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The Fear of the Unknown


Passage: Jonah 3:1-5

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

Back before the pandemic kept us all at home and away from large gatherings, Annaleigh had decided that she wanted to see the Frozen sequel on the big screen for her birthday. Most of us with kids, at some point or another, have played the soundtrack to Frozen over and over again as our children screamed “LET IT GO” at the tops of their lungs. Well, Frozen 2 was even better than the first and my girls had already listened to the music on repeat long before we ever saw the movie, trying oh so hard to hit those Idina Menzel, crazy high notes.

The big “Let It Go” style song of Frozen 2 is called “Into the Unknown.” Elsa kept hearing an unknown voice beckoning her to follow and inevitably to die to her old self in order to bring about the unity of love, understanding, and forgiveness. Here are some of the words to Elsa’s popular song:

I can hear you but I won’t
Some look for trouble while others don’t
There’s a thousand reasons I should go about my day
And ignore your whispers which I wish would go away,

You’re not a voice, you’re just a ringing in my ear
And if I heard you, which I don’t, I’m spoken for I fear

Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you

Into the unknown

What do you want? ‘Cause you’ve been keeping me awake
Are you here to distract me so I make a big mistake?
Or are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?
Every day’s a little harder as I feel your power grow
Don’t you know there’s part of me that longs to go

Into the unknown?

Are you out there?
Do you know me?
Can you feel me?
Can you show me?

Where are you going? Don’t leave me alone
How do I follow you
Into the unknown?

Today, I feel Elsa’s challenge singing in my own soul. It does, sometimes, feel safer inside our known walls then to follow God into the unknown. And there have indeed been a lot of unknowns in the past several weeks. The morning after Epiphany, an Epiphany day where our country saw our worst selves on display during a mob that stormed the Capitol building, I attended a multi-faith and multi-racial virtual prayer service with Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square to add our prayers to the many words being prayed and said for our nation and our elected officials. We, Dallas clergy and faith leaders, were surrounded by our Zoom boxes praying prayers of heartache and preaching sermons for national healing and justice as we have done so many times before.

As a hundred clergy leaders in DFW said our prayers, doing our best to find a glimmer of hope in tragedy and grab of hold of something familiar – the familiarity of prayer, of clergy colleagues, of God’s presence – I could tell many of us felt tired and numb and yes, even afraid. We were unsure of the unknown and that fear made it feel as if our prayers struggled to breach the frames of our Zoom virtual confines.

Then, my eyes were drawn to the wooden stacking rainbow toy that sits on my bookshelf behind my right shoulder in my Zoom screen. This rainbow has been present for every Zoom conversation, virtual meeting, and prayer service I have attended since the beginning of the pandemic. And seeing this rainbow during a time when I was afraid of the unknown, beckoned me into the promises, purposes, and power of God. This wooden rainbow reminded me that God’s promises from the days of Noah are still with us. God’s promise from that time of destruction and death was that God will always be with us, will never abandon us, no matter how stormy the skies get and no matter how high the waters rise. God will be with us into the unknown. The Divine promises are ones of reconciliation and love, even when we aren’t acting like our lovely created selves.

And, in our Scripture lesson for today, Jonah wasn’t being his lovely, created self. God had given him a mission of mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption. And instead, Jonah, went the other way. He ran away from the divine calling God had put on his life. He was afraid, afraid of the unknown, afraid of not being the right person to do the job, afraid that his prejudices would be put on full display and that he would have to change. Jonah was afraid of all the things that hadn’t even happened yet.

And so, Jonah took his future into his own hands and went the other way, ran away, because whatever God had planned for him was out of his control and whatever God had planned for the people of Nineveh was none of his business. He ran towards his own protected prejudices and preconceptions because that is what he knew and what he knew was safe. Yet, what God really needed from Jonah was to repent, which means to turn back, to reverse his way of thinking and actions and go the other way, into the unknown.

And what I find interesting is that the name Jonah, as spelled in Hebrew, is the name Noah in reverse. Jonah was acting oppositely of Noah, the one who received the forgiveness of God and built an ark, prayed for the world and trusted God, even when the future was unknown. And when the ark settled on dry land and the inhabitants of that ark were fearful to step foot outside of their safe space, a dove returned. A dove brought peace where there was fear. A dove brought hope where there was uncertainty. A dove brought life in its beak. Every place we get the mention of a dove in the Bible it is positive and hopeful, except one instance – Jonah.

Jonah’s name in Hebrew literally means “dove.” But Jonah was acting anything but “dove-like” by reversing his path and running away from the unknown. And we all know the story of Jonah, the prophet, the one who was supposed to be a mouthpiece for God, clamming up and being stubborn. He was told by God to go to Nineveh to proclaim the power of God and that God wanted them to change. But Jonah didn’t want to enter the unknown place of God’s forgiveness of this horrible enemy. And so, Jonah ran away. Jonah ran away from the unknown, afraid to prophecy to an unknown people, to prophecy using unknown words about a God unknown to the Ninevites, proclaiming repentance to a city with an unknown future. Instead of trusting God and leaning into forgiveness and mercy, Jonah decided to go the opposite way, to run from the unknown.

But, as we see in the text, Jonah had an easy task. I mean, he only had to preach a one-sentence sermon! All he had to say was, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Um, I’m not sure that’s a sermon anyone wants to hear and definitely isn’t one that Jonah wanted to preach. But, we might need to look closely at the Hebrew word at the end of this sentence, the word for ‘destruction.’ In Hebrew, the word hapak can definitely mean to ‘destroy,’ which feels like it was Jonah’s true desire. But, hapak can also mean ‘change.’ In forty more days, Nineveh would be changed… for the good or the bad. Fortunately, Nineveh chose to change for the good rather than be destroyed.

And that is why fear is so wrapped up in this narrative and matches so well with our “Be Not Afraid” worship series. Change is scary. Change is difficult. Change is often unknown. Nineveh had to change their ways, follow God, and act with more justice and mercy. Nineveh had to change and go into an unknown future as something different than what they were.

And, along with Nineveh, Jonah needed to change as well. It seems that Jonah and Nineveh were inextricably linked on an unknown journey together; they were both moving into a future that was uncertain and undetermined. But, in my opinion, an unknown with God is far better than a known without God. Because, for me, and maybe for you, and definitely for Jonah and the Ninevites, heading off into the unknown with God, we can be assured that although we stumble, or fall, or end up in the belly of the big fish, or have to change as a nation, God is with us. God is with us as we go into the unknown.

And the interesting thing is, even after being in the fish, even after being thrown overboard by other sailors, even after running the opposite direction, even after all of these terrible things, Jonah still believed that the people of Nineveh didn’t deserve the love of God. After Jonah helped save the city, instead of it drawing him closer to God and causing him to love all people, especially those different than him or those who were considered vile and horrible, Jonah went off to sulk. “I KNEW this would happen! I knew you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” he cried, turning this known Jewish phrase of praise into a complaint. And in melodramatic fashion, he asked God to just kill him, put him out of his misery. Jonah would rather have died than move into the unknown future with people not like him.

One commentator, Rev. Lawrence Wood, says, “Originally the fairly pointed message was that Israel, which had once seen itself as “a light to the nations,” had grown ever more defensive after years of military losses and diplomatic concession to foreign idols. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, represented the enemy camp at its most powerful and wicked. No Jew would have wanted to lift a finger for the Ninevites. Likewise, nothing in historical record suggests that the Assyrian king and all his people turned to the Hebrew God. This belongs to the realm of fantasy. But the point of the message remains: if God really intends salvation for all the people, then in all seriousness, we must at least talk to our enemies.”

Whew, we must at least try to talk to our enemies. And we have a lot of enemies, don’t we? We have enemies in other people, enemies in other countries, enemies in other religions, enemies even in ourselves. Sometimes I see myself in Jonah. Sometimes I see my anger, and my prejudices, and my biases, and my fears and I pray that I can change before I destroy myself or destroy others. When I fear the unknown changes in myself or moving closer to the unknown people in the world, I find it can be scary.

Yet, if we stay away from the fear of the unknown, we create enemies. We create enemies of others and we create enemies of the progress we are trying to cultivate in ourselves. We create enemies because we think God can’t love us or reach us or change us. We fear the unknown because there are things in us that we want God to rid us of, to swallow up in vengeance or destruction. These things in us or people outside of us, we think, are beyond saving.

But, ultimately, that’s not true. God is calling us out of the depths of the sea, out of the belly of the beast, out of our comfort zones, into the unknown where we don’t have to live in fear and where our actions are like that of Jonah, the dove, to bring peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness to the world. And just because there are pieces of ourselves or others we don’t like, doesn’t mean we are outside of God’s love. Thank God for that! Because, as the people of God, mercy and grace surround us, even us, even in our bitterness, depression, and narrow attitudes. God’s love and mercy surround us and every single person in all of creation, known or unknown.

Because that is who God is. God brings all the unknown things together, whether we go willingly or go kicking and screaming from the belly of a fish. God brings all the unknown things together, the selfish and fearful prophet, the selfish and fearful Nineveh, the selfish and fearful you and me. God brings us all together in love and justice to change ourselves and change the world. And that, my friends, is not unknown.