Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Whale, A Bush, and a Worm -- All Saint's Sunday

Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10, 4:1-10
November 6, 2016/All Saint’s Sunday 

            One of my friends posted a picture on Facebook last week of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. They were standing side-by-side, and the caption of the picture said,
“Both of these people were created in the image of God. Yes. Both of them.”
It was an important, although perhaps an unwanted, reminder that no matter how much you may dislike one candidate or the other, they are both children of God. That’s one of those tenets of our faith that sounds wonderful when it applies to us, but it can be a pesky thorn in our side when we have to apply that belief to others, the people we don’t like, our enemies.
In a seminary theology class, our professor was talking about the grace of God, the mercy of God. He made the point that if Hitler were to have repented of the horrific things he had done, then it is our belief that God would have forgiven him and shown him mercy. To this statement my professor added vehemently, “And yes, the idea of Hitler being forgiven galls me! It galls me! I hate the idea! But that’s God’s mercy.”
We only have to read three verses into the first chapter of the book of Jonah to learn that Jonah was not just a reluctant prophet, but apparently hated and was galled by the idea of going to Ninevah. God called Jonah, saying,
            “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Certainly other prophets, other people, struggled with God’s call for them. Moses told God that his public speaking skills were poor; perhaps God should call his brother Aaron. Jeremiah told God that he was only a boy, who would listen to him? Sarah laughed at the idea that she would have a child in her old age. Zechariah questioned Gabriel’s message because of his advanced years, and his disbelief left him unable to speak until his son, John, was born. Even Mary was perplexed that God’s messenger, Gabriel, would come to her because she was still a young girl.
But Jonah did not utter a word in response to God’s words. He did not question God’s call. He did not argue with God. He didn’t ask for more clarity about God’s purpose in sending him to Ninevah. Without pause or hesitation, Jonah turned and went the opposite way. He fled to the port city of Tarshish and hopped a boat to Joppa.
I’d never given much thought before as to why Jonah was so resistant to preaching repentance and God’s mercy to the Ninevites. But I’ve learned some things about Ninevah. Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria. And Assyrian was the sworn enemy of Israel. The Assryians were brutal. One commentator I read displayed pictures of carved reliefs showing Assyrian soldiers flaying Hebrews. There are depictions of Assryians counting the heads of Hebrews they had killed. The Assyrians were brutal. I understand now why Jonah did not want to go to them. I understand now why Jonah did not want the Assyrians to repent, and I certainly understand why Jonah did not want them to be shown mercy. Perhaps if God had called Jonah to preach repentance someplace else to someone else, he would have gone gladly. But God wanted Jonah to preach repentance, and Jonah was not having it. So he fled.
The thing about fleeing God is that it becomes a cosmic game of hide and seek. And God always finds you. God found Jonah on that ship, and sent a terrible storm to get his attention. The storm was so bad that the sailors thought it would break the ship apart. These sailors were not Hebrews, because the text tells us that they cried to their different gods in fear at the storm. If the storm alone was supposed to get Jonah’s attention, it did not work. While the sailors were on deck throwing out cargo to lighten their load and praying for their lives, Jonah was in the hold fast asleep. The sailors woke him up and told him to pray to his god. Maybe if he prayed to his god, his god would keep them from dying in the storm. They cast lots trying to discern who had brought this calamity of storm and sea upon them. The lots fell on Jonah. Jonah did not deny it. He identified himself as a Hebrew, and that he was fleeing the Lord.
It was Jonah who told them to throw him overboard. But the sailors did not want to; they did not want the blood of this man on their hands. They did everything they could to bring the boat back to land, but the sea only worked harder against them. They prayed to the Lord, these men who worshipped so many different gods. They prayed that they would not have this man’s life and death held against them. Then, because nothing else was working, they threw Jonah overboard. The minute they did this, the storm ceased and the waters stilled. They prayed to the Lord again, and offered a sacrifice and made vows.
We all know what happened next. Jonah was swallowed by a whale – or a big fish, according to the text. Jonah stayed in the fish’ belly for three days and three nights until the fish finally spat him up on dry land. God sent the great big fish to swallow Jonah, and a word from God caused the fish to expel him.
Once Jonah was out of the fish’ belly, God spoke to him again. Same call, same instructions.
“Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
Jonah had learned his lesson about trying to flee God, so this time he obeyed God. He went to the large, bustling city of Ninevah, and he cried out seven words,
“Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”
I can imagine that Jonah did not say these words with a great deal of enthusiasm. I suspect that he did not repeat himself or shout them too loudly. But in spite of this, in spite of himself, the people of Ninevah heard Jonah. The people of Ninevah believed God. They called for a fast, and everyone – from the king down – fasted. The king called for every human and every living thing to fast, to wear sackcloth and ashes. They were all to repent. Maybe if they did, God would relent and change his mind. Maybe God would turn his anger away from them.
Jonah must have been the most successful prophet ever. Seven words! Seven words and everyone believed. They listened! They repented! And they did not halfheartedly repent, they went all out. This is a preacher’s dream. There are probably a thousand words in this sermon. Jonah uttered seven! And it worked because God changed God’s mind.
But Jonah was angry. He prayed to God, saying, “This is why I fled. I knew you’d be merciful. I knew you would be gracious, because you are a gracious God and you are merciful and you are ready to relent instead of punish. And I am so angry by this, that I wish you would just kill me now. I would rather die than live.”
That’s more like a tantrum thrown by a tired and sulky toddler than it is a prayer. But while God relented from his anger at the Ninevites, Jonah would not relent from his anger at God’s mercy. He went out of the city and waited. God caused a bush to grow up over Jonah’s head and give him shade. Jonah loved that bush. But the next day, God sent a worm to attack it and the bush died. To make matters worse, God sent a hot wind to blow over Jonah and let the sun beat down on Jonah. Jonah was hot and felt faint, and again he begged to die.
Now I think God had had enough.
“Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah responded, “Yes, angry enough to die.” God said,
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Generally, when we read a story about a prophet, it is the prophet who is the good guy. But everyone around Jonah, even the whale, the bush and the worm, were more obedient to God than Jonah was. The pagan sailors prayed and worshipped the Lord. The fish obeyed God. The bush grew because of God. The worm did what God desired it to. The Ninevites repented and God showed them mercy. But God’s mercy to the Ninevites infuriated Jonah. He did not want them to receive mercy. He wanted them to be punished. It galled him that they would receive mercy, just as it galled my professor that Hitler might receive forgiveness. But that’s the pesky side of God’s grace. It is offered to everyone.
God questioned Jonah about his anger, essentially saying, Should I not be concerned about all of those people in Ninevah, those people created in my image? Should I not be concerned about every living thing that abides in that city? I created it all, and I am concerned about my creation. I think that Jonah did not want to reconcile himself to the idea that even the Ninevites were created in the image of God. Yes, even them. On this day when we lift up our saints – those official ones and our more personal ones, on whose shoulders we stand, let us lift up those people we believe are far from sainthood as well. Let’s lift up the people we fear and dislike and even hate, because they are also God’s children; whether we like it or not. Let’s give thanks that people as well as a whale, a bush and a worm, served to remind Jonah that God was concerned with all of God’s creation. Let’s give thanks for the multitude of reminders that we are given that God is still concerned – God shows us mercy and God shows our enemies mercy as well. Because of all us were created in God’s image, even our enemies. Yes, even them.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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