Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-28; Matthew 20:1-16
Younan had always been a pious man, and became even more so after resettling in the US. Every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life. May your name be ever praised. Please bless and keep my beloved family in your care until the day of resurrection, and please bring swift and unrelenting justice to the wicked. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Every day was a struggle; he had to learn English, find work, locate an apartment… The end of every day found him exhausted, but every day he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you for sparing my life…”
Years passed, Younan slowly began to feel more at home in his new city. He had Iraqi friends and neighbors, people from places he knew. They never talked about why they had come, but they didn’t need to; the anger and the sorrow was written on their faces, it was an aroma that surrounded them. Younan found work as a janitor—a far cry from managing the market back home—and slowly began making a life for himself. And every night, he prayed, “Almighty God, most gracious, most merciful, I humbly thank you…”
Younan replied, “Wait, you want me to go where?”
“Mosul,” God said.
“Please excuse me, Almighty God. I think I must be going mad. I thought you just said you wanted me to go to Mosul, the Daesh stronghold, to the filthy rats who killed my family and tell them that you are going to destroy them.”
“I did,” said God. “Now go.”
Anger overtook Younan. “If that’s what you want to do, then do it already! Why should I warn them? Why should anybody warn them? Nobody will shed a tear for them!”
But God was silent. Younan sighed. Deep inside, he knew that’s not how it works.
So, Younan went. But instead of Mosul, he packed his bags and bought a ticket for Beijing where he hoped among the mass of people, he might escape the Almighty’s notice.
He flew out of Detroit the next day to Chicago, where he connected to LAX. The entire trip was nerve-wracking; he kept waiting for something to go wrong—a cancelled flight or a missed connection—but nothing happened. Now as he boarded his flight to Los Angeles, he finally began to feel more at ease. Surely, if he had gotten this far, he would make it the rest of the way. The engines throttled up and the big jetliner began to climb, and Younan settled into his seat and began to nod off. “One more stop in LA,” he thought, and then I’m home free.” Smiling, he fell asleep.
He awoke to an elbow being jabbed into his ribs. “Wake up!” his neighbor hissed under his breath, “They’re looking for you!”
“Who is?” Younan asked, confused.
“The Sky Marshall,” his neighbor whispered. “They’re going row-by-row, looking for a guy who fits your description. I heard it on my way to the bathroom.”
Younan was about to say that was ridiculous, why would anyone be looking for him, but 10 rows up, he saw a man with a thick mustache and aviator sunglasses with his polo shirt tucked into his belt standing in the aisle talking to a seated passenger. His left hand rested on the seat back as he leaned over, and in it, he held a composite sketch that looked an awful lot like Younan.
His hands shook with fear as he reached into his carry-on to find his passport and asylum papers; they were gone, nowhere to be found. Slowly it dawned on him that this is what he had been worrying about all day. This was God’s hand closing around him. Younan sighed, got up and walked up the aisle to the man in the polo shirt.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I believe you are looking for me?”
“Thank you for making this easy,” the man said as he hand-cuffed him and took him to the back of the plane.
After hours and hours of blind van rides, plane flights, and being led down wandering hallways, he was seated on a metal chair and the sack was removed from his head. He found himself in a stark cell somewhere deep underground with only a latrine, a bed with a hard mattress, and the chair. The guard who removed the bag took off his handcuffs and closed the doors as he exited the cell.
All night, Younan sat wake, terrified. Where was he? What would they do to him? He prayed again, this time in fear: “Almighty God, I’m sorry I tried to run away. Please deliver me, and I promise I will do whatever you ask!”
Time passed. He couldn’t see the sun to tell, but based on the meal schedule, he figured it was about three days. He kept expecting to be beaten, to be waterboarded, or at very least to be asked some questions, but there was nothing. He ate, he slept, he waited. He prayed. Finally, something happened. A guard appeared and brought Younan up through the bowels of the complex to the surface. He removed Younan’s restraints, opened a door to the outside world, and—without a word—shoved him out into it.
After days in the dark, the sunlight was blinding. Younan heard the door slam shut and lock behind him as he blinked at the brightness that was slowly resolving into endless sand dunes and a road. He looked back at the building from which he’d just been freed; it looked like nothing more than an abandoned warehouse. An old pickup was approaching him on the road in a cloud of dust. When it reached him, the driver stopped and leaned out the window. He asked Younan, in Arabic, “Need a lift?” Not knowing what else to do, Younan climbed into the truck.
Once more, he heard a voice. “Let’s try this again,” God said, “I want you to go to Mosul. I have a message for them.”
“Where can I take you, my friend?” the driver asked as he pulled away.
“Mosul?” Younan answered, to which the driver responded. “Ah! Just where I was headed.”
When Younan got to Mosul, the driver dropped him at the edge of town and left him standing in the street. Mosul is a big city, 660,000 people. Without knowing what else to do, he began walking the streets, shouting, “40 days more, and Mosul will be blown to hell!” He walked all day, shouting his message—and nothing but this message—before giving up around nightfall and leaving town.
As it happened, the IS militants who heard his message began talking. They gossiped among one another, and the gossip spread. Over the coming days, the gossip made it to the head commander of the Islamic State in Mosul. Much to everyone’s surprise, the commander issued an order to all militants: they were to return all confiscated property to its rightful owners, they were to release all hostages and slaves, they were to turn in all weapons and equipment, and they were to beg forgiveness from the civilian population of the city and cast themselves upon God’s mercy—all this by official decree of the Caliphate. Much more to everyone’s surprise, the decree was followed to the letter. And God saw that they had realized their mistake and changed their ways, and so God decided not to destroy the city.
The voice spoke, “Is it right for you to be angry? Every night, you pray to thank me for being gracious and merciful. Every night, you weep for the lives you have lost. Is it not right that I should not also weep for the 660,000 lives who might be lost in Mosul? Is it not right that I should extend to my loved ones the grace and mercy that I have given to you, my beloved? The prophets of old dreamed for so effective a message, they preached and cajoled and wept and wailed for years and years, and few of them ever had the success you have had today. Should you not be overjoyed that the kingdom of heaven has come near?”
But Younan was not overjoyed. As the sun beat down on him and the dust filled his nostrils, he couldn’t help but think that, to him, this heaven felt an awful lot like hell.