Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Proper 7, June 17, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Jonah, Matthew 12:39-41

This summer we are going to look at the prophets, the Old Testament ones, of which there are many. Prophets who are variously harsh and cruel, and yet gentle and comforting, and who offer words of judgment and lifting up, and words of condemnation and words of reconciliation as they speak God’s word to God’s people to call them back to faithfulness. Which is basically what a prophets is. Someone who speaks God’s word and calls people to be more faithful and be more holy.

The Old Testament contains many prophets. Fifteen of them have books named after them, but there are also a number of other prophets who show up over the course of the narrative who don’t have books of their own. The first goes all the way back to Abraham, who was given the title of prophet. In Hebrew, the word is navi’. Abraham is given the title of prophet in a dream that comes to the king of Gerar while Abraham and Sarah are in his city. The king has a dream in which God says to him that Abraham is a prophet, so treat him kindly. Things have not been going quite the way they were supposed to. And so Abraham is the first one, at least in the text, who is called a prophet. And then there are others that show up. Samuel, who has a couple of books named after him. He is the one who helps form the country of Israel. He chooses Saul, the first king, and chooses David, who becomes the second king of Israel. And there is Nathan, who was part of David’s court. And there are Elisha and Elijah. Though out of these Elijah becomes and is very important in Jewish tradition. You may remember that when Jesus goes up the mountain with a couple of his disciples and has that Transfiguration, it is Moses and Elijah who are the two that show up next to Jesus. And a couple times when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and it is reported back that “Some say that you are Elijah come back to us.” Because Elijah did not die, he was taken up into heaven by God. And at the Seder meal, the Jewish celebration of Passover, it is traditional to leave the door open, a chair empty, and a wine glass full in case Elijah comes back, he will have a place at the table and be able to get in. So Elijah is very important, but he does not have a book named after him. We are going to look at the prophets who have books, of which there are 15. Three major prophets and twelve minor prophets.

And you may wonder how they got that name. Sometimes in our faith and tradition things are the way they are for hugely significant theological reasons and very important reasons. The Old Testament begins with Genesis and goes into Exodus to form a narrative to set the tone. It is the story of the beginning, and the story of the beginning of the Hebrew people. So it is right that those should be the beginning of that testament. And the New Testament is all about Jesus and the church and the first followers of Jesus, and so that begins with the four Gospels, the four stories about Jesus. It makes sense in that way to begin with those four Gospels. But other times in the church things are just done for practical or simple reasons. If you look in the New Testament: all those letters that come after the Gospels. They are not in any significant theological order. They’re just in order of length. They were thinking, “How do we put these together?” and someone had the idea to start with the longest and then end with the smallest. There is a little bit of variation to that, but for the most part it is that practical.

So it is with the prophets. We call them the major prophets and the minor prophets. But the major prophets are not named not because of popularity or importance of their words, but because of the number of their words: they have the most. Their books are the longest. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have very long books. And the twelve minor prophets are called minor because they’re very short. They have fewer words.

And in the old days, when these were being written down on scrolls to be passed around, the technology only allowed scrolls to be about 30 or 35 feet long. Beyond that they wouldn’t roll right, or fall apart, or whatever; that was about as big as they could make. And the major prophets fit nicely on one scroll. And all of the minor prophets fit together on one scroll. Interesting that in that day they just didn’t have the technology to make longer parchment. And I thought to look at my roll of baking parchment in my drawer. I was curious how long that was. I have 65 feet of parchment, just on my roll. And then I got curious and looked up some others. You can get rolls of butcher paper like you see in the meat department that are 1000 feet long. And our scrolls of newsprint that we crank our newspapers out on, some of those are 8 miles! 8 miles of paper on one roll. That’s a mighty scroll. You could have a MAJOR prophet on that scroll!

So we have the three major prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. And then these twelve minor ones: Hosea, Obadiah, Joel, Habakkuk, Amos, Micah, Malachi, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Haggai, and Jonah, which we read today. Jonah.

Jonah’s book is unique. I thought this was a good one to start out with for a number of reasons. One is that it is unique within the prophetic literature in that the other prophetic books are written by that prophet or by his followers, and pretty much written at the time that prophet was doing what he was doing. They are all contemporaneous texts. But the book of Jonah is a story about Jonah, but written many hundreds of years later. It is not a book Jonah himself wrote. And it doesn’t record really very much of his prophetic words, other than those few words he says to the city of Ninevah.

Jonah was a prophet about for a few decades in the northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, about 790–750 B.C. But it was written in probably the 300s, maybe early 400s, somewhere in that range. And it’s a good book to begin with because it stands out from the others because it is the story about a prophet, not necessarily words of the prophet; but also because of all of these fifteen prophets, Jonah is chronologically the first one. Soon after Jonah’s time we get Isaiah and a number of other ones, but Jonah is also chronologically the first prophet. And his story set the tone and the pattern for the other prophets to come after him about how this prophetic word works. Which is that God speaks to him and says “Go, speak to whomever, and speak my words” and generally those are words of repentance. That is one thing prophets do, to call people to repent, to be faithful, to come back to following God. People are often running off after other gods or doing unjust things within the community. So the prophets offer God’s words, which and they generally begin with words of calling to repentance. But always in an “if ... then” form. I mentioned this a couple weeks ago. Prophets always offer an if...then scenario. They may profess that there is going to be some judgment coming, but it is always in the form of “If you continue to do what you are doing, if you don’t repent, then this calamity will come. But if you repent, then everything will be fine.” Judgment is never an absolutely, positively going-to-happen thing. People always have a chance to avoid it by repenting, by coming back into faith.

And prophets normally are speaking to the Jewish people, in Israel or in Judah. In the time of the prophets, Israel has split into these two countries. And so the prophets mostly speak to the Jewish people. Occasionally they speak to surrounding countries, or other leaders. Jonah is one who speaks to a different country, at least in his book. And mostly who they are speaking to is the government – the Kings and their bureaucracy and the political leaders, and they are speaking to the religious leaders – the priests. And both Israel and Judah were theocracies, and so the government and religion were very much entwined. And like all theocracies throughout time, it doesn’t work very well. This marriage of religion and government has this tendency to bring out the worst qualities of both. They feed off each other so well, and can create such unjust systems: economic ruin and oppression for anyone not in charge (the government fails to do its job) and a complete ruination of the faith, apostasy, and twisting the faith just to serve the needs of the powerful (the failure of the religion to protect the people).

We see this happening today as well and throughout history. In Muslim countries today, in Muslim majority theocracies, have some awful things that happen in them. It happened in Europe under the Holy Roman Empire. it happened under the Nazis when the state and the church became one thing. It happens here in the U.S. sometimes. You hear stories of small communities that have a majority of Christian fundamentalist population. It can be difficult for someone outside the community to find justice there, to be accepted in the community, to live as God would want them to live.

And so mostly prophets are speaking to their own people. Politicians and religious leaders don’t like. Prophets have a tendency to be assassinated or jailed or ridiculed by the press or harassed by the people. It is very rare for a prophet to be welcomed with open arms by the entire community. And if someone is welcomed that way, they probably are not being very prophetic.

Jonah, though, in this story is sent to the enemy. Jonah was a prophet in Israel, but in this story he is sent to the city of Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, this big country to the north of Israel. And Assyria in Jonah’s time was gearing up its military, it was building up economic power, it was starting to conquer other territories, it was on a big land grab and soon to become a major power in that region, and Israel was very afraid of Assyria because it knew that if Assyria invaded Israel, Israel knew that it could not stand. And so it was paying tribute to Assyria, sending bribes to Assyria for them not to attack, not to take over the country. And so Jonah is sent to this enemy capital city to preach to them to repent. And he goes unwillingly.

He tries first to go to Tarshish which was probably in Spain somewhere, very far away, to get away from God. But he finds he can’t get away from God. And so he does eventually go to Ninevah and he goes unwillingly. He doesn’t want to go there because, as he said to God, “I knew they would repent, and I knew that you, being a foolish God who doesn’t obey my command, you would allow them to live. You wouldn’t destroy them. I would rather die than have them be forgiven.”

And that is another part of prophetic messages. God’s unrelenting love. There is always a chance to repent and for God’s love to reign. All prophetic words come with a message of reconciliation. That even if the people don’t repent and there is judgment or punishment or something brought upon the people, there is always to be at least some remnant that will be saved, or even the entire people will be saved, so that the people can go on. Because God made a promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of a great nation. And that promise still holds and has always held, and God keeps promises. So there is always this promise that there will be reconciliation, that people will be brought back to God, because God keeps promises better than any of us. And God’s great promise, especially through Jesus Christ, is the promise of love, mercy, kindness, and eternal life.

And Jonah hated saying that to his enemies. Not because he didn’t trust God, but I think because he trusted God fully. He absolutely trusted God’s word of forgiveness and of mercy. And as much as he hated Ninevah, I think he knew in his heart that God did not share that hate. And that God would relent and would forgive. And Jonah would rather die than do that. But he went ahead and did it anyway. He went to Ninevah and called them to repent. He knew that even the enemies of God were under God’s jurisdiction and under God’s mercy and God’s tender love.

That can be a horrible truth for anyone who wants to think God is on his or her side, or the side of his or her country, or religion, or community, or whatever it is. To know that God is not on his or her side, but on everyone’s side. God is for everyone. That is the beginning of faithfulness, I think, when we realize that the world is not “us and them” but a “we”, an “all of us.” And who or what are the Ninevahs of today? The enemy capitals of today? Some of the things that are big in current dialogue: birth control, illegal immigrants, homosexuality, gay marriage, Islam.

And lastly, we look at how the prophets are used in the Gospels, especially as Jesus make mention of them. And Jesus does mention Jonah once, in the Gospel message we read. He mentions Jonah being three days and nights in the fish, or the great sea monster, and Jesus says he will do that as well, except in the earth. Certainly foreshadowing his time in the tomb. But then he takes a jab at the religious leaders of his time, by bringing up Jonah, and says that their Ninevah, the Ninevah of the religious leaders, is Jesus’ movement and followers. He says that the religious leaders’ Ninevah is going to rise up to condemn them, because history has shown that it was not God’s chosen people who were faithful, it was their enemies who were the faithful ones. And they are God’s people too, just as are we. And that is so much the message of the prophets, and certainly the message of Jesus. That God is not for anyone specifically; God is for everyone. God is for all of us. God’s love is for all of God’s creation. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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