Text: Jonah 3-4
Friends, we’ve passed the midpoint of Lent; we are on the fourth leg of our pilgrimage through some of the Bible’s 40-Day Journeys. So far, we’ve floated the flood with Noah and heard God’s promise to stick with his creation no matter what; we’ve been up and down Mt. Sinai with Moses and heard God’s promise of forgiveness; and we’ve endured wind, earthquake, and fire with Elijah and heard God’s promise of profound purpose. In each adventure, alongside each towering figure of scripture, we’ve encountered a God whose majesty is matched only by his mercy.
Now, you might expect today’s journey with Jonah is a sea-faring adventure. It certainly begins that way! Commanded to proclaim God’s word in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction instead, getting on a boat to Tarshish. When a great storm overtakes it, and the ship is about to break into pieces, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. God provides a large fish, which swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, and God gives Jonah another opportunity to live out his calling. It’s the journey of that second chance we follow today, a dry-land adventure which takes us from the cool water into the blistering heat, both of a desert plain outside a doomed city and of Jonah’s burning, angry heart.
Anger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to dwell on my experiences of it. Many of us have learned to fear anger, our own and others’, and we anxiously rush to douse it when we begin to feel its heat. But Eugene Petersen offers another view in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, studying Jonah’s story as her reflects on vocational ministry. He writes, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that…[s]omething isn’t working right…Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood…Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction: when we are angry, we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts.”
Petersen’s perspective will be useful in Nineveh, where Jonah does go, albeit not very enthusiastically. He does the minimum necessary to comply with God’s call, walking one day into the enormous city, proclaiming, “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more,” It’s arguably one of the least inspiring sermons on record. But it turns out to be one of the most effective!
What happens next is, honestly, a little over-the-top. If you think a whale swallowing a prophet is fantastic, the repentance of Nineveh is even more so. Nineveh was infamous as a bastion of brutality and corruption. Yet, the extraordinary good news of this story is that, even for the worst of the worst, repentance happens. The people of Nineveh believed God. As soon as they hear Jonah’s words, everyone from the king on down to the sheep and cows drop everything and begin fasting, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and crying out to God for mercy. Just picture for a moment all those hungry cattle roaming around wearing sackcloth– No half-measures for those Ninevites! “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king decrees. “Who knows? God may change his mind.”
And that’s just what happens. God sees Nineveh’s repentance, and God relents from destroying the city.
Now, it seems to me that whenever people take God at God’s word and open themselves to transformation as profoundly as the Ninevites in this story, there ought to be much rejoicing. But how does Jonah react? He’s just helped facilitate a notoriously violent city turning from its evil ways. Is he pleased, or at least awestruck that his meager words have had such an impact?
Nope! Jonah is not pleased, not pleased at all! Venting his anger at God, you can almost see him stomping his feet like toddler in a temper tantrum. But we finally learn why he fled to Tarshish when God first called him. “I knew this would happen!” he says, before delivering the punch line of the whole story. “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.”
Now, these words are part of a formula describing God which is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We just heard a more elaborate formulation of them with Moses in Exodus 34, when God forgives Israel for the golden calf incident. That version of the formula heavily weighted God’s compassion, but it also clearly asserted God’s righteous judgment: yes, God keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and forgives sin, but God by no means clears the guilty.
But Jonah’s version of this formula leaves judgment entirely out. From his perspective, God is being too merciful to Nineveh, a city full of the enemies of his people, who, in fact, wipe out Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Jonah wants Nineveh punished, and God is not acting the way he believes God should. God’s mercy is absolutely overriding God’s justice. In his anger, Jonah feels asks God to take his life on the spot.
Certainly, per Eugene Petersen’s diagnostics, Jonah’s anger is saying with conviction that something is wrong in the neighborhood! But Petersen would also caution Jonah not to be too hasty to point fingers. “What anger fails to do,” he writes, “is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry…But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. If we admit and face that, we are pulled out of our quarrel with God and into something large and vocational in God.”
God does not take Jonah’s life, but asks a question, inviting Jonah to carefully track his anger. “Is it right for you to be angry?” A more literal translation would be, “Is it good that it burns to you?” Now, the word “good” here can mean righteous or ethical, as our translation implies, but it can also mean “good” as in beautiful or pleasurable.
Have you ever taken pleasure in anger? It sounds strange, but I’ve seen it in action. I know a young woman whose older sister had been the terror of her childhood. She learned to tiptoe around this sister so as not to arouse her sister’s notable temper. One day, when the two women had grown up, the older sister entered into Alcoholics Anonymous and began to work the Twelve Steps. In steps 8 and 9, a recovering person makes a list of people they believe they have injured in some way, and then they seek to make amends with those people, except if doing so might cause further injury. The older sister came to the younger one and sought to make amends. At first, the younger sister reacted numbly, but later, her anger burned inside of her, and she threw the amends back in her sister’s face, and she felt a fierce pleasure recounting all the ways she perceived she’d been injured.
Forgiveness is not easy, not just because true repentance is in short supply, but because people who feel wronged do not easily release their anger. There’s a kind of dark pleasure in listing those wrongs that seems to make up for the lack we might otherwise feel. Our anger reliably heats us up with a self-righteous sense of ourselves in a great battle against injustice.
“Is it right, is it good, for you to burn with anger?” God’s question seeks the deeper truth, the way our anger can become a self-serving crutch which actually distances us from justice. God’s question seeks to reveal the deeper truth: as we have received God’s mercy, we are called to extend it to others.
In the story of the sisters, forgiveness finally came, as the younger sister tracked her anger and realized her equal need for mercy. But, like many of us, confronted at the center of our sinful need, Jonah refuses to answer God’s question. He just gets up and leaves the conversation, setting up camp where he can passively watch the city. Maybe in forty days, doom will still come for Nineveh.
But Nineveh now seems to be in better shape to God than angry Jonah! And it turns out that God may relent from punishing, but God’s mercy is relentless! Since a sojourn in a fish’s belly wasn’t enough for Jonah to make the connection between God’s mercy for him and God’s mercy for Nineveh, God appoints more, curious, messengers. The shade bush and the worm are deployed, revealing that however hot the heat of the day, the heat of Jonah’s self-serving anger is still more perilous.
“You are concerned about this short-lived bush,” God remarks, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh’s 120,000 people who are even more clueless than you about my steadfast love and mercy—and what about all those animals?” One of the things I love about the book of Jonah is that God doesn’t forget those poor animals wandering around in sackcloth!
The other thing I love is what this story does to us by ending with a question. And here’s a fun little exegetical tidbit. Jonah’s angry speech to God earlier in chapter 4 adds up to 39 words in the original Hebrew, just shy of 40, which is understood to be a “complete” number.
God’s speech in response to Jonah, ending with this question, also adds up to 39 words. So it turns out, the story is not yet complete. It’s not complete without us. We might have laughed at the miserable prophet, but now we are also called up to answer.
So I ask you this Lent, what is burning you? Is it right, is it good for you to anger? Will you sit there, stoking the flames while it burns you up, or will you let it go and enter into a much greater joy, receiving and participating fully in God’s incredible mercy?
Take heart, because if Nineveh can repent, than anything can happen! And the forty days Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh have only just begun. God’s mercy and forgiveness for us are not complete, until we begin to share that mercy and forgiveness with others.
How will you complete this story?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.