Letting God Be God, for Us

Jan 24, 2020

Sermon 1-24-2021
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     I will let you in on a preacher’s secret. When you’ve gone through the three-year cycle of assigned readings a few times, especially when it has been 10 or 11 times, as has been the case for me, it’s not unusual to read that week’s lessons and think, “I do not want to preach on that; I have absolutely nothing else to say!” Well, I have the opposite reaction whenever the story of Jonah shows up in the list of assigned readings; I’m glad, and it always becomes my focus. I am drawn to Jonah, who, frankly, is not an especially likable person. But that is true of most of us at one time or another, so maybe it is the mirror effect at work; I see myself in Jonah. Or it could be the subtle humor in Jonah’s story that attracts my attention. In any case, for me, it is a story that never grows old and of which I cannot get enough.
     You may remember it, but let’s do a quick review anyway. Jonah was an Old Testament prophet called by God to go to the city of Nineveh and “cry out against it” due to its wickedness. Jonah, however, went the other direction for two reasons: one is that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and held the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost 100 years. In other words, Assyria was the enemy and was brutal in its treatment of the Israelites.
     If Jonah could have gone and predicted God’s wrath coming upon the Ninevites and then witnessed their destruction, he probably could not have gotten there soon enough. BUT, the second reason Jonah does not go, we are told in chapter 4, is that he knows God; to quote Jonah: “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.” (4:2) In other words, he does not want the enemy to experience God’s mercy.
     So, he jumps on a ship to Tarshish but soon learns the truth of Psalm 139, a portion of which we read last Sunday: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is nowhere, and for Jonah, that’s not good news. To make a long story short, the sailors throw him into the sea when they determine that he is the cause of the deadly storm that has come upon them. He ends up in the belly of a BIG fish, provided by God, where he prays and then is vomited up exactly where he did not want to go – Nineveh.
     That is where today’s text begins. For a second time, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh.” This time he goes, but not enthusiastically, all the while picking seaweed out of his beard, I imagine. He walks half-way into the city and gives a wimpy sermon in which he does not mention God or call for repentance but instead proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Even though it says that he cried out, I always like to imagine that he whispers those eight words, skating on the edge of doing God’s will.
     The response was astounding, amazing, or, as one commentator noted, hyperbolic! The king seems to think that God might relent from divine anger if the fast was extreme enough. So, he declares that everyone and every beast will fast and be covered with sackcloth and ashes, a sign of repentance.
     OK…pause here for a moment and imagine sheep and cows wearing sackcloth, with ashes darkening their foreheads, and you will realize that this is intended to be a comical overdoing of repentance. This is some of that subtle humor I mentioned earlier; the whole situation is laughable, yet it worked. The Ninevites repent, and God determines not to destroy them. Jonah should be thrilled; his eight (whispered) words turned a whole nation to God!
     However, Jonah is not thrilled. While the NRSV records that “this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry” (4:1), the closer translation from the Hebrew is, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” So, what is the “it” that made Jonah’s anger simmer? It is that God is being God. God’s mind was changed and God did not bring calamity on the city of Nineveh. From the beginning, Jonah has known what would happen; God would be God, and thus be merciful. It is interesting, isn’t it, writes commentator Beth Tanner, Jonah is angry at God for the very attributes that Israel always depended on for their salvation. (1)
     The story ends with Jonah asking God to end his life, probably so he does not have to witness the result of his lack-luster message. He goes outside the city to pout, and God provides a plant that shades the disconcerted prophet, but then “appoints” a worm to kill the plant so that Jonah is so hot and faint that he once again wishes he could die.
     God then tells Jonah that if it is right for him to be angry about the destruction of a plant that he did not create, then should not God have the right to be concerned about the 120,000 Ninevites and their many animals? Of course, the unspoken response is that God can, and will, save whomever God chooses.
     Jonah should have known, writes commentator Stan Mast, how extensive God’s mercy was, given how God dealt with Jonah’s resistance to God’s call and flight from God’s presence. I’ll quote him: “That response should have landed Jonah not just at the far edge of the world, but in a place of God’s eternal absence. Instead, God pursued him, provided for his rescue, reinstated his calling, dealt with his unholy anger in deep patience and stayed with the prophet even when he wallowed in God-criticizing depression. Even though we never hear a word about Jonah’s repentance, God stuck with him in mercy and compassion.” (2)
     I think that sums up why I’m so drawn to this story; it is not just that God shows mercy for the Ninevites, who apparently repented and were headed in a new direction, but that God did not give up on Jonah, who kept falling short of God’s hopes for him.
     This story is not just about how willing we are to let God be God for other people, those who we may feel are undeserving, but it is about how willing we are to let God be God FOR US. God forgives because that is the very heart of God; it is to that truth that we must “come around.”
     And, so, I’ll end today with a poem by Thomas Carlisle titled “Coming Around”:
And Jonah stalked
To his shaded seat
And waited for God
To come around
To his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
For a host of Jonah’s
In their comfortable housed
To come around
To his way of loving. (3)
(1) “The Third Sunday after Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-5, 10” by Beth L. Tanner, www.workingpreacher.com
(2) “Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10” by Stan Mast, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(3) Same as #2