Planting Seeds: Jonah
Throughout this 50-day season of Easter, we’ve been talking about Planting Seeds. Even if it did snow this week, we’re still thinking about planting seeds and growing and new life and all that comes with spring and sun and warmer days. Resurrection and life. And so suddenly slipping into the book of Jonah might seem like a strange choice for this sermon series, but if you stick with me, I think you’ll see how Jonah’s story gives us an important piece of our journey of planting and growing.
Many of you might be familiar with the book of Jonah because of its larger-than-life story of Jonah hanging out in the belly of a whale or at least some big fish for a few days. But let’s make sure we know the details of Jonah. Jonah is a prophet in Israel. We don’t know much about him at all. The Bible says he’s the son of Ammitai, and we read in the first two verses of Jonah chapter 1 that God has given Jonah a message to take to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, long-standing gentile enemies of Israel. And by verse three of that chapter, we know that Jonah is heading as fast and far as he can the opposite direction of Nineveh. A prophet, remember, wasn’t a fortune-teller, but a truth-teller. And God wants Jonah to cry out against the people on God’s behalf, tell them that God has seen their wicked ways. Jonah, apparently, does not want to do this, and so he gets on a boat to Tarshish. There’s been some debate over where exactly Tarshish was, but all of the possibilities have this in common: it was very far away in the opposite direction from where God had directed Jonah to go. In fact, the text describes it as “away from the presence of the Lord,” as if such a thing were possible. But that’s certainly where Jonah wishes he could go: beyond God’s reach.
He finds out quickly, though, that he can’t escape God. Jonah gets on a ship that is immediately caught up in a storm of God’s crafting. The sailors try to figure out what to do, and discover Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of the storm. Jonah instructs them to throw him into the sea, since he knows he’s the troublemaker, and they comply, eager to save their lives. And Jonah is then swallowed up by a big fish which the text tells us “God provides.” The big fish is God’s way of rescuing Jonah. Jonah gives thanks to God, and after three days, Jonah gets spit back out of the big fish, and he heads, finally, to Nineveh.
Once there, he walks across the city, shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” If there was more to his message, we don’t get to hear it. But there was enough, apparently, because the people of Nineveh believe the message from God and begin to make many signs of repentance: they fast, they sit in ashes, and everyone, the king, the people, even animals put on sackcloth. The king declares, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change course; God may turn from God’s fierce anger. so that we do not perish.” And indeed, God sees that they’ve repented so completely and immediately, and God relents, and brings no punishment on the people. It’s really astonishing all around: most prophets in the Bible seem to be preaching to an unhearing audience. They warn and warn and warn, but no one listens, and when God acts to bring about justice, the people are devastated. Normally, prophets and their messages are unwelcome and unheeded. But for once, as soon as the people hear the words from God through Jonah, they repent. (1)
That brings us to our chapter for today. If you thought Jonah was going to be delighted that he’s turned out to be such an effective prophet, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Jonah prays to God with complete honesty: “God, this is exactly what I said was going to happen, exactly why I tried to run the other way instead of going to Nineveh. I know that you’re gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I know how often you relent from punishing. God, just let me die already. I’d rather die than live knowing that you let these people off the hook!” And Jonah, sulking, goes and sits down just outside of Nineveh to watch and see what happens, apparently hoping that God will go back to plan A and smite them all.
As Jonah sits and sulks, God makes a plant, a bush, grow where Jonah is, all in one day, so that it will give Jonah shade in the sun. Jonah is pouting, but he’s happy about the bush. He continues to watch and wait. But the next day, God sends a worm that attacks the bush and between the worm and the hot sun and wind, the plant dies. Jonah is so hot and parched that he again complains to God, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
God says to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be upset about this plant, this bush?” In one translation that I like God asks, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” (1) Jonah insists he is - “Angry enough[, grieving enough] to die,” in fact. You can hear the dramatic tone, can’t you? And God says: You care about this plant, this bush, so much, even though you didn’t grow it or work for it, and it existed for just a day. But I’m not supposed to care about a great city of more than 120,000 people and animals? And with that, abruptly, the book of Jonah comes to an end. Does Jonah see it God’s way after this exchange? Does he sit there pouting for longer? Does God use him as a prophet again in the future? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But we have plenty to reflect on and ask of ourselves.
Why, do you think, is Jonah so upset that God relents and forgives the Ninehvites? Aren’t we supposed to be excited and relieved that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love? Isn’t that a relief to us? What on earth would I do if God wasn’t gracious and loving? I’d be lost! Why is Jonah so upset by this? It helps us understand a bit if we think a little bit more about who the Ninehvites were and when the book of Jonah is written. Again, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. And Assyria is the nation that eventually conquers and destroys Israel, setting off one of the most painful periods in Israel’s history. The events in the book of Jonah take place about 50 years before Assyria conquers Israel, but the book of Jonah isn’t written until after these events take place, after Israel is conquered, after Israel and Judah spend time in exile in Assyria and Babylon and finally are able to return home and rebuild. So, Assyria is responsible for the worst collective time the Israelites have as a people since they were slaves in Egypt. How well-liked do you think the Assyrians were by the readers of the book of Jonah? So, are we glad that God is gracious and loving? Of course we are! But when we remember that God is also gracious and loving to our very worst enemies, not just people we dislike but gracious and loving to those who have sought to hurt and destroy and devastate us? Well, maybe pouting and complaining doesn’t sound so dramatic after all.
I’ve been thinking about loyalty, love, and enemies. I’ve told you before that if I want to look for God’s style of unconditional love modeled in the world, I look to my mother. My mom is great at unconditional love. I’m not saying my mom and I have never argued, but I can’t remember a single time when I’ve wondered, “Does mom really love me? Does mom still love me?” I know she does. I know there’s nothing I could do that would make her stop loving me. And I also know that if someone hurts one of her kids, you’re on my mom’s list. She might seem nice and sweet and gentle, and 95% of the time, she is. But if you hurt one of her kids? My mom has a great death stare. She might not be able to smite like God, but she can try! And I think we feel this way as a family: we’re very loyal to each other. We want to protect and defend our loved ones from “enemies.”
And that’s what I think Jonah is upset about. Sure, Jonah doesn’t yet know that the Assyrians will be responsible for the destruction of Israel. But the nations were definitely already enemies. And Jonah probably speaks for the then-present-day hearers of the story of Jonah, who certainly would have felt like he did: God is showing mercy to our enemies? If God really loves us, how can God also love the people who hurt us? How can God forgive people who have devastated our lives? That’s the hard to swallow news of the book of Jonah: God really and truly loves our enemies, and it stinks!
So, what can we do in response to this text other than sit with Jonah and lament that sometimes we don't like God’s gifts of love and grace as much as we think? Truly, friends, it is not an easy question to answer. I only know that at the end of the story, everyone has had a change of heart except for Jonah. God changed direction. The Ninehvites changed direction - king, people, and animals all. But Jonah has had no change of heart. Jonah is pretty entrenched in his sense of rightness, and because of that, he seems not only to begrudge his enemies from getting God’s love and grace, he also doesn’t seem able to absorb any of it for himself. What a shame, what a loss!
I think the heartache in Jonah comes, in part, from our expecting God to behave like us instead of seeking after how we can follow in the example of God, imitators of Jesus. As Don Schuessler said in our Bible Study this week, we want to think that we are right and that God is on our side. Jonah seems very certain about what justice would look like - the destruction of Nineveh. But what if, instead, we seek to be on God’s side? Our perspective as humans is always limited. We can’t always see the situation clearly. Our vision isn’t good enough. But God can see into hearts and minds. God’s vision is perfect. God’s understanding is beyond our imagining. And so while we’re sure of what is right and what would constitute justice for our enemies, we really don’t have the skills to make that call. After all, it is entirely possible that we are the enemy of someone else, that they are wondering how God can forgive and love us. We, too, are sinners. And perhaps someone can’t understand how God loves us still, relents against punishing us. Where would I be, though, without God’s grace and love? I would be utterly lost. God doesn’t want us to be lost. God seeks after us relentlessly - the Ninehvites, our enemies, Jonah fleeing to Tarshish, and you and me.
I think as we experience resurrection and life, as we really experience being new creations in Christ, we learn to see more and more of what God sees. We learn to seek after God’s side, God’s vision, God’s understanding, even when, and maybe especially when it crashes up against our own. God can change hearts. God changes even the hearts of our enemies. God changes even our hearts. God is loving, gracious, slow to anger, quick to forgive, abounding in enduring love. Sometimes we hear that as a challenge. Sometimes we hear that and grieve! But I promise, it is good news, for your enemies ... and for you! Maybe when it comes to loving our enemies, we’re just works in progress, with no easy answers. But when it comes to God loving and forgiving our enemies? Let’s start with trusting that God’s side is always the right one. Amen.
Chan, Michael J., “Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11,” The Working Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2011.
Odell, Margaret, , “Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11,” The Working Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1015.