(A sermon based on the story of Jonah for March 30, 2014; fourth in a Lent series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days")
We learn it in childhood as a story about how God saved a man from drowning by means of a great fish; I hope that today we can hear it as a story about how God saves us from our sins and from ourselves.
Let me first introduce you to the main characters. First, we have the prophet Jonah; the character in this story is apparently based on an obscure prophet of the same name who offered some nationalistic encouragement during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Second, we have the people of the city of Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, a devastatingly expansionistic power that dominated the Middle East during the eighth century B.C.E. Third, we have some foreign and pagan sailors. Fourth, we have a huge fish, some cattle, and a tiny worm.
God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh; Jonah did not want to do that (to understand why, imagine God telling you to go preach to the North Koreans or to Al Qaeda) so instead he booked passage on a ship going as far in the opposite direction as he could go. God caused a great storm to strike the ship so that it was in danger of sinking; Jonah, oblivious to what was happening, slept in the hold while the sailors prayed to their gods. When the sailors found out that they were in danger because Jonah was running away from God, Jonah told them that they should throw him overboard. Instead, the sailors tried their best to bring the ship to land but finally, as a last resort and after asking God not to hold it against them, they tossed Jonah into the sea. When the sea immediately became calm, the sailors worshiped the Lord.
The Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah and thereby save him from a certain death. After three days and nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to God and God caused the fish to vomit the prophet up on dry land. There, Jonah heard the Lord tell him again to go to Nineveh—and this time, having learned a pretty obvious lesson, he went. He walked a third of the way into the city and preached one of the briefest sermons you’ll ever hear a preacher preach: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (it’s only five words in Hebrew). The preacher’s heart was not exactly in it.
I wonder why? After all, if he hated Nineveh so much (as most Israelites of his day probably did), you’d think he would have enjoyed telling its inhabitants that they were done for. Stay tuned …
Meanwhile, there was a surprising reaction to Jonah’s message on the part of the pagan, hateful, hated people of the city: they repented. They believed Jonah’s words and they all put on sackcloth and undertook a fast as signs of their repentance. The king ordered that every person and every animal (!) in the city put on sackcloth and cry out to God. Moreover, the people’s repentance was not to be only symbolic; it was to be marked by a change in their way of life: “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king said. Their fate was in God’s hands, the king knew, but, he reasoned, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And that is exactly what God did—he saw their repentance and he rescinded the judgment that Jonah had said was coming upon Nineveh. Why? Because God is merciful, gracious, and ready to forgive when people—whether or not they are among those who are regarded as the likely candidates to receive God’s mercy—repent.
The people of Nineveh had been told that they were under a death sentence that would be carried out in forty days. How did they use their forty days? Did they use them to make excuses about why they were like they were? No. Did they use them to point out how others deserved judgment as much as they did? No. Did they use them to try to figure some clever way out of their predicament? No. They used their forty days to repent—to mourn over their sinfulness and to point their lives in a Godward direction—and they used the spiritual disciplines that were available to them, namely fasting and wearing sackcloth, to help them do so.
And how did God’s prophet Jonah use his forty days? He got angry over God’s decision to show mercy to the people of Nineveh and went outside the city to see what would happen when the forty days were up. His attitude was “Who knows? Perhaps God will change his mind again and destroy the city.” Why was he angry? Listen to his prayer:
“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.”
He was angry because God had shown mercy to someone that Jonah didn’t believe deserved mercy; he preferred “justice”—his definition of justice—over mercy and destruction over compassion. He didn’t want his enemies to experience the same grace and mercy that his people knew and celebrated.
God caused a bush to grow up over Jonah to give him shade; then God caused a worm to eat the bush so that it died. Jonah was very sorry about the death of the bush. God pointed out to Jonah that it really was something that he was so concerned about the bush that saved him from sunburn but couldn’t fathom God’s desire to save the people and animals of one of the world’s great cities.
Jonah appreciated God’s mercy when it was given to him and his but not so much when it was given to others and theirs.
So--how are you going to spend your forty days? How are you going to spend your life? Are you going to spend it in repentance for your own sins or in judgment of others for theirs? Are you going to spend it in asking God to change your life for the better or in being jealous of the mercy God shows to others? Are you going to spend it in praying against your enemies or in praying for your enemies?
Like Jonah, Jesus went outside the city, not to sit under a bush that God had given him but to die on a tree that God had placed before him. As he was being nailed to it, he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And then Jesus died—for me, for you, and for them …