The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2012
Recently I heard about a woman who makes a living as a travel psychic. I am not making that up. A travel psychic. People pay her $90 to read cards or the palms of their hands or throw dice or something to give them travel advice. She “senses” what the road and weather conditions are going to be for the destinations to which her…victims...err...I mean customers are traveling and warns them to take different routes or to cancel a flight all together. Friends, I will do that for you for $45. In fact, I’m feeling generous today…so I’ll give all of you travel advice for free right now…are you traveling anytime anywhere in the 21st century? Then expect delays. There you go. You’re welcome.
But you know who else could give you really great travel advice? Jonah. In fact Jonah can give all of us advice… not only about traveling, but about God’s call…God’s mercy…and especially about God’s sovereignty…which is what one of my favorite seminary professors defined as, “God is God and you’re not.”
I wish the lectionary folks gave us all four chapters of the book of Jonah today instead of just this little excerpt. But we have brunch and a bouncy house waiting for us, so I’ll summarize quickly.
Today’s reading begins “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time”….uh..yeah….because when the word of the Lord came to Jonah that first time, Jonah said, “lalalala.” And he tried to ignore the Lord.
You see Nineveh was part of the Assyrian Empire, and no good Israelite would dare travel to Nineveh. Are you kidding me? Those people are awful. So Jonah ran the opposite direction, believing he could escape from God’s field of vision…escape from God’s call to him, and silly Jonah ended up on a boat with strangers who did not worship the one true God.
And no psychic in the world could have predicted what happened next, because God is at work. And no one controls God. A mighty storm erupted, and the sailors on board cast lots with their dice, and concluded that Jonah had done something to irritate his God so maybe he was the one who needed to be evacuated off the boat. Jonah actually agreed, deciding it was better to drown in a stormy sea than go to Nineveh like God had asked, so off Jonah went with a splash…and the stormy sea suddenly grew calm.
And every Sunday school child and every Early Learning Center child knows what happened next…gulp…Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. In fact Chapter 1 verse 17 says, “The Lord provided a large fish.” If you’re keeping score, God is winning. A lot of time in Sunday school classrooms and in youth groups around the world has been spent talking about what Jonah must have discovered down there in the belly of the fish. Eww.
And now ol’ Jonah believes he’ll do some praying. Nothing like being in the belly of a large fish to make you re-think your relationship with God. So as Jonah utters the final words of his prayer saying: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord,” the Bible reports that the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. Again I say: ewww. But kids love that part.
So now today, the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a…second time…and Jonah…went to Nineveh. You think?
And in this exceedingly large, exceedingly Gentile, enemy territory, Jonah does what every preacher longs to do. Jonah utters one sentence…It’s not any sentence I was ever taught in preaching school…but Jonah utters a one sentence sermon and the whole city repented. The whole city…even the animals put on sackcloth and repented. The part about the animals repenting was something else the lectionary folks left out this morning. And I’m sorry about that because the image of cows in sack cloth, fasting, and repenting like all the humans including the king, sort of tickles me. And is further testimony to the power of Jonah’s preaching, and I have to admit I’m a little jealous I have to admit.
Of course the real power to the story is the power of God’s mercy. The power of God’s forgiveness. The powerful desire that God has to be in relationship with people…all people…even those in the exceedingly large cities that are deemed to be enemy territory. And God, verse 10 tells us, changes God’s mind. This isn’t the only time we’ve heard of such a thing either.
There are over 100 such instances in the Hebrew Testament, the Old Testament. Beginning with creation, when God told Adam and Eve that they would die immediately if they disobeyed. And they were punished for their disobedience, expelled from the Garden of Eden, but they were not killed… in fact the Bible tells us, God even made clothes for them to protect them once they were out of the Garden. God changed God’s mind, about punishment just like God does here with the people of Nineveh in this story. Over and Over again God relents because God loves.
And if the book of Jonah ended right here with chapter 3 verse 10, it would still be a good story. An unwilling prophet finally does what God asked him to do….and despite himself, was able to preach in a way that people could hear, and God decides not to destroy an entire town. Yay.
But it doesn’t end right there. There’s a whole other chapter. A chapter that makes this story even more powerful…even more relevant to my life, and maybe to yours too. A chapter that begins with one powerful three letter word.
The very next chapter, chapter 4 verse 1 reads, “But…. But, this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.” The Lord is merciful…but… I don’t like it. In this final chapter, Jonah says to God, that is why I fled in the first place because I knew you were a gracious God, merciful and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So just kill me now Lord, Jonah moans. And he stomps off in a huff and makes a little tent over himself outside the city of Nineveh, and at first God creates a bush to help shade him, but then God creates a worm to eat the bush.
This does not help Jonah’s mood, and again Jonah asks to be struck dead. And God says, “You didn’t create any of this, not the bush, not the worm, and certainly not the people of Nineveh. I will be generous because I am God and you are not.”
And I wonder how many times I’ve been like Jonah? I’ve never been thrown overboard. I am going on my first cruise next week, so I hope to keep my never been thrown overboard record. And I’ve never literally been in the belly of a great fish, but I have been Jonah. I have been irritated by God’s mercy and goodness….not when it’s been extended to me, or the people I like, but when it’s been extended to “others.” When I think “they” have gotten away with something…when I think I’ve worked a lot harder than “they” have, when I’m sure I’ve been more faithful than “those people” have. And when I am quite sure I’m right about exactly whom God should punish, then I find myself saying move over Jonah, I want to sit under your tent and be angry too. Angry at God’s mercy.
And maybe like most anger, this anger comes from fear. Fear that there won’t be enough for me. Rather than God’s judgment, and the fire and brimstone kind of stuff that some of us grew up with being the thing that’s scary about God…I wonder if it’s not God’s endless love and mercy…God’s ability to forgive and relent…God’s desire to welcome all people…I wonder if that’s what’s really scary about God. Because we are made in the image of God…made in the image of that same love and mercy…and thus we are called to share that love….even with “those people”…whoever the citizens of Nineveh are for us. Because God who loves me…God who loves you, loves those “other people too.” The people who don’t vote like me or look like me…the people I’m afraid of…all of us loved by God. God who is willing to go to extremes to show us that love. Willing to let us sit in the belly of a whale to get our attention, but always willing to clean us up…willing to welcome us back...all of us...over and over again. Thanks be to God.