“Walking the ‘Mission Impossible’ Paths in Life”
Jonah 3: 1-10 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ January 24, 2020
If 2020 has taught us anything, it has taught us how to walk the impossible path laid out before us. Back in 2019, many forecasted an optimism from the 20/20 visual acuity as they predicted last year to be one filled with vision and hope. Yet, the pandemic in past year brought tremendous challenges for individuals, families, communities and the whole world. Amidst our soldiering ahead, it has seemed like an impossible mission that we had been assigned. Life seems to be that way sometimes, doesn’t it? When the relationship ends; when the diagnosis comes back positive; when the treatments are not working; when we gather at graveside. When the path we walk seems to be ‘impossible’, we wonder how we will ever walk the journey ahead.
Most will know the television spy series from the 1960’s called ‘Mission Impossible’. Each week the characters were given a seemingly impossible mission to complete. The recorded message always commenced “this is your mission, should you choose to accept it”. And viewers would be amazed by the theatrical action that would unfold. Yet, many of the paths in front of us are not of our own choosing. They are not something that we may not wish to “accept”. The paths we walk, the challenges we navigate are real life…real challenges, real struggles, real pains, real grief. Today we explore walking the seemingly ‘mission impossible’ paths in life with the story of the prophet Jonah.
I was listening to a TED talk recently and the speaker was contrasting the power of story with that of data. In her talk, she persuasively argued that we use data ~ figures and numbers too often, as we seek to argue our point and change people’s minds. She went on to tell stories and argued that we forget the importance of also using story to truly shape people’s thoughts. And long before this TED talk, the book of Jonah was there already doing it. In contrast to all the other prophetic books filled with the condemning words of the prophets who were speaking God’s words, we have Jonah’s well developed story: the story that I would like to view as Jonah’s Mission Impossible.
Jonah is an insider; he is a member of the house of Israel; he is a child of God. And he is called the seemingly impossible task of leaving home and going to the hated area of the Assyrian kingdom and prophesy to them. It is more than just a big fish story ~ though there is a big fish; it is more than just a tall tale ~ though it is quite grand. It is the story of real life when we are challenged into the journey that seems impossible to navigate. So, what does Jonah do when he has been asked to go to the Assyrian country of Nineveh? He does what any wise person facing a challenging situation would…he walks the other way. But that doesn’t work, he is swallowed up by a great fish who swims him towards the Nineveh he was seeking to avoid. 3 days in the belly of a whale ~ remember it’s a fish story! And when the great fish reaches the shores of Nineveh, Jonah is spewed from the belly of the fish onto the Ninvevite beach. This is where Ian’s reading begins. Jonah protests against the impossible task at hand. And, almost like a petulant child, he goes to Nineveh and gives the worst sermon ever recorded. One sentence “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It’s almost like he just gets it over with and mutters it under his breath: “there, I’ve done it God. Now can I go home and get away from these horrible people.” And to his amazement, the Ninevites repent! They are not a lost cause; they are not to be the hated enemies of Israel. They repent, changing their ways, wearing their brokenness and sin ~ donning sackcloth and ashes, and they become a new people. All because Jonah follows the impossible mission in front of him!
Names are always important, and in the Hebrew language they are VERY important. Earlier in the book of Jonah, we learn his father’s name was Amittai, which means “faithfulness”. And from the faithfulness of the father comes his son Jonah, whose name means “dove”. The dove, a powerful image sprinkled throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Used sixteen times in fact. The dove we think of most readily, of course, is the dove from the Noah story who leaves the ark and returns with the olive branch proclaiming the hope of dry land ahead. The essence of faithfulness is that of being sent out, like the dove, to navigate the path that lies ahead. It is not always easy; it is not always comfortable; it is not always the path we would choose. Yet it is part of the journey we must walked as your life unfolds.
One of the great things that happens as a result of Jonah, the dove, flying the faithful path was change. Jonah changes, the Nivevites change, the text even says that the mind of God changes (but we will talk about that in a moment). The biblical word used here for change is repentance. As a result of Jonah’s faithful, albeit brief ~ one sentence ~ sermon, the Nivevites repent. They change their ways. Repentance is used hundreds of times throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Scholars who count such things tally it’s occurrence at about 600! Repentance is that action of turning away from, of changing one’s path, of restoring, or changing one’s mind. It is used in phrases like “to turn to the Lord with all your heart.” In the case of the Ninevites, they change their ways which were leading to death and destruction. In the case of Jonah, he changes his mind on his prophetic vocation. In the case of God, the text says that God’s mind was changed and the Ninevites were not destroyed. The theological question many of us ask is: ‘was God’s mind really changed?’ Or had God always believed, just like a loving parent always believes, in Jonah’s capacity to follow his call and the Ninevites capacity to change their ways? What seemed to the writer of Jonah to be the inevitable destruction of Nineveh, was not set in stone in God’s mind for God had plan for restoration.
As I think of the narrative of Jonah, I think it has much to teach us as we navigate the seemingly impossible journeys before us. Many of us took in the inauguration for our neighbours to south on Wednesday. The journey we pray for them is one which leads them towards unity as a country. One which leads towards a deepening of respect among all of its citizens. Can change happen? Can the faithful walk ahead follow the peaceful path of the dove that leads to healing and hope? We must pray for our brothers and sisters in their journey.
In his book “The Politics of Meaning”, Michael Lerner argues that some of our deepest held values of compassion, caring and community are increasingly being swallowed up by the real world because they no longer seem practical. Swallowed up in the world ethos of materialism and selfishness, we are increasingly losing these deeper values that were previously held. When faced with ‘mission impossible’ topics such as environmental consideration or racial reconciliation or even shaping the kind of relationships we want, individualism increasingly is swallowing us up and telling us that we can, at least, pursue our own happiness and maintain our own peace of mind.
What about you? What about the challenges you navigate these days? There have been many, so you may be inclined to ask: ‘which one?’ Challenges in your own life may be very plentiful these days. Challenges brought on with the pandemic. Challenges that come along in times of transition. Challenges that come as a result of grief and loss, of pain and suffering, and the list goes on. As the wise saying goes: “you can’t go over it, under it, or around it. You must go through your challenge! Are you able to find the strength to walk a few steps into the ‘mission impossible’ journey that lies ahead for you?
The gospel message of hope in Jonah’s story, and in ours, is that in the end, God does not give up. God will not let Jonah give up on his challenges. And…God does not leave him alone in them either. Jonah, like last week’s prophet, the young Samuel, is a prophet we can relate to. Because he is someone that looks at the path ahead and says ‘I can’t do it God!’ Looking at that impossible mission, he tries to go the other direction. Yet, God knows that we can’t avoid the path ahead. Sometimes, we need to walk through pain and suffering in order to find healing. Sometimes, we need to walk through hard times in order for good foundations to be built. And God knows, we need each person to ‘show up’ and be the light of hope they were destined to be. And the good news we learn in the Jonah story is that God doesn’t leave us to walk the journey alone. God is persistent! God’s strength extends to Jonah not just once, but it continues until he is ready. God wants Jonah to fulfill his destiny and God walks the journey ahead with him. Jonah doesn’t walk alone!
None of us walk alone in the darkness. We all walk in the epiphany light. Sometimes, we walk in darkness towards the light; other time, we walk surrounded by it. Let us continue to walk the path set ahead for us, now and always.