Slow Learning

Scripture References:
Jonah 3 & 4

When I set out to prepare a sermon about Jonah, I was not worried.   The entire book takes only four pages of the Bible and I was familiar with the tale.  This would be a nostalgic and entertaining romp through a familiar story.  Jonah was told by God to do something.  He ignored God’s message and sailed off in the opposite direction.  He is thrown into a stormy sea, swallowed by a great fish, repented, and was saved by God.  The moral of the story—“Be obedient.”  What a cake walk it would be preparing for today.  I love Jonah’s story.  Then, I read the last two chapters.

Let me tell you, I really struggle with those final pages.  Do you remember this part of the story being illustrated on any felt board?  On the surface, it doesn’t seem overly complicated.  God sends Jonah off to Nineveh to deliver a message.  Jonah arrives and tells the people that their city will be destroyed in forty days.  The people repent and return to God.  Consequently, God changes his mind and does not carry out the destruction that was forewarned.

But here is the rub: Jonah gets angry and complains to God.  “God!  I knew it!  I knew this was going to happen way back at the beginning!  Why do you think I ran off?  I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.  You are eager to turn back from destroying your people and to grant instead your forgiveness and your mercy.  Just kill me now!  I would rather be dead than alive if what I have predicted to the Nenevites will not come to pass” (MSG).

Wow!  At first, I was simply amazed that Jonah, this man who had just sung prayers of praise and thanksgiving as he sat in that dark belly of the fish, would dare to throw such a tantrum before our God who had just saved him.  Later, having been faced with my share of seventh-grade attitude, I thought, “Jeepers God, why don’t you just smite him?”   Then, it sank in how much Jonah must have hated the Ninevites.  What could make him so very angry?

It might be that Jonah wants the people of Ninevah destroyed to fulfill his own sense of judgment and fair play.  Ninevah was in its prime when Jonah was called to go there.  It was the capital city of the great Assyrian nation—now known as Iraq. It was said that the walls around the city were 100 feet high and 40 feet wide.  Indeed, some said that you could run two fully-equipped chariots side by side on the top of the walls with plenty of room to spare.  This was a land of considerable wealth and opportunity.  But like many great cities, sin seemed to grow with wealth and opulence.  Their wickedness had become so pervasive that God sent Jonah with the message prophesying their destruction.

I assume Jonah knew that the city is wicked.  It certainly seemed to be general knowledge.  The prophet Nahum tells how the Ninevites exploited their poor and their helpless.  He says they were ruthless and terribly cruel in war and guilty of idolatry and evil plots against God.  He makes it pretty clear that these were people who were self-centered, slovenly, gluttonous, and lust-filled.  They were sinners to the core.  Jonah might have been asking why, at this late hour, should these people be allowed to repent and be saved?  Jonah is justified in begrudging their reprieve, isn’t he?  It just doesn’t seem fair.

Inequity is something that bothers me a little.  I like fairness.  I confess that my initial response is to be on the brother’s side in the famous story of the prodigal son.  There is something that rubs me wrong when the one who has loyally worked the family farm comes in from the fields to find his father celebrating the brother who walked away from the family, squandered his inheritance, and crawled back home.  It doesn’t seem fair and yet this happens all of the time in the Bible.  We are asked to accept that those who start their work in the vineyard at five-o-clock should be paid the same as those who worked from sunrise to sunset.  We are asked, with Jonah, to accept that those who have lived all of their life with the earthly pleasures of wickedness can repent in the final moment and receive God’s full grace.  This might not seem right to those who spend their whole life trying to please God.

Perhaps it wasn’t Jonah’s personal judgment and sense of fair play at all.  It’s quite possible that his nationalism fueled his anger.  The Israelites had good reason to hate the Ninevites.  Israel had been attacked by Assyria countless times and the stories about Assyrian warriors are the stuff of nightmares.  Their invasions of towns and villages were likened to a plague of locusts.  They tortured the men with sadistic madness and killed the aging and the children. They stole the women and held them captive for their own entertainment.  Some accounts say that entire towns would commit mass suicide rather than fall into the barbaric hands of the Ninevites.  It is possible that Jonah’s hatred is fueled by the fire of national righteousness.

Again, I find myself sympathetic to Jonah’s angst.  As I imagine it was for him, I live under a basic premise that mine is the honorable nation.  I am old enough to have witnessed how the rally of national righteousness can fuel anger.  In fact, it is the single ingredient necessary to propel a people into battle.  I can understand how Jonah, battle-worn from generations of attacks and certain of his kingdom’s rightness, could take offense when God pardons his proven enemy.  Nineveh’s destruction would have been a final victory for Israel.  Now, the idea of spending the eternity of heaven’s kingdom with one’s sworn enemy seems incomprehensible.

Maybe Jonah longed for the destruction of Nineveh because it is what he had prophesied.  It was his “Oh!  You’re going to get it!” moment.  Has this ever happened to you?  I recall foretelling what was going to happen to my siblings when mom and dad got home.  If events unfolded as I had warned, and the fireworks really flew, I felt validated.  But if mom and dad come home and my prophecy fell flat—if it fizzles out—like Jonah’s, I felt robbed of an experience.  There is just something in us that wants people to get what my grandmother used to call, “their come-uppance.”  That might be the case with Jonah.  His message was certainly a judgment: “Get ready.  You have forty days and then watch out!”  He stood back, crossed his arms, and waited for the fireworks.  They repented.  God forgave.  And the fireworks fizzled.

Why do I care so much about this one tantrum in this little book called Jonah?  It is because, in these few lines, we see the raw truth about the human condition—a condition that has not changed in nearly three thousand years.  The bottom line is that we are a people that struggle with compassion and mercy.  It does not seem to come naturally to us.  Not only do we bungle chances when they present themselves, we often purposefully withhold even our most basic understanding and consideration. I know this sounds harsh.  It is a hard realization to lay on our hearts.

I ask that you bear with me through these personal examples:

This week, I listened to news reports and learned that the appellate court threw out a secularist petition to remove the I-beam cross from the 911 Memorial Museum.  My first response was not to praise God nor was it to pray to God that those who witness the artifact would be touched by His spirit.  My first response was, “Ha!  Finally, a win for us!”

This week, I read that ISIS militants, destroyed the revered holy site of the tomb of Jonah.  Despite the fact that Jonah is a prophet to Jews, to Christians, and to Muslims, ISIS destroyed the tomb and the mosque that housed it because Jonah’s story is seen as a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and ISIS is determined to drive Christianity from Iraq.  Upon reading this, I was filled with righteous indignation and questioned why God allows ISIS to prevail.

Earlier at the salon, I heard a woman informing another about those flowing through our country’s southern border.  I found myself becoming more and more agitated.  Finally, I was so frustrated by arguments peppered with half-truths, unsupported statistics and partisan propaganda that—in my mind—I indicted 60,000 people and bid them, “Follow the rules.”  This I did without once asking for God’s guidance.

Earlier this week, I sat with my parents and debated who had the better claim: Israel or Palestine.  It was a lively discussion that stretched my thinking but, in the end, I threw my hands up in despair that there could be no resolution.  How can there be peace between two nations that believe they are righteous?

Perhaps I am an anomaly here.  I wonder if you too find that you are challenged by the same stumbling blocks that I face?  After all of my training, it is still not my first nature to be Christian.  It is my first nature to be human—with all of its foibles and blunderings.  I read Jonah and I see how flawed my own thinking is.  I recognize how often I place blame or assign judgment…how often I feel superior or want to see someone get their due.  It never seems to sink in that while I am judging others, I am—like Jonah—sailing in the opposite direction of God’s calling.

Further, I can be blindsided even when I am dead certain I am righteous.  I am pulled by so many allegiances: family, friends, community, country, race, church, social groupings, political party.  The list goes on and on.  Many of the groups I align myself with have their own agendas and sometimes, I find that my righteousness is affixed to one of those alliances, which may or may not be in keeping with God’s plan for me.

Again and again, I learn from hindsight that my judgment was wrong.  Again and again, I stumble on my Christian walk.  And yet again, I stand making judgments when God has asked that I make disciples.

The promise in the book of Jonah comes in its ending.  It ends with a question, proving that God is still working on Jonah. There is hope still.  Thirsting for my own salvation, I have found it invaluable to lift God’s question from Jonah’s story and make it my own.

“What’s this, Della?
Do you not understand forgiveness and compassion?
Don’t you know that violence and blame can only end through mercy?
Won’t you pray for those who seem to be the farthest from my kingdom?
With all I have given you, would you now withhold from others?
Have you not yet learned that there is no us and them?
Don’t you realize that I love all of my children?”

All praise to God for His abundant grace and compassion.
May he continue to teach us all.