I take a turn in our church pulpit this weekend. In the past I’ve posted my sermons here (and I can’t help but think how this makes it easier for my brothers and sisters in the Family of God to sleep in and skip coming to the service). This time I decided to not post my sermon exactly, but to expand a bit on the reflections that have run through my mind that I won’t have time to share at church.
We follow the Lectionary readings and our clergy usually draw their messages from the New Testament Epistle or the Gospel. But this weekend the Old Testament reading is the second half of the book of Jonah. The blunt honesty of this strange story absolutely gripped me.
The central point that kept returning to my thoughts was how Jonah’s story echoed the even earlier stories of Job, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Did you ever notice how both Jonah’s and Adam and Eve’s Eden stories played out on the shores of the same river – the Tigris? “Something in the water” jokes briefly suggested themselves to me. But Jonah’s story has him going all over the Mediterranean before ending up at Nineveh, so I let go of that curious river coincidence.
I recall that the new Islamic terrorist group, ISIS, destroyed Jonah’s tomb this past summer in Mosul, Iraq, which is right across the Tigris River from the ancient ruins of Nineveh. Both Christians and Muslims had honored Jonah as a prophet for centuries. I wondered if this hostility to the memory of Jonah was a backward slap at Jesus who pointed to Jonah’s example as foreshadowing his own death and resurrection (see Matthew and Luke).
Jonah didn’t obey and go to Nineveh until after his three days in the belly of the great fish. He announced that God’s judgement on the city was just 40 days away, and he sat down outside the city to watch what would happen. I notice that after his resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples before ascending to Heaven. Then, at Pentecost,there was the great declaration of the Good News of God’s favor to all people, including the Gentiles. This was the greatest declaration of Good News to Gentiles since Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, which, at the time was the largest city in the world. Interesting parallels, I thought, if not exactly perfect.
I kept coming back to ponder Jonah’s suicidal mood in the midst of all this. Adam and Eve couldn’t see why God would put the apple tree off limits when it seemed fine and delicious to them. Jonah couldn’t see why God would bother to warn the enemies of His Own Chosen People of coming judgement. It didn’t seem right, or just, or reasonable. The question that crossed my mind was, “How would I feel if I knew my neighbors had their houses broken into and robbed last night, but my dad was telling me ‘It’s okay if you leave your doors unlocked – car, too! – and don’t bother to set the burglar alarm. No, I won’t explain but – trust me!'”
I would probably have questions.
A companion reading from the Lectionary for Sunday is Philippians 1:21-30. Paul says he’s having a hard time deciding whether to stay on earth and continuing ministering awhile longer, when he would really rather depart for Heaven and be with Christ. His final decision is not based on his own comfort but the benefit that can be extended to those he is ministering to. It is exactly the kind of assignment God gave Jonah, but Jonah just couldn’t see it. Being kind to the Ninevites looked like betraying his own people.
And look at the parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16 about the vineyard owner’s idea of fair pay. The people who worked hard all day are given the same wage as the slackers who only joined the workforce at the last hour of the day. The early recruits grumble at that but the vineyard owner doesn’t see the problem. “My vineyard, my rules, right? And I just want to be generous this way.”
When Job couldn’t understand why God was allowing him to be overwhelmed with suffering, he spoke up and asked God for an explanation (not that he got one). Jonah doesn’t even bother to ask. Perhaps he knew that hadn’t worked for Job. Jonah also doesn’t try to argue. “I already know what You are going to do because You are always merciful and kind! So just kill me now! I can’t stand to see it happen. I don’t think it’s right…” It is striking how opposite this is from the prayer of Jesus in the Garden. Jesus frankly admitted he didn’t want to go through with the death sentence before him. In both cases, the initial request made to God would bring no benefit to the people who needed it. Our ways are not God’s ways. But our desire for our own way is so strong. It seems so reasonable. It seems so right. There’s nothing to discuss.
No wonder Jonah doesn’t want to bother with a conversation that day. But God does. He has some questions of His own, ones that, I must say, do seem reasonable.
Yet the Book of Jonah ends with God’s questions hanging in the air, unanswered. No one else was around who knew the whole story, so I assume we’re reading it as Jonah lived it and talked about it later. Perhaps he was embarrassed to write down his answer from the hillside by Nineveh. No doubt he chewed on the question for awhile as he made his way back home. Perhaps the Holy Spirit simply wanted the manuscript to end with God’s questions ringing in our hearts. Have we bothered to consider our situation beyond our own immediate perspective? Have we remembered to allow for the facts we don’t yet see, don’t yet know? The facts God has taken into account as He decides what is right and just to do?
It is amazing God takes us on board at all, wanting us to work with Him on His plans for His creation. It is humbling to recognize the calm patience our Heavenly Father exhibits while He waits for us to see the clues, much less get one. You might think it should be enough that we recognize God is willing to show others just as much patience and forgiveness as He has shown to us. At least, God thinks that ought to be enough. Could it possibly be right for us to think otherwise? Is there any way we will continue to walk with the Almighty if we keep thinking He’s going in the wrong direction and we can correct Him?