Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prophet Overboard! - Jonah 1:1-17, 2:10-3:6, 3:10-4:2

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they made a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah sent out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord. Now Ninevah was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go in to the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown!” And the people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

A third grade class was doing a science unit on marine life. The teacher explained a whale’s diet, noting that it would be impossible for a whale to swallow a human because of its very small throat. Johnny put up his hand and said, “But Jonah was swallowed whole by the whale!” The teacher was slightly irritated and said, “A whale simply cannot swallow a human whole.” Not deterred, Johnny said, “I’ll simply ask Jonah when I get to heaven.” The teacher said, “What if Jonah didn’t go to heaven?” Johnny replied, “Then you can ask him.”

Peter Gomes, who serves as the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, refers to the Bible as “a book of the imagination.” The Jonah story is one example of a story that requires some imagination when we read it. This story has some great truths, and it reveals a lot to us about God and about ourselves, if we will only read it with a little imagination. May we pray.

Jonah is a great story. It is only four chapters long, and each chapter serves as a little mini-story within the larger story. It’s an excellent piece of literature, and our selected readings for today only hit the highlights. When you go home this evening, I want you to sit down and read the entire book of Jonah – you can read it in about 15 minutes. Read it with a sense of humor, and read it as satire. Satire not only entertains, but it teaches.

We wonder about the inclusion of this story in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s different from the other books. The other books focus on God’s concern for Israel – this one focuses on God’s concern for a group of Gentiles. Not exactly what you’d expect in the Scriptures for God’s chosen people.

Jonah is sitting at home in the very first words of the book, and God says, “Hey Jonah. I’ve got a job for you. I want you to go east to Ninevah, and cry out against all the wickedness there.” Now, Ninevah is the capital city of Assyria, a long-standing enemy of Israel.

Jonah goes all right. He goes down to the seaport, to a town called Joppa, and pays his way onto a ship headed for Tarshish. Tarshish is a town on the west coast of what is now Spain. It represented the end of the known world, and was the exact opposite direction from where God wanted Jonah to go. The text tells us that Jonah was trying to get away from God’s presence, and, I suppose the end of the world would have been the most likely place to hide.

Certainly, Jonah is not the first nor the last person to run away from a call from God. Show me a pastor working in full-time ministry, and I’ll show you someone who initially resisted that call. I sensed my call into ministry years before I accepted it. I somehow thought that if I ran fast and far enough in the opposite direction, I could get away from God’s call, that I could somehow get out ahead of it. If I buried myself with school, with work, with other pursuits, perhaps the call of God would simply pass me by.

Jonah tried to bury himself as well. In fact, burial is a good word for what Jonah intended to do. When he intended to board the ship, the text tells us he went down to Joppa. This is symbolic language that implies a descent, a burial. On board, he went down into the hold of the ship to sleep. When the storm was at its worst, he was thrown into the sea, and descended below its waters. Finally, he went down into the belly of the fish. Four times Jonah has buried himself or been buried, each time an attempt to hide from the presence of God.

But, it doesn’t work. Even in the belly of the fish, even in the deepest, darkest, place Jonah can bury himself, God is still there.

The fish spews Jonah up on the shore, and this time, he sets out for his destination. A side note, here. Did you know that the fish is an example of oceanfront real estate development? It’s true. The fish took what should have been a loss and turned it into some prophet on the shore.

Jonah arrives in Ninevah, bleached white from three days swimming in gastric juices, with a few pieces of seaweed still clinging to his ear. Tucked under his arm is his favorite sermon on hellfire and brimstone. He may not have been happy about being there in the first place, but I think he was proud of the sermon. “Hey Ninevah!” In 40 days, you’re going to be blasted to bits!!!” If you have to go and deliver a message to your worst enemy, you have to be glad when it’s one of gloom and doom and imminent judgment.

Jonah finishes giving his sermon, hikes up a nearby hill, pops the top off a PBR, begins the doomsday countdown, and gets himself a front row seat for all the destructive action. You can just hear him counting down the days: “40 more days, and Ninevah gets it! 39 more days! 38, 37, 36 . . .” By the time the count has finally worn down, Jonah is jumping up and down, excitedly counting down the last few seconds. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – BOOM!” Only, no boom. He began the countdown again, thinking his timing might be off. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – BOOM!” Still no boom.

The phone rang. “Jonah – good news.” It was the Lord. “Great job on the sermon. They believed you. The whole city repented, so I’m not going to destroy them after all. Thanks, Jonah.”

Jonah gets furious at this. “Lord, that’s why I didn’t want to come here in the first place! That’s why I ran away from you in the first place! When I preach doom and destruction, I expect doom and destruction! But here you are, so merciful, so kind, so forgiving, so loving. It just makes me sick.”

I hope you catch the humor in this. This story is funny. This story is so funny that as I continued to read it in preparation this week, I found myself chuckling. This story is a satire on every exclusive, narrow-minded expression of religion. This is theology presented to us as high comedy.

But the story should not only amuse us; it should disturb us a bit as well. Jonah presents us with a picture of God that is so loving, so patient, so obnoxiously gracious that we are forced to extend our human boundaries of God’s infinite grace.

Jonah is angry because God just loves too many people. According to Jonah, God is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing." Like Jonah, that's how we expect God to be toward us. It sure is irritating when God acts that way toward others.

A story is told about an incident on an international flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to London. A well-dressed woman made her way down the aisle, past the business travelers, toward her assigned seat. She arrived, and a man who was clearly from some more remote part of the continent was her seatmate. “Is this your assigned seat?” she asked. “Yes.” She looked around for empty seats nearby, but the flight appeared to be full. She grabbed a flight attendant who was passing by. “Excuse me, I seem to be seated next to someone whose skin color is different from my own. Another arrangement must be made.” The flight attendant responded, “Ma’am, it is not our policy to move passengers unnecessarily.” “Well,” said the woman quietly. “I have enough cash in my purse to provide for an alternative. Please go up to first class and see if something is available up there.” A few minutes later, the flight attendant came back. He leaned across the woman and tapped the male passenger on the arm. “I’m sorry sir, but we need to make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you up in first class.”

The love of God makes it possible to give everyone first-class treatment. Even people we don’t like. Even people we think should be the last recipients of God’s grace. What troubles us is that we sometimes end up in our same old seats.

This can be very upsetting to us, and it was very upsetting to Jonah. He had delivered a message of judgment, and he expected God to fulfill it. The people in Ninevah were wicked, and they were going to get just exactly what they had deserved. They had made their beds, now they could lie in them. They were Israel’s enemies for crying out loud!!! Just when Jonah stands to call down the all-consuming fire of judgment, God has the nerve to forgive, to have mercy, and to abound in steadfast love.

The text will go on to tell us that while Jonah is sulking in the desert, God caused a plant to come up and shelter his head from the 120-degree heat. Then God sends a worm to attack the plant, and it withers and dies. Jonah goes into a fit yet again. “Here I am sitting out here in this stupid heat, and you kill the plant that was giving me some relief from the heat!” God simply says, “Jonah, what’s the matter with you? How can you be angry with me for allowing a little plant to die, yet disappointed because I allowed 120,000 people to live?”

Forgiveness becomes a bitter pill for Jonah to swallow. The result of withholding forgiveness is bitterness, and it eats away at Jonah in just the same way the worm ate away at his beloved plant in the desert. It seems absurd to hang onto such anger, yet we’ve all done it. In righteous indignation we withdraw to a safe distance, where we can sulk and contentedly wait and watch for our enemies to get what they deserve. Forgiveness only complicates the issue. When you can stay angry at a person, at least you know where he or she stands at a safe distance somewhere below you. Forgiveness is messy, sorta what you might imagine after being cooped up in a fish’s stomach for three days. But a life lived in community with others is messy, and it requires us to forgive.

To be sure, when we hold onto bitterness and anger, there is punishment. Only it is the one who sits alone brooding in anger and bitterness who is punished, and it’s always self-inflicted. We can withhold love and forgiveness, we can wallow in bitterness and anger, we can carry our grudges everywhere, but in the end, that ends up doing the most damage to ourselves.

Jonah is so busy sulking out in the desert, so busy grinding his teeth, so busy wallowing in his anger, he forgets one very small detail. God never asked him to go hang out in the desert and see what the result of the message was. God only asked him to deliver the message. Here Jonah is, making a huge sacrifice, going through great discomfort, exerting a ton of effort, and angry because God doesn’t stop and recognize Jonah for doing something God had no desire for Jonah to do in the first place.

There’s a lesson in that for us. Rather than making ourselves busy with all sorts of things that God may not even desire for us to do, let’s each stop and re-consider just what exactly God would like for us to do. We may find that we’re off sulking in the desert, expecting God to reward us, when, in fact, God never asked us to go and wallow in our own anger. God may be busy loving the very people we delivered a message of judgment too, and God may need us to start loving them too. God may wonder why we’re spending our time on things that have nothing to do with proclaiming the kingdom of God or seeking those who are lost to be part of our community. God may remind us to simply get back to basics, to do what we’re supposed to do in the first place and not make ourselves busy with a lot of other “stuff.” God may simply tell us to operate according to God’s priorities, and not any one person’s forceful or misguided agenda.

By the end of the story, Jonah is confronted with the reality that he is not, in fact, the center of the universe. God’s ways are different than his. God’s choices are different than his. God’s priorities are different than his. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, not only to me, not only to people like me or to people I like. God has the audacity to love everyone, including the people I love the least.

Jesus got in trouble when he carried out this principle. He made no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, healthy and sick, insider and outsider. Jesus radically shared God’s love with everybody and anybody, and this made the religious establishment nervous. Jesus set forth a vision of the kingdom of God that was entirely too broad for the religious insiders of his day. In the name of God, Jesus gave himself to the world.

The Church has struggled with this message. In the 10th chapter of the book of Acts, Simon Peter didn’t want to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. He didn’t want anyone outside his little circle getting in. But, too late. They were already knocking on the door. In fact, so many outsiders became part of the Church that by the 15th chapter, all the preachers had to come to a specially-called session of the annual conference to squabble over how many were going to be let into God’s Church. It would seem that God just keeps inviting everybody.

The problem is that we human messengers are sometimes reluctant. The Church doesn’t tell a lot of new stories, just the same old story of a God who loves everybody, who is merciful to everybody, and who is kind to everybody. Despite our reluctance, we continue to proclaim that the love of God is for all people and that the Creator of heaven and earth wants to stand face-to-face with every one of his beloved children.

God is willing to love everybody, including Jonah, including Ninevah, including you and me, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it, thanks be to God!


  1. I love the humor in the book of Jonah. God is so mildly sarcastic, and Jonah is so childish and blind. Not that I'm never childish or blind...

    And I love the comfort of Jonah's story. He tried NOT to do what God wanted, and God still used him to save a whole city. So I don't have to worry about my attempts to serve God being inadequate.

    Speaking of God loving everybody, have you heard about this United Methodist pastor?

  2. There is something to be said for God using us for God's purposes even when we are intentionally and deliberately disobedient. Even after we've done our assigned task and aren't happy with the outcome, God is still working.