An example of a biblical sermon ...
Last week we talked about how the writers of the Bible use humor in the Bible. Not every piece of writing is a law about not doing this or that, or a psalm about how great God is and how lowly people are. There are stories in the Bible, funny ones even. And these stories are some of the Biblical writings that we remember the best.
For instance we all know the story about Jonah. We may not remember the details but we remember the gist of the story. Jonah is a prophet who is called by God to go to some big city and proclaim something, God's punishment probably. But Jonah doesn't want to go so he jumps on a ship headed in the opposite direction and tries to get away from God. But, of course, there is some big storm and the crew on the boat end up throwing Jonah overboard and then Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish where he rides around for three days and three nights (not forty days and forty nights like my husband guessed, good biblical number, but a little long) and then finally he gets spit out on dry land.
There's camp songs about this, Jonah in the Belly of the Whale, or something like that.
It's a great story, kids especially love it, I remember thinking how cool it would be to ride around in a fish's belly. I used to think the story ended with Jonah getting spit out in the very city where he was supposed to go in the first place. In fact so many people used to use this text in seminary to explain how they responded to the call to go to seminary. They would say, "Well, I heard God's call and just ran in the other direction. It took a ride in the whale's belly to get me here, but here I am just spewed out on shore."
But if we look again at the story, there are important details that we have missed, and a whole second half of the story that rarely gets told.
And so today, we will talk about the last two chapter of the Book of Jonah. As Paul Harvey says in his radio program and "Now the rest of the story." The chapters we read today rarely get told. Or at least I do not remember this part of the story nor do I remember any camp songs about this second half of Jonah's story. Yes Jonah does jump on a boat to get away from what God has called him to do. But what God has called him to do is go to the city of Nineveh in Assyria and say to them that in forty days God is going to bring down the entire city. Okay, what is Nineveh? Well, it is only the most hated, most dreaded, capitol of Israel's most feared enemy. Yah, that's all. The warriors of this city have the reputation of being absolutely ruthless in their tactics. Nineveh is called a city of bloodshed, they are said to terrorize their victims, men, women and children, a whole book in the Bible is devoted to telling about how bad Nineveh is and how God is going to destroy them (it is the Book of Nahum, if you are curious).
It is no wonder Jonah's not so keen on going there. And he is supposed to proclaim that God's going to destroy them in forty days? That gives them a good 39 days to hunt Jonah down and thank him personally for the good news. No, thank you! Jonah, like any normal Israelite, is on the next ship out to anywhere but Ninevah.
Well, we know the next part, Jonah gets tossed off the ship, because it is determined that he is the cause for the storm that is brewing. Now remember we have talked about the fact that people in Biblical times believed that God was directly involved in every turn of events, if there was a famine it was because God was mad and all that, well the same held true for a storm on the seas. The people on the boat we are told, however, don't want to throw Jonah off. They pray first each to their own god, they draw lots, and then even when the lot tells them that it is Jonah who has angered God, they still try to paddle their way out of the storm. Even when Jonah says, "Look, just throw me over, I know this is my fault," they still try everything else first and as they do throw him over they are praying for forgiveness. It is a rather desperate and touching picture. And this is the first hint we get that this whole story isn't about avoiding God's call--it is about mercy and forgiveness, grace and repentance.
And that is what really happens in the rest of the story, the part we read this morning, chapters 3 and 4. Okay Jonah is spewed out on dry land. God does save him from the stormy sea and the belly of the fish. But God's call doesn't go away. We are told that Jonah is called to Ninevah once again. It isn't like I thought as a child that God spews him out right in Ninevah. For one thing Ninevah is inland, that fish would have to belly crawl across the desert if it was to spew Jonah in Ninevah. It isn't as if God forces Jonah to do what has been asked of him. God saves Jonah and then asks him again to go to Ninevah. Jonah could refuse again. The choice to follow God is always ours, and when we make the wrong choice it isn't as if God abandons us, not at all. God still watches over Jonah even though Jonah had decided to neglect God's call.
Well Jonah takes this second chance that God is offering and he goes to Nineveh and we are told exactly what he proclaims, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" We are told he walks right to the heart of the city and shouts this out. Pretty brave guy, he knows his God is the most powerful, he knows that God can do anything God wants to, he knows this first hand. It must have felt kinda good to look into the face of his most fierce enemy and say, "Later dude, you're history." It must have felt kinda good to see the bad guy get his due punishment. Like a playground kid saying, "Nahnahnanah" to the bully who is getting hauled off to the principal's office. Sorta like what the Patriots might say to the Pack if they had a chance.
But then the unexpected. In the very next line we are told that "the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small, put on sackcloth." They believed. The great King of Nineveh rose from his throne, removed his royal robe and covered himself in sackcloth and ashes. He repented, knelt down before Israel's God and believed. Then he orders the whole city, animals and all, to do the same, and he proclaims a fast. The whole town kneels before Israel's God and believes. It is a rare moment of genuine humility and repentance, the great warriors put away the violence that is in their hands. What a great and glorious thing. And the Lord is moved. When God sees what the city has done, God indeed forgives them and brings no punishment upon them.
But the story doesn't end here either. We are allowed to witness Jonah's reaction to God's mercy. Jonah, who knows first hand what it is like to be saved from the hand of death; Jonah, who knows first hand what it is like to feel God's mercy, this same man we are told finds God's actions "very displeasing." Jonah is angry that God has forgiven Nineveh. He wanted to see Nineveh get their butt kicked. How many Israelites have died at the hands of these savage warriors, come on God, it is about time they get put in their place! But Nineveh repents and God forgives and Jonah is disgusted. He says, "This is why I didn't take the call in the first place--it is worthless. I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing." As if these are bad traits. How can a man who knows God's saving grace personally be angry when God shows mercy to another?
Well it's not all that difficult to imagine. We, like Jonah, want to see the criminal get what they deserve, there are some who are for the death penalty. We are skeptical of things like "rehabilitation" or "reformed" criminals, we'd be more likely to call them "ex-cons." Forgiveness and second chances are rare. Perhaps rehabilitation works less because of our systems of punishment rather than the heart of the person jailed. What about an example closer to home: our families. Are we carrying grudges right now towards a member of our family? Are we unwilling to forgive our sister or brother, our mother or father, or our son or daughter for something they did to us - some way in which they snubbed us or judged us. Are we carrying around that pain even though they have asked for our forgiveness? Why would we refuse that forgiveness, when God has offered us forgiveness over and over and over?
God shows mercy and Jonah is disgusted. He wails and complains, says basically, "I'd rather be dead then proven wrong in front of my enemies." He sulks off out of the city and waits to see what will happen, if God will really save it. Well as he is waiting God makes a bush or a plant to grow up that will give Jonah shade. Jonah thinks this is great, he's quite happy about the bush, we are told. Well, then overnight God makes a little worm. And this little worm kills Jonah's beloved shading plant and the sun begins to beat down on his head and we are told Jonah gets angry again. Jonah is a hot head, literally and figuratively.
And now God speaks to Jonah. God has had it with Jonah's behavior - with Jonah's short-sightedness, his selfish interests. God says, "How can you get angry about the death of little bush and not worry one iota about the death of the 120, 000 people and livestock in Nineveh? God is saying to Jonah, I love these people as bad as they were, they are mine. I am concerned about them. It is not easy to let them go, just as it was not easy to watch you floundering around in the sea. I saved you, I will save these people.
The book of Jonah is not just about the way in which a person may run away from God's call. It is not just a fanciful story about a ride in the belly of a whale. It is a story about repentance, second chances, forgiveness. It is about a God who is "merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." And unlike Jonah, we must realize that this is a good thing. We have our own stories to finish. We have our own people to forgive, our own people to whom we must go and say I am sorry. We have the chance to give our lives a new ending, we have the chance to let go of a pain or a regret in our lives. It is up to us to tell the rest of the story.
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