Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Faces of Our Faith: Jonah

The Rev. Bart Smith
The 19th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2018)
Jonah 3:10-4:11

God saw what [the people of Nineveh] were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

The order of our Faces of Our Faith sermon series was decided several weeks ago. On this particular Sunday, I wish I were dealing with a different text, frankly. If you’ve been with us or followed along in your journal, you know that we’ve explored stories of very courageous people from the Bible. I would have preferred to preach on any of the previous six. Seriously, give me last week’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, how they kept the faith and maintained their integrity in the face of extreme “heat.” Or the courage of Queen Vashti, who faced her own 5th Century Persian whirlwind of sexism. Or Puah and Shiphrah’s gutsy defiance of Pharaoh’s lethal orders.

Any of these would have been fitting on a week when many of us watched a courageous woman, Dr. Ford, speak her truth in the face of power and privilege.

But this is the one we have on the calendar, and I consider it a spiritual discipline for me to preach the text that’s in front of me. I can’t run away from it like Jonah did.

And what an absurd story it is! You might have heard about Jonah in childhood. The way they taught it when I grew up was that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and lived in the belly of the whale for three days. What little kid isn’t entranced by a story like that? I remember being really curious about the biology of it all. How could Jonah avoid being digested for that long? What else was in there?

In adulthood, though, it was pointed out to me that Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish, not a whale. And really that this story isn’t recorded history but a satire. It’s based on a prophet who lived in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) in the 8th Century BCE.

And because it’s a satire it’s supposed to be funny in a ridiculous sort of way. Think of Jonah as the anti-prophet; the other prophets in the Hebrew Bible were reluctant, but not this reluctant. To recap: God calls Jonah to go east to Nineveh (modern day northern Iraq) the capital city of Israel’s mortal enemies, the Assyrians, so Jonah heads west toward the Mediterranean and boards a ship headed for Tarshish (modern day Spain). When the boat he’s on hits a major squall, his shipmates figure out that he’s the problem, having run from his deity, and so they toss him overboard, naturally. God sends the fish to gulp Jonah down and after three days the fish vomits him up on the shore. How is that not funny?

And after the second command to go to Nineveh, Jonah goes, preaches an eight-word sermon calling the city to repentance. I love the idea of an effective eight word sermon as much as you do, I’m sure.

On a three-day long walk across the city, it only takes a day before the Ninevites say, “You know what? You’re right, Jonah, we should stop being evil,” and everybody from the king down to the animals donns sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance. Can you picture dogs and cattle in sackcloth?

But Jonah high-tails it east of the city and finds a perch on the outskirts of town to watch hell fire rain down on the Ninevites. When God doesn’t do it, Jonah is incensed. So what does God do? God messes with him. God sends a shrub to give Jonah shade. And overnight, God then sends a worm and a desert wind to destroy the plant. Jonah loses it, “I might as well be dead!” and God teaches him a lesson: “Why are you angry about this plant but not about the possibility that 120,000 people and an untold number of animals would die? Jonah, listen to yourself.”

Jonah reckons with the extreme grace of God. He even throws an ancient liturgical line back at God when he says, “This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.”
He sulks. Some people like to call him “the petulant prophet.”

I say “extreme” because it is. It defies normal categories. God loves Ninevites? Even Ninevites can repent and cease their wicked ways? I can’t tell you how evil these people were, especially in the eyes of the Israelites. That Israel’s God would show them mercy… come on!

It reminds me of a line from a Graham Greene novel wherein a priest says to a confessee:

“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone—the… appalling strangeness… of the mercy of God.” [1]

It is appalling, the mercy of God, the mercy, compassion, patience, faithful love, and willingness not to destroy. It’s appalling because we like to sort the world into neat, clearly-defined categories of who’s redeemable and who’s not, and God somehow transcends those categories. And I don’t like that, if I’m honest with myself. I’m with Jonah: give me a God who smites and is done with it. Just wipe ‘em out! It’d be so much simpler.

But even if the likes of Nineveh can turn around, even in the cartoonish imagination of the writers of Scripture, what other redemption is possible? What other change is possible?

What hope do we have outside the extreme grace of God?

As I watched or read about the hearings in Washington this week, I just kept thinking to myself, “Things never change. The victims get trampled on. The powerful get away with it. This is just the same old garbage. Smite it all and be done with it, won’t you?”

And then I remembered something Anne Lamott wrote in her book published last year:

“The good news is that God has such low standards, and reaches out to those of us who are often not lovable and offers us a chance to come back in from the storm of drama and toxic thoughts.” [2]

“There is a wideness in God’s mercy,” as the old hymn says.

Judgment and wrath are so final. There’s hope in the extreme grace of God because it leaves the future open-ended. It makes a different world possible.

We can do better. We must do better. We can raise our young women in a world that is safe for them, in which they are empowered, in which their limits are respected. We can raise our young men to have humility, to have empathy and not entitlement. We can create systems of justice that don’t overwhelmingly advantage some while disadvantaging others. We can.

There is hope for the likes of Nineveh, by the grace of God. There’s hope not because people are good, but because God is. Surprisingly so. Frustratingly so. Even for the likes of Ninevites.
Even for you. Even for me.

Featured image: “I Knew You Were” by Sarah Are, A Sanctified Art, LLC.

[1] from Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1947)

[2] from Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (2017)