A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., September 18, 2011.
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Jonah? You think of a whale. Am I not right? Disregarding the fact that there is no mention of a whale – the Hebrew text instead refers to a great fish – there is a lot more to the story of Jonah than that he served as bait for whatever sea creature it might have been that swallowed him up. No, there is a lot more to this man we know as Jonah than meets the eye.
In fact, psychologists would have a hay-day with him. For one thing, there’s the avoidance issue. We don’t know how it was delivered, but the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” Jonah didn’t argue like Moses, or claim that he was deficient in providing such a message to those rebellious folk at Ninevah. He didn’t put out a fleece like Gideon, making sure that God was truly intent on doing what he was told to do. He didn’t wear an oxen yoke around his neck like Jeremiah or respond devoutly like Isaiah, who, when he heard from God said to his Lord, “Here am I; send me.”
No, Jonah, as they say in the old westerns, lit a shuck and got outta Dodge. He just took off for the hinterlands, trying in vain to hide from the Almighty. He had nothing to say to God in response, he just avoided the entire issue by attempting to go into the witness protection program. That’s the way some people deal with difficult situations. They do everything in their power to avoid them, even to the point of hustling out of town.
But Jonah didn’t get very far.
Do you recall those times, when you were a child, that you ran away from home? Don’t deny that you did it. Just about all of us, at one time or another, felt that life was caving in on us and we needed a change of scenery. The question is, at such a young age, what constitutes a change of scenery?
We lived on a five-acre place a couple of miles out of town. The old house was set back from the road by a winding gravel driveway about a tenth of a mile in length. Our driveway had to be gravel because the road was gravel, which, incidentally, didn’t keep some drivers from going very fast. So, when we first moved out into “the country,” my mom prohibited us from going down there.
But when you run away from home, as I did one time, where else can you go? I knew when I got back home that I’d catch it, and catch it good, for breaking the rules. And I did. What made it even worse was that Mom made my brother Steve break off the branch from the nearby tree, which was then used on my backside. I’m sure he took some delight in that.
Jonah made it farther than just down to the road. He got all the way to Joppa where he booked passage on a ship going to Tarshish. You know the story, don’t you? He never made it. According to the way the narrative is told, the Lord “hurled a great wind upon the sea.” The ship’s crew threw all the cargo overboard, thinking that lightening their load would help. They were all praying to their own individual and various gods, and all the while Jonah is down in the ship’s hold sound asleep as if he had a perfectly clear conscience. The captain comes and gets him and says, “Call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
And that is when Jonah finally decides to speak, not that he does it of his own accord. This ship’s crew is a superstitious bunch. They cast lots to see who has brought this calamity upon them, and the lot falls to Jonah. When the captain demands an explanation, Jonah finally admits that this is all his doing. The storm is the result of his having run away from God.
In a situation like that, there is only one thing to do… that is, if you’re a superstitious sailor on a boat going from Joppa to Tarshish with a man like Jonah on board. You sacrifice the man who has brought this difficulty upon you. You appease the gods. So, without further adieu, they pick up Jonah by his ankles and toss him into the sea. The storm immediately ceases, which does nothing to keep the sailors from continuing to be very superstitious fellows, and they go on their way. But not before making a sacrifice to the Lord.
Three days and three nights. That’s how long Jonah is in the belly of that sea creature. Three days and three nights. I’ve been on mission trips with our youth and slept for a week on the floor of whatever facility was housing us. Janet and I spend a night here at the church each time we host families through the Family Promise program. Did it just this past Wednesday evening. We are provided folding cots for short people, and which do nothing for my surgically-repaired neck and back. But that’s luxurious, I would think, compared to sleeping in the belly of a fish. Three days and three nights.
It probably wasn’t any picnic for the fish either. As Frederick Buechner says, “Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.”1 Do you think it’s possible for a whale… uh, a fish to have indigestion?
Once delivered from his difficult living conditions, Jonah hears the word of the Lord yet again. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah does what the Lord tells him to do. No arguing, no running away, no avoiding. It doesn’t mean that Jonah is happy about it, it just means he does it. This time, he doesn’t have a choice.
You can’t help but get the feeling, however, that once he gets there he enjoys delivering the message of impending doom. Nineveh is such a large city, by the standards of the day, that it takes him three whole days just to walk across it. “Forty days more,” he cries out to the city’s inhabitants as he hoofs it across the city, “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Over and over again, until he is hoarse from his efforts. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah gets a kick out of telling these sinners that they’ve got it coming. After all, the Ninevites are not his people. In fact, they are his enemies. Why is God so hot and bothered about how they behave? Doesn’t God have enough trouble on his hands with the Israelites that he has go and worry about these foreigners? The Israelites… they’re God’s people. Tend to their needs and leave everybody else to fend for themselves.
But once he gets to Nineveh and sees for himself why God is so concerned, he is more than happy to deliver a message of doom and destruction. They deserve it. One of my seminary professors told us of the radio preacher he once heard. His name wasn’t Jonah, I don’t think, but he had the same spirit. “God’s gonna get you cigar-suckin’, champagne-sippin’ sinners! Pra-i-s-e God!”
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
But guess what? The people of Nineveh took to heart the message God delivered through this stubborn prophet, and they repented of their sins. Even the king got into the act by removing his royal robe, covering himself with sackcloth, and sitting in a pile of ashes… cold ashes, I would think.
And it worked. God changed his mind about Nineveh and decided to spare it. Now what’s Jonah gonna do?
Well, that’s when his pity party begins. Have you ever had a pity party? Sure you have. When life isn’t going your way, when things turn against you, and the outlook becomes bleak, you withdraw into yourself and question, “Why me? Why me?” We’ve all had our own version of a pity party, sometime, somewhere, somehow.
A mother came into her son’s bedroom one Sunday morning, told him to get out of bed, get ready, and go to church. “But I don’t want to go,” said her son. “Church is no fun. The sermons don’t do anything for me, the people don’t like me, and they say unkind things about me.”
“Nevertheless,” his mother said in response, “You have to go. Get out of bed, get ready, and go to church.”
“But why do I have to go? I don’t want to go.”
“I’ll tell you why you have to go. You’re the pastor and that’s what they pay you for.”
When you throw a pity party for yourself, how do you do it? Well, let me tell you how Jonah did it. The first thing he did was talk back to God. We are told that he prayed, but somehow I get the feeling that what he said, and how he said it, was not exactly on the same level as what Jesus taught us to say in the Lord’s Prayer. In essence, Jonah said to God, “I knew it! I knew it! I told you so when I was still back home, minding my own business, and you showed up to tell me to come down here. That’s why I ran away to Tarshish – or tried, at least.”
And then Jonah reveals that he has a better understanding of the nature of God than we might think. He says to the Lord, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
What is Jonah saying? He doesn’t want to have anything to do with a merciful God, not when it comes to people who are not like him. He’s much more inclined to see the people of Nineveh perish because they are not his people and he doesn’t want them to be saved. He is very much aware that God can save them if that is what God wants. And while God can do that if God wishes, he, Jonah, doesn’t want to have anything to do with this whole enterprise. Why can’t God either do this by himself or use someone else? Why did God have to go and pick on him?
So he stalks out of the city and sits down in protest. He finds a nice little spot on the side of a hill and pouts. He doesn’t go very far because just in case God changes his mind again and decides to destroy Nineveh, he wants a ringside seat to the destruction.
But God isn’t through with Jonah, not just yet. The Lord causes a bush to come up and provide Jonah with shade. How nice and thoughtful of God. Maybe Jonah was right. He is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Even when it comes to old irascible Jonah.
Jonah starts feeling better about things and his disposition begins to lighten up… well, just a little… until God sends a worm to eat the bush so that it withers. The sun rises and a hot east wind blows and Jonah begins to sweat underneath his robe. It gets so bad he is about to faint, and the pity party picks up again. “It is better for me to die than to live,” says poor, put-upon, pouting Jonah.
“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks Jonah. Jonah isn’t one, if you will excuse the pun, to beat around the bush. “Yes,” he tells God. “Yes, it is right for me to be angry, angry enough to die.”
“You are concerned about the bush,” God says. “You did not labor for it, nor did you cause it to grow. It came to you because I willed it, not because you deserved it. In the same way as you are concerned for this bush, I have thought of the more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who live in Nineveh. And not just the people but the animals as well. They do not know their right hand from their left,” God says to Jonah, which I take to mean that they know nothing of this “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” But now, oddly enough, because of this pouting prophet, they do.
You see, when God throws a pity party, it is not because God is pouting. It is because God has it in mind to save those who seem to be un-savable, to forgive those who may not even know they stand in need of forgiveness, to restore those who don’t even know their right hand from their left.
Now that’s an interesting thought, especially the Sunday after 9/11. Do you agree?
Lord, we worship you because you are a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” If we are going to be bold enough to ask you to be that way toward us, help us not to be resentful when you extend your grace to others, even to those not like us. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 74.