Jonah 3: 10 – 4:11
On a country road a some time ago, two monks were walking from their monastery to a village several miles down the way. Shortly after leaving their home they came across an elderly woman standing at the side of a river.
With tired eyes and worried hands she begged the monks to help her cross so that she could continue on her journey. The monks, of course, quickly agreed. So together the brothers joined hands, creating a makeshift bench between then, and then they lifted the woman up and off they went. Slowly but surely all three waded into the quick moving river. The monks cautiously making sure that they kept their feet under them and kept their passenger as dry as possible.
Once they reached the other side… stepping up from the soft, muddy banks. The monks bent down, feeling the a creak in their back and a twinge in their knees, and let their passenger off safely onto the ground.. She thanked each of the brothers with a hug before setting off again down the road again.
The monks returned to their own path and set about their own journeys.
A while later one of the monks groans and puts a hand on his lower back saying, “Wow does my back ever hurt!”
And again moments later, “Uggg, I hate walking in a wet robe, I am still soaked.”
The other monk just gave him a soft understanding smile and kept walking.
And then again another mile down the road. The aching monk says louder and more passionately. “Uggg! My back is really killing me!” and with a great whine, he insists on taking a break.
Finding a near by stump, he plops down. Turning to his fellow monk who is standing patiently near by he say, “Isn’t your back/ your knees/ your something hurting after that river crossing?”
With a gentle and wise smile, he says, “No actually, I set that woman down five miles ago.”
For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the practice of forgiveness. Forgiving small offences, annoyances, and things that just grate on your nerves- but also forgiving when the wounds are deep and bleed even years later.
Now we can talk all we want about forgiving – we can talk about it, we can practice it, we can embrace and honor it as the way of Christ! But so many of us, no matter how much practice we have… would still have problems with the “Letting go” part of forgiveness… So today, like the soar/hurting monk on the country road long ago, we need to talk about setting the woman down. Unburdening ourselves. We need to talk about letting go. And who better to teach us this than one of our favorite biblical characters: Jonah.
So, the book of Jonah is just a short story really – four chapters long – filled with humor, irony, suspense, wordplay and hyperbole. And to talk about any single part of it we really need to talk about the story as a whole, because that is how it is meant to be read. Most of us at least know a little about Jonah and his tale, whether we grew up in the church or not. Perhaps you have heard of Jonah as the unwilling preacher or the resistance servant of God, the one that when God said go east- he went west as fast as he can go. Perhaps you know Jonah as the one that ended up getting tossed overboard a boat and swallowed up by a giant fish just to be spat out on a sandy beach facing (none other than) East – the last direction that he wanted to go.
But the message living within the Prophet Jonah’s tale, truly, has very little to do with whales or storms, and a lot to do about forgiveness, lingering bitterness, and deliverance.
Jonah’s story begins with words of commissioning. God has a job for Jonah to do. God says, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
And I really love the next verse – Scripture says, “And so Jonah got up… and he fled.”
There was no humming or hawing, no internal debate, no long beautiful conflicted soliloquy. Jonah just got up and he ran.
Jonah was a professional Prophet, he is mentioned in the book of Kings as a prophet for King Jeroboam II, so why would a prophet (a professional keep in mind) flee before God’s instructions? Delivering God’s word to the people was, after all, his job/ his livelihood.
Well there was a problem with God’s instructions this time. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was the grand central station, the capital city for the Assyrian people – and Jonah was an Israelite. The two didn’t mix well.
And can we really blame Jonah for feeling this way? When we learn that the Assyrians were responsible for destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel… and subjugating, taxing, and oppressing the Southern Kingdom, destroying their cities, and otherwise wreaking havoc across the ancient Near East.
So, their capital city was not exactly a vacation destination of an Israelite prophet.
Jonah hated the Assyrians, on principle for what they had done to his people. He was bitter against them because of what had happened long ago. And so, when God says, “Get up and go to Nineveh and warn them that the wrath of God is coming”… Jonah is probably thinking, “No thanks. No way. Let the wrath of God come. They deserve what they get. And besides they would never repent anyway. So I’m just going to head West to Tarshish, I’ll get as far away as I can get. I’ll hang onto my righteous bitterness, thank you very much.”
So Jonah boards a ship and sets sail across the sea to Tarshish.
What happens next is the part that we probably all know. Scripture tells us that “God hurls a great wind” against the sea. And as soon as the terrified crew of the ship realizes that God is angry at Jonah, that he is the reason they are in this storm, they throw him unceremoniously overboard.
And as the seas calm, Jonah sinks and sinks… And then is swallowed up by a big fish. Oddly enough, there is no word in Hebrew for whale, so the Scripture says that Jonah was consumed by a giant fish. And there he stayed for three days and three nights – in the belly of that fish – Until he finally promised to do as God had instructed, “What I have vowed, I will make good.” He says… finally.
Then the whale spat him out on the beach and off Jonah went to Nineveh.
Once he arrived there Jonah told the Nievehites just what God had instructed: “Forty more days,” He says, “And Nineveh will be overturned.”
I once heard this described as the most un-heartfelt sermon in the entire Bible. And I think that is probably right.
Jonah was a bitter man, harboring hatred for the Ninehvites and the rest of the Assyrians, going against his will to their capital city to deliver an 8 word sermon. Do you think he put his heart into it? Do you think that he truly believed that they would change their “Assyrian” ways and repent as God was hoping?
Jonah did as God asked, barely. And that was about it.
And after he did his work, delivered this message from God, Jonah leaves the city and finds a nice spot, high up, to watch God blast the wretched city into oblivion.
Sitting in the hot sun he keeps his eyes glued on the city and waits.
And he waits.
And it would seem that God’s sympathetic/ merciful eyes were glued on Jonah. In an act of kindness, God made a plant grow up next to him to shade his head.
And still Jonah waited for the destruction to come.
But. The people of Nineveh were, curiously enough, doing exactly the opposite of what Jonah expected. From his spot outside the city Jonah could probably hear the songs of praise, songs of repentance and of thanksgiving going up to God. He could probably see the smoke of the burnt offering – raising up… They had listened to Jonah’s prophecy (those not so heart-felt eight words) and they had immediately realized it as truth… so they changed their ways.
All while Jonah was sitting their waiting to witness their destruction…
God, it would seem, eventually grew weary of Jonah’s bitterness keeping him stuck to that spot, and he sent a worm to chew up the plant shading Jonah’s head and then God sent a hot/ brutal east wind to add to his discomfort. Jonah watch in horror as his nice shady spot apparently became the victim of God’s wrath…
A very hot Jonah began to realize that his bitterness has blinded him… yet he still refuses to see the Assyrians as anything more than an unchanging evil… so he calls out to God, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God responds to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” But God talking about more than just the plant here… this is a question for the whole situation.
“Do you have any right to be angry?”
“I do.” Jonah says. Sitting there in his bitterness. “I am angry enough to die.” Jonah says this because he is mad at God’s generosity. Mad at God’s willingness to forgive the Assyrian people. Jonah is mad at God’s deliverance.
But it was then that the Lord really laid it out for Jonah. “You have been concerned about this vine that shaded your head though you did no tend it or make it grow, I did. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people, all of whom I made and I grew… Should I not be concerned about them/ about that great city?”
And that is where the story ends – abruptly. It ends with God calling Jonah out on his anger and him unwillingness to forgive and his misplaced opinions on what is truly just. But we never know if Jonah gets up from that place and moves forward towards forgiveness… or if he stays there frozen in his own stubbornness. That, I think, is for us to decide.
What do you think happened after this story? Can Jonah let go of his anger? Could he ever come to a place of accepting that God’s mercy and grace could be for those non-Israelites? Worse, the enemies of the Israel?
I think this is for us to consider and answer for ourselves.
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. Have you ever found yourself hanging onto anger or holding back forgiveness?
Who or what was that stubbornness towards? Bring that into your mind.
Now, know this. Whoever you are thinking of… or whatever situation comes to mind… know that God’s deliverance and justice can be found there. And that is the Gospel for us today. God’s mercy and justice can be known to any and all. It is not withheld from anyone. Because deliverance belongs to God, and it is God’s gift to give… and amazingly enough it has already been given to us all through the work of Christ on the cross.
Jonah’s trip to Nineveh reads like a how NOT to do forgiveness guide for us all. Jonah is like that monk, walking down the country road refusing to set that woman down. Refusing to let go of the weight of his troubles. Refusing to unburden himself… and it crushes him!
It takes a lot of work to let go and forgive. It takes getting past your anger, it takes grieving and it takes a lot of choices. Everyday choosing to let it go- to not let anger or stubbornness or bitterness win… everyday choosing to trust in God’s grace.
This week I want you to consider Jonah’s tale. Especially the fact that the story is left open/ un-ended if you will. What do you think it would take for Jonah to get up off the dusty ground and go join in the party happening at Nineveh’s town square. What would it take? What would that look like in our lives?
Let us pray,
Lord, sometimes we are like Jonah. Sitting under the hot sun, rooted in our spot by sheer stubbornness or bitterness. Lord give us the strength to see each other from your perspective. As beautiful creations that are worth your mercy- that are worth your grace and deliverance. Help us to get up off the ground, dust ourselves off so that we can join in celebrations. Lord be with us. Help us to act as people of forgiveness.
In Christ’s holy name we pray,
 Chan, Michael: Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11. Working Preacher September 21, 2014.