I’m so glad to be back here at Canadian Memorial, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever been in. I wrote about your church in a published article, and sometimes when I’ve written about a place I don’t get invited back, glad not to have made too big a hash of things. I’m so grateful for the way this congregation has sent remarkable students into ministry. My teaching at VST would be vastly impoverished without Jill Jackson, Trevor Malkinson, Frances Kitson, and there are more. Thank you for being a flourishing mainline liberal congregation—a rare animal in our day.
Since you’re a generous lot I think it’s not too big a risk to preach to you from the book of Jonah, appointed by the lectionary for today. Jonah is just four chapters, and it is a jewel in biblical literature—not a wasted word, an elegant little story. We think of it mostly because of the great fish that swallowed Jonah, and the way that fish winds up in children’s stories and songs and the like. In a Jewish mind being swallowed by a fish is like being under the lowest layer of hell. Jews don’t tell stories of seafaring greatness like their neighbours the Greeks and the Phoenicians do. For the Jews, the sea is a highway that enemies travel on, it’s a chaos for sea beasts and unclean animals where you drown, stay far away. So to be in the sea and swallowed by such a beast is so low it’s almost comical. [image] In our illustrations for children we make Jonah seem unbearably pious, and here the whale is even happy. [image] Here Jonah seems almost cozy, at peace. [image] this one is a little better—the sea is turmoil, the creature is scaly and scary and Jonah prays but not politely, but urgently, he’s terrified.
See what’d happened is that God told Jonah to go to Ninevah. Israel’s enemy’s capital city. And preach that they’d better repent. And Jonah booked first passage the opposite direction. Tarshish. 180 degrees the other direction. God is not pleased so God sends a storm, and the sailors row and cuss and pray and cast lots and learn that it’s this Jew, Jonah, whose god is mad at him. Now this is already funny—have you met any pious sailors? Neither have the Jews, they’re laughing as they tell this story. So the sailors demand to know, What’d you do? Oh, right, I disobeyed. You can throw me overboard if you want, the storm will stop. Jonah knows God, and isn’t happy about what he knows. So they row some more. Doesn’t work. This time they don’t ask Jonah first, they just throw him overboard. And a great fish comes (not a whale, the text says a fish) and swallows him up.
Now as good United Church liberals how do we hear all this? If God asked you to go evangelize your greatest enemy, would you do it? Or book passage to Tarshish? I mean the United Church isn’t big into evangelism, right? Unless we’re talking about ecology, or inclusivity, or not being fundamentalist, then I notice a bit of evangelistic confidence. What if God asked you to go to the place you hate most? Washington DC at the moment? Back someplace unbearably conservative on the prairies or in the Maritimes? And tell them God loves everyone, especially the people they all hate most? A preacher friend of mine imagines getting invited to the White House and God converting Donald Trump away from being a bigoted narcissist and he says no, he’s not going—he doesn’t want to go near that guy and sure doesn’t want him forgiven. Jesus has this thing for losers and enemies. Jonah doesn’t want to evangelize because he knows God is merciful. And he wants no mercy for the Ninevites. None at all. He wants to watch them suffer. So he runs. And God follows. With a storm. And a fish. And then God says, now, where were we? Oh, yes, you were going to Ninevah. Now hear this word.
The Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 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. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . 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.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “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. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And 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?”
And that’s it, the last word of the great biblical book of Jonah—animals. This is the witness of God’s people. Thanks be to God.
Jonah is a story that gets at so many of the key themes in the bible. Is God for us only? Or is God both for us . . . and for our enemies? Is religion our private property or is it our responsibility with which we’re to bless others? What do we do with foreigners? Those unfamiliar, the other? Just exclude, destroy, deport, ridicule? Or love, honour, cherish, make a new us with them? Lots of the bible sounds one way—enemies are for conquering. In Jonah enemies are a test to see how much we love God, or do we just want to use God to get our way in the world? Jonah is happy about the shade of a bush, and curses God when it withers. God says so you’re mad about the bush? You think my job is to make you happy and comfortable? Or is it my job as God to love all the world, and to repair it, and make all things new?
Let me back up a bit. Nineveh is a great city. Scripture says it would take three days to walk across it. It has 120,000 people, which doesn’t sound so large to us, but in the ancient world would sound unfathomable. I remember flying over Mexico City, the largest city in the world, and looking out the airplane window and seeing city as far I could see. Half an hour of flying time later I looked again—still nothing but city, with 20 million souls underneath (God bless every one of them). Another time I was in New York for a meeting at the World Trade Center, and someone mentioned Broadway was 100 blocks north. And I thought—100 blocks? Nothing but skyscraper from here to there, and that’s not even halfway up Manhattan! One of the great human experiments is how to have a city team with people in a way that makes us better, not worse. I confess when I walk by a house in my neighbourhood in Mt. Pleasant that’s newly bought my first thought isn’t “welcome!” it’s “well look who had two million dollars to blow.” I can relate to Jonah.
Nineveh was not merely a great city it was a great capital of a great empire, and that empire had crushed Israel under its boot. In 722 AD the Assyrians swept down on the northern kingdom of Israel and smashed it, carried off its people, eliminated 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel from the face of the earth, only two tribes are left in the southern kingdom of Judah. The biblical book of Nahum is a denunciation of the city of Nineveh. Nahum calls Nineveh a bloodthirsty city, full of loot and lies, it compares it to a den of predators, a promiscuous person, and promises that God will bring Nineveh destruction, desolation, devastation. All the world will cheer when Nineveh is destroyed. We don’t preach from Nahum often in church do we? Here in Jonah the book opens with God saying he has not forgotten Nineveh’s wickedness. Biblical people think of Nineveh the way the greatest generation thought of Berlin or Tokyo—dens of murderers that gobble up neighbors and grind up the brave young people who go out to fight against them. What would one wish for such a place other than its total destruction?
That’s why Jonah is worried. The reason he runs the other way when God calls him to preach to Nineveh is that he knows God is merciful, and if the Ninevites hear the Word of God they might repent, God might have mercy on them, and they wouldn’t get what’s coming to them. Jonah is the perfect unpious believer. He knows God is merciful and he hates that. I’ve noticed some of the best explorations of the Christian faith are by people who don’t hold it. So in Graham Greene’s novel and the film based on it, The End of the Affair, the affair ends because of a miracle. An honest to God miracle, not a flower or a child’s face or whatever, but something that can’t happen by the laws of nature. And in the film’s final scene the narrator is typing a letter to God and concludes this way—as for me, God, leave me alone forever. That’s some prayer. He fully believes in God, thinks God can work the miraculous, and hates God for it. An image for Jonah—sure it’s all true, and I hate it.
So there Jonah is on the beach, still covered in fish goop and sand when God says, there now, where were we, oh yes, you, you’re going to Nineveh. Jonah is the least enthusiastic missionary in world history. Perhaps you’ve sat on committees that give away money—used to be churches giving to missions, now maybe more non-profits giving to the same stuff. Those organizations boast about what great good they do. None of their glossy brochures or glowing reports are anything like Jonah–he has a scowl and smells like fish stomach. But he has no choice, so he goes to preach. He walks a day into Nineveh and lets fly.
Think of the best sermon you’ve ever heard, go ahead. You’ve had some great preachers here in Bruce Sanguin, Beth Heyward now. Got a great preacher in mind? Jonah is not in their company. He just wanders into the city and lets fly on some corner, no crowd gathered in advance, no warmup music, no choir robes or gothic building, nothing. And his sermon! “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And people say the church’s preaching today is bad . . . Jonah gives an 8-word sermon, 5 if you’re counting the words in Hebrew. It wouldn’t even give it an F in preaching class, it’d get turned back with a grade of incomplete and a lecture about respecting the assignment. Forty days and you’ll be dead! Forty days and you’ll be dead! Jonah is like a petulant teenager. You’re making me load the dishwasher? Ok, I’ll load the dishwasher! No scrubbing first, smash, bang, too much soap or too little. You’re making me preach? I’ll preach wrong. Forty days and you’ll be dead. It’s the sermon of a raving madman. Who would listen?
The Ninevites, that’s who. They hear Jonah’s sermon and they repent. All of them. The king of Nineveh trades in his royal robe for harsh, coarse sackcloth; he trades his kingly throne for a seat of ashes. This would be like Donald Trump taking Jesus seriously and repenting for repealing DACA, pardoning Joe Arpaio, bluffing about nuclear war, a host of other things. The people of Nineveh believe God, they fast, they pray, and “everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” This would be like North Korea or Syria or America or Canada suddenly en masse becoming places of repentance, godliness, grace, mercy. The king issues a decree: “All shall turn from their evil ways and the violence that is in their hands.” It’s a model conversion of an entire great city, from the king down to the animals—the cows out in the field are wearing sackcloth.
And Jonah is furious.
I knew it! He screams at God. He burns with hot anger. He is angry enough to die. And he confesses pious words with hate in his heart. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” God pushes back, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And Jonah walks out on God, turns his back on him. This is glimpse of us, God’s people. It’s not pretty. We’re right to be delighted that God loves us, that we’re God’s pride and joy, the apple of God’s eye, the bride of God’s youth. Yet we often think God loves us and not others. We’re like the workers in the vineyard who work all day and grumble when those who worked only an hour get the same pay. What we forget is that our position in God’s family, in God’s favor, in God’s lap, is only because of grace. It’s undeserved. We don’t get to be there by right. And so we have no place to object when others are invited in too. One preacher describes our view of ourselves this way: “Undeserved gifts are only supposed to go to the deserving, apparently.”[i] Here in Jonah the sailors and the Ninevites and the fish are God’s beloved. Jonah, the prophet, called by God, a book of the bible named for him, is a bratty child.
Jonah’s anger at his enemies’ repentance reminds me of the folk tale often told about a man who’s granted three wishes. The only catch is that his enemy—the neighboring farmer, will get double of whatever he gets. So he wishes for a bumper crop. Granted. But his neighbor harvests twice as much. He wishes for healthy and strong reproducing animals. Granted. But his neighbor gets twice his herds. Then he makes his final wish: he wishes to be blinded in one eye. We would rather suffer than see our enemy prosper. Jonah shows that here—after Nineveh repents he sulks, retreats to a place where he’d hoped to watch the city burn like Sodom and Gomorrah, and instead he sweats in the heat. God appoints a bush to shelter him. Jonah’s thrilled about the bush. But then God appoints a worm to destroy the bush and Jonah fumes again. Jonah is the definition of selfish faith. He loves God as long as God does what he wants and curses his enemies.
By contrast look at what this story tells us about God. God is unendingly patient, funny, gentle. There are rumours afoot that the Old Testament depicts a god of wrath. Maybe in some places. Definitely not in Jonah. Here Jonah is wrathful and God is mirthful, playful, kind. In Jonah God is steady, constant, calm, peaceful, as Jonah says, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. God tells Jonah, you were worried about the shade on your head, “should I not be concerned about Ninevah, a great city, a hundred and twenty thousand people, many animals?” I love the note about the animals—what about the goats in Baghdad, aren’t you worried about them Jonah? God’s heart breaks for those who don’t know their right hand from their left, who are clueless, the last thing God wants to do is hurt them, God wants them to step into fuller life, just like God wants for all of us.
Abraham Lincoln was once berated by a woman who wanted the North to take vengeance on the South after the US Civil War. You can see why—that war cost hundreds of thousands of lives. “We should destroy our enemies!” The president responded, “Madam, have I not destroyed my enemy when I have made him my friend?”
A second thing in this story has to do with feelings, how we feel. They’re fickle things feelings, that can turn on how many likes you get, the tone of a voice, a switch in the weather. Often the church has gotten stuck, fixated on feelings. They’re things we can manipulate after all with music and lights and sermons. Here’s why we’re so focused on feelings. It has to do with the history of theology—so forgive me for going full-bore nerd here. In modernity lots of Protestants lost our confidence in theology. The bible seemed suspect, the history of the church riddled with malfeasance—many of us liberals still feel this. So what integrity did theology have? Is it just a power play to be resisted, a metanarrative to be deconstructed? One powerful response came from a German pietist named Friedrich Schleiermacher who said no—here’s what religion is. It is a feeling of awe before the mystery. Faith may not refer to a God out there, or to a workable political program, or trustworthy history or morality, but it can sure work in here, rewiring how we feel. That’s no bad thing feelings—I have rather a lot I’d like reworked actually. But notice this—Jonah would disagree. Jonah is the most miserable servant of God in the history of servants of God. He’s told to go and runs the other way. It takes pious sailors and a ravenous fish to redirect him and even then Jonah goes miserably. The only time he’s happy in the story is over a bush—thanks God, you finally did something for me. Then God takes it away. And the story ends with Jonah more miserable than ever—no resolution. In other words faith isn’t reduced to feeling. It has to do with the entire natural order—fish and trees and cows and storms and worms—and it has to do with God’s determination to bless our worst enemy. Jonah is convinced it’s all true and he’s miserable about it. However we feel about it friends, God is determined to renew every single created thing and to bless the poor and marginalized first. We’re all going to have to get used to it.
Jonah does not. In Christian theology, we say all creation is fallen, broken, disordered. Our hope is not just for individual souls after life is over. But in Jonah it’s Jonah who’s rebellious. The rest of creation is doing just fine, thank you. The fish. The vine. The cows. The worm. The storm. All snap to before God’s command like soldiers before the sergeant. Jonah is a petulant child and will do anything to get out of what he’s supposed to do. Two sides to this then. Notice creation shot through with God’s grandeur. This is easy to do in supernatural British Columbia. Then notice our own rebellious hearts. We can’t hardly make ourselves want the things we want to want, do the things we want to do, let alone what God wants—loving the enemy and the poor and creation. But we’re in good company. God doesn’t leave us to our own rotten devices. God will use creation, the enemy, and the poor to make us disciples whether we want to be or not. Just look at Jonah. God is going to get the world God wants, with or without our help. Try not to be so sour about it. But be like the animals and pitch in and help God do that.
Final word for today on this great piece of literature. Jonah goes and tells. He does so badly, under duress, he’s not happy about God’s mercy, but he tells. So should we. However bad we might think we are at telling of God’s mercy we’ll be better than Jonah’s “40 days and you’ll be dead” sermon. I’ve been telling everyone of you who’ll listen about the TV series I like—The Crown and This is Us and Stranger Things. Why not about the thing most important to me—that there is a God of love who is loose in the world? Indigo Books has the delightful slogan from Bono “The World Needs More Canada.” I agree, it’s why I moved here. But it sounds sort of like evangelism, doesn’t it? I mean, my country the USA says that sort of thing all the time and we appropriately recoil—wait, that’s jingoistic patriotism! Everyone brags about their country—why so tongue-tied about God? Any one of us will tell anyone about our favorite actors, grocery stores, why we should eat organic kale, annoying personal habits, our sex lives. But when it comes to religion we clam up. Freeze. Don’t tell. We know why—so many people who talk about their faith do it badly, harmfully, wrongly. Like Jonah! But thank God someone told us about God’s mercy gently, wisely, patiently, intelligently, or else we wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t be who we are, wouldn’t be part of God’s project of restoring the world. So too God wants us to tell others the thing that matters most in our lives. Friends if you have glimpsed God’s mercy go and tell others about it. Doing so will make you and them more human. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine.