Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah Is Reproved
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Imagine being so angry, disgusted, or frightened by a group of people that you don't even want to see them to give them bad news. That's where we find Jonah at the beginning of the book that bears his name. God told him to go to Ninevah to deliver some bad news and he ran away in the opposite direction to avoid going. In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that when we say he left town to run from God, we mean he did the leave- town, jump- on- a- boat, and go- out- to- sea- to- try- to- get- away- from- God kind of running off. He so objected to the call that God gave him that only getting swamped in a storm and swallowed up by a big fish could change his mind. He had to sit in the belly of that fish for three whole days and get vomited up by that very same fish before he finally did what God wanted. And, even then, it was kind of begrudgingly.
Now, Jonah might have actually had a good reason to dislike Ninevah. Beth L. Tanner’s commentary on this text notes that Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, an empire known for its brutality. Assyria had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and subjugated the Southern Kingdom of Judah. It is likely that anyone who had lived in either territory would hear the name of the city of Ninevah, and automatically think “enemy.” The first hearers of this story wouldn't have wanted to go to Ninevah, either. The thing is, though, when God calls you to do something, it can be very hard to say no, especially if you're a prophet. Jonah, the prophet, tried really hard to say no. In the end though, the big fish made an impression. Jonah saw that some things are bigger than his fear and anger... that God was bigger than his fear and anger. He realized that he had to go to Ninevah and take them God's message.
When he arrived in Ninevah, Jonah shouted God's message as he walked across the enormous city: "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" I don't know about you, but if I hear a stranger shouting about the place I live getting ready to be overthrown, I tend not to listen very closely. I tend to assume that the shouter doesn't really know what they are talking about. The Bible is full of nations that chose to attack God's prophets rather than listen to them.
That’s not what happened in Ninevah. In her commentary on the text, Callie Plunket-Brewton describes Ninevah as being especially and surprisingly responsive to God’s prophet. The people suddenly proclaim a fast as a sign of repentance. They also begin to wear sackcloth, an itchy, uncomfortable fabric, another sign of repentance. The word of reluctant Jonah's prophecy travels quickly among the people, seeming to reach the king before Jonah does. The king declares an official fast for the city, saying that not only must the people fast, the animals should fast, too. And, everybody, animals, people... everybody should be covered in sackcloth, and "cry mightily to God." Now, take a minute to truly imagine this. Every donkey trough is empty. The hay remains in every hayloft. Forlorn sheep wrapped in burlap are wondering the city streets. Everyone is lamenting and repenting aloud, even the goats... probably especially the goats. They are always quick to complain. The king instigates this whole ridiculous scene in hopes that his people (and animals) will give up their evil ways and that they might be spared by God (who, by the way, isn't even their god... yet one more reason it is surprising that they make such drastic changes).
God sees the people making changes and making amends. God sees them trying and God changes God's mind. God decides not to destroy them. Jonah finds out about God's change of heart and is not happy about it one little bit. Jonah throws a proper tantrum, saying to God, "See... this is why I ran off to Tarshish. I knew you couldn't go through with it. I knew that you are merciful and loving and willing to be changed when you see legitimate repentance. I knew that you'd spare them if you had the chance. Ugh. I'd rather die than to see you offer compassion to those people. They are sooo awful." God responds with something like, "Wait, what? You're mad I didn't kill them?" Jonah doesn't even respond. He just huffs and puffs out of the city and builds himself a little shelter from which he will watch and wait, hoping God will come to God's senses and destroy the city.
God, who is merciful, moved a plant to offer Jonah shade while he waited. God, who also needs to teach Jonah a lesson, sends a pest to destroy the bush. In the heat of the day, petulant Jonah grows faint and again wishes for death. It’s ok, Jonah, lots of people are miserable when they get too hot. Bitter, he says, "It is better for me to die than to live." God, not yet ready to give up on Jonah, asks him a simple question, "Is it right for you to be mad that the plant was destroyed?" Jonah says, "Yes, of course it is. I'm so mad about it that I could die and that's ok." God, ever patient, says, "You're worried about this plant that you have done nothing to create. It just appeared here as far as you're concerned. You have no investment of time or energy in its life. If you're worried about this plant, that was only around for a day and you did nothing to help it grow, why shouldn't I not be concerned about Ninevah and all of the creatures within her gates? Shouldn't I love them? I made them. I invested time and energy in their thriving. Shouldn't I be concerned?"
Anathea Portier-Young, in her commentary on this text, points out that, interestingly, this is the moment when the story stops. Did you notice that? Chapter 4, verse 10 is the end of the book. We are given no idea if Jonah learns something new about God and mercy as he sweats in the heat of the day, waiting for God to be as mad at Ninevah as he is. The last time I preached on this text, I wondered if we should read the abrupt ending as an invitation to spend some time figuring out how we fit in this story. Might we be the Ninevites, more faithful than anyone expected, struggling to repent of our brutish ways and surprised by the mercy of a God we really didn't even know? Might we be Jonah, hoping so hard for bad news and bemoaning the grace that shows up instead?
This story might also be inviting us to really consider what it means to make amends. Beth Tanner notes that modern Jewish communities read this text during the holy day of Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, which falls on September 25th this year. While we, as Christians, don’t need to try to take over a Jewish holiday, it is wise to look to our neighbors for insight about how we might learn from this text. Tanner says that this story shows us that “Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah’s story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish.” May we go through this week remembering that the cruel can change their ways, that God can offer us challenges that we can rise up to, and that even if we have to pout under a tree for a little while, God is still with us, showing us how to love and love and love once more. May we hope for change of hearts as much as we hope for bad news to befall our greatest enemies.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2347
Callie Plunket-Brewton: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1214
Beth L. Tanner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=229
Anathea Portier-Young: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=158
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.