Even the Goats Grieved - thrive UMC Official Blog

Even the Goats Grieved

A couple of quick comments before we jump into our reading for today.  First of all, in case some of you weren’t aware of this: the Bible can actually be funny sometimes (I know, this is news, right?).  Unfortunately, most of us just don’t know enough about the ancient world to be surprised or caught off guard, and so all of these jokes go by completely under our radar.

For instance, in the opening lines of Jonah, God calls him to get up and go to Nineveh. And we would have been surprised and amused to find this high, holy prophet respond by jumping right up to catch a boat to Tarshish… if only we had known that Nineveh and Tarshish are in the opposite directions for Israel.  But of course all jokes are ruined by trying to explain them.

Anyway, I tell you this just to remind you that we’re not just reading some kind of dry, holy history here.  But the Bible –and especially this book- should surprise and even startle you.  And here Jonah invites us to laugh… and to cry.  Sometimes we’re invited to do both at the same time.  Remember, after all, this is the story where salvation looks like getting swallowed whole by a huge fish as it swims through the depths of the underworld.  And where the prophet delivered smells suspiciously like fish vomit.

We’re picking our story up right where we left off last week, in Jonah chapter 3.  This is a story of second chances.

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)

Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[a]

10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry.

In case you missed it, right after Jonah gets puked out of the fish on to dry land, God repeats –almost verbatim- the command he had originally given to Jonah at the very beginning of the story: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.”  In other words, Jonah, after half of the book, is right back where he had started. Only now, he doesn’t smell as nice. 

But this time he does what a good prophet is always supposed to do: and he goes where he’s sent.

            And here the story even draws us a picture of just how big and expansive the city of Nineveh was: it says it would have taken someone three days just to walk from one end of the city to the other.  Now, probably most of us haven’t ever embarked on a three-day journey on foot, but let’s put this in perspective: if you were to walk at a speed of three miles per hour, for eight hours, and do that for three days, you would cover a distance of 72 miles in that time.  72 miles is the distance from this parking lot outside to Atlantic!   

            According to Google Maps, you could walk east from Adel, all the way through the metro area and on to Prairie City 13 and a half hours. 

            So are we supposed to believe that ancient Nineveh was that large?

            Or is this a commentary on how slow Jonah was walking to get there? 

(By the way, archeologists have located the ruins of ancient Nineveh and while it was the largest city in the world at one time, it only covered a space of about 3 square miles, according to Wikipedia.)

            But what’s interesting about this is that when Jonah does get there, it says he starts into the city, walks one day, and starts sharing the message. 

            A quick bit of comparative math: if it takes three days to get from one end of the city to the other, how many days would you have to walk to get to the center?

            A day and a half, right? 

So Jonah doesn’t even make it to the city center; if he had been sent to Des Moines, that means he would have stopped at, like, Windsor Heights.  So he goes about a third of the way in and preaches what might be the world’s shortest, and apparently also most effective, sermon.  In Hebrew, his message is only five words. He says: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” That’s it. No explanation, no justification or exposition. 40 days, game over Nineveh. (I know I know, I’ll try to take some notes from Jonah on this one.)

Then, and here is where stuff starts getting really crazy: it says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God.”

Two quick things about that remarkable line: first of all, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had many, many prophets come and share God’s proclamations with them throughout the years. The god who they knew, who brought them out of slavery and gave them a home, and who gave them the teachings of life and called them to be a blessing to all nations: this god would routinely spoke to them through the prophets.  And the people of Israel and Judah would very routinely not listen.  That’s actually a focal theme and problem in most of the prophetic literature: the people don’t listen. 

But here the first day, Jonah walks part-way into the foreign city of Nineveh; he mumbles out a super- vague line about impending doom, and it seems like all of a sudden, the whole huge city of Nineveh believes ‘god.’ 

This brings me to the other quick thing: the people of Nineveh did not worship –and probably did not even know about- Israel’s God, Yahweh.  Nineveh had its own batch of deities, including the city’s patron goddess, whose name was ‘Ishtar,’ the queen of heaven.  Ishtar was both a warrior and a fertility goddess, and in her most famous myth, she descends into the place of the dead for three days in an attempt to take over the underworld (is this ringing any bells with the fish story from last week?).  So, regardless of the religious differences, the people of Nineveh believe ‘god.’  They don’t believe Jonah, they believe god. 

And that’s because God’s presence is understood to be directly in the proclamation.  In this sense, Jonah isn’t just sharing information from, or about, God; but by speaking the words the divine will Jonah is sharing god –he’s making God’s intention present in the people.

To which the people turn around and also proclaim: the entire city shall fast and put on morning clothes.  Everyone, from the least to the greatest.  Then the word –the proclamation- god’s presence, reaches the King. Once it reaches him, he gets up and strips his robe off, and covers himself with morning clothes, and he sits in ashes.  And then, since it’s already been announced throughout the city that every person is to go through the mourning process, the king of Nineveh has to add to it: not only shall each and every man woman and child fast, but even the animals should be kept from even tasting food and water.  All people and animals should put on morning clothes and “call on God forcefully!”  “And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control.”

One more bit of information to help us see what’s going on here: what the whole city of Nineveh is doing here is entering into a state of grief.  This is what you did back then when someone close to you died: you would fast and change your clothes –usually into something rough and uncomfortable, like coarse wool and burlap.  And you would give a signal to the other people around you that you were sad and distressed: sometimes you’d tear your clothes or put ashes on your head.  It was supposed to be an outward and visible expression of what was happening to you on the inside.  It was a way for the whole community to share in their sense of loss together, so that you could support one another.  And for a time, that’s what you’d do: you’d take time off of work and whatever, and you’d just grieve.  This was their way of publicly saying: I am not okay. 

And there are sort of degrees for this –the morning period can be shorter or longer, and some people might just put a little tear in their garment, depending on how severe the loss was.  But here in this story, once the word gets out, the expressions of grief –the reaction to God’s proclamation- keep escalating.  By the time the word reaches the king of Nineveh, there’s really nothing left for him to proclaim himself.  And the king of the most powerful nation on earth can’t stand for this, so he has to up the ante: therefore he ditches all his clothes to put on a full suit of sackcloth.  And he makes a royal decree: ‘include the animals!  Don’t let even the flocks out in the fields eat or drink!’ And it’s not enough for each and every citizen to put on morning clothes; the animals have to wear morning clothes too!  And if you don’t have any morning clothes for you herds, just sitting around, then go make some! Make sure everyone and everything is crying out and proclaiming to God, forcefully. Yes, do what you can to make your goats cry out to Elohim (Hebrew for ‘God’).  ‘Oh, and by the way,’ says the king, ‘it also might not be a terrible idea to stop your evil and the violence of your hands!’ 

Now, you wouldn’t know this from reading the English translation, but there’s a play on words happening in the Hebrew here: what the king is essentially calling for is for the people to ‘turn’ or redirect their energies and powers of violence into powerful prayer, in hopes that their city won’t be overturned by God’s power. 

Can you picture this?  This city, which was well known for its innovations in the areas of terror and violence, they catch one little whiff that some god of a small and distant nation is judging them and will overturn them, and they respond by putting on a great big show like this is the biggest grief festival on earth.  It’s like a circus.  The king is dressed in mourning-level ten; and hey, can’t you see, even the goats are grieving! Look at them, in their little goat mourning clothes.  All of us have our sad outfits on, and we’re fasting, and we’re praying –praying violently even!  And at the end, after all of that, the king gives it away, like a punch-line; he says, “who knows, maybe Elohim will see this and turn his fiery nostrils away from us, so we won’t all die.”

It’s ridiculous!  If that isn’t the greatest grief sham on earth, then I don’t know what is! I mean, do they really think that they’re going to pull the wool over God’s eyes just by sitting down and sticking out their lower lips a little? After all the mutilations and mass-murders by the thousands and ten-thousands –they think they can just put on a funeral-show and escape judgment!  Clearly these people will do anything to get their way.  Don’t we all see what’s going on here?  Can’t we see through the act?  Because these people obviously aren’t sincere.

But here’s the thing: God sees all that –God sees that they stopped their evil behavior, and God relents. Do you remember the part in Genesis where God floods the whole world and then it says he was sorry after he did it?  The King James Version even has it saying God “repented.”  Remember that?  Well the same word is used here to describe how God reacts when he sees the people of Nineveh.  Here God is moved.  God pities them.  So he cancels his destruction-plans for this most evil of cities.

            “But Jonah thought that was utterly wrong, and he became angry.”  Oh, we’re gonna talk about Jonah’s reaction to all of this next week; but that’s my favorite line in the whole story, so I had to drop a little sneak-peak.

            But for today, I just want to invite you all to look one more time into the mystery of God’s heart.  Everything about this part of the story is absurd.  The size and scale of the city of Nineveh is wildly exaggerated.  The viral spread of everyone’s penitence is unprecedented and unbelievable, and the King –who’s name isn’t even mentioned (which is weird) –everything the king does is completely over-the-top.  The text tells us: God sees. God sees that they turned.  This whole city put its business aside for a moment and sat –as if it were at its own funeral.  They put their rich foods and fancy clothes away.  They stop their work, put their swords down.  We don’t know what they did afterword, once the morning period was over –but for that moment, at least, they stopped. And they created room for reflection.  They gave themselves a chance for their hearts to be changed –and whether or not they actually were, we will never know.

            God sees what they do.  Presumably, God sees all that they do; and God decides: it’s enough.  The turning, the pause from their business-as-usual, the space for prayer and contemplation –it was somehow –perhaps inexplicably- enough for a second chance. 

            This is a funny story we’re reading.  It’s funny to think about goats grieving; and to imagine a holy prophet getting puked from a huge fish.  And it’s funny to set Jonah’s experience of a private hell in the belly of a fish next to this three-ring funeral-circus of an ancient version of the Nazis.  It’s also funny to think of God looking at both cases and making the same decision: to have mercy and deliver them.  And isn’t it funny too, when you stop to think of it, how the supposedly evil people took their journey among the ashes and the dead voluntarily, while God’s good prophet had to be thrown overboard and taken down into the deep place, kicking and screaming?  Isn’t it funny how the ‘bad guys’ were so quick to believe God and accept their verdict, while God’s own spokesman constantly resists and believes God to be wrong

            And there at that point, maybe we should also ask: are we any better off?  After all, have we even done as much as the bad guys in the story?  When was the last time we –as Americans or as Christians- sat to even consider the possibility that the things we’ve done might fall far short of being the best things, or the right things?  When was the last time we put away our rich foods and stylish, comfy clothes to sit with our grief and the truth of our mortality?  When was the last time we ever paused to really and truly believe God and acknowledge ourselves to be in the wrong?

            What we’re reading is a funny story; but isn’t it funny how a joke can turn on you, when you’re the punchline?

            Brothers and sisters, as we prepare to receive the gift of communion this morning, I invite you into a moment that has room for your grief.  Grief is the emotional response we feel as we confront the reality of loss.  And we have –all of us- lost something of great worth.  For we are not the nation we used to be.  We are not the church we used to be.  Some of us have lost people we love.  Some of us have lost some piece of the faith we used to have in God.  Some of us have lost something of our former selves, and we are powerless even to name its absence. 

            And because we have lost, we feel afraid.  Loss makes us want to hold on to what we do have all the more tightly.  So we sit here, white-knuckled furiously and violently clinging to what we feel we have left.  But God calls us into a time of mourning, a time of grief.  For it is only in a place of honesty and humility that we can become free to open our hands and receive the better blessing that God has waiting for us.            

Let’s pray.