This story is wild.
There’s really no way around it.
The most bizarre part of it is right here,
With the words that begin the third chapter of the Book of Jonah:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time…”
Well…The FIRST time didn’t work out so well… did it?
You might remember the story:
Act One: God tells Jonah son of Amittai to “go at once” to Nineveh
to call them to repentance.
Nineveh is a great city,
Huge—takes three days to walk across it.
The center of great wealth and opulence.
The heart of the Assyrian empire,
The Assyrians…who conquered the Hebrews
Ground their own cities to dust
Took their wealth
Drove them to Exile.
That’s Nineveh. The symbol of all of that.
God tells Jonah to go there and to tell them to knock it off.
Jonah, you may recall, thought he knew better,
Thought he knew better than God,
Believed he could judge more accurately than God.
Jonah believed, among other things,
that Nineveh did NOT deserve God,
that It was too wicked and immoral to be SAVED by God,
and had NO need of God’s presence,
let alone Jonah’s assignment.
He also apparently believed that
he could travel in the opposite direction from Nineveh,
not only escaping the task,
but also getting “away from the presence of God.”
…That didn’t work out too well for Jonah.
You might remember the text we looked at last week,
Psalm 139, where the author asks: where can I go from your presence?
Well, Jonah might be a case study for that question:
Jonah got on a boat, doing exactly opposite what God wanted.
Big storm comes up—the boat is in peril–
–Jonah was, in psychological terms,
“the identified problem,”
swallowed by a fish,
three whole days…in the belly of the fish…
…there’s a LONG, desperate prayer from Jonah to God
from the belly of the fish—
–in which Jonah alternates between
crying to God
and BLAMING God for his predicament…
…then, the fish spits up Jonah onto dry land…
[we might pause a second for dramatic effect]
…and the very next words are:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time…”
A few years ago, The New York Times reported the death of the joke.
Under the headline “Seriously, the Joke Is Dead,”
the Times explained:
In case you missed its obituary,
the joke died recently
after a long illness, of, oh, 30 years.
Its passing was barely noticed, drowned out, perhaps,
by the din of ironic one-liners,
snark and detached bons mots
that pass for humor these days.
The joke died a lonely death.
There was no next of kin to notify,
the comedy skit, the hand-buzzer
and Bob Newhart’s imaginary telephone monologues
having passed on long before.[i]
The Bible would beg to differ.
Jonah…is the Bible’s longest and best…JOKE.
Like most good jokes,
it carries within it a profound meaning
that reveals character:
Jonah’s character, for sure, but also God’s character.
In the spirit of the old line attributed to Woody Allen,
If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans…”
the painful truth of Jonah,
is that Jonah’s plans for his life are TOTALLY disrupted…
and all Jonah gets in return…
is the GRACE of God.
The Book of Jonah is the only prophetic book
without extended pronouncements and theological claims.
Scholars think that this book was written
during the first half of the eighth century BC
during the reign of King Jeroboam II.
That makes the Book of Jonah all the more remarkable
since this was a period of fierce nationalism and hatred toward Nineveh.
Jonah is commanded to go preach to the great city of Nineveh.
Jonah of course refuses, because Jonah, as a Hebrew,
knows full well the many horrible things that
the Assyrians have done to his fellow Hebrews.[ii]
Jonah balking at God’s command would have struck a cord.
I get you, Jonah.
That raises for us a question:
Who would you NOT want to see succeed?
Or, maybe more to the point, who would you like to see fail?
Who would you like to see God smite?
We don’t talk about God doing that very much
But sometimes we see people mentioning it openly:
Westboro Baptist Church was in Prairie Village on Friday
Openly asking God to smite Gay people
Across the street from Shawnee Mission East High School.
The students, instead,
Formed a welcome parade for everyone in their hallway
Signs, music, dancing
A counter-stance to the smiting hopes of the Westboro crew.
There have been times, though,
When I’ve wanted God to stop Westboro from their hate.
Maybe even wanted God to hinder them
Not literally smite them, I’ve never gotten that far in my thinking,
Just maybe have them get lost
On the way to the cemetery.
When they want to picket a fallen soldier’s funeral?
But I know people have wished them harm.
Who do we want to see fail,
Or to have God smite?
That’s one of those really deep questions
That we sometimes refuse to ask ourselves.
It has the potential to touch on really tender places in our hearts
Those places that are rooted, all too often,
In some real pain.
Harm done. Lingering hurts.
Or sometimes we hear it in our national discourse:
Which dictator would be best ousted, or taken out by special forces?
Which group of people are becoming
more and more dangerous to society at large,
and must be relegated to the back of the bus?
As Rick Morely points out, blogging about this text,
this is the moral soup in which Jonah swims
(forgive the pun).
…When Jonah finally does arrive in Nineveh
(smelling strangely like a bucket of fish),
he walks only one-third of the way into the city…
…and says (in Hebrew) just five words.
Five words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Another pastor friend translates these words as:
“Forty Days, and Nineveh is Toast”[iii]
Is that all he thought that Nineveh needed to turn and repent?
Or, did he think that that was an acceptable minimum to get God off his back?
Fine, God, I’ll do what you’re apparently going to make me do,
but just the very least I can get away with…
And with those five little words, Jonah becomes the most successful prophet
in the entire canon of the Old Testament.
Joke is on you, Jonah: He turns an entire city to the ways of God.
And Jonah hated it.
Oh, Jonah hated it.
The rest of the story shows Jonah weeping and wailing,
and railing against God some more.
“I knew it.
I knew this would happen
That you were a gracious God,
Merciful, slow to anger,
Abounding in steadfast love.”
Do those words sound familiar?
If you have spent just a bit of time reading around the Hebrew Scriptures
That’s quite often how God is understood:
God, justly calling people to account,
Is merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
One thing is certain: Jonah didn’t care for the Ninevites.
In fact, in reality, what he wanted was to see them fail.
And be smited.
Well, two more things are also certain.
On the one hand: God didn’t share Jonah’s opinion.
God doesn’t play favorites.
And, no matter who the party or person is,
God is always willing to extend grace and mercy,
Because maybe they’ll repent
Their heart not be so hardened…
And, on the other hand, there’s this:
We don’t have to be angels and saints for God to use us.
Jonah harbored hateful thoughts in his heart—
–and despite even that God was able to use him.
God can use ANYONE…to do God’s great things.[iv]
I was reading this week some of the writings of a favorite Methodist author
Will Willimon, who was for a while Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.
He shared this story about a night where he was quite frankly
Surprised to have his whole world turned upside down:
“One night, some years ago, a fraternity invited me to give a talk.
The Dean requires them to have a certain number
of programs each year
in order to give fraternities some semblance of respectability.
My assigned topic was “Character and College.”
I thought, I can’t believe that they are dumb enough to invite
an old guy like me to talk to young guys like them on “character.”
So I went to their fraternity section and knocked on their door.
The door opened and I was greeted by a young boy of about nine or ten.
What is a kid doing over here at this time of the night? I wondered.
Surely we have rules against young children in the dorm this late.
“They’re waiting for you in the common room,” he said.
“Follow me, I’ll take you there.”
We wound our way back into the common room
and the fraternity was gathered, glumly waiting for my presentation.
As I began my remarks,
I noted that the little boy climbed onto the lap of one of the brothers.
Shortly, he fell asleep with his head on the shoulder of this college kid.
Well, I hammered them for the moral failures of their generation for about half an hour.
When I finally finished my talk
I asked if they had any questions or comments. Dead silence.
So, I thanked them and made my way out.
I heard the college kid say to the little boy,
“You go on and get ready for bed.
I’ll be in to tuck you in and read you a story.”
When we stood just outside the door,
the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a drag on it,
and thanked me for coming out.
“Let me ask you,” I said, “Who was the kid there tonight?”
“Oh, that’s Darrell,” he said.
“The fraternity is part of the Big Brother program.
We met Darrell that way.
His mom’s on crack and having a tough time.
Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him.
So we told Darrell to call us up when he needs us.
We go over, pick him up,
and he stays with us until it’s okay to go home.
We take him to school,
buy him his clothes, books, and stuff.”
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“I take back all that I said about you people being bad and irresponsible.”
“I tell you what’s amazing,”
he said as he took another drag on his cigarette,
“what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me
to do something this good for somebody else.”[v]
A CALL from God—whether to follow Jesus or go to Nineveh—changes us.
It ALTERS our world fundamentally.
Grace that is not disruptive is not grace.
And a call can come to anyone
Sometimes to people we don’t expect
Sometimes to people we presume are up to no good
Sometimes to people we have prejudices and presumptions against.
It means the irruption of God in our lives, so that the improbable becomes possible.
“The GRACE of God really comes to lost sinners,
but in coming it disrupts them to the core.
This is ALWAYS more radical than we imagine…
Maybe even more radical than we wish.”[vi]
That’s what Jonah discovered—in or out of the big fish.
It was a radical grace that BOTH Jonah…and wicked Nineveh received.
I got a facebook request a few years ago
From a guy who was a jerk to me in High School. Several requests from him, actually.
I kept discarding them.
Not really a bully; he himself wasn’t the bullying type
He was timid and quiet and a chain smoker
He didn’t understand me, and didn’t try to.
But it was mutual:
It wasn’t until later that I’d learn how he was dealing with some awful stuff himself–
Self esteem issues, matters of personal identity–
All I saw was that he made fun of me,
behind my back and sometimes loudly in public.
That’s no fun.
I had written him off, to be honest.
Hadn’t thought about him in 20 years.
And then voila, there was a request to connect on social media.
I sat on it.
Life could have gone on with me just blocking him, and for some other people
I might have.
But I wrote back:
I’m confused why you keep sending me requests to connect
you were a real jerk to me in High School.
And he wrote:
My apologies for the repeated requests and for being a jerk 20 years ago.
Now: I’m not sure if we’d sit down for lunch somewhere today
But I’ll tell you what this did: it closed a bit of a hole in my heart
Hurt from the past
Wrongs that linger that won’t heal if not given the chance to…
…We gather every week and proclaim to each other: God is love.
God’s grace is for everyone.
But that work of God’s remains unfinished until
we respond to it in REAL LIFE.
We are asked to follow Jesus….do we follow today?
We are told to go to someone we hate,
we despise—and told to love them,
and worse than that—help them.
Will we do that?
It’s the hardest thing in our life—to live like that.
The good news is that if we duck God’s call the first time,
God will be back to ask again. God asks twice.
We may try to dodge God,
run away from God,
pretend this love and grace is not disruptive…?
God will continue to swallow us whole into this grace
God will work with us again and again and again and again
until we are in on the joke,
and sharing the laughter of joy
at God’s improbable, wondrous ways
with EVERY PERSON God created, including you,
including me, including every “them” we might name.
I don’t always understand what God is up to.
But I’m so very glad to keep trying
Because it gives me hope
And it gives me life.
May we continue to keep looking for God’s healing, reconciling love.
May it be so.
[i] Cited in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Advent Through Transfiguration, “Homiletical Perspective” by Lawrence Wood (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 267, referencing the article by Warren St. John “Seriously, the Joke is Dead,” New York Times, May 22, 2005. First part of this sermon is indebted to The Rev. Mark Ramsey, who preached on them in his sermon “All of the Above” at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina.
[ii] William Willimon, “What about Them?” Pulpit Resource, Logos, January 22, 2012
[iii] The Rev. Shannon Kershner uses this line in her sermon “God’s Humor” at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, preached on January 25, 2015.
[v] William Willimon, “Revolution!” Pulpit Resource, Logos, January 22. 2006
[vi] George Hun singer, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 60-70
Image Credit: Untitled picture by jplenio at https://pixabay.com/en/sea-ocean-water-waves-nature-2561397/, under Creative Commons license, no attribution required.