You know what also happened this week?
I preached a sermon. Which I was going to tell you about, before I got distracted, which has been known to happen to me.
Anyway, the sermon is here. But before you read it, go and read the book of Jonah, as a favor to yourself. GO. READ IT NOW. It’s only 4 chapters, and it is epic.
::taps foot. checks watch::
September 18, 2011
When I’m trying to find that initial spark of inspiration for a sermon, otherwise known as procrastinating, then I spend an inordinate of time on the Internet. And this week, it paid off. (hopefully). A friend retweeted a comment from a priest in Lexington KY, where he lamented that Monty Python had never seen fit to do a version of the book of Jonah, so that the humor of this book might be available to the masses.
He’s right– in a competition for most humorous book in the canon, Jonah might just win, over some stiff competition from some sections of Proverbs and Sirach. Jonah has it all– irony, puns, sarcasm, absurdity, and giant fish. It even has a heartwarming, life affirming message.
For some context, the reading we have from Jonah today is the very end of the book. And sort of the point of the whole thing. Because despite the children’s bible story depictions of Jonah getting eaten by a great whale, that bit is sort of incidental to the plot of the whole thing.
The out line of which is that Jonah is a prophet in Israel, minding his own prophet-business, when God appears, and asks him to go to Nineveh to preach to- and save- them. Jonah finds this to be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, and flees in the opposite direction. God, annoyed by Jonah’s annoyance, sends a shipwreck, and a whale eats Jonah. Jonah then gets the message, is vomited up by the whale, heads to Nineveh, does his prophet job with aplomb, and they repent.
Hooray! Day saved! Everyone should be happy!
But as we see in the reading, Jonah is again annoyed. And very much wishes that God would smite Nineveh with a giant smitey-thing. And so he goes to sulk, sitting up on a mountain overlooking the city.
The conversation which follows is perhaps my favorite in the Old Testament. And makes much more sense when you know that Nineveh isn’t in Israel. It’s not a Jewish city. It’s the capital of Assyria. And when this book was written, the Assyrian empire had just invaded and conquered half of the Promised Land. For the God of Israel to send a prophet to the very heart of that empire, the center of the enemy, to save them from destruction, because he LOVED THEM?! Yup, you’d hop on a ship to escape too.
So Jonah has a bit of a meltdown. Not only did he have to preach to these people who he really hates, who destroyed his home, and invaded his country, but now he doesn’t get to watch God destroy them in righteous anger. And it’s hot. And he’s angry. (the Hebrew word for hot is a synonym for angry– I told you there were puns.). This is not Jonah’s month at all.
So God messes with him a little bit.
God sends him a plant to shade him, then sends a worm to eat it. God sends a hot dry wind to make him more uncomfortable, so he really misses the plant, and get even more bent out of shape.
And then God points out the obvious: the plant wasn’t Jonah’s, the worm wasn’t Jonah’s, the weather wasn’t his– why on earth would Jonah think he had any right, or control, or say over what happened to any of that?
Much less all of Nineveh– an entire city.
Nineveh, just like the plant and just like Israel, and just like Jonah himself, belongs to God, and God can be as gracious as God wants with it– Jonah’s jealousy notwithstanding.
God’s love, God’s favor, after all, isn’t a pie, that we have to carefully divvy up amongst ourselves, lest we run short. God operates always out of abundance– God’s love is infinite and never-ending. God is not going to run out.
The fact that God cares for people we really dislike is not a sign that God cares for us any less– God, being a complex being beyond our human understanding, can in fact , and Should, in fact, be on both sides of a football game at once. If this ever stops being true, it’s probably a sign we’ve lost sight of what is actually God in the first place.
And that is not a problem that God has– that’s a problem that we tend to have. Like Jonah, and like the workers in the gospel, we get jealous. We get scared. We get insecure and need validation that we are right about God, and we will get some big reward, at the end for being right, and so everyone else should just give in and agree with us!
But that’s our fear talking, not God. If the first thing we believe in is a God of love and a God of graciousness, then we need to trust in that, to act like we believe it, and not be so shocked and panicked when God acts out of that love and grace.
Because a God of love and grace extends that love to the residents of a wayward Nineveh, and not just Jerusalem. A God of love and grace extends that grace to all the workers– lets everybody earn a day’s wage, even the people who show up late. A God of love and grace extends that grace and love even to us, loved beyond belief, and past our earning, past anything we could ever deserve.
So we, who have walked in love beyond our imagining since our creation, how can we be surprised when God acts exactly like who we have always known him to be towards everyone else in the world?