Testament can contain: for Jesus dove to Sheol and rose up again to the land of the living, not in humiliation and in weakness but in glory and in power! His is now “an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).

And just as God heard Jonah's hollow prayers and had mercy on him anyway, so God is often merciful to those of us who wear the wayward prophet's swim trunks. It's not for nothing that each of us enters the Church by way of a simulated drowning. That, after all, is exactly what baptism is. As Jonah was submerged three days and three nights beneath the surface of the deep, so are we plunged in the deep, “buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Rather than being locked up in Sheol forever, and rather than being vomited out as our Jonah hearts deserve, this taste of death and burial brings us to the prospect of new life – although, much as Jonah found, it can be humbling to die to self.16

Now, as we go through life, we are marked by the sign of Jonah, each and every one of us who's been baptized into Christ Jesus, the Greater Jonah. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been inscribed on our lives. As mixed up as we can be, as much as our residual passions press on us like the crushing waters, as many scrapes as we can get ourselves in, we are stamped as having been to the underworld and risen again – a reality that, if we're faithful to it, will be played out in the “first resurrection” in spirit when we reach heaven and then the “second resurrection” in body when Christ brings a new creation to full flower (Revelation 20:4-6, 12-13). In the meantime, we – an extension of Jesus' sign of Jonah – walk this earth as living reminders – to ourselves, to one another, to all the world – that “salvation belongs to the LORD (Jonah 2:9b)! So it ever does: it's never too late to pray, to cry out, to seek his rescuing mercy in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Sacrifices and Vows

It started out like any other day in Jerusalem. King Uzziah was meeting with his counselors in his palace. Just north of there, Azariah, the new high priest, was in the House of the LORD. But in the city below, confusion was spreading. A gaggle of a few dozen foreigners – the locals could tell they were foreigners, from their looks, their hair, their clothes – was marching through the city streets. A pair of Levite guards stopped them at the gates of the outermost temple court. This was so unusual that even Azariah crept close by to hear as the guards demanded an explanation. As he caught a glimpse, he could tell there were Tyrians, Sidonians, Carthaginians, Philistines... it might have been understandable had they sought business at the palace, but at the temple?

Eavesdroppers aplenty listened as the ragtag band unfolded their tale. They were the crew of a merchant vessel, and the last week or two had been more eventful than any in their lives. All because, they said, of a passenger they'd picked up at Yafo on the way to far-off Tarshish. They'd been on the sea when a mighty wind had picked up, had provoked the sea to raging (Jonah 1:4). Terrified of the swelling storm, they'd called out to all the gods they knew, but all had turned a deaf ear to their danger. They'd hurled a fortune in cargo into the abyss, thinking to save themselves (Jonah 1:5). Only in so doing had they found their passenger sound asleep in the cargo hold (Jonah 1:6-7). Questioning him fiercely, at last he'd broken and admitted to them that he was a slave of a divine master, but was on the run; that he was born in a village in Israel, north of Judah; that he worked in the city Samaria; that he was a prophet by trade; and as to his people, he was a Hebrew, he'd said. And he'd named the god from whom he was escaping, to whom he wouldn't pray, as the LORD, God of heaven, and declared him supreme as the Maker of both all the waters and all the dry lands of the world, with universal rule and unlimited power and untempered freedom to do as he pleases in all times and places and situations (Jonah 1:8-9).

“Don't take us for rubes,” their spokesman told the Levites – Azariah presumed him for the captain of this ship. “It's hardly the first time we heard your God's name! But this was the first time we'd realized that yours wasn't some local god bound up with your land, but a god of land and sky and sea, able to do all that he pleases? And to feel his storm, and to find that none of our gods could fight it off... There's something about your God. We were horrified to think that he was against us – that we were complicit in the escape of a runaway slave, not of any master, but of a heavenly god who rules the seas! How ridiculous of Jonah to think he could've escaped! We were in a serious bind now. Terror soaked our bones. The storm only grew worse (Jonah 1:10).”

The captain paused his tale. Azariah's curiosity was piqued. He'd heard the name 'Jonah' the last time northern diplomats had come to King Uzziah from Jeroboam. Azariah wondered what Jonah's purpose was. He might just have to use the urim and thummim later to ask the LORD if it was something important. But no time to imagine now; the captain was talking again. “We asked the prophet what we could do to fix it, to find our way out of this mess (Jonah 1:11). And he told us to sacrifice him into the sea (Jonah 1:12). It made sense to us – you might know it's our custom to do that kind of thing, for a sailor to throw himself from the prow to calm the waves. But something didn't sit right now. It was like a light from heaven was shining on our hearts. The thought seemed repulsive. Still, we were in a pickle. We'd heard that the Hebrew law, alone of the laws of all peoples, forbade returning an escaped slave back to his master's hand (cf. Deuteronomy 23:15-16). So it seemed as though a Hebrew God who gave that Law wouldn't want us to defy it by returning his slave. On the other hand, we'd heard that the Hebrew law has great taboos against guilt incurred by offenses against innocent blood (cf. Deuteronomy 19:10), and we were no court to judge the LORD's prophet guilty.”

The captain continued his telling. “We decided to dig in our oars and try to make it for the nearest dry land, for the storm was intolerable. We couldn't bear the thought of sentencing a prophet to die, lest we be held guilty of his blood. But as the stormy seas resisted us all the more, we surrendered to his advice (Jonah 1:13). Deeply distressed, even though we hadn't heard the prophet pray, we cried out: 'LORD, please don't let us perish for this man's life, and charge us not with innocent blood! For you, LORD – as it has pleased you, so have you done' (Jonah 1:14). And each of us shouted vows to the LORD, saying that if he revoked the storm and held us innocent and saw us safely back to harbor, we'd bring this or that gift to him in grateful return.”

Another sailor chimed in. “All of us took part in lifting the man's body up toward the windy skies. Then – with a tear in my eye, I tell you – we shoved with all our might over the edge of the ship. I was looking as the waves surged to catch him; how hungrily the deep devoured him. I saw the smirk on his face fade, his eyes grow with horror as he realized what it meant to die. I heard the first words as he began to call out to your God, the LORD; then I listened as his prayer quickly became a drowning gurgle. But in that moment, the winds withdrew. The waves ceased their rocking. The boat stopped swaying and became level.”

A third spoke. “Captain Ashtar-rom ordered me below decks, to check what was left in our hold. Scarcely three days' rations and just two amphorae of the wine we'd aimed to sell in Tarshish. He had me bring up one amphora to the prow, where he dumped it into the sea as a libation to the LORD – whom by this point we'd come to fear in reverent awe more than we'd feared the storm in abject terror. The captain asked the LORD to have mercy on his drowned prophet, and on our ship as we rowed for shore, and vowed we'd bring sacrifices to his temple. In that moment, as I glanced over the starboard side, I spotted a vast shadow under the sea – I don't know what that was. A Philistine crew-member recommended we return to our last harbor. I doubted we could make it – I thought for sure we'd run out of food – but then the winds gently reversed. At the captain's order, we unfurled our sail, and it drove us there just in time. I can't help but think it was your God pardoning us.”

The captain took over the telling. “It was a couple days ago that we docked at Yafo. We asked my crewman's family to watch the ship. We thought about hiking for Samaria – after all, the prophet was from up that way, and surely there was a shrine to the LORD there. But one of your countrymen we met by surprise in the street told us that the true House of the LORD was here, in Jerusalem. So we loaded up carts and set out. It took a few days, but here we are, to make good our vows. A few of us brought anchors to chisel our praises into and leave as memorials. Some have silver. One of my men has nothing at hand but a promise that, once we make our next voyage to Tarshish, he'll come back in a few years with all the gold he can carry. And many of us have animals – sheep, bulls, goats – for this God of yours who saved us. May his name be forever blessed!”

Azariah the high priest stepped out from the shadows and bade the Levite guards welcome the strangers through the gates into the outer court. He called other priests to help examine the animals. A few were fit for sacrifice. Some of the others weren't, though – one was female; a few were blemished; one had an ear too long, which would be fine for a free-will offering but not to fulfill a vow (cf. Leviticus 22:18-25). Azariah priced the ineligible beasts and said they could fulfill their vows by buying the unfit animals back with money equivalent to his appraisal (Leviticus 27:11-12), and the Levites would go get suitable replacements. Well, far be it for the thankful merchant mariners to question how the LORD runs his house! So they did just that.

The priests explained, too, that loaves of bread and oil were part of the sacrifice (Leviticus 7:11-13), that each offering had to involve grain and wine (Numbers 15:3-10). The captain turned over the last amphora of wine saved from the ship. They hadn't known to bring bread, so Azariah tasked a Levite to bake some. The sailors watched from the outer court as the priests slew the sacrifices and, carrying the fat and kidneys through the gates to the inner court, laid them on the altar and burned them into smoke for the LORD, all while priests splattered the blood on its sides (Leviticus 3:6-11). It wasn't pretty, but it was part of life. It was worship.

As the meat cooked, a few priests taught the sailors a bit about the works of the LORD in redeeming Israel from slavery, in settling them in the land, in blessing them with the Law. That Law said that the sailors had to purify themselves before the feast, for anyone who eats the flesh from the LORD's sacrifices while in an unclean state – even a Hebrew who does so – profanes them and is cut off from the people (Leviticus 7:20-21). The sailors went about their washings as they heard the Levites singing songs of the LORD's saving mercies, and the priests declared to them the good news that, through Abraham and his offspring, the LORD aims that all the families of the earth should be blessed – be they Tyrian, Sidonian, Carthaginian, Philistine, or anyone else (Genesis 12:3).

By supper time that day, a grander feast than usual was cooked. The sailors sat down at table with Jerusalemites invited to share the meal, and even the priests reclined nearby to eat and drink. The more, the merrier – no more than one day of leftovers could remain (Leviticus 7:6-8). But while the priests had their holy portions, what was left of the peace-offerings was for everyone to eat, and the bread and the wine (Leviticus 7:28-36). And so, with Azariah leading prayers of thanksgiving, in the temple precincts they ate of the sacrifice, a feast shared between Gentile and Jew, and between man and God, bringing all together in a festive communion. And so the sailors, telling and retelling the story of their salvation, rendered thanks to God whom they now feared and worshipped. Having sacrificed their sacrifice, each made good the vows he'd vowed to the LORD (Jonah 1:16).

And we are their successors. You knew where this story was headed, didn't you? For we, like the pagan sailors on that ship, have been saved. Our Lord Jesus Christ, One greater than the prophet Jonah, plunged overboard into the abyss of death to stop the storm of wrath that was breaking over our sinful heads. Because we've been saved on the seas of life, we – like that crew so long ago – have vows to make good on, the vows of our baptism when we pledged our lives to be lived for Christ. And part of making good on those vows is that we've gathered into the House of the LORD for a feast. And now the Levite songs ring in our ears. Now the priest has declared God's word in your hearing. But it's not a party without a sacrifice.

Together, there's only one sacrifice we can put forward: “Christ..., a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Though “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12), we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). And we do that – as the priests did of old – with bread and wine. But this visible form of bread, he now proclaims is really his body; and this visible form of wine, he now proclaims is really his blood. This is our sacrifice, which he himself offers as both High Priest and Sacrificial Victim. He makes his own offering, slain once for all on the cross and presented in heaven, tangibly real here and now on the altar we've dedicated to him, so his life can be really poured into our lives.

And just as in Jerusalem's temple, so also here: what's been made a sacrifice is holy. It isn't to be treated with inattentive disrespect, or thrown away as garbage, or mingled with common food and drink by being poured back into a bottle or dumped into a bag. That would profane it. Nor is it to be shared in by those who remain unclean, who haven't been purged from sin through repentance and restoration. If that's you – if there's anything that hinders you from being spiritually ready – then abstain today, for “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Go take care of that uncleanness first, repent and be restored, and then share later in the feast once you're clean. For “since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1), just as those sailors had to.

As we together present this sacrifice, each of us turns our attention to his or her own vows, as the sailors did. From our hearts, each of us lays our own life on the altar with Christ, giving ourselves to God in conjunction with Jesus' own infinite gift, offering whatever in ourselves we've been holding back. In this way we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). For we've vowed to do no less: “So will I ever sing praises to [God's] name, that I may make good my vows day after day” (Psalm 61:8).

Only as we do – only as we sacrifice our sacrifice (which is Christ's) and as we make good and complete our vows in offering ourselves to God with him – are we then prepared, in cleanness, to eat and drink. And in this meal, in this feast, the sacrifice can establish peaceful communion between God and man – it is that communion (and that's why we call it Communion). Our communion, between a holy God and us his holy people, reaches its reality in the feasting of spiritual food and drink (1 Corinthians 10:3-4). Through their sacrifices and vows, the sailors found their unexpected communion with a God they'd never known. How dare we not follow? Let us rejoice, let us sing, let us sacrifice, let us each make good our vows, let us all keep the feast. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

I Am A Hebrew

Every eye in the New Hampshire state legislature is looking at him. Rev. Joseph Buckminster, the 35-year-old pastor of Portsmouth's First Church, wasn't supposed to be here, but the usual preacher had broken a bone, so... here Joseph was. It was the year 1787, the first Thursday in June. It's been four years since the close of the war against the British crown, but things hadn't gone as smoothly as hoped for the nascent nation, already in default on its debts and wracked with controversy. Representatives from each state, Joseph's included, were just now meeting down south in Philadelphia, striving to hammer out a new constitution to adequately serve “the interests of this new empire.”1 But Rev. Buckminster's concern was here. And so he preached. And preach he did to the state's legislators. “Our political situation,” said he, “is not less hazardous or threatening than was the real situation of the mariners with Jonah, when Heathen could exclaim, 'Awake, O sleeper, and call upon thy God!' Our sins, our neglect of God, and forgetfulness of him, are the Jonah that have raised the tempest, and however hard we may row to bring them to land, they must be cast overboard, or the ship will sink.”2

Turning back to the Book of Jonah, we do find those 'heathen' mariners, the Phoenician sailors, realizing theirs to be a hazardous and threatening situation. A storm surrounds the ship. Practical efforts to lighten the load have at best delayed the inevitable. None of their gods are heeding their desperate prayers; they feel spiritually abandoned. And it occurs to the sailors that this can be no ordinary storm. Its behavior suggests an intention, a purpose to punish them. But why? Or, more to the point, whom? Most of them are collateral; who's the target?

Giving up on talking to their absentee gods, the sailors start talking to each other. They agree on an approach: “Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whom this evil is upon us” (Jonah 1:7). So they cast lots, and it directs their attention to their passenger: Jonah the runaway prophet – though they don't know that yet. They wouldn't have even needed to resort to casting lots if he'd come forward! But he's a prophet who will not prophesy, a witness who will not give witness. But despite him, the LORD is honoring their sincere desire to understand, and he wants to back Jonah into a corner, till at last he can be made to break his silence.

So the lot has fallen on Jonah, and the whole crew takes it for a divine sign that Jonah's the reason why they're all endangered in a guilt-by-association situation. Now they know who the target is. But they don't yet know the targeter, nor why the targeter targets his target, nor even if the target knows why he's targeted or who targets him. Remember, these sailors are pagans. In their worldview, there are plenty of gods – each people they visit have a different set – and they're so inscrutable that it's easy to offend one unknowingly. To that end, the sailors turn into detectives, interrogating their witness in an effort to narrow down the pool of suspects and motives.

They ask Jonah about his occupation. They've got no clue yet that he's a prophet, but his line of work might tell what kinds of obligations he could've failed or what specialty of gods might be interested in his life. They ask about his origins, his hometown, where he grew up, because the gods there might be involved. They ask what country he lives in, because then a different set of gods might stake a claim on him. They ask what ethnic group he belongs to, since the customs and traditions of his people could show a different range of possibilities. With nary a wasted word, the sailors are intent on prying their way to the bottom of Jonah's identity – which is the very thing Jonah's been running from. In fleeing the face of the LORD, Jonah's been fleeing himself, but now he'll have to grapple with the basic questions that add up to who he is, and who he's supposed to be (Jonah 1:8).

And the same is true of ourselves. These are all good questions. Tomorrow, our neighborhoods will offer some fine festivities and rituals that aim to give an answer. The question of ethnicity they might answer by pouring forth an American identity from a melting pot. The question of origins they might answer by rehearsing the story of the overlooked and overtaxed caught in the onerous grip of an overseas overlord, rising up to wrangle the reins of self-rule. The question of homeland they might answer as a patchwork of diversity drawn together in common cause, on soil sanctified by soldier-savior blood, a refuge from tyranny if we preserve it so today. And the question of job they might answer as stirring the spread of that liberty, reckoned as popular sovereignty.

Those are answers some of our neighbors might give tomorrow if Jonah's sleuth shipmates questioned them now as they questioned him then. But they question Jonah. So what answers does Jonah give? The book offers only one sentence out of what he says; his other answers are muted. But let's hear what we're told he says.

The words we're told Jonah tells them, breaking his silence, are these: “I am a Hebrew, and the LORD, the God of heaven, I fear, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). That's a fairly unusual choice of words – only in a few places in the Old Testament are people referred to as Hebrews, and it's out of date since before the time of King David. Jonah's suddenly an anachronism, as if I'd showed up this morning in a three-corner hat and breeches. The word 'Hebrew' is mainly reserved for scenes where Israel shares screen time, as it were, with Gentiles. Israelites are “Hebrews” seen through Philistine eyes in 1 Samuel, “Hebrews” seen through Egyptian eyes in the stories of Joseph and Moses, “Hebrews” when the Law works out the memories of slavery in Egypt. But before all that, the first time somebody's called a “Hebrew” in the Bible, it goes all the way back to Genesis. One time, and one time only, in the midst of his Amorite allies, we meet “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).

To be a 'Hebrew' became, of course, to be a citizen of Israel, a child of the covenant, shepherded by Moses and the prophet. But before all that, it was a claim to solidarity with Abraham, a descendant of Eber from before the world was so divided. It was to live Abraham's life, as a stranger and sojourner in the world (cf. Hebrews 11:13). And as Jonah stands on deck among the Phoenician sailors, he sees himself as an outsider, looked on in the same way Philistines and Egyptians and Amorites saw his ancestors. But he especially sees himself as an heir of Abram the Hebrew, likewise snatched from home and land, an identity in progress. And he views himself as not merely an Israelite but as an exemplary one – much as Paul described himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews..., as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6).

But Paul understood something deeper about his and Jonah's identity – and that it wasn't theirs to hoard. For in fact, Jonah – who was certainly far from blameless – was no exemplary Hebrew. Paul had greater credentials still, but even he ceded that crown: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, who sums up in himself everything Israel as a nation was ever meant to be. He becomes a one-man Israel, the pure and perfect example of his people's identity. He gives Abraham joy to foresee his day (John 8:56)! And he calls the world back to the unity it had before the nations were divided. Jesus Christ is the True Hebrew who, without place to lay his head, fulfills every dream of patriarch and prophet. Jesus is the pinnacle of what it meant to be a Hebrew.

And in Jesus the Hebrew, we who become his branches become Hebrews at heart, Hebrews in soul. For in the Messiah, it pleased God to make us all sons and daughters of Abraham's faith, even if we're no more related to Abraham's blood than were Jonah's shipmates (Romans 4:11). From every background, we were “grafted in” and so “share in the root of richness” (Romans 11:17), and the nourishment flowing from Abraham's root is a Hebrew heritage better than Jonah's boast and Paul's birthright. Paul can tell you himself: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29). Paul could easily rephrase: “A real Hebrew isn't just a Hebrew in outward things. But a true Hebrew is Hebrew on the inside – be his outside Hebrew or Galatian or Greek or Roman – who is Hebrew through God's Spirit circumcising his heart, conforming him to the Messiah's Hebrew life, enabling him to do Abraham's works from the heart. Now that's a true and spiritual Hebrew.”

So when we were baptized into Jesus Christ, we were grafted onto Israel, because he is Israel; and the Church that takes life from him is the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). When we believe in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, we believe in him with the same faith Abraham showed God in expecting to see Isaac sacrificed yet living again (Hebrews 11:19). And when we truly live by this faith, we live as spiritual Hebrews, “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), passing beyond what's seen to gaze on what's unseen.3

Outwardly, we're Americans. And that gives us plenty to remember, observe, cherish, and celebrate tomorrow. But our answers to those questions of identity are more complicated than some of our neighbors', for we have a different inner identity we have to preserve and put first. Tomorrow, we honor the history of flesh and blood that brought us here. But inwardly, we must say: “I am a Hebrew. The story of my soul begins, not with the uprising of the overtaxed, but with the exodus of the redeemed. I've been sheltered by the blood of the Lamb, I've been led through the sea, I've tasted the heavenly manna, I've been healed from the serpent's bite. Where the history of my flesh and blood says nothing contrary, bless it, O LORD; but where it would lead me astray, rewrite my history, circumcise my heart, LORD, for I am a Hebrew.”

Tomorrow, as on other American holy days, we reflect on our nation's ideals, on its promises of impartial justice and universal liberty, on their sustenance through sacrifice and the enduring mission to set captives free. And outwardly, there is truth to those ideals and goodness to those promises. But inwardly, we must also say: “I am a Hebrew. I am sanctified on the altar of God, which is the cross of Christ. He is the one who 'has set us free' (Galatians 5:1). He sits on David's throne to rule the kingdom of God, and only he will achieve justice for all (Isaiah 9:7). Not popular rule, not a king, but the Spirit is sovereign and supreme. The Spirit of the LORD is my constitution, and 'where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty' (2 Corinthians 3:17). I have not been set free to govern myself or please myself, but to fear the LORD and to serve him in my neighbor (Galatians 5:13). That is my mission all the days of my life, for I am a Hebrew.”

Tomorrow, our community will nurture its identity as American, with everything that means. Bands will play those rousing tunes from days of yore. Fireworks will light up the sky in wonder. Flags will wave in the open breeze, and pride will swell our hearts. And outwardly, that is exactly who we are, just like our neighbors. It binds us together with them, and deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed. But inwardly, we must say: “I am a Hebrew. I am a child of Abraham, whose faith in a God of resurrection lives now in me. I'm prepared to count everything as loss – even flags and fireworks – for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord (Philippians 3:8). My flesh has prospered in a God-blessed nation, but God has 'chosen... the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom' (James 2:5). Jesus the Hebrew, with nowhere to lay his head, is heir of all things, and I'll be his co-heir if I choose him as my lot. I am a son or a daughter of God: I am a Hebrew.”

And tomorrow, we'll likely laud America's “rocks and rills,” her “woods and templed hills.” We might sing of “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain,” and of “a land so fair...,” a “land that I love.” And outwardly, this is the native land of our flesh and blood, the beautiful soil from which we've grown and to which we belong. Its beauty is a blessing that deserves to be loved. But inwardly, we have something more to add: “I am a Hebrew. I am a stranger and sojourner in the earth. I can be no more home here than I could across the globe, for God made this land and that land alike. If this land treats me justly, if her laws are righteous, if her ways are true, I rejoice for this land. If this land treats me unjustly, if her laws are wicked, if her ways are false, if here I am estranged and find no rest, then I weep for this land and not for myself. For I am still seeking a homeland. I cannot be content with this country, for there is a better one prepared for me – a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:14-16). For the LORD, the God of heaven, is my Father, and he would have me home with him. So let me love this land for the sake of loving my neighbors, O LORD, but let me not confuse it for home, or myself for more than a foreigner here, for I am a Hebrew.”

As good Hebrews, we know whom we worship. Jonah forthrightly named him, as we did: “The LORD.” Jonah could have described the LORD as “the God of Israel” – after all, many did, all the way back to Moses (Exodus 5:1). Jonah could have even described the LORD as “the God of the Hebrews” – after all, Moses and Aaron did (Exodus 10:3). But Jonah calls the LORD “the God of heaven” (Jonah 1:9). It's an expression that resonates with the sailors – after all, one of their gods is Ba'al-shamem, the so-called 'lord of heaven,' so Jonah corrects them and points them toward the true lord of heaven. But Jonah's choice of words implies that God's sovereign status isn't subjective – he's my God, I believe in him; he's our God, we believe in him – but objective – he's the God who oversees the world whether you believe it or not. And in this day of privatized religion, Jonah's words are shocking. They challenge a nation that thinks it can reduce reality to a matter of taste.

But more to Jonah's point, perhaps, is that the expression “God of heaven” goes back before Moses and Aaron. For it was the title by which Abram the Hebrew knew the LORD: “The LORD, the God of heaven,” who “took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me...” (Genesis 24:7). This God speaks, he acts, he takes, he calls. He's a God who displaces as well as who settles, a God who does as he wants and who watches over the wanderer far from home. He's a perfect God for pilgrims, for exiles, for Hebrews.

Jonah goes on to assert his relationship to this God of heaven: “I fear” (Jonah 1:9). Now, a person in Israel might fear a bear, in the sense that it can hurt you, so its presence might fill you with anxiety lest you provoke it – and a person in Israel might fear a king, in the sense that he can hurt you, but also because his majesty calls for an attentive respect. The line is a bit blurry between those senses of fear. The fear of the LORD is a healthy respect, a reverent awe, a sense of being overwhelmed by something beyond the limits of our wisdom. To know that and appease that and revere that – that's one of the core ideas of worship. Israel was commanded “to fear the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 10:12), a fear that could be expressed by meticulously obeying his word and rendering him the service of sacrifice in the temple. In that worship, they were to be awestruck by God in an amazement that makes your hair stand on end and takes your breath away.

Jonah says that the LORD, the God of heaven, is whom he fears. But I wonder, is that true? Does Jonah really treat God with reverence? He won't talk to the LORD, won't obey the LORD, won't worship the LORD – does that look like a God-fearing man? Jonah's words are a mere reflex. He's so used to being a prophet that all the stock phrases are stuck to his tongue. But now to him, they're strings of sounds he says. His mouth's muscle memory is evangelizing the sailors, but they expose Jonah's as hypocritical religion: he talks all the God-talk but flunks all the God-walk. His hollow claim to fear the LORD reveals that he's fundamentally fearless – not good.

And he follows it up by declaring that his God “made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Up until now, the sailors could try to give Jonah the benefit of the doubt. But now Jonah admits the God he's resisting is the same God who made the sea they're sailing on. He's not a local god whose claims can be challenged in court. There's obviously no boundary to bolt for, no appeal to apply. Over what he made, he has ownership and jurisdiction and sway. No wonder the sailors “feared a great fear” (Jonah 1:10). No wonder they're indignant at Jonah. To use Rev. Buckminster's phrase, they see him as “a miracle of stupidity.”4 They're clear-eyed enough to see that Jonah sailing for Tarshish makes as much sense as a child trying to escape his parents' rules by sitting one seat over at the dinner table and declaring his independence. Jonah has much to learn about being a true Hebrew. And so the sailors are left sandwiched between the anger of a God bigger than all their dreams and, on the other hand, his idiot prophet whose coerced cooperation is their only hope of survival.

It's to that tempest that Rev. Buckminster compared the political crisis of his newborn nation. And though he longed for “the future glory of America,” he admitted that even at her best, she'd yield to the day when “the kingdoms of this world shall all be blotted out.”5 In the meantime, he urged us to “arise and call upon God, in sincerity and faith, amend our ways and doings that are not good, and give ourselves up to his guidance in the practice of piety, righteousness, and virtue.”6 We can surely do no less in our own days, no less tempestuous than then. We know the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land – and who can, if we seek him, guide us to terra firma once more. And this is the God we should fear, the God we should revere with an overriding awe and devotion, a burning desire not to escape his mystery but to be forever entranced in his mystery – a “mystery” that makes us, once alien to the Hebrew unity, now to be “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise of Jesus Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). This mystery saturates the sea and the dry land; it drips down from heaven above. Though we are wanderers, we cannot wander away from it, wherever we roam. May we live in this beautiful, holy, faithful fear all our days. For this is to do the works of our father Abraham from the Hebrew heart, not in hypocrisy but in spirit and truth. Amen.