By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: From the Book of Jonah
Now that everyone – from the pre-schoolers to the grad students – are back at class, this morning I’m kicking off a new sermon series in honor of “back to school season” in which we’re going to look at some stories and characters from the Hebrew scriptures that are often popular with children… mostly because they’ve been made famous by Veggie Tales. But also because the characters are loosely defined as heroes. Cambridge dictionary defines a hero as a person admired for having done something brave or having achieved something great.
When I was a kid, my favorite story book was Pickles the Fire Cat. The most memorable line was when Mrs. Goodkind told Pickles, “Pickles, you are a big cat with big paws. Someday you will do big things.” When we are children, we dream of doing big things, of achieving something great. But as we grow up, we discover how difficult it is to do big things and how easily we can be intimidated and discouraged, or even distracted. We doubt ourselves and we may even doubt God’s call over our lives. As we grow, the hard knock school of life teaches us some lessons we’d be better off without – like prejudice and resentment; paralyzing fear and self-doubt. And so those children’s tales of characters like Jonah have lessons even for more mature listening audiences.
The book of Jonah opens with the prophet’s call from God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to call its citizens to repentance. Jonah doesn’t like this assignment because Assyria, located in modern day Iraq, became the dominant nation of the Near East from roughly 934-609 B.C.E. and in 722, Assyria was the nation that destroyed the northern tribes of Israel. So, it’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t find God’s command to go preach repentance to its citizens very appealing because Jonah knows that – with his God – repentance results in forgiveness. Let’s be honest: when people are really awful – I mean evil to the core – most of us would rather they get punished than see them repent and receive forgiveness.
Jonah tries to escape his call. Nineveh is a land locked city. So Jonah boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. He must be feeling pretty smug about his escape because he falls soundly asleep below deck even as a storm begins to rage. In the ancient world, the sea was much feared and, in most cultures, the god of the sea was considered “top god.” But soon, Jonah is awakened by the sailors and encouraged to pray to his God. The sailors toss their cargo into the sea; they do all they can to survive. Their best assumption is that someone on this ship has angered the god of the sea and so they toss dice to see who comes up as the culprit and Jonah is the one implicated. Now, they want to know more about this passenger: who he is, where he’s from, what he’s done to make God so angry. When Jonah announces that his God, the God of the Hebrews, is God of earth, sea and sky and that he was arrogant enough to try to run and hide from such a powerful God, the sailors are really freaked out. They ask Jonah what to do and he replies that they need to throw him overboard. They’re reluctant, but finally concede. They toss Jonah overboard, the sea grows immediately calm, the sailors drop to their knees to worship God and Jonah gets gobbled up by a mighty fish. He spends three days and three nights in the darkness of the belly of the fish. Then, in the bowels of the fish, Jonah prays to the Lord and the fish vomits him out… which would be a fairy book ending, but it’s really only “take two” as the word of the Lord comes to Jonah yet again.
Recognizing his inability to run or hide, Jonah relents and heads to Nineveh to proclaim the word of the Lord. And sure enough, Jonah’s worst fears are confirmed: Nineveh – from the king to the peasants to the farm animals, all repent. They fast, dress in sackcloth and heap ashes on their heads. They are serious and God knows it. So God changes his mind and forgives them. He is happy for their change of heart; but Jonah, not so much. He marches to the outskirts of the city and he’s angry at Nineveh and angry at God. He prays to the Lord. Now when he prayed from the belly of the whale, Jonah praised God’s mercy and deliverance. But now, his tone has changed. He’s had enough of this ridiculous grace and mercy and steadfast love. He’d just as soon be dead than have to watch these miserable Assyrians get off scot free. Jonah is hot and miserable under the desert sun so God ordains a bush to sprout up and give him shade. That makes Jonah a little less cranky and he falls asleep. But the next morning, God appoints a worm to attack the bush and it dies. Now Jonah is alone and sulking, really fuming, under a hot desert sun and a sultry desert wind. He calls to God once again, begging to die. And God responds. “You’re this worked up over a bush, really? So upset you’d rather be dead?” “Yes, dead” Jonah adamantly replies. And God concludes their conversation (and the book of Jonah concludes) with this epic pronouncement from God. “Jonah, you got this worked up over a bush that grew up and died over the course of a day. How do you think I felt about an entire city filled with people, not to even mention their animals?”
It’s little wonder the story of Jonah is so popular with children. After all, it has adventure on the high seas, a main character who succumbs to the same fate as Pinocchio, and a bush that grows fast enough to rival Jack’s bean stalk.
But Jonah, the prophet, is a reluctant hero who winds up regretting his own success. Called to do something great for God, prejudice, resentment and his own righteous indignation inspire him to place the lives and livelihoods of innocent sailors at jeopardy in his selfish attempt to run and hide from God’s call.
Hear these opening words from the book of Jonah:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go at once to Nineveh, the great city, and cry out against it; because her evil is in my face.” Jonah did arise to run away to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord and he went down to Joppa and he found a ship returning to Tarshish and he went down in the ship to go with them to Tarshish away from the face of the Lord.
We human creatures are good at hiding. The very first man and woman, Genesis tells us, when they realized they had sinned against God… well, they tried to hide from God; to run away from the face of the Lord.
Hiding is a game for us. One of the very first games we play with infants is “peek-a-boo.” Initially, an infant is startled at mom’s or dad’s sudden reappearance. But, as they develop object permanence, they anticipate with delight that moment when hands slip away and mom or dad suddenly is found.
Long after we outgrow physical hiding, we adults grow adept at hiding our feelings. We hide them from one another and stuff them down. We’re to meet a friend for coffee or lunch. Something in their life has changed; they don’t seem to have time for us anymore. And now, as we sit at the coffee shop, our phone pings and we read their text: “Sorry. Something’s come up. Can we reschedule?” And we text back: “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it’s not OK and we hide what we really want to say: “You’ve let me down and hurt my feelings. I wonder if our friendship matters to you anymore.” We try to hide our anger… after all; anger is a sin, right? We try to hide our frustration… after all; isn’t patience a “fruit of the spirit?”
Throughout scripture, God’s “face” is idiomatic for God’s presence… a presence that is unavoidable and more intimate than we can sometimes bear. Yet few in scripture better capture the human instinct to hide than the prophet Jonah. Called by God to go to the great city of Nineveh, he runs as far and as fast as he can in the opposite direction. He flees from the face of God. He gets on a boat and goes down into the bowels of the ship to hide… as if there were anywhere he could truly go to escape the presence of God. But he can’t. None of us ever really can. It is as the Psalmist writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your face… For it was you who… knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Friends, we cannot flee from God’s presence. We cannot escape the gaze of God’s face. And there are no games we can play, no cosmic peek-a-boo that will hide our actions, our words, or even our thoughts from the God who knit us together. We have nowhere to hide.
The assignment Jonah received was a hard one. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a very impressive city, a “great city”… so long as “great” means large and powerful; for Nineveh, most certainly, was not great in the sense of being honorable or benevolent. No; the Assyrians were the nation that descended with a vengeance upon Israel around 722 BCE. Their leader, Sargon, had a brilliant strategy to insure that Israel would never rise again. He deported and dispersed the Israelites throughout the Mesopotamian region and he brought other nationalities within Israel’s borders. Ten tribes were lost forever… thanks to Assyria, whose capital, Nineveh, stood as the symbol of her rapacious power. And it was to those very people Jonah was told by God to “Arise and go at once…” “Go at once… to the people who have destroyed you… who have taken from you what can never be recovered.”
Methodist founder John Wesley wrote long ago: “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” Grace is an awesome idea when the one being forgiven is me. But grace is a horrible idea if it means that someone who has brought harm and suffering to me and mine could get off scot free, facing no personal penalty for the horrible pain they’ve caused. Nothing is more repugnant than a grace bestowed on those who have wounded us, hurt us deeply. It is all we can bear to be told that God loves them. It is more than we can accept that God forgives them. And should God saddles us with the assignment of being the bearer of that benevolent news… Well, we want to run in the opposite direction as far and as fast as we can.
And so the story of Jonah ought to challenge us to look deep inside and consider, “Is there someone to whom we begrudge God’s grace?” Let’s be honest with God and ourselves. There might be days that go by without us even thinking of that person. But then, something happens to remind us and we think back to the pain that person caused us or the loss they brought to us, and we feel that tightness in our stomach or our jaw; although we try to tell ourselves and God that “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it is a problem and it’s not OK.
Maybe it’s the “ex” we tell ourselves we’ve forgiven. But then we go to that holiday family gathering. Our siblings all have their children with them. But ours is with the ex. And we feel that resentment well up inside us. Or maybe it’s that boss who mismanaged everything. His flippant, irresponsible choices meant the company had to downsize. And now you’re out of work and it’s meant all kinds of sacrifices for you and your family. Or maybe it’s a co-worker from long ago. You considered her your teammate until you discovered that, to the boss’s face she missed no opportunity to throw you under the bus. And now, years later, she’s the VP and you’re still in the same position you started in. Or maybe it’s that friend whose kid introduced yours to drugs and it’s been a horrible never-ending roller coaster of addictions ever since. Or maybe it’s that neighbor who was far more neighborly than appropriate with your spouse. Or maybe it was that drunk driver who T-boned your car and your back has never felt the same. The list could go on and on. We know God’s love and grace are for everyone. But it is hard, so hard. And sometimes it’s hard to look God in the face; to come into his presence when that resentment and anger is still rumbling down deep in our souls. We can try stuffing it down and it works for a while. But every now and then, it gets the better of us.
So maybe today is a good day to stop pretending; to recognize that trying to hide from our own emotions is about as logical as thinking peek-a-boo really makes someone disappear. Maybe today is a good day to get real with God and with yourself… and sometimes a good therapist or spiritual director. We are called, my friends, to be vessels for God’s grace to overflow into the lives of others. But if anger and resentment is sloshing around inside of us, then that’s what’s going to spill out every time our egos get bumped or jostled. God wants to flood our hearts with his grace so that grace will slosh around and spill out wherever we go. God wants to flood our hearts with grace. And so today is as good a day as any to ask God to soften your heart and to help you accept that his grace is not just for everyone in the general, generic sense; but even for that person who wounded you and wronged you in the most specific, personal sense.
Friends, the story of Jonah may be a story popular with kids, but its message can only be fully appreciated when we grow up in our understanding of ourselves and of God’s amazing grace and when we are willing to answer God’s call to take that good news even to those who have wounded us. The story of the prophet Jonah is a whale of a tale designed to stretch us in ways we may want to resist. But by story’s end, through that concluding dialogue and final question, we must recognize that the grace of God cannot be outrun and – whether saint or sinner, hero or villain – not a one of us can or ever should try to hide from God’s love and forgiveness.
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