Have you ever resisted doing something you knew God was calling you to do? Why do we flee from Christ’s teachings that we know can grow in us a meaningful life? Why hesitate to give, forgive, love, keep Sabbath, offer mercy, or catalyze justice?
We won’t discover why Jonah resisted God’s call until the 3rd act of the play! The play opens with God telling Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
Here is my cut out of Ninevih!
Jonah understands God’s call and gets up but books a cruise in the opposite direction! Distraction- we love it. Jonah seeks to get away from God’s deeper call! We, too, try to evade our problems. We do not wrestle with our souls, we buy more, schedule more, do more, more, more! When the pandemic ends, will we remember how our overscheduling once where? Distraction may be our greatest spiritual problem.
Now, God is extremely active in the Jonah script. God talks to Jonah. God talks to the whale. God hurls a storm. God grows a miracle tree. God sends a worm. In Act 1, God hurls a great wind upon the sea; the storm threatened to break Jonah’s ship into pieces. The terrified sailors pray to their gods. They desperately toss the cargo overboard to lighten the ship and increase buoyancy. The lighter ship floats higher above the crashing seas. I once spent 8 hours fishing off the coast of North Carolina during a small craft advisory. If our charter boat had been 17 feet shorter we would not have been allowed to leave the harbor! It’s a long story, but when you are trying to see the horizon, breathing diesel fumes, tentatively sipping water, repulsed by the saltines that the captain advised, and you as an ordained clergy person are praying aloud, “Oh, God, help me keep these motion sickness pills down”: you can sympathize with the sailors.
While the storm rages, Jonah goes below deck and naps. The sailors pray as they row and bail salt water. The prophet sleeps. Incredulous, the captain wakes Jonah demanding, “How can you possibly be sleeping? Get up! Call on your God! Perhaps your God will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.” Above deck, the sailors cast lots to see who to cast blame on for the storm. Now the Bible generally condemns such superstition, but in the story the lot correctly falls on Jonah. The sailors demand, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us, what is going on?” Jonah proudly declares,“I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah goes on to share how he is fleeing from God. The sailors ask the prophet, “What can we do so that the sea will become calm around us?” Jonah replies, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Unconvinced and unwilling to sacrifice a life, the sailors rowed even harder, but they couldn’t manage because the sea continued to rage.
Fearing that everyone on board might die, the desperate sailors pray to Jonah’s God saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this prophet’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” And saying “Amen” they hurled Jonah into the sea. The sea became calm. Alive and safe, the pagan sailors worship God. The director’s notes instruct “with a deep and profound reverence”. I wonder, when the sea fell calm, did the sailors debate deploying a life raft or did the giant fish swallow Jonah as soon as he landed in the ocean? Either way, the sailors exit the stage after offering a sacrifice to the Lord along with solemn promises to live more righteously!
Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. That had to stink! And it may not surprise you to know that upon finding himself alive inside the whale’s digestive tract, Jonah prayed. It is a long beautiful prayer befitting a professional clergy person. After the prayer the act ends with, “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.”
Alive, back on land, covered in whale vomit, Jonah hears again the word of the Lord, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” Jonah gets up and goes to the great city. Now, Nineveh was an enormous city, so big it took a three day weekend to walk though it. God loves big cities. Jonah walked through Ninava for just one day. He quits a third of the way done. The playwright never tells us exactly what God told Jonah to say. It might be a mistake to believe Jonah transcribed God’s message correctly! Jonah preached, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Do you think Jonah enjoyed preaching hellfire and damnation? How do people preach judgment without tears? Jonah never weeps over the coming destruction. Remember how Moses pleaded with God not to judge the people harshly or how Jesus wept over Jerusalem? Although Jonah knows of God’s compassion, mercy, patience, and love, Jonah offers no grace, only condemnation and judgement. Is a lack of love a sign of a false prophet?
Despite Jonah’s graceless preaching, the Ninevites find God’s mercy! The playwright lets us into the Ninevite king’s thinking, “Who knows? God may see our sackcloth and turn from wrath, so that we might not perish.” Jonah did not preach about God’s compassion, but instinctively the Ninevites know that God must be merciful! So they declare a fast, dress in sackcloth and mourn their violence. Could violence have been the sin that threatened Nineveh from within? Hatred towards strangers and rape brought down Sodom. God names violence before the flood. The Ninevite king orders everyone to fast, even the animals! Which seems cruel, but remember that God spoke to the whale, so perhaps some cows needed to repent, too! Or is that utterly ridiculous? Jonah might be a comedy! Who could believe that preachers could preach without compassion or love? So everyone called upon God forcefully, and they stopped hurting each other. “They ceased their evil behavior and the violence.”
And God, who is patient, merciful, and full of love, saw that the Ninevites had turned from evil violence and decided not to destroy the city. Did God use the Ninevite revival, the ceasing of violence, to save the city from itself?
As the play winds down, you would hope for a big celebratory medley. Maybe the Hallelujah Chorus? That is not what happened. Jonah ends with God asking us a question: Is it right that you are angry?
How do we respond to God’s mercy? The narrator is blunt: Jonah thought God’s mercy was utterly wrong; he became angry. So on center stage, Jonah prays to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
Why does Jonah prefer condemnation and judgment to God’s mercy and grace? Why do we struggle to accept God’s acceptance of other human beings who are different from us? Why retreat into anger? Jesus will ask us, “Are you envious because God is generous?” (Matthew 20) Do we prefer a God that carefully keeps score, thoroughly punishes sinners, and eternally damns dissenters? Or is it that we enjoy believing that we know (better than others) what is right? And does our theological certainty lead to a smug superior feeling that lets us easily exclude other people, other nations, unbelievers, agnostics, other faiths, or other brands of Christianity from the love of God? Are we stuck believing we are the only ones who know the truth? Or is it that we need the Righteous One to present us with the Lifetime Achievement Award? Why is anyone angry that God is generous, compassionate, full of love? The Apostle Paul prayed, “Oh, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. So that you might comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love! And you might taste the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3, adapted) “We know only in part” and Paul gives himself the title “Servant of Christ and Steward of God’s Mysteries” ( 1 Corinthians 13 & 4) We could use some humility right now!
“Is your anger a good thing?” God patiently asks. Jonah does not answer. James 1 warns: “An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” Jonah does not answer, Jonah does not wrestle with God or seek counselling for his deep anger issues. Instead, Jonah flees again. Distraction! Jonah sulks out of the city, plops down on a high mesa and hopes God smites the city. Ever merciful, patient, and full of love, God tries to woo Jonah one more time with a miraculous fast growing shade tree in a day! Jonah is so very happy about the tree. But the shade bush is a parable, and first thing the next morning God sends a worm to attack the bush, overthrowing it. The city stands, but the bush lies in ruins. Jonah is angry. And God sends a hot wind off the desert. And lacking shade, Jonah grows faint and angier.
And God, like the compassionate counsellor that every angry soul needs, comes to Jonah and asks, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”Jonah said, “Yes,” and the Lord answers, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t have mercy on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Where is our compassion for those who seem to mess up over and over again?
Jonah clutching his anger denies us a happy ending. The curtain falls as God asks us, “Why are you angry? Why do you resent God’s generosity? Where is your compassion for people who don’t seem to know their right from their left? Love does not delight in evil, retribution, or punishment! Why would we clutch anger?
Oh, God you are merciful, compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love and never wanting anyone to suffer harm! Teach us mercy, compassion, deep patience, and faithful love for those who may see the world differently than we do: neighbors, strangers, enemies. Lord let us offer Love, because: You, oh Lord, are merciful, compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and never wanting anyone to suffer harm! Amen