Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Jonah 3:1-5, 10
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on January 25, 2009
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on January 25, 2009
Just when we think we have everything figured out, every little thing in its place, along comes Jonah. And its not so much Jonah who destroys our neatly constructed worldview as it the God whom Jonah reveals. Our God is a disruptive God who shows mercy where we would show none. God's mercy includes all of creation, even cows, cats and dogs. Let's dive into Jonah's story and discover this merciful and playful God whom Jonah reveals. As we do, I will draw from Michael William's retelling of Jonah's story in The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible.
God spoke to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, "Go to Ninevah, that huge city and tell them that I am disgusted by their behavior." Now, this was a very odd command since the Ninevites were the enemy of the rest of the world including Israel. This would be similar to God ordering you or me to travel to Tehran, Iran, to tell them to repent. God ordered Jonah outside his comfort zone, in order to save a nation that all the world despised.
So Jonah did the only sensible thing. He headed in the opposite direction from Ninevah. He went down to the seacoast at Joppa, down to the shoreline, down into the dark hold of a ship, and finally down into the unconsciousness of sleep. This is clearly a downward slide for Jonah. He was headed for Tarshis, which was the other end of the world in his day. But his plans were about to be changed.
God caused a storm to break loose on the Mediterranean and, in terror, the sailors began to do something very uncharacteristic for them: they started to pray to their various gods. Sailors are not noted for their piety. For example, you never hear anyone use the phrase, "To pray like a sailor." But I suppose there are no atheists in storms at sea just as there are none in foxholes. The captain finally came upon Jonah snoring through the storm and woke him, "Get up and pray to your God. Perhaps we can all be saved yet."
As in any crisis, someone had to be blamed. The sailors cast lots and the lot fell to Jonah. He confessed he was trying to escape his God, the same one who had created heaven and earth, and the only remedy was to throw him overboard. The sailors rowed with all their might attempting to return the ship to shore, but to no avail. They finally threw Jonah overboard asking forgiveness for their action. As soon as he hit the water it became calm and the wind and the rain subsided. Seeing this dramatic turn of events, the ship's crew got religion and worshiped God. This is only the first of Jonah's great successes as a prophet and an evangelist.
While the sailors were getting religion, Jonah was getting swallowed by a huge fish. Jonah spent three days in the fish's stomach, which was a dark, frightening, and smelly place. Jonah put together a prayer out of all the lines from prayers and psalms he could remember. Finally, God's water taxi had arrived at its destination and vomited Jonah upon the shore.
Once again, God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and what to tell the people there. This time Jonah headed straight for Nineveh. After walking one full day within the city, Jonah preached the shortest sermon on record. (Which may be the reason it was so effective!) He said, "In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed." Notice that he left the citizens no way out of their predicament.
Well, the most amazing thing happened. The entire city repented, from the king down to the poorest commoner. They all fasted and put on sackcloth and ashes to show how truly sorry they were for their behavior. Everyone living in the city repented in this fashion, even the dogs, cats, and cattle. Now the Bible doesn't say this but the rabbis have said the repentance of the Ninevites was so profound that people who found that even one brick had been taken unjustly would tear down the entire structure to return that brick to its rightful owner. If someone found a treasure on a piece of property they had purchased from a neighbor they would attempt to return it to the person from whom they had bought the land. If neither of these could claim it, they both wold seek among previous owners until the person to whom the treasure belonged, or his descendants, could be found. (Ginzberg IV, p. 251) After they repented, God showed mercy from the kittens to the cows to the people on Ninevah. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.
All this repenting really irked Jonah. Since he had gone to all the effort to proclaim destruction, he wanted to see the fireworks--an earthquake or raging fire that would consume his enemies as the fish had taken him in. "This is the very reason I tried to escape you in the first place," Jonah whined. Then the most successful prophet ever to utter a warning accused God, "I should have known you would pull something like this. After all, it's just like you--compassionate, slow to anger, merciful, always ready to forgive and reprieve people from the punishment they deserve. Just kill me right here on the spot. I'd be better off dead than alive anyway."
And God answered Jonah with this question: "What reason do you have to be so peeved?"
Jonah didn't answer, but went out to a place east of the city to sulk. Then God caused a castor-oil plant to spring up and shade the pouting prophet. (God's little joke, after all, Jonah needed to loosen up inside.) The next morning, however, God sent a worm to cut the plant down, and then sent the scorching sun and a hot wind from the east to heat up the situation. Once again Jonah proclaimed, "I would be better off dead than alive."
To which God replied with the same question that Jonah had refused to answer before, "What reason do you have to be so angry?"
"Every reason," Jonah snapped.
"You are more concerned about a plant than you are about my people. But you had nothing to do with its springing up or its being cut down. It just grew one day and died the next. Shouldn't I have compassion on this great city with one hundred twenty thousand people who do not even know their right hand from their left as well as with the cattle which are too numerous to count? Who does not know their right hand from their left? Small children and people of any age who have the minds of small children. So it seems from the story of Jonah and Ninevah that God will save an entire city for the sake of its children and animals. (Michael E. Williams, The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume Seven, The Prophets II, 175-177) Now isn't just like God to show mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.
God's mercy disrupted Jonah's world and left it in shambles. Jonah realized that God was more inclined toward compassion for the innocent than judgment on the guilty. God challenged Jonah's world because God was more devoted to saving the cows, cats and dogs than to destroying the kings, politicians and priests. From this story we learn that God has a different set of priorities than we do. God exercises a preferential option for the young and innocent including animals and pets. God cares about them too and God can be swayed by their cries for help.
The story of Jonah and the Ninevites takes us out of our comfort zone. We thought we knew how God acts. God is strong. God is decisive. Yet Jonah's story shows us a different side of God. We read in Jonah 3 verse 10: "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." God changed his mind. We Presbyterians are not very comfortable with the thought of a God who changes his mind. We worship a God who is, as the hymn says, "Immortal, invisible, God only wise." But Jonah's Go because of his love for small children and animals.
Let us never say that the God of the Old Testament is only a God of war and judgement. For here, in Jonah, in the Old Testament, we see a God of mercy. Here is a God who helps little children and dogs. Here is a God who helps those who can't help themselves.
I wonder how our personal priorities would change if we imitated this God who helps those who can't help themselves. I wonder if we would find ourselves committing more acts of random kindness. I wonder if we would discover a new found compassion for the children and helpless in our society. This is the direction our Outreach Ministry team will lead us this year in a focus on the children.
God's ways are not our ways. God's thoughts are not our thoughts. It was a hard lesson for Jonah. And it is a hard lesson for us. We learn from the story of Jonah that God will save an entire city for the sake of its children and animals. The God of the Old Testament shows kindness and compassion. Our God expects no less of us. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.