Texts: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20
Many years ago, my friend Kevin got box seats to a couple of St. Louis Cardinals games through his dad’s work. So four of us went to St. Louis for a great road trip. The Cardinals were playing the New York Mets (back in one of those rare eras when the Mets were good.) The young pitching sensation Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets, and the Cardinals’ pitcher was Jouquin Andujar. Jouquin was a colorful character, a real hot-dog. When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 15 feet up on the screen. Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to intimidate the batters. The message was, this guy is out of control, and if one of his pitches gets away from him, you could get hurt.
We loved Jouquin. A reporter once asked him to describe the game of baseball in one word. He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t that great, but he had a wonderful response. The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“
His math skills may have been lacking, but it was an inspired answer. YOUNEVERKNOW.
It’s true. When you go to a ballgame, YOUNEVERKNOW. One night, there may be a no-hitter and the next night, it may be 18-17 in 14 innings.
YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things. This morning we have read a part of the story of Jonah, and if you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be Jouquin Andujar’s answer: YOUNEVERKNOW.
God asks Jonah, a prophet, to go and preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was a foreign city, in Assyria, across the river from what is now Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was well-known as a decadent, evil place. It was denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah didn’t want to go.
Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell. Jonah was not interested in “drawing the circle wide,” as our choir sang this morning. And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility. There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him. So he did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed in the opposite direction.
That makes Jonah a lot like us. If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, our first reaction might be to run. If God were to ask you to go to Mosul today, for example, most of us would not be chomping at the bit to go.
Jonah skips town and fast, but his escape does not go as planned. The ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea. The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed God. So they do what they have to do. Jonah is thrown overboard, but he ends up being swallowed by a big fish and then vomited up on the shore.
This is where we pick up today’s reading. The Lord asked Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh. It’s an offer Jonah can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done time in a fish’s belly. So he goes to Nineveh. He went grudgingly, he didn’t have to like it, but he went.
Nineveh was a very large city. The passage says it took three days to walk across the city. This may be a case of describing the city in legendary dimensions, but historically, Nineveh was for a time the largest city in the world. This was the greatest urban center on earth. God had told Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city.” The Hebrew says literally “that great to God” city. This may have meant great because of its size or importance, or great because God cared for the city. And since God had asked his prophet to go there and prophesy, apparently it was “great to God.”
So a reluctant Jonah goes. He travels one day into the city – he doesn’t reach the heart of town. And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s his sermon. In Hebrew, it’s just five words. A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence. To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.
But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded. Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believed in God. They take the lack of details in Jonah’s message as an opportunity to believe that the future is open-ended, that there may be a chance for a reprieve. They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins. The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people. He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.
When we read this story in Sunday School last week, people were struck by the sackcloth and ashes. What’s up with that? We don’t have many modern-day equivalents.
Maybe thinking about that trip to see Jouquin Andujar took me back to college days, but I remember that when I was in college and had a big test the next day, maybe physical chemistry or organic or calculus, I had clothes I would wear when studying. There might be a study session in the library, and I would wear a t-shirt that was just riddled with holes, almost falling apart, and some pants I had bought at an army surplus store for $2. The night before a huge test, I wore the worst clothes I owned. In time this became a tradition, but initially I just kind of did this intuitively – I was completely throwing myself into studying, and what I wore matched the feeling of desperation that we had over the situation.
Sackcloth and ashes are a way of completely throwing oneself into mourning or into repentance. You don’t just say, “I feel bad about what I have done” and then go about your business. Sackcloth and ashes meant that you took this with the utmost seriousness. When they wore sackcloth and sat in ashes, the Ninevites’ appearance and lack of comfort matched their spirit. They threw themselves into repenting and humility before God.
And because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city.
This made Jonah very upset. He was not at all happy that Nineveh repented, and the rest of the book of Jonah deals with Jonah’s disappointment. Jonah was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh.
The lessons of this story can be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.
1. YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do. It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh. He thought he knew better than God.
The thread that ties this story with our New Testament reading is this matter of calling. Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus says “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow. Just like that. No questioning or delay is mentioned. Now I imagine there was some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?” But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them.
2. YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do, and then YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond.
Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out. They were worthless heathen, beyond hope. This was the stereotype, the reputation of the city. But even if that reputation was deserved, every person in the city repented. Men, women, rich, poor, slaves, merchants, craftsmen, boys, girls, royalty. They all repented of their sin. Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. (This gives us hope, because I have known more than a few cats who needed to repent.)
Jesus spoke of the city of Nineveh. In Matthew 12:41, Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” Far from being a hopeless case, Nineveh becomes an example for others. As lousy a prophet as Jonah was, the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God anyway.
Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless. As beyond hope. The church can sometimes write those people off too. What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching?
The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a nativity pageant. A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands. Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror. It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.
Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain. The men in the scene were all convicts, hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ. These murderers and thugs were dressed like angels. For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people. YOUNEVERKNOW.
3. The story of Jonah also tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring. Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh. When he finally did go, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out. In fact, he basically sabotaged his own message. He was hoping to fail, trying to fail. And yet, the people repented.
The fact is, YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring. For Jonah, there were storms at sea, being thrown overboard, being swallowed and then barfed up by a big fish, and how many of us expect that? YOUNEVERKNOW.
We may have the future planned, everything nicely mapped out. But rarely does it turn out that way. There are some of you who never would have believed you would be where you are today. You couldn’t imagine yourself at Iowa State, or married, or in your line of work, or liking sweet potatoes, or in church on a Sunday morning. Or in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning. But here you are. Like Jouquin Andujar said, YOUNEVERKNOW.
4. As much as anything, the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God. Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways.
Have you ever noticed that an awful lot of people believe that God thinks exactly the way we do, with the same tastes, same likes and dislikes, same pet peeves, same political philosophies, same opinions? It’s interesting, isn’t it?
Marcus Borg died this past Wednesday. He was a leading New Testament scholar and theologian. Our theology class is familiar with Borg from videos they have watched and I think they read one of his books. One of the qualities that drew people to Borg was his humility. He didn’t claim to have all the answers. He was a leading liberal voice, but was open to others and in conversation with folks who thought differently. In fact, he wrote a few books together with a more conservative theologian. An Episcopal priest in Houston, who said that he agreed with Borg about 75% of the time, recalled a time when Borg made a presentation at his church. In the question time that followed, a woman asked, “But how do you know that you’re right?” Borg paused and responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”
In a world in which everybody seems to be so certain about things, such honest humility is refreshing.
I love the king in the story of Jonah. The king has a better insight into God than God’s own prophet. He says to the people, “Who knows? Maybe God will relent.” He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates. He knew that we don’t control what God will do. But he also understood that what we do does matter. And because of the people’s repentance, we read in verse 10 that God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
This is a wonderful verse, because it says that the future is wide open. The future is filled with possibility. We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but God allows us to help shape the future. What we do matters.
Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong. Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all. But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.
To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we know nothing. There is a lot that we do know. That one word, YOUNEVERKNOW, is maybe best understood in the phrase, “YOUNEVERKNOW until you try.”
YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.
YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.
YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.
YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.
The invitation is to commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us. That might mean going some places we do not expect. That can mean living without knowing all the answers. That means the future is wide open. But until you follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW. Amen.