Abounding in Steadfast Love

January 21, 2018

Series: January 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that God had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.

Abounding in Steadfast Love

I read just those verses from the story of Jonah, because that is what the lectionary for today suggests. However, as I was thinking about what to say about those specific verses this morning, I realized that it is rather impossible to talk about Jonah without talking about the whole story.  Think about any of your favorite stories.  What good is the middle without the beginning and the end?  So today, I want to spend some time with the entire story of Jonah.  To see what the Spirit might be saying to us through this very interesting story.

I think too often, the story of Jonah gets relegated to Sunday School. Let’s leave that story about a strangely large fish for the kids.  In a way, this story is so silly that it does seem more appropriate for the children.  I even chose a VeggieTales quote for the front of the bulletin this morning to emphasize the silly and exaggerated nature of this story.  But, just because this story is a satire, using humor and exaggeration to make its point, doesn’t mean it is just for kids.  In fact, there are many lessons we can learn from this story about a reluctant prophet and a big fish.

So, the story begins with God calling Jonah to go to Ninevah, and to cry out against it, for God is upset with their wickedness. There is no doubt that Ninevah was a wicked city.  Author Anne Lamott describes Ninevah like this, “Ninevah is any big city, hypercompetitive, full of corruption and cruelty.  It would later be the capital of Assyria, and the Ninevites were like Klingons, violent warriors who were Israel’s enemy.  Jonah, like all Israelites, felt about them the way Ronald Reagan felt about the Russians, that they were the Evil Empire.  And Jonah is furious that God is making him go there to preach, instead of someplace nice.”[i]

This is not a good place. Jonah doesn’t want to go.  So, he defies God and goes in the opposite direction.  The story tells us he set out to flee from the presence of God.  All of this happens in the first two sentences of the story.  Already, we know that this is going to be a crazy story.  First, Jonah seems more like the anti-prophet than a prophet.  A prophet’s job was to obey the word of God.  To do what God asks.  Even when it is difficult.  Perhaps especially when it is difficult.  Yet Jonah runs away.  Now, I would say, in doing so, he certainly makes himself very relatable for the rest of us!  How often I have wanted to run from God when I sense God calling me to something challenging.  How often have I wanted to say to God, “Are you sure you want me to do this?  Couldn’t you call on someone else?”  I can sure understand Jonah wanting to run away.  But, does he really think he will be able to flee from God?  Have any of us ever been able to flee from God?  The story continues.

Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. I don’t know why Jonah thinks God won’t be in Tarshish, but at least it is really far away from Ninevah.  However, God causes a storm, and boat threatens to break apart.  The sailors are very scared, but Jonah is down below, sleeping.  Maybe if he cannot actually flee from God, he can at least ignore God for the time being.  But the captain wakes up Jonah, asking him to call on his God to stop the storm.  Jonah is not going to give into the God that he is trying to flee, however, so he tells the sailors to throw him overboard.  They don’t want to do that, but eventually realize it may be their only hope of survival, so over Jonah goes.  It seems as if he would rather drown in the sea than to do what God asks of him.

But, there will be no escaping from God. God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah sits in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  Yes, really, a big fish.  And then, to make it even better, the fish then “spews” Jonah onto the dry land.  Let’s be clear, Jonah is vomited from the fish’s belly onto the land.  I like to think that God has a bit of humor here – “You think you can run from me?  Not so fast.  I’m going to turn you into fish vomit.” But, humor and satire aside, the point is clear.  Nowhere can we go where God will not find us.

Now we have arrived at the part of the story we heard already. God tells Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’s message.  Basically to tell an evil people that God is upset with them.  This time he goes, but if you ask me, his message is still a little half-hearted.  Only 8 words in the English translation … 5 in the original Hebrew.  “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”  That’s it.  Surely Jonah could have given a little more effort than that.  Clearly he is still not thrilled to be there.  But, amazingly, the people listen.  Not only do they listen, but they change their ways.  They repent, they proclaim a fast, they put on sackcloth.  Sackcloth was a very coarse, woven fabric, that was often worn in those times as a symbol of mourning or repentance.  It was a very public sign of repentance and humility before God.

Living into the exaggerated nature of this story, the Ninevites even put sackcloth on their animals. “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.” I love the image of the livestock wearing these garments of repentance.

God sees that they have turned from their evil ways, and God’s changes God’s mind. God does not bring calamity upon the Ninevites.

That would be a wonderful end to most stories. The evil people repent, and God looks upon them with mercy and love.  But this is not most stories.  This is the satire of the anti-prophet Jonah.  The story continues, and we find out that Jonah is mad at God. “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 there it is.  Through Jonah’s whiny fit with God, we see the issue.  Jonah hated the Ninevites.  He wanted them punished.  But, he knew that God would forgive them. He knew that God would show them mercy. He knew that God is abounding in steadfast love, and Jonah did not want any of that love to go to the Ninevites.

It would be easy to pass some judgement on Jonah for this choice. Come on, Jonah, God calls us to love everyone!  God calls us to forgive.  But, that sure is difficult sometimes.  When I think of some people who have wronged me, I sure want them to get what is coming to them.  There are times when I would love to see God do a little bit of smiting.  I want my enemies to pay for their wickedness! 

But, I have to realize, that is about me, not about God. For, as both the Psalmist and Jonah remind us, our God is abounding in steadfast love.  Our God not only offers mercy and forgiveness again and again, but calls us to do the same.  I can begin to understand now why Jonah tried to run to Tarshish, and offered to be thrown to the bottom of the sea.  That certainly seems easier than showing love to the Ninevites, of all people.  Sometimes I just want my enemies to stay my enemies.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber puts it like this, “Maybe our need for enemies is so that we can neatly avoid the ways in which we too are enemies – enemies of grace, enemies of forgiveness, enemies of those we harm. And when God does not act as we think God should…perhaps we are even enemies toward God.”[ii]

None of us is perfect, but perhaps instead of pointing the finger at someone else, we might examine ourselves first. Instead of hoping for punishment for another, perhaps we might look at ways in which we can abound in steadfast love. There is a line towards the end of the most recent Star Wars movie that has stuck with me, “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” I’m sure the scriptwriter was no doubt inspired by the story of Jonah!

There is an odd ending to the story, in which God makes a bush grow, but then attacks the bush with a worm so it dies. Jonah is upset that the bush has died, because he has lost his shade.  God takes that moment to make a point – If Jonah is concerned about a random bush, “… should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” 

How, Jonah, can you be concerned about this bush, but not the thousands of people and animals in the city of Ninevah? What if you were to work to save what is good and loving in that city, rather than fighting what you hate?  I had a conversation with a church member recently who was talking about how she had been finding herself thinking ill of more and more people recently.  But, then she paused, and turned her attention to these people with love rather than hate.  She remembered that each of these were beloved children of God.  That they had parents and siblings and children, just like she did.  And that made them just a little bit easier to love.

Now, I’m not saying that we should excuse bad behavior. There are consequences for bad behavior.  Jonah tried to run away from God and got vomited up by a fish.  Abounding in steadfast love includes holding people accountable.  Abounding in steadfast love includes standing up for justice. But we are called to do this in ways that promote mercy and healing, rather than hatred and division.

This weekend is the anniversary of last year’s Women’s March. In fact, there were some anniversary marches happening this weekend.  I know that people participated in the march for a wide variety of reasons, but the “official” mission statement of the march (from their website) is this – “The mission of Women’s March is to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change. Women’s March is a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists & organizers to engage in their local communities ... Women’s March is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect.” 

Guided by dignity and respect. Not guided by a hatred of the enemy.  Not guided by a desire to punish the “other,” whoever that other may be.  I have to say that, though I agree with many of the ideals of the Women’s March, I was disappointed by a lot of the signs that I saw at various marches last year.  Signs that were very derogatory, filled with insults, laced with hate-filled language.  Dignity and respect were not necessarily on full display.  How do we save what we love instead of fighting what we hate?  Rather than wishing ill on our enemies, how do we offer mercy and love in a way that can still create the change we want to see?

Perhaps that VeggieTales children’s song might indeed be our guide. “Compassion and mercy from me to you and you to me, exactly what God wants to see.” May we all be abounding in steadfast love.

[i] Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway, 17-18.

[ii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/02/enemies-retribution-and-women-giving-birth-a-sermon-on-jonah/#BiKj1GOBCUlEbx7e.99