The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Jonah 3:10-4:11

Jonah is probably best known for having been swallowed by a fish – an episode some may think strains the credibility of the Bible. But to sink into that fish pond is to miss the humor of the story of Jonah, not to mention the message.

The story of Jonah actually begins a couple of chapters back from our reading today, with the Lord telling Jonah to go to that great city of Nineveh and to announce God’s impending wrath –the destruction of the city for its sins.

Given the fact that Jonah was a prophet of Israel and Nineveh the capital city of a national “archenemy” of Israel, one would think that it would have been a pleasure for Jonah – and he would’ve jumped at the chance – to go and denounce the place. The prophet, however, knew only too well the kind of God he was dealing with. Jonah knew the Psalm verse that we heard sung today:
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.

When God eventually forgave the people of Nineveh, Jonah complained in exasperation, “Is this not what I said when I was still in my own country . . . for I knew you were a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

That was the very reason Jonah tried to escape the call of God. It wasn’t so much out of fear as it was risking embarrassment and humiliation. He knew that God – up until the last minute – would be looking for a way to save the Ninevites and reverse his decision and Jonah’s proclamation of doom. He knew God would be looking for the tiniest shred or fiber of reason that would allow him to forgive and show his great mercy and love.

Not like us human creatures, who set our minds against someone or some group and look for the tiniest shred or fiber that will strengthen and justify our prejudice and condemnation.

So, continuing with the story, Jonah plans his escape from God and his mission by boarding a ship and setting sail in the opposite direction from Nineveh. But God caused a storm to blow on the waters and a tempest in the air until it got so rough that the sailors knew they were dealing with the supernatural and asked “Whose God is doing this?” & Jonah slowly raised his hand and said, “My fault. My bad. My God,” and he told the others to just throw him overboard and the sea would calm. They obliged, and the sea did calm. And a great fish swallowed Jonah, and after three days, Jonah decided he would rather be a prophet than fish food. And God told the fish to spit Jonah out, which the fish did. And when God told Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, he did not decline.

And, apparently, Jonah really got into the denunciation of Nineveh. It took three days to cross the great city and all the way, Jonah cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And one imagines that Jonah proclaimed this condemnation with a force that was peppered with a genuine hatred. He must have made it very believable, for we are told that from the king in his palace to the working man and woman on the street, every single citizen put on sackcloth and sat in ashes to mourn their wrongs. And God, who is “gracious and full of compassion” forgave them.

And that brings us to where our first reading today begins.
“When God saw what the Ninevites 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.”

Though it was exactly what Jonah had expected, God’s gracious act was too much for him. He took himself outside the city and angrily sat down to see what would happen next. Since he already suspected what was going to happen, his anger brewed and stewed, and finally, he said to God, “Just take my life. Just kill me! I’d rather die than be made a fool of like that.”

God conversed with Jonah trying to explain his weakness for human beings and for showing love and mercy – trying to explain to Jonah that he should be happy, not sad. “Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks. But with folded arms and a pouting face Jonah simply sat and looked out over the city, hoping against hope that some evil might yet befall it.

Now, it was very hot that day. And when God graciously caused a bush to grow up over Jonah’s head and provide some shade, Jonah was momentarily distracted from his anger. But the next day when God caused the bush to die, and Jonah began to suffer from the scorching heat again, he got really mad. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” asked the Lord. To which Jonah retorted, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then God makes his point: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. . . And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than 120,000 people–and also many animals?”

Point taken. Jonah is left with his mouth hanging open. He finally gets the message about God’s mercy that springs from love.

The story of Jonah is painfully believable, because in it, we can see ourselves coming to grips with the wideness of God’s mercy, and our own silly, peevish behavior. Who hasn’t known what it is to wish for revenge – the punishment of another – the kind of thing Jonah would’ve felt for the people of Nineveh. Are there not some who have injured or offended us so much that we might relish – hope – for the opportunity to sit by and watch their downfall. And how much more tasty that would be if we could just know God was on our side. As Bea Authur’s character, Maude, on TV used to say, “God’s going to get you for that!” And we laughed because we knew there was an element of reality in that attitude.

But the truth is, when we have those kinds of thoughts and those attitudes, we know that God isn’t on our side. In fact, our taste for vengeance, our desire for each one getting one’s just deserts, often hinders us as Christ’s people—as ambassadors of love and heirs of the kingdom.

Within our communities we often have a difficult time working together precisely because we don’t want to see our “enemies,” our opponents, our rivals, our alter-egos, our neighbors have their moment in the sun. One gets the impression at times that there’s this “winner take all” attitude that we apply in far too many of our dealings with others. That is to say, we can’t tolerate there being any survivors. So in a neighborhood or family or church squabble we perhaps focus on – insist on – a point and try to draw others around us who think the same, or who we can convince to think the same, and having made our point and perhaps even won a modest victory, we’re not content with that but push on, if possible, to drive our opponents into the sea–or out of the family–or out of the church.

It doesn’t take much brains to see that that kind of attitude can never lead to peaceful cooperation among people with different points of view. It’s “my way or the Highway.” Do you agree with me, or are you wrong?

Well, today we are provided with a different perspective. In the aftermath of the Jonah story, it is a humorous perspective, though humor with an edge. How silly it looks when the prophet, the servant and messenger of God is stubborn and petulant. We smile at Jonah fussing over his tree, and we recognize that Jonah is us. That’s the whole point of the Jonah story: it’s not there as a claim that this is an actual historical moment or event; but it’s a lesson to teach us about ourselves and our petty grudges, and about God, and God’s model of love and mercy and compassion—God’s example of how God wants us to be.

This perspective enables us to understand that we don’t know everything and, because of that, thankfully, we don’t have power over all. The word to describe this perspective is called humility. To be humble means to understand our proper, that is, God-given, place in creation. As creatures we human beings are important; we are made in the image of God. But we also know that we are not God, just God’s creatures, his servants.

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. Followers of Christ ought to be aware of that fact more than any others. For by his example Jesus calls us into fellowship regardless of our personal histories or prior experiences. He has been known to make his enemies into his friends. He has all too frequently bestowed gifts which were totally unearned and even undeserved.

From our silly standpoint he may often seem unfair. But from a humility perspective, we know that our only salvation comes as undeserving recipients of God’s gift of grace. When the Lord Jesus stretched out his arms of love and mercy and compassion on the cross, he did it for us. And outside of that act – that gift – we are all lost souls.
None of us has earned or deserved such an outpouring. And of this we must always be aware.

It is the good news we are called to proclaim—the saving grace of God in Christ. & fully aware that we live under (and because of) that grace, we must change our attitude in dealing with others.

It isn’t easy. Sometimes we would like to see trouble befall those who disagree with us, or who have in some way hurt us or cheated us, or made our life a bit less comfortable. Sometimes we see situations where we believe there is such wickedness, that we would gladly proclaim that in forty days God will overthrow it. We get angry. Maybe even righteously angry. Maybe even angry enough to die!

But the perspective of humility enables us to recognize that we do not possess all wisdom, & that God who does possess all wisdom, who is “gracious and full of compassion,” may have a different notion of how people are to be dealt with, and that God will sort out those things that are important in the end.

We are Christians. We are people of grace, living under grace ourselves, so we must proclaim it to others, even if it sometimes feels like it will kill us. That’s why we need Jonah, and stories like Jonah, because they remind us that we are not the only ones who have ever wanted to go for the jugular.

We are not the first ones who have had the cause to cry for vengeance. We are not the first to try to run from our calling to proclaim God’s grace.

And when we see Jonah fainting in the heat of the day, fussing and fuming about the little bush that withered, kicking up the dust in anger and wishing he would die because things didn’t go quite like he thought they should, and because God’s grace abounds to all, we can smile (and shudder) in recognition. Jonah is us.

Jonah reminds us of how silly and stubborn we are, and of how gracious and full of compassion the Lord is
that he continues to love us
and forgive us, and use us
for the purposes of his kingdom
and as instruments of his grace.

From the One who “is full of compassion, and slow to anger and of great kindness. From the One who is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.