I know there’s at least one of you who’s been reading ahead in the story of Jonah.
And that’s OK. It’s a good thing, really. Eager hunger for Scripture is a really, really good thing.
And the story of seafaring Jonah is a voracious page-turner, as we’ve discovered in the nourishment of the Old Testament these past three Sundays. Here’s where we’ve been:
God taps Jonah for tough duty, but Jonah runs away. He vamooses aboard a stout vessel whose skipper somehow manages to sail straight into a gale, a wicked squall of stomach-churning weather that nauseates cast and crew with fear and loathing. Believing that his cowardly disobedience of God is what’s stirring the ocean’s pot – and naturally, therefore, it’s his problem to solve, Jonah volunteers to walk the plank, as it were. He’s willing to take his chances swimming with the fishes. And he does! No sooner does Jonah jump ship when the wind and water cease their raging.
But then the plot quickly shifts from Jonah’s swimming to a whale’s swallowing. Jonah gets gobbled up and gulped down by a great sea creature of some kind. Wallowing for three days in the creature’s gastric hell, Jonah cries out to God in confession of his rebellion against heaven and shouts a desperate plea for the powers that be to toss him a life ring.
And God relents, saving Jonah’s sorry hide, commanding the whale or whatever it is to spew Jonah out. And lickety spit, the reluctant prophet finds himself back on dry land, where he receives a duplicate set of the same marching orders from the Lord. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” And Jonah does – finally.
And they do – the Ninevites, that is. They clean up their individual and corporate acts! Straightening up and flying right, the Ninevites repent of their sin, and cast their lives upon the Lord, and thus choose a different path for life and living. For his part, while still keeping open a path that goes straight to hell for the resolutely unjust and disobedient, the Lord like the Ninevites chooses a different path: One of mercy and forgiveness – a lush, wide boulevard of grace and peace, accessible to even the most spiritually handicapped.
And therein lies Jonah’s real problem. Jonah thinks salvation is a toll road open only to those spiritual travelers with means to pay the access fee. Turns out, the road to salvation is a freeway whose wide, sprawling, multilane onramp is repentance. And Jonah’s suffering with a bad case of road rage, making him more apt to cut off the next guy in traffic rather than wave him in.
Listen for the Word of the Lord. These are ancient words, and they’re ever true.
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.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the LORD 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 Nineveh, 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?” (Jonah 3:10-4:11)
As any provider of physical, emotional, or spiritual care knows, the good stuff always comes out in the last five minutes of a patient encounter.
“Good stuff,” of course, referring to the real problem weighing heavy on body, soul, and spirit. The real dilemma or difficulty finally presents itself at the end of the conversation.
And so it is with Jonah, as those of you who’ve been reading ahead have already discovered. It is not until this final chapter – the story’s last five minutes – when we learn what Jonah’s problem really is.
As his story unfolds, we slowly discover what spooks Jonah so horribly that he tries to run away from God. Jonah isn’t afraid of failing on God’s difficult mission. Jonah actually is afraid of succeeding!
Remember, now: The Lord wants Jonah – a loyal, faithful Jew – to deliver a message of salvation to the Ninevites – a group of Gentiles who, by Jonah’s reckoning, are a disloyal, unfaithful bunch of filthy, dirty sinners undeserving of even an ounce of divine mercy. After all, it was the Ninevites who sent God’s people into exile.
To Jonah’s way of thinking, God’s grace only intends to benefit elite members of an exclusive club of which Jonah, as a Jew, is a member in relatively good standing. Certainly, no greasy foreigners like the people of Nineveh have a right to be included in Jonah’s posh enclave of spiritual favor, let alone should any of them enjoy the full benefits of membership in salvation.
But God apparently sees things differently and wants to change the rules to open up the club of divine grace to some new members, and the Lord’s choice of Jonah as the bearer of that inviting Good News stirs up feelings of fear and anger in ol’ Jonah – and maybe even a little embarrassment.
As another asks, how’s he going explain to the guys back home why he did something nice for a bunch of foreigners?
Why is Jonah providing aid and comfort to a longtime enemy! This whole mission trip to Nineveh feels like treason!
I don’t know about you, but I’d be nervous, too, and I’d be tempted to run away and hope God picks someone else for the job.
And so it goes when you hear God’s call to love and serve friend, neighbor and stranger.
Sure, it’s easy enough to serve friend and neighbor, but when it comes to serving the stranger or heaven forbid the enemy, well, not so much.
When God’s taps you on the shoulder and hands you your marching orders to deliver a message of grace and hope to someone you regard as an outsider and thus somehow undeserving of God’s grace, accepting the assignment can leave you angry, frightened and worried.
You question if it’s the right thing to do, wonder what others will think, worry that you’ll look foolish and gullible! And so, like seeing scary dark storm clouds approaching in the western sky, your instinctive reaction is to run and hide. Let somebody else do it! And then you glance in your rear-view mirror only to find God still in hot pursuit.
A few years ago, we after worship gathered in love and service, grace and hope, in the church kitchen, to prepare and serve a buffet Sunday dinner for members of local law enforcement. It was one of our Worshipful Work projects, and it didn’t seem like very scary work – unless for some reason you get nervous around the police, which some folks do.
As church leaders were planning this meal of appreciation, I threw out the possibility of not just providing lunch for law enforcement but also for the inmates out at the county jail. Since God’s message of grace is for everyone, why shouldn’t our grace-filled work be for everyone, too?
As my crazy, hair-brained suggestions often do, the idea of providing a meal for the jail inmates was met with stunned silence.
I knew what everyone was thinking – heck, I was thinking the same thing, too: “They’re in jail for good reason. Why should we make a hot, homemade meal for ‘them’?” True enough – to a point. “They” surely need to be held accountable for “their” actions, and the justice system – such as it works – is giving “them” what they deserve.
Then again, you and I are one of “them,” too. You and I are guilty of breaking God’s laws, rules and heart every day – whether or not we realize it. God’s got us dead to rights, and you and I deserve to spend some time behind bars for the many ways we step out line in the eyes of the Lord.
And in more than a few cases, you and I are repeat offenders who didn’t learn our lessons the first time, and the Lord would be well within his legal rights to lock us up and throw away the key! Three strikes, and you’re out!
God acts with forgiving mercy and undeserved love – again, and again, and again, as that pesky line from the Lord’s Prayer echoes in the ear: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
The church leaders and I later learned that the rules at the county jail prohibit us from providing a meal to the inmates. But it does lead me to wonder what might have happened had our meal made it past the locked doors and through the iron bars.
What if the worshipful work of providing physical nourishment ended up satisfying the spiritual hunger of an inmate?
And what if, upon release, that inmate walked through the doors of this church, sat down for coffee and doughnuts, and joined us for worship some Sunday morning?
What if that lone stranger with the multiple tattoos, body piercings, pink hair, ripped jeans, and rap sheet accepted the invitation to join us around the communion table to celebrate the joyful feast of the people of God?
For that matter, how would we react if that visitor was an undocumented immigrant, or someone struggling with sexual identity, or anyone else whom much of society regards as the modern-day version of a greasy Ninevite and thus just another outsider ineligible for membership in this Body?
If you and I screw up our courage to share God’s message of repentance, forgiveness, grace, and love to “those” people, what if our words or deeds actually take hold, and “those” people actually show up here?
Be honest, now, some of us would be a little nervous. Maybe even a few of us would want to run and hide.
Those are our Jonah moments –
those stormy times when worldly arguments that might make perfect sense outside the walls of the church make absolutely no sense within these walls that define holy ground.
Jonah moments are those threatening instances when our inner warning tone wails and we grab our loved ones, head to higher ground, and circle the wagons.
Jonah moments are those terrifying times when Gospel truth confronts the status quo with clear confirmation that God’s grace and mercy are as much for teachers, doctors, farmers, shopkeepers and other “upstanding” members of the community as they are for the thief, the drug dealer, the drunken driver and the other supposed ne’re-do-wells of our community.
Even though the powers of the world believe “they” don’t deserve the gift of grace, the Powers of Heaven think otherwise, and the Holy Spirit is always working to change our minds.
Let’s give her plenty of room to work.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, February 19, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the last of his four-part series from the Old Testament book of Jonah. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Phyllis Tribble inform the message.