8th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, Ptolemy was a second century Egyptian astronomer who worked out a systematic presentation of the universe in which the earth was the fixed center, with the sun and all stars revolving around it. For about 1400 years this was the accepted understanding. That is, until in the 16th century, a Polish astronomer named Copernicus, argued the contrary, that the earth actually revolves around the sun. This was a total paradigm shift for people, a total reversal of the way that people thought about the earth and the universe.
There’s such a paradigm shift that goes on when God brings someone to faith and it’s such a paradigm shift that it has to keep occurring with in us. But it has nothing to do with the sun or the earth, rather it has to do with what you revolve your life around. You see, each of us has this struggle where we find ourselves becoming the center of our own little universe and expect everything to revolve around us, we subtly or not-so-subtly expect that events, circumstances, situations should happen the way that we want them to. And when they don’t, we fill ourselves with self-pity, with anger, with despair. And that’s one of the major lessons we see in the prophet Jonah.
Jonah was likely a very honored and respected prophet in the 700s BC. He was a prophet from the Northern Kingdom of Israel before it was destroyed. And it could be that the time when this whole account happened was about the middle of the 700s. God came to Jonah and said, “Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Now, what happens next is crazy. Instead of listening to God, Jonah boards a ship and plans to sail to farthest city in the opposite direction. Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? Nineveh was a huge city located in the nation of Assyria. The people in the city were wicked, violent, and cruel. Jonah probably knew the signs that Assyria was growing in power and God had prophesied that he would use them as a scourge to call the Israelites to repentance. The people of Nineveh were enemies of the Israelites. Perhaps it would be somewhat like God telling you or me to go to this huge city in the Middle East that supports, funds, and protects horribly cruel and violent terrorists and warn them so I don’t reign destruction down upon them. Jonah goes in the opposite direction.
But while he’s sailing on this ship, the Lord sends a violent storm that almost causes the ship to sink. The sailors are terrified- each are crying out to their gods- they finally cast lots and discover that the storm is because of Jonah. They ask Jonah what they should do, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard, the sailors try everything in order not to do this but the storm gets even wilder and finally they throw him in asking the Lord not to hold them accountable. Jonah is thrown in and probably figures he would rather die than go and preach to the Ninevites. But the Lord then sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah and save his life. For 3 days Jonah sat in the belly of this huge fish and finally repented, turned to the Lord and the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah on dry ground.
The Lord comes to Jonah again: Go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you. Jonah obeyed the Lord this time. Proclaimed in Nineveh “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” And we’re told the Ninevites believed God, they repented, declared a fast, everyone from the greatest to the least -even animals- were dressed in sack cloth, the king sat in ashes, they gave up their evil ways and their violence, and prayed that God would turn from his fierce anger and have compassion on them. And when God saw their reaction He did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Now, we would expect that the next verse would read: “Jonah rejoiced and went home happy for they repented of their sin and believed God.” God’s Word worked! But what are we told? Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. When a doctor performs a successful surgery, does he go home angry? No, he’s happy! When a police officer finally catches the criminal, is he upset? No, he’s happy! When a pastor uses law and gospel and someone repents and trusts in their Savior, they’re happy! But Jonah? He’s angry! And he prays to the Lord and says, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” In other words he’s saying, “I knew that this what was going happen. I knew you going to let them off the hook. I knew that you were a God who relents from sending calamity. I knew you had this bad habit of forgiving people. I wanted these dirty Assyrians to be wiped off the map, and I was afraid of this. I knew you were compassionate, that’s the reason I got so upset the first time.”
What’s Jonah’s issue? How do you get to such a bad place? How do you get so full of selfish exclusiveness, so full of prejudice, so narcissistic, so only concerned with yourself? He resents God’s grace and compassion for those he considers are the outsiders. How do you get to that place? He’s Ptolemaic. He sees the world as revolving around him. He is the center of his own universe. He doesn’t care what God wants, he cares about what HE wants. Do we do this? Or perhaps, a better question, how do we identify the same Jonah that lives inside each of us?
God gives us one indication here. Notice where you get angry. Notice where you get upset. Notice what riles you and bugs you and makes you mad. Jonah goes out of the city after the whole city has repented and turned in trust to God and he waits. The forty days aren’t up yet, maybe God will still destroy these dirty Assyrians anyway. He builds a shelter for himself and God provides this nice vine to grow up overnight and provide shade for Jonah. Jonah becomes very happy over this vine that gives him comfort and shade. The next day, God again provides something, a worm to chew the vine and wither it. Then God provides a scorching wind and hot sun and Jonah is growing faint from it and wishes he could die. God then probes him with a question: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” Jonah responds, “I do! I am angry enough to die.”
How do you identify the Jonah in your own heart? What upsets you? What angers you? What “plants” do you get upset over? What things in life that don’t go your way make you angry? The Irish playwright Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Do you think the universe should revolve around you and are upset when it doesn’t?
Notice how God deals with Jonah. The Lord asks him a question: “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many animals as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jonah resented God’s grace and generosity to others. He was more concerned about this plant than he was about the immortal souls of people. He wrongly assumed that he deserved God’s grace more than others. But grace isn’t for those who deserve, it’s only for those who don’t deserve it.
Are you troubled by the way Jonah ends? This is the end of the book. God wanted it to end here. It kind of leaves us hanging, what happened? Did Jonah repent? But finally, the book really isn’t so much about Jonah as it is about you and I. How are we going to answer God’s penetrating question? We are invited to put ourselves into the shoes of Jonah and confront our own inclination to assume that God’s grace is only for us, that we have a right to it, that others deserve only judgment. What’s our answer going to be?
The reality is, Jonah, you, me, everyone should only receive eternal judgment for our prejudice, selfishness, self-centeredness. But God’s grace is his love particularly for those who don’t deserve it. One greater than Jonah has come. He has given us the answer to God’s abounding grace. Jesus wrote the answer to God’s grace with His blood shed on the cross. Through his life, death, and resurrection we are assured that our salvation is secure, that heaven is indeed our eternal home, that we are recipients of God’s abounding grace and members of God’s kingdom.
So the only question that remains is how will you and I respond to God’s abounding grace? Will we be like Jonah? Will we be selfishly exclusive- thinking we deserve God’s grace and others do not? Will we be more concerned about the “plants” in our lives than we are about immortal souls? Or, will we realize first of all that we need God’s grace. We are lost, helpless, without hope on our own and desperately need God’s grace, compassion, and love. Will we trust that in Jesus Christ we have it. We have a God who so loved the world that gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life- that means you, that means me, that means all. And will we live to share God’s abounding grace with any and with all?
God’s abounding grace: realize you need it, trust that you have it, live to share it. Amen.