Note: Today’s sermon was preached by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain of the San Francisco Theological Seminary
Lesson: Jonah 3:1-10
This morning’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures takes us right into the middle of the story of Jonah – you know, the story of the prophet who was thrown into the belly of the whale. But these verses from Chapter 3 don’t really make complete sense without the rest of the story. It’s not a long story, and it’s a good story. So why not tell the whole thing:
One day, the word of God comes to Jonah. The word of YHWH, the God of Israel — comes to Jonah, a prophet of Israel. YHWH says to Jonah, “Arise, go, and cry out to the City of Ninevah!” (Now Ninevah is a foreign city; it’s actually the capital of a powerful Empire.) The Word of God comes to Jonah – prophet of this tiny Israel, and God says, “Arise, go, cry out to Ninevah – because their wickedness has come before me.”
So Jonah, arises, and goes… to Tarshish, just as far away from Ninevah as he can. Are you kidding me? You want me to go where, and say what? Jonah heads to Tarshish, and to get to Tarshish he has to cross the sea, so he hires out a boat.
But God doesn’t make it easy. The ship sets sail, and God hurls a violent storm at them. The boat is crashing through this storm – everyone thinks they are doomed – so all the sailors start praying to their different gods – they start throwing cargo overboard – as if to appease the angry gods of the sea. And Jonah… is down in the bowels of the boat… sound asleep.
So the captain goes and gets Jonah, and says, “Hey, wake up! We are all about to die – we’re praying to our gods – you come pray to yours.” Jonah gets up on the deck just as the sailors are casting lots to see who might be the cause of their troubles – and guess what – the lot falls to Jonah. “What have you done,” they ask, “to make your god so angry?” And Jonah tells them his story and says, “You know, you might as well throw me overboard now.”
But the sailors do everything they can NOT to do that. They row hard and try to bring the ship to the shore, but that doesn’t work, and the storm just gets worse. So they pray – they pray to YHWH, Jonah’s god, and they say, “Please don’t let us perish; and don’t make us be guilty of taking innocent blood, for you are God.” But the storm just keeps getting worse, and so finally, they throw Jonah overboard. And the storm stops.
Jonah though – is now floundering in the sea – and the story says that God sends a big fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah lives in the belly of that big fish – in the belly of the whale—for 3 days. And while he is there, Jonah has time to think – and time to write a Psalm that he sings to YHWW – and oh, does Jonah sing to God – he praises God so much: “God, you’ve cast me into the deep, and the waters have closed over my head, but I have remembered you, I have remembered that you are God, and I remember all my prayers in your holy temple. And his song ends with the line, “But deliverance belongs to the YHWH!” At which point – the story says – YHWH tells the fish to vomit Jonah up onto the shore. I guess deliverance comes in all manner of shape and form. As Phyllis Trible says, “God delivers the whale from its undigestable burden.”[i]
And then, we come to today’s Scripture, Jonah chapter 3:1-10 —
The word of YHWH came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah arose, set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of GOD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the King of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said would come upon them; and God did not do it.
God changed God’s mind.
Now the Hebrew word translated here as “change your mind” also has an element of compassion to it – it’s both having compassion and changing your mind. I think a better translation might be:
God had compassion and changed God’s mind. God changed God’s mind, out of compassion.
And you know what? Jonah just can’t stand it: “I KNEW IT!!! I knew that you would have compassion! I knew you’d make me go announce destruction, and then at the last minute – you’d change your mind. After everything I said to that city, why don’t you just kill me now!” And Jonah stomps out of the city, and sits on a hill, and waits to see what – if anything – will happen to Ninevah. And nothing does. And Jonah sits. And Jonah sits. He roasts in the sun, and burns in his rage. And then that night, God sends a vine to grow up, and the vine gives Jonah some shade. And Jonah likes that. But then the vine dies – and Jonah is angry all over again.
And then, God comes to Jonah and God says this, “Jonah, does it do any good to be so angry? You have compassion for this vine that was giving you shade, though you didn’t grow it and you didn’t work for it. Shouldn’t I have compassion for 120,000 people in Ninevah, and for all the animals there too?”
And the story of Jonah ends with that question.
Jonah, Jonah, Jonah. Jonah gets so many things wrong in this story – and usually, when we come to this story we pick out one to talk about. We could talk about how Jonah runs from his calling, runs from God, because what God requires just seems to big. We could talk about how Jonah cowers in the belly of the boat when things get rough, or how he sits in the belly of the big fish, and tries to think up songs and prayers that will get God to do what Jonah wants. Or we could talk about him grudgingly stomping across Ninevah, barking out God’s message. Or we could talk about his petulance – because that’s rich. Jonah sulking in the hot sun: “I knew it! I knew you’d go soft on them. Well, you’re not going to have ol’ Jonah to push around any more.”
So many things that Jonah gets wrong – but here’s what I think undergirds them all: Jonah has a messed-up idea of who God is. From the very start, Jonah sees God as this vengeful, angry, all-powerful, unreasonable, and capricious deity. God can do what God wants – and God does do what God wants – it’s usually violent – but sometimes it’s randomly relenting – who can follow an angry, unpredictable God like that? And so Jonah runs; and exclaims, “Just kill me now!”, and burns with anger, and throws a class-A tantrum when God changes God’s mind –when God shows compassion where Jonah has just proclaimed God’s destruction. Jonah has a messed-up view of God, and out of that view of God, he lives a life that is not healthy for him, or for anyone else.
And it’s not just Jonah – in this old, old story – told out of an ancient world. I think we experience something like that in our own culture, in our own day. In American culture, there is this predominant view of God – I think – whether folks are Christian or not – that revolves around a God of heaven and hell. It goes something like this: God is the ultimate judge and jury, watching everything we do. God is waiting to make the call: good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell. And sometimes St Peter and the pearly gates are involved. Think about it – it’s all over popular culture. There’s even a TV sitcom now called, “The Good Place,” about heaven… and hell.
Now you know – Presbyterians don’t believe that, right? We profess and lean into a God of GRACE – a God who loves us no matter what – a God who loves us beyond who we are – beyond anything we’ve done – beyond the worst things that we’ve done. Right? “It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from ourselves so that no one can boast.”
Now, even though Presbyterians and most Protestants profess this God of Grace, this angry, good-and-evil, heaven-and-hell God still sneaks in there. There are many American Christians out there who believe that I’m going straight to hell because I’m gay. A lot of us who are LGBTQ+ and Christian have had family and friends – with the best of intentions – say that they are “concerned for our salvation” – as if God’s love and salvation depend on who we are, or who we love, or how we express that love.
And that’s not limited just to the conservative branches of Christianity. We progressives in our justice-zeal, can start believing that God isn’t only setting the world right, but that God is bringing down – and destroying – the evildoers we oppose. And sometimes we’re not very nice.
And this image gets into even the very basic questions of life. At one time or another, we’ve probably encountered great suffering and asked the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That is a good question – a human question. And, think about it: Implicit in that question is this sense that bad things should happen to bad people, and good things should happen to good people. That that’s the way the world works; that’s the way God works… we think. When really, our question is, “Why do bad things happen? Period. Why do people suffer? Anyone.”
There’s a family of writers – the Linn family – who’ve written a book – Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God[ii] – in which they say something like this. They say our prevalent image of God is too often – and for far too long – an “Old Uncle George” image of God. Maybe you know him. God is imaged as an old, white-haired man – like Old Uncle George – who is lurking around watching everything we do. Old Uncle George God knows everything, and sees everything, and is just waiting to catch us doing something wrong – and then to punish us as immediately and as severely as he can.
And here’s the thing — the Linns suggest that “In every aspect of our lives, we become like the God we image and adore and worship.” If we image a God who is lurking around every corner just waiting to cry, “Gotcha!” then we are likely to be constantly looking for flaws and faults, too, in each other, and in our selves. In a rather unforgiving way. If we image a God who is willing to throw millions of people into a fiery and hellish inferno, we might be a bit more willing to hail down nuclear weapons on a city we see as the enemy.
What we need – the Linns offer – is to heal our image of God – to find the God revealed in Scripture who is more loving than we could ever imagine – God who created us in love – every one of us, who forgives our every wrong, who frees us from every oppression, who brings us home from every exile, who saves us from everything that can do us harm. What we need is to come to a place where we know, as the Linns say “that God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” I’d say it this way, Whatever we are thinking of God right now, whatever you are thinking of God right now, God always loves us more.
This is what is happening in this morning’s Scripture. In chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Jonah, Jonah and the writer of the story have given us just about every negative image of God. God is a god who announces the destruction of cities and the slaughter of peoples, vindication and vengeance against the evil. God is a god who torments poor prophets with impossible tasks, hunts them down, hurls violent storms that threaten ships at sea and all within them. God is a God who punishes the wicked. God is a god whose justice must be satisfied with the sacrifice of human life.
But then. But then. In these verses in Chapter 3, we see a God different than that. The people of Ninevah see it first – this foreign-to-Israel people. Who knows? they say, who knows but God might experience compassion and change God’s mind. And so they repent – whatever it is they have done – and God has compassion and changes God’s mind. But that doesn’t fit with the image of God that Jonah has. “I knew it!” and Jonah sulks, and God says to Jonah, “Shouldn’t I have compassion on 120,000 people and all those animals? Shouldn’t I love them at least that much?”
Whatever our image of God, God always loves us more.
Whatever we are thinking of God right now,
we are always being invited to change our mind.
God always loves us more.
On any given day, our image of God is always going to be too small. We are human, and we’ll never have all the words we need to understand and to express fully how high and wide and long and deep is the love of God for us and for all people. But every day, God invites us to experience more – more of the love of God, and to change our mind, and to embody God’s love as much, as much, as much as we can. And to begin again the next day.
So I want to offer those 5 words to you – God always loves us more – to carry into the week with you – as a touchstone prayer – as a holy reminder to say whenever and as often as you need.
God always loves us more.
So here’s to Jonah – running from his calling and fleeing from God; cowering in the bowels of a ship at sea; trying to sway God with sweet psalms from the belly of the whale. Here’s to Jonah, stomping across Ninevah, just ticked off that God has put him in this position. And here is to Jonah, who burns with anger when God is not who Jonah thinks God should be – when God has compassion and changes God’s mind. Here’s to Jonah, pouting petulantly in the hot desert sun, until a vine grows up and gives him shade – and burning with anger all over again, when he has to continue his snit in the hot sun.
Here’s to Jonah – he’s one of us.
And here’s to God. Here’s to God, who accompanies and cares for Jonah every moment of this story. Here’s to God who calms the sea, and who shelters Jonah in the belly of the whale. Here’s to God who stands in the midst of the people of Ninevah, and is moved by compassion, and changes God’s own mind. Here’s to God who seeks Jonah out, and shelters Jonah, and says to Jonah: “Oh, Jonah, what good does it do to be so angry?” Shouldn’t I have compassion on 120,000 people and all their animals – not just because they repent – but just because – just because they are human beings, and just because the animals are creatures too – each one created and loved by me?”
Here’s to God, who invites Jonah to change his mind too.
Whatever you are thinking about God, right here and right now,
God always loves us more.
Copyright 2018 Rev. Scott Clark. Reprinted with permission.
[i] Phylllis Trible, “The Book of Jonah” in The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary (NIB) (Abingdon Press, 1992). [ii] Dennis Linn; Sheila Fabricant Linn; Matthew Linn. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Paulist Press, 1994)