Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The story of Jonah is just one of those great Biblical stories. And it is a story. It’s a theological story – a sort of extended parable. Jesus used parables. His tended to be shorter. But he was accustomed to theology being couched in stories that were easily remembered and told—stories like this one! Theology was not a dry, scholarly treatise – but accessible to all through drama.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that we don’t get the full story in our lesson today. Granted, it’s not short. But it is worth remembering the entire story – not just a little snippet.
“The Lord had called Jonah. ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” That introduction sets in motion the familiar parts of the story. Jonah paid for passage and boarded a boat headed to Tarshish. But God sent a great storm. Jonah finally confessed to everyone on board that he was responsible for God’s wrath and suggested that he be thrown overboard. So, with great reluctance, they threw him overboard. The storm ceased. And God sent a large fish (not a whale) which swallowed Jonah, saving his life. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented and praised God. So, God had the fish spew Jonah out onto the dry land.
That’s the lead-in to today’s lesson. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” So, Jonah went. He went to proclaim God’s anger and wrath. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And, Nineveh listened. They repented.
Well, we miss the last part of this story. Their repentance did not sit well with Jonah. We find out that he was perfectly willing (the second time around) to proclaim God’s wrath. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want God to be merciful to them!
I’ve been re-reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints. It seemed to be an appropriate book to read during this season when we remember God’s call – to Old Testament saints and to New Testament saints. Bolz-Weber is a less than typical Lutheran pastor. Her tattoos are one indication of that! Maybe, in today’s world, they’re not that odd. But, her openness about her history as an addict and alcoholic is a little different.
She has a wonderful chapter in her book about her Nineveh experience. The Lutherans invited her to speak at the annual Youth Gathering in New Orleans. She said, “No.” She was not comfortable with that request. She wasn’t comfortable with teens. And she was pretty sure that the teens’ parents wouldn’t be comfortable with her as a main speaker. She found out that was true! “Parents had been warned that their children would be exposed to dangerous ideas from scandalous women if we weren’t uninvited.” She goes on to note that without scandalous women there would be no gospel! Her own teenagers were less than impressed with her speech when she tried it out on them. Her good friend suggested she was writing a speech for their parents, not the kids. Another friend said, “Oh, honey, you should be scared. Teenagers are a rough audience.” The superdome in New Orleans was her Ninevah. “I spent most of that night (the night before she went) fantasizing about ways to miss my plane, become ill, or have a nervous breakdown.”
Last week, I said we’re not called to be someone we’re not. But, we are called in ways that stretch us and challenge us. For Jonah, in this wonderful story, that challenge was the Ninevites! He didn’t consider them worthy of God’s grace. Maybe he was afraid of them, afraid of how they might react to his message.
I wonder how often we prejudge our message –especially in this society where Christian proclamation is often perceived in negative ways. Can you imagine being asked to go proclaim God’s judgment on a particular group of people? We know that too many hear such words. People know what it is to be prejudged and condemned because of their race or religion or sexuality. People know what it is to be prejudged and condemned because of where they’re from or what they look like. We live in a label obsessed world that classifies and rates people, that considers their merit.
What’s missing? The thing that’s missing is what sets Nadia Bolz-Weber apart from Jonah. Jonah was OK with proclaiming God’s judgment – finally! But, he was not OK with the Ninevites’ repentance or with God’s grace. He wanted to judge and relish God’s punishment. In the final chapter, after God relented, Jonah complained, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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.” Jonah knew of God’s grace. But he didn’t really want others to know of it. Bolz-Weber accepted the invitation when the organizers said to her, “We seldom have actual Lutherans on the main stage, and we want the kids to begin this even by seeing a different image of what a Lutheran looks like, and with a strong message of grace.”
“A strong message of grace.” Is that not what’s missing in the public discourse about Christianity? Even when grace is proclaimed, it’s often conditional. “God will love you when…” “God will love you if….” The thing is, God’s love is always there. That was true in Nineveh. God loved them. Judgement was for their benefit – not God’s. Judgement was a manifestation of God’s love for them.
In Bolz-Weber’s story, God sent a “fish” to help Nadia fulfill her obligation. The fish was a young teen who sat next to her on the plane. This girl had “dyed pink bangs hanging over her face like a protective visor, at once inviting and rejecting attention.” She, without making eye contact, commented on Bolz-Weber’s tattoos. Bolz-Weber noted, without commenting, the scars on the girl’s arms – not tattoos. As they travelled to New Orleans, the girl began to open up and speak about her life – a restraining order against a sister, the special ed classes that denied her intelligence, and how she didn’t fit in. Bolz-Weber wrote, “’So, are you on your way to the Lutheran Youth Gathering?’ She looked at me, stunned. ‘Yeah…wait, are you going to the Lutheran Youth Gathering?’ I smiled and said, ‘Yeah…ends up, I’m a Lutheran pastor and I’m doing a thing there tomorrow night.’ ‘Shut up!’ she said, and I laughed.”
She hadn’t wanted to come on the trip. She didn’t fit in with the youth group. Bolz-Weber said that she, too, didn’t fit in where she was supposed to.
“Sometimes,” Bolz-Weber wrote, “I’m so thick that God has no choice but to be almost embarrassingly obtuse. Like sending me a hurting kid with glistening lines cut in her arm—a kid with protective pink bangs, a kid who doesn’t fit, a kid who in her own way said to me, Oh hey, God told me to tell you something: Get over yourself.”
I think that was God’s message to Jonah – several times. “Get over yourself.” He needed to see the Ninevites as God’s children, loved, and, therefore, deserving of God’s grace. Jonah should have known about God’s grace – evident in the fish that swallowed him and spat him out on dry land. And, maybe he did know that grace. But he made that grace small. He saw it as his – his right, his possession. He was unwilling to share it.
Bolz-Weber, on the stage of the superdome, said, “Somebody with my past of alcoholism and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing shouldn’t be allowed to talk to you. But you know what? Somebody with my present, who I am now, shouldn’t be allowed to either. I am a sarcastic, heavily tattooed, angry person who swears like a truck driver! I am a flawed person who really should not be allowed to talk to you. But you know what?” I asked. “That’s the God we are dealing with, people!”
And, like the Ninevites, the kids responded – with applause and yells. I think we might picture a rock concert! She continued to speak of God who doesn’t make worldly sense.
She concluded by speaking powerful words of true, real, deep grace. “..this God will use you, this God will use all of you, and not just your strengths, but your failures and your failings. Your weakness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful, so don’t ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts.”
Called. Jonah, in this wonderful story, was called. He was imperfect. But still called. Bolz-Weber said, “We come dangerously close to spiritual self-flattery when we say, ‘God used me to do something.’ But perhaps the opposite is true, too. We flatter ourselves just as much when we claim that we can’t do the hard things God sets before us. Without higher-quality material to work with, God resorts to working through us for others and upon us through others. Those are some weirdly restorative, disconcerting shenanigans to be caught up in: God forcing God’s people to see themselves as God sees them, to do stuff they know they are incapable of doing, so that God might make use of them, and make them to be both humble recipients and generous givers of grace, so that they may be part of God’s big project on earth, so that they themselves might find unexpected joy through surprising situations.
Nineveh is within us and all around us. It needs grace!