A Sermon on the Book of Jonah by The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor
Sulk or rejoice?
This is the choice that we are confronted with when we read the book of Jonah. Will we sulk in God’s grace and salvation or rejoice in God’s grace and salvation?
Now you might be thinking, well duh, or course we rejoice, but Jonah is not that simple. Instead, Jonah confronts us with the extreme challenge of what it means for us to believe that God is a God of grace and salvation. And again, not simple. So, let’s turn to the passage and look at it closely and I will show you what I mean.
Unfortunately, thanks to the lectionary, we only get a tiny snippet of the story this morning and miss so much, including the giant fish. God actually calls Jonah to go to Ninevah twice and to preach against it, because it is an evil city…after the first call, Jonah runs away from God, gets in a boat, a storm comes, he falls overboard, and is swallowed by the giant fish, where he spends 3 days and nights in its belly, until he is vomited on the shore.
It is while he is on the shore, covered in fish puke, that we meet him this morning… God calls to him again, go to Ninevah. And this time, Jonah listens. He gets up, he goes, and he says to the people, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the reaction of the people of Ninevah is one that the original readers would never have expected.
Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the empire that would exile Israel, being one of its greatest enemies. In our world we might think of it as being like the capital of ISIS territory…just think of the worst place ever, where there is danger, where the people are threatening, enemies of our lives, of our country, of our safety. This was Ninevah for the Israelites. No wonder Jonah ran away the first time, who would want to go there and preach to them?? But he goes the second time, after being in the fish, and, after preaching, the people of Ninevah listen to him. The original audience would have been shocked…this most evil city listened to the Israelite prophet. What is going on!?
And not only do they listen, but also the King proclaims a fast and has all the people and animals put on sackcloth and mourn. The narrator is exaggerating everything…Ninevah, this awful awful city, follows what the prophet says and does it to the most amazing degree. And because of this, God does not do anything to the city, as it says in our reading, ‘God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.’
Again, what the lectionary leaves out is Jonah’s reaction to God’s decision. In chapter 4, we find Jonah, super angry. He is annoyed that God showed mercy to the horrible Ninevites. Jonah sits under a bush, where he sulks…he shows his temper, because God has saved the enemies of God’s people and Jonah does not agree with this at all.
When reading the Jonah story we need to place ourselves in Jonah’s shoes and see everything through his eyes. The story is calling us to ask ourselves, how would we feel if God called us to go to the worst possible people we could ever imagine and proclaim judgement…then they listen and God spares them? How would we react if we were to see God show care, mercy, salvation towards our archenemy? Towards someone who causes us harm, or fear, or is a major threat?
This is where the point of this story lies, as one scholar notes, Jonah asks us “How willing are we to let God be God? Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah’s story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish. God will be forgiving because that is the very heart of God.”
Can we accept that even the worst people possible, those who kill, those who harm others, God will save them as God saves us? That being a good person, doesn’t mean that we are more deserving of God’s gifts than those who sin all the time. That God decides what God will do and we have absolutely no say in the matter.
As I wrote this sermon, I was challenged by this concept. I like to think that the world is fair, God is fair, and the good will get good, the bad will get bad…but Jonah is about acknowledging that God saves everyone, even those we think are so horrible that God shouldn’t save them. Jonah is forcing us to realise that we have absolutely no say in what God does. It is prompting us to put our arrogance aside and to recognise that the gift of God’s grace is for literally everyone, every single human being on this planet, from murderers to those who serve the poor. God will save whomever God chooses, God does not have to be fair, as we define fairness, God is in ultimate control.
And recognising this is key to seeing how true and pure God’s gift of grace really is…nothing we do is horrible enough to prevent God from saving us. This doesn’t mean we go out and do whatever we want, but that deep in our hearts we can rest in the fact that each one of us right here right now, God has saved us. There might be people who truly hate us, we might hold inside our hearts deep regret for past actions, past words, past thoughts, but God saves even the worst people, the enemies of the chosen Israelites and God saves us too.
So we face a choice…will we sulk or rejoice?? Will be like Jonah, sulk because we are annoyed that being a good person doesn’t mean we get more than the worst people possible…sulk because we don’t agree that God saves everyone, because we would rather see the evil punished instead of saved…or will we rejoice in the fact that we have a God who loves us so much, that nobody on this planet can be bad enough to be exempt from God’s grace, will we rejoice in the fact that we have a God whose salvation is so freely given that every human being is saved? Where do you find yourself? Sulking or rejoicing??