September 21, 2014

15th Week after Pentecost

God spoke to Jonah and told him to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them to shape up, or face the music. But Jonah didn’t want to, so he got on a boat to go as far away in the other direction as he could. He didn’t want to give those Ninevites any chance to avoid their destruction.

But on that ship a great storm threatened to sink it, so the crew threw all of the cargo overboard. But when that didn’t work, the captain asked, "Which one of you has done something to offend your god?"

Jonah was down in the hold sleeping through all of this. When the crew found him, they brought everyone together to find out who among them was at fault for this terrible storm. And sure enough. It was Jonah. They asked, with horror, what have you done to your God? He told them he was running away from his responsibility. And to his credit, he suggested that if he were off the ship, the sea might be calm again. They were glad to oblige. And immediately threw him overboard. And he was right. The storm stopped and the ship was saved – while Jonah floated down.

But God wouldn’t let Jonah get off that easily, so instead of letting him drown, God had a big fish come and swallow him. For three days he sat in a smelly, gooey, underwater waiting room reflecting upon his predicament. He had, after all, brought this all upon himself by his refusal to fulfill God’s call in the first place. So, after evaluating his options, Jonah made a promise to fulfill God’s call, if God would save him. So God did. And the fish conveniently spit him up right there on the shore outside Nineveh. He was saved. But then Jonah got angry because it was clear that God expected Jonah to fulfill his promise.

So, we’re back to the beginning of the story. God said, "Go to Nineveh and tell them to shape up, or face the music." Jonah went, having learned that running away doesn’t work out so well. But he was still not happy about it.

Now, Nineveh was a huge city, so big that it took three days to walk across it. Probably pouting the whole way, Jonah walked into the city and preached the shortest yet most effective sermon ever recorded. Perhaps hoping no one would even hear him, he spoke these eight words: "Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown."

That’s it. And they all believed him. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, representing their humility and plea for forgiveness. Even the king took off his robes and proclaimed the course of action for the whole city, hoping that God would change God’s mind. Upon seeing their sincere change of heart and ways, God did.

But that made Jonah furious. And he told God. "I know you’re gracious and have great mercy, you’re slow to anger, full of love, and all that. But this is ridiculous! Spare me from having to see these wretched people saved from their destruction. Just kill me." But God replied, "Is it right for you to be angry about this?" So, sulking, Jonah went out and sat on a hill outside the city so he could watch and wait to see if anything bad might still happen, as he so desperately wished it would.

Now this took place in the desert and it was hot, so God had a bush grow up and shade Jonah so he could be more comfortable in his self-imposed misery. But the next day a worm killed the tree and it died. The winds and sun now made Jonah even more miserable. Once again he said, "Just let me die."

God asked Jonah, "Should you be angry about a bush?"

"Yes. Angry enough to die."

"But," God said, "why should you be angry about a bush, and why are you so angry about that city being spared? Shouldn’t I care about those people? Are they not more valuable than a bush?"

And abruptly, that’s where the story ends.

So here’s a summary of what we’ve learned from this story:

1) God asked Jonah to do something. Jonah didn’t want to, so he ran in the opposite direction.

2) From the bottom of one of the worst messes he had ever created in his whole life, Jonah made a promise that if God just got him out of this one, he’d turned his life over to God. And God came through. And after the crisis passed, he’s angry that God would expect him to keep his promise.

3) This all happened because Jonah disliked those Ninevites so much that he’d rather see them suffer than see them turn their lives around – because that’s what they "deserve."

4) Jonah sulks instead of being happy that the Ninevites repented. He clearly made himself depressed because of his resentment against them.

This story speaks to the difficult truth of our lives. At one time or another, we have run the opposite way from what we know we should do, no matter how difficult. We wrestle with feelings of jealousy and resentment. We secretly wish bad things upon our opponents. And we feel sorry for ourselves.

Rabbi David Saperstein says, "The great message of this book is what we might call perspective." Moody, impetuous, irresponsible, self-centered Jonah needed a lesson in perspective.

When God forgives the huge city of Nineveh, Jonah feels sorry for himself. He is happy again when the bush grows up to provide shade from the hot sun one day, but when it dies the next day, he becomes so angry he begs to die. He’s lost all sense of perspective. "These little things loom so large in his mind that he can see nothing else."

But then Jonah’s story ends, leaving open all kinds of possibilities. Maybe Jonah gets it. Maybe he makes more mistakes and maybe he learns from them. Anything is possible. That abrupt ending means we can fill it in. It leaves open a whole world of possible change – which leaves open the possibility of us learning from our mistakes. And that actually says something more about the extravagant grace of God than it does about us.

But, while we often look at this story to consider how we might see ourselves in the character of Jonah, we might also need to look at how we might resemble the people of Nineveh.

The ones in need of God’s saving.

Amen.