Oh, and every five minutes the zombie's chain will be released another foot. Within an hour, the zombie will be able to reach you and begin feasting on you and your new friends. You have only that amount of time to find the key and avoid becoming dinner.
Sounds like a nightmare? Actually, for an increasing number of people it is considered a lot of fun! This is just one of many different game scenarios for the thousands of "Escape Rooms" that are popping up all over the world. The idea is to get a group of people together for an evening of teamwork, problem-solving and nerve-wracking fun solving a puzzle while avoiding danger, which can range from a simulated ticking bomb in the room to being trapped in a prison cell. No matter the scenario, it is all about solving the puzzle before time expires.
The Escape Room phenomenon is also a real asset to leaders trying to build teamwork, or families and groups of friends building stronger bonds of fun and friendship. These games provide an opportunity to suspend the ordinary for a while and enter into a world where the danger might not be real, but the excitement is. And as everyone whose ever been a child knows, there is something especially fun about solving the problem and escaping together!
Jonah could have used a little help in his own escape room scenario. Being famously trapped in the belly of a fish may have been the ultimate and most awesome Escape Room scenario in biblical history, but the real escape that Jonah tried to pull off was actually an exercise in total futility: Jonah tried to escape the call of God!
The good news is that God intervened before time ran out!
Jonah, son of Amittai, may have been the prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel who is referred to in 2 Kings 14:25. This prophet predicted the prosperity of the kingdom under Jeroboam II. That prosperity would be short-lived, however, because the Assyrians would invade just a few decades later in 722 B.C. and essentially wipe the northern kingdom of Israel off the map.
Assyria was the dominant empire of that period and its aggressive and relentless thirst for conquest would have felt to the Israelites like a ravenous horde of zombies whose chains were getting longer by the minute.
The archives of the Assyrian kings reveal their bloodthirsty approach -- piling up the heads of their enemies, skinning people alive and using their skins to cover their monuments. Assyria was a bitter, hated enemy to whom smaller nations, including Israel, owed tribute (paid taxes).
This is the context in which God told Jonah to go to Assyria, to its capital city of Nineveh, "and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me" (1:2). Now, we can't blame Jonah for being terrified at this prospect and wanting to escape such a call.
We might think Jonah is running because he's afraid of what the Assyrians might do to him, that his mission will be a disastrous failure and his head put on a pike. But what we come to realize is that Jonah's fear is not so much about his potential failure but about his potential success. His fit about God's grace in chapter 4 is indicates Jonah’s real fear: that his message of warning might be heeded, that Nineveh might actually repent and be spared.
It is, after all, a lot easier to preach condemnation to one's enemies than it is to preach grace.
And this is a problem why?
Because if God spares Assyria, they may live to see another day when, renouncing their devotion to Yahweh, they will again become Israel's enemy.
In fact, this is precisely what happened. Jonah wants no part of this.
So, Jonah son of Amittai (whose name means, in Hebrew, "Dove, son of Faithfulness"), does not soar in peace and faithfulness to Nineveh but goes down to Joppa, where he scurries into the hold of a ship -- precisely the opposite direction of God's command (1:3). He books a passage for Tarshish, which a lot of scholars think could be the modern-day island of Sardinia, today a beach resort. Notice what Jonah is fleeing from. It's not the Assyrians. Instead, Jonah is fleeing from "the presence of the Lord" (a phrase the writer uses twice for emphasis in verse 3). Jonah is attempting to escape from God.
The temptation of Jonah to flee was also a temptation for the people in exile who read the scroll of Jonah decades later. It was tempting for people in exile then to escape from the surrounding culture, to condemn and complain about it and huddle with their own people.
We face the same temptation today -- the temptation to retreat and set up our own panic rooms with our own culture, our own music, our own schools and our own way of living. Like Jonah, we pray for God's condemnation of a culture that, beyond ourselves and those like us, has become evil, and we wait for it to end.
You can easily find radio and TV preachers who figure, like Jonah, that God's presence has been withdrawn from the rest of the world and that we are the last ones left. Plenty of Christian movements have adopted this tactic, setting up their own version of the island of Tarshish -- a utopian place where we simply do not have to deal with that culture and "those people."
But Tarshish is actually a myth, a false exit. Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, puts it like this: "We respond to the divine initiative, but we humbly request to choose the destination. We are going to be [disciples], but not in Nineveh for heaven's sake. Let's try Tarshish. In Tarshish we can have a religious career without having to deal with God."
Yet as the gospel proclaims, God's redemptive plan for the world is a plan to take the redemptive love of God into the world and not retreat from it.
The gospel of Matthew ends with a reiteration of this divine initiative. Jesus tells his disciples to "Go and make disciples of all nations [note all nations, including the ones who are your enemies], baptizing and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Will Willimon once speculated as to whether that last statement was a promise or a threat. "I will be with you always." It can be comforting, yet also a truth that you cannot escape from this mission. God is putting the world right and God has set us right so that we might be right-putting people. Jonah is to go and be God's agent to put things right in Nineveh. Israel was to be God's family who would be a light to the world, revealing God's plan to put things right.
As the authors of Homiletics note: that mission was a group project. Jesus was the embodiment of Israel who came to fulfill God's redemptive plan in his own life, death and resurrection. The church is still called to go into the world and culture and announce the good news that God is offering redemptive love and grace to any who will receive it, including Ninevites of all stripes!
If we are really people of God and followers of Jesus we can never escape this call. And we are in it together.
Jonah tried to escape. He got on a ship, got in a storm and got thrown into the sea! He couldn't escape God and could not escape his call. It required a life-threatening experience, but Jonah, from that point onward, begins heeding God's call. Dripping wet, "Jonah set out and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord" (v. 3). And, with God's help (and in spite of Jonah's half-hearted preaching), his mission is successful (vv. 4-5, 10).
In many aspects Jonah's journey from the water to the gates of Nineveh is a paradigm of what happens to us in baptism. Jonah will undergo what looks like certain death. He will be buried in the belly of a great fish, and then be deposited from the water onto the shore to engage the mission to which God called him.
This sounds a lot like the journey of a follower of Jesus (except maybe the fish part).
We are baptized, put into the water, die with Christ, are buried under the waves with Christ, and then we are commissioned for the mission God has for us -- a mission that will take us to the Ninevehs of the world.
And to the Nineveh’s we must go.
We are such bookkeepers! And God is not! When the Ninevites repent, and the ne'er-do-wells at the end of the line get paid the same as the hard workers at the front of the line, and the people we judge most harshly receive the mercy of God, then it becomes painfully clear that there is something inherently unfair in the notion of grace. God does not keep track of things the way we do. God does not spend a lot of time deciding who is worthy and who is not, like we do.
God does not give any of us what we deserve but what we need, and it is hard -- very hard -- to trust God's judgment on that score.
Is it right for us to be angry? If Nineveh is spared, who won't shout hallelujah? And if those who show up at the end of the day open their envelopes to find a full day's pay, who will not rejoice? Only those who do not know who they are. The rest of us will be down in Nineveh at the party, whooping it up with all the other folks who do not know their right hands from their left, and also many animals.
--Barbara Brown Taylor, "Ninevites and Ne'er-Do-Wells" in Gospel Medicine, (Cowley, 1995), 103-104.
As I was reminded at a meeting with district colleagues last week, this is a mission that requires that we become part of a community called the church because we simply cannot do it alone.
Sometimes I wonder if things would have gone differently if Jonah had had a partner or two in his mission. Moses had Aaron, Elijah had Elisha, Paul had Barnabas, and Jesus had many more than 12 disciples.
Partnering with others helps us discern the clues that point to where God is leading us and gives us the courage to move forward together.
As we pray and share Communion this morning I invite you to ask God to help you/us to discern where God is leading you in this community, in this time.