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At Grace, we have been exploring the book of Jonah throughout Lent, learning from the prophetic humor of the Bible. When we started this journey with Jonah five weeks ago, I told you not to expect belly laughs, but this is supposed to be funny so I hope you have found and enjoyed the humor as well as the grace in this story.
If you haven’t been with us, let me catch you up and share some of the punchlines with you.
Jonah is a prophet of God, and God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh, so Jonah gets up and goes in the other direction to Tarshish. Jonah tries to flee from God, and the rest of the Book of Jonah is about how God is with Jonah and everyone else. While on a ship sailing towards Tarshish, the crew comes to faith, believing in God and taking responsibility for one another and Jonah, while Jonah is attempting to abandon faith by refusing to take any responsibility. Jonah ends up going overboard, spends three nights and three days in the belly of a fish and thens ends up on the shoreline just outside of Nineveh. The word of God comes to Jonah a second time and God says to Jonah, get up and go to Nineveh, Jonah clearly doesn’t want to be swallowed by a fish again, so Jonah goes to Nineveh and does what God has asked them to do, but they do a really lazy job. Nineveh is a huge city, it would take three days to walk from one side of town to another, so on the first day, on the edge of town, Jonah says, ’40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown’. That is all Jonah has to say, but it’s more than enough. The people of Nineveh believe God and repent. They turn from evil, the king in Nineveh declares that everyone should cease doing evil and stop every act of violence that is under their control, but not only that, the king says that everyone in Nineveh should pray and fast, but not just the people, also the cows. The king, every citizen, even cows, and goats are wearing sackcloth and ashes, they are in mourning, repenting and praying for forgiveness, hoping that God will show them mercy, and that’s what God does.
More than that, God doesn’t just show the people of Nineveh mercy, in the original Hebrew in Jonah, it’s written that God repents. God apologizes, God is with the people of Nineveh so much that God doesn’t simply know how they feel, God is experiencing this remorse and repentance with them.
The grace and love that we see God extend to the people and the cattle of Nineveh is just one more example in the Bible of what is explicitly written in the letter of 1 Timothy, “This is right and it pleases God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
God’s grace is with and for everyone, waiting for us to experience and enter into the fullness of it so that we can extend it to one another and ourselves.
If the book of Jonah was a Disney movie, it would have ended last week. Jonah had an amazing journey, they made a magical animal friend, and Jonah might have done a lazy job, but Jonah did the job that God asked of them. Jonah cried out in Nineveh and the people responded to God’s grace. Everyone can live happily ever after. But in our reading today, Jonah isn’t happy, Jonah is furious.
This is what we read in Jonah today, “Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing?””
Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh to receive mercy, Jonah didn’t want them to trust in God’s grace, Jonah is furious while God is merciful.
One of the subtle, but funny, moments in the book of Jonah is in this passage, because Jonah says to God, “Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land?” because the answer is no.
At the start of the story of Jonah, Jonah never gives God a reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh, Jonah just gets up and goes in the other direction without telling God or us why.
If you have been with us from the start of our journey with Jonah, maybe you remember the story of Alex who lived on Aurora and decided they wanted to leave town so they drive to the airport and on the way to the airport they stop at KFC to eat a famous bowl and after that they keep driving to the airport but decide to fill up their car with gas first and since they’re getting gas they might as well get a slice of breakfast pizza because they don’t know the next time they will be back in Iowa to enjoy such a culinary delight.
If you remember that sermon from a few weeks back, hopefully you remember more than the ridiculous amount of time I spent on the story of Alex driving to the airport, at the details of their detours, without saying why Alex was going to the airport or why Alex wanted to leave town and have a fresh start.
For the first three chapters in the story of Jonah, we haven’t known why Jonah wanted to flee, we didn’t know why Jonah was so hesitant to go to Nineveh, we had no idea what could make Jonah want to flee from God, but now, at the start of chapter 4 we know why – Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because Jonah didn’t think the people of Nineveh deserved mercy. Jonah would rather flee from God than see the people of Nineveh experience God’s grace.
In our reading today, Jonah says what the original audience would have felt from the start – how dare God care for those people in Nineveh, because if anyone deserve wrath and vengeance, it’s them.
We’re told in the story of Jonah that Nineveh is an enormous city, that it would take three days to walk across. Nineveh was an enormous city because Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
The Assyrian Empire ruled for nearly 2000 years in the ancient near east. When it comes to empires, kingdoms, and countries, few have lasted longer than the Assyrian Empire and that’s because the rulers of the Assyrian Empire mastered cruelty, not only towards their enemies, but to with own people.
This is what King Ashurnasirpal II wrote about stopping a rebellion in the Assyrian city of Suru, “I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”
That’s what the Assyrians did to their own people. One historian writes about the Assyrian Empire saying they were, “…the most efficient military force in the ancient world … The secret to its success was a professionally trained standing army, iron weapons, advanced engineering skills, effective tactics, and, most importantly, a complete ruthlessness… A phrase oft-repeated by Assyrian kings in their inscriptions regarding military conquests is “I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire”
For two thousand years, the Assyrians ruled with ruthlessness. There are Assyrian war stories that speak of a devastation that we would associate with a nuclear attack, but they did it by hand. They would completely devastate and overwhelm any city that they attacked because the Assyrians were one of the first cultures to have a professional military, this was one of the first empires to have a standing military that was trained and always equipped for war.
Ashurnasirpal gave us a hint of the devastation that the Assyrians carried out in the ancient world, but there are war stories that talk of the Assyrians killing nearly everyone in a village, and forcing the rest of the village into exile throughout the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian army would then salt the earth and plant thistles, thorns, and weeds to make sure that crops could not grow even if people wanted to return to that area. In some stories it’s said that the Assyrians would even reroute rivers during siege warfare to deprive their enemies of water.
In 721 BC, the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. When the Assyrians conquered an area, they would let the community hold on to some of their culture, and yet, the Assyrians would try to destroy their national identity. The Assyrians would let people keep part of their culture, but they would shift it just enough so that their unity was no longer tied to who they used to be. When the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they decided to repopulate the capital city in the north, Samaria.
This is what we read about this conquest in 2 Kings 17, “The Assyrian king brought people from Babylon, Cuth, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, resettling them in the cities of Samaria in place of the Israelites. These people took control of Samaria and settled in its cities. But when they began to live there, they didn’t worship the LORD, so the LORD sent lions against them, and the lions began to kill them. Assyria’s king was told about this: “The nations you sent into exile and resettled in the cities of Samaria don’t know the religious practices of the local god. [The LORD] sent lions against them, and the lions are killing them because none of them know the religious practices of the local god.” So Assyria’s king commanded, “Return one of the priests that you exiled from there. He should go back and live there. He should teach them the religious practices of the local god.” So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria went back. He lived in Bethel and taught the people how to worship the LORD.” (2 Kings 17:24-28)
There is a lot going on in this passage from 2 Kings, lions, tigers, and gentrification, oh my!
If you have been around a church before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the city of Samaria, perhaps best known from a parable Jesus tells about a good Samaritan. When the Assyrians took over the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, Samaria, they populated the city with folks from throughout the Assyrian empire and, to put it politely, the Assyrians forced the remaining Israeli population in Samaria to marry Assyrians and have children with them. This created a new culture and community in northern Israel that was separated, even isolated, from their historical roots.
This is a small detail in the text, but I think it’s interesting that the passage mentions lions, perhaps because the southern kingdom of Israel, at this time in history, was also known as Judah and the animal that represented the southern kingdom, also known as Judah, was the lion. Saying that lions fought back against the Assyrians is like saying eagles won the revolutionary war.
In 2 Kings we read about people from throughout the Assyrian Empire being relocated to Samaria to create a new culture, and to our ears, the multiculturalism of this passage in 2 Kings doesn’t sound all that bad, other than the forced marriages and violent of war that made it possible.
In 2 Kings, the Assyrian king even allows on Israelite priest to go back to Samaria so the locals there can keep their traditions and practices. But a few verses later in 2 Kings the author tells us that the people in northern Israel, “They don’t really worship the LORD. Nor do they follow the regulations, the case laws, the Instruction, or the commandment that the LORD commanded…”
There is a religious purity that the author of 2 Kings has in mind, and those Samaritans don’t measure up. It’s as if the author of 2 Kings is saying, sure, they believe in God, but they only come to church on Christmas Eve and Easter and they really only come on Christmas Eve if the timing works out with their dinner plans.
Or let’s connect things with last week. If you were with us last week, I compared Reformed and Calvinist theology to an episode of the Simpsons where Bart and Lisa get into a fight with one another. I took 500 years of church history and compared it to 30 seconds of a cartoon.
It was as if I spoke with the same authority of 2 Kings saying those reformed and Calvinist Christians don’t really worship God because they don’t think like we do.
Maybe we could even compare what’s happening with the Assyrians and the Samaritans during 2 Kings to what happened in the Catholic church this week.
I often agree with Pope Francis, not always, but I want to believe Frank and I could be friends. Yet last week Pope Francis said something that I deeply disagree with, Pope Francis said something that is is unholy and sinful and dangerous. Every time a prominent religious leader, like the Pope, makes a declaration against LGBTQ persons, suicide hotlines experience a spike in calls. LGBTQ persons are more than 5x more likely to die by suicide, in part, because they are told that the God of love hates them.
I am deeply disappointed in the Pope saying that Catholic priests cannot bless LGBTQ unions. According to the pope, to do so would be giving a blessing to sin. I’m glad the the Pope isn’t God which means the Pope doesn’t get to distribute or dispense God’s grace, but I’m still devastated and, frankly, I want to say to the Pope, like is written in 2 Kings, you don’t really worship the LORD because if you did, you’d be a lot more like Jesus and the Jesus I know loves the people you hate.
There’s a word for crying out against worship that doesn’t lead us to the fullness of God’s grace, there’s a word for protesting against evil and injustice so that we might all experience God’s peace, there’s a word for speaking out against those in power on behalf of those that are bullied and that word is prophetic.
Jonah is a prophet, called by God to cry out against the violence and injustice of the Assyrian Empire, not to just point these sins out in Israel, but to travel to Nineveh, the capital city of this evil empire. At the very beginning of the book of Jonah, Jonah tries to flee from God, Jonah doesn’t go to Nineveh, Jonah goes to Tarshish but at the start we didn’t know why. Jonah didn’t tell us, the narrator doesn’t give us any clues, we are left in the dark. We’ve been wondering the why of Jonah for five weeks now, and here we have finally arrived – Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because Jonah didn’t want to see those people forgiven. Jonah would rather live with self-righteous anger than a divine reconciliation.
Jonah wants revenge, Jonah wants wrath, Jonah wants destruction. In Jonah’s mind those people don’t deserve a second chance, even though while Jonah tried to flee from God, God was always with Jonah, just like Jonah was always with the sailors, always in the big fish, and always with the people, cattle, and even the goats in Nineveh. Jonah has lost count of the chances that God has given them in this story, but Jonah doesn’t want to give any chances to the people of Nineveh.
With Jonah’s anger, their hatred of the Assyrians and all that Nineveh represents, let’s take a closer look at what Jonah says when they cry out and speak their prophecy in Nineveh. Jonah says, “Just 40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
Numbers in the Bible are often symbolic – the number 7 usually represents holiness or completion which is why the creation poetry in Genesis 1 takes place over 7 nights and days. The number 12 tends to represent the people of God – there are 12 tribes in Israel just like Jesus had 12 disciples. My favorite example of the number 12 in the Bible comes from the book of Revelation. In Revelation, chapter 7, there is an odd little passage where it’s written that ‘144,000 will be the number of those who are sealed’ or saved. If 12 means all the people of God, what would 12 multiplied by 12 mean? 144 would be a Biblical way of saying, really, all the people of God are loved and saved. Imagine if an author in the Bible wanted to really prove a point, if they wanted to poetic and prophetically say that every is loved by God, they wouldn’t just multiply 12 by 12, they’d take that and raise it by a thousand to say God’s love is with everyone because everyone is is part of the people of God.
40 in the Bible, like the 40 days that Jonah speaks of, is a time of patience and waiting. After Moses and the Israelites are brought into freedom by God in the Exodus, they wander the desert for 40 years. In the ancient world, most people didn’t live more than 40 years. 40 years is a life time.
This season of Lent, in the church calendar is 40 days, connecting us with the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. The Gospels say that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert without food or water. Can you imagine having 40 days without food and water? That would feel like an eternity.
The message that Jonah is given by God to cry out agains the Assyrians is, “Just 40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” It’s as if Jonah says to the people of Nineveh, repent, when you have a chance, no rush, no hurry, God’s grace is here for you now, and it will be here for you later too.
Jonah is furious, Jonah wants destruction, Jonah wants vengeance, but wrath is not what God has in mind.
There is a question at the end of our reading today. God says to Jonah, “Is your anger a good thing?”
I don’t know about you, but if I was Jonah, I would say yes, of course my anger is a good thing, look at what the Assyrians have done, look at all the nations and lives they have destroyed, look at the genocide they have left in their wake, anger isn’t just a good thing here, it’s righteous. If I was Jonah, I’d say back to God, “how can you not be angry?”
Last week, we compared Jonah’s 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown prophecy to the words of the prophet Nahum. If you weren’t with us last week, let’s just say that Nahum is a lot more explicit, Nahum is angry, Nahum is furious. It’s not as if God’s anger against evil and injustice isn’t righteous and necessary, better than that God’s anger isn’t the last word.
There’s always another chance, there’s always another opportunity for redemption, there is always grace.
There is no amount of heartbreak that can separate us from God. When our hearts break, we often develop callouses, our wounds become scars, we develop an even stronger tissue that is harder to break. Yet God’s heart is only ever broken open. No matter what we do, no matter how much we get wrong, no matter how we try to flee, God’s grace remains, it’s as if God is saying to us all is forgiven because you know not what you do.
If God can forgive and even love the Assyrians, God’s forgiveness and love is easy when it comes to you. Our first response to this kind of love and forgiveness is often, yeah, but, I can’t really be forgiven, I’ve made too much of a mess of things. We all have our messes, we all need to try to make amends, but the last time it felt like someone was your enemy, did you flay their skin on the city gates? That’s what Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal did. If God can forgive that, God can forgive me for cursing at people that drive under the speed limit and God is forgiving you of whatever you need forgiveness of.
There are times to be angry, but anger isn’t the final word. Our anger can remind us what’s important, anger shows us what’s worth standing up for, and yet our anger against evil and injustice isn’t anger for the sake of anger, it’s anger that, by the grace of God, leads us towards reconciliation and grace.
God is not nearly as interested in punishing us or anyone else as much as we are. God knows how we punish one another, God know how we punish ourselves, and God isn’t interested in keeping that pain in circulation. God’s grace is sufficient, so what does it mean for us to join with God in not only receiving this gift of forgiveness, but in sharing it with others and even ourselves?
When God asks Jonah if their anger is a good thing, the Hebrew word for anger in this passage is חָ֥רָה (charah) and it literally translates as ‘burning with anger’. In this late winter, early spring that we find ourselves in, maybe you can think of this like a campfire. Used well, you will be warmed and welcomed around a campfire, but used poorly, it becomes an unruly and destructive forest fire.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t mean a lack of accountability or justice, it’s like the difference between staying warm around the fire and being burned.
You don’t need to burn this week. If God is not set ablaze with wrath, if God’s last word not just to the Assyrians but to us is not vengeance but grace, how might accept and extend the warmth of this welcome to one another and ourselves?
May we we commit to beginning the long process of forgiveness. You don’t have to complete it, you don’t have to take every step this week, just the first one. Simply take the step that trusts you, like everyone else, are graced by God, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve left undone, no matter what you believe and no matter what you can’t believe, you are loved. Amen
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Come on LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing?”
March 22 – 27, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Matthew 5:21-26
Notice – Jesus quoted the sixth commandment (cf. Exodus 20:13) and widened implications to extend this command to our thoughts, not just our actions. Jesus says emphatically that contempt, anger, and words that tear down and destroy others are morally vicious. They harm others, but also damage us greatly when we harbor those feelings and thoughts. Jesus went far beyond the idea of “Bite your tongue.” Scholar N. T. Wright noted, “What’s the alternative [to seething anger]? Jesus offers two remarkably specific, practical commands. Be reconciled; make friends…. it’s impossible until you look at Jesus…. Jesus himself refused to go the way of anger. Instead, he took the anger of his enemies within Israel, and of Israel’s own enemies, the Romans, on to himself, and died under its load.”* Jesus showed the way. Are you willing to let his Spirit keep reshaping your inner self to be like Christ?
Pray – Jesus, I want to say, “You don’t know the people I deal with.” But when I see how people defamed and hated you, that’s silly. Chip away my resistance. Reshape my thoughts and feelings in your image. Amen.
- Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 44-45). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition
Read – 1 Samuel 20:24-33
Notice – In the scriptures, it seems like Saul is struggling with mental health. If you’ve ever dealt with a parent or friend who is “slipping,” for any reason, you may better understand Jonathan’s reluctance to accept the malicious obsession that gripped his father. It is as if Jonathan is trapped between loving their parent and caring for their friend. Despite Saul’s cruel, unreasonable accusations, and even his physical attack, Jonathan didn’t shift to angry charges against his father. He simply kept pressing his stand-up question: “Why should David be executed? What has he done?” Has someone else’s anger ever distracted you from the course you aimed to follow? How can you develop the kind of control and focus that Jonathan showed?
Pray – God, even as Saul drifted farther and farther from the path you yearned for him to walk, your grace was still present with the words and patience of Jonathan. Give me a heart like Jonathan’s that continues to look for the best while standing up against what is wrong. Amen.
Read – 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Notice – Later in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul told their friends of the many difficulties they faced as a traveling preacher. He related that he had prayed earnestly for God to remove a “thorn” in his body. Whatever it was, it was a hindrance to his missionary travels and God did not take the ailment away. Instead of being angry with God, Paul trusted that God’s grace is sufficient. If you were Paul, and often traveled on foot with a ‘thorn’ always irritating you, how would you feel? Do you think Paul ever felt as if God didn’t care about him? We often define “strong” as “standing on your own two feet,” being tough enough to handle any problem, but this problem made Paul feel weak. In what ways have you found that “when I’m weak, then I’m strong,” that relying on God’s grace makes you stronger than you could ever be on your own?
Pray – Jesus, I’m not as invulnerable as I sometimes think I am. I’m grateful that your grace is with me even in times of struggle, and your power can work through the weakness I wish I didn’t have. Amen.
Read – Luke 7:36-50
Notice – Luke said the uninvited woman at Simon the Pharisee’s home was “a sinner.” Women then had many fewer options (they couldn’t, for example, embezzle, or be tax collectors), so “sinner” almost always meant a sex worker. The Pharisee Simon only saw a fallen woman. But this story had an unseen “prequel.” Verse 47 made it plain that this was not the first time Jesus met this woman. He said he’d already forgiven her “many sins. Jesus saw Simon (who felt no need for forgiveness) as in far greater spiritual danger than the woman, deeply grateful for forgiveness. How did Jesus’ pointed contrast in verses 41-47 show the spiritual hollowness of Simon’s pious front, fed in part by his patriarchal assumptions of male superiority? Jesus gave this woman the priceless gift of freedom from guilt, which also freed her from feelings of shame before others. If not, she would not have been able to be so socially bold in expressing her gratitude and love to Jesus. Have you ever felt “ashamed to show your face” for any reason? How can opening your life to God’s love and forgiveness set you free to live more fully?
Pray – Jesus, I realize that like both the woman and the Pharisee with Jesus, I owe a debt I couldn’t possibly pay. Keep me rejoicing in your forgiveness and forgiving others as you did. Amen.
Read – Jeremiah 31:31-34
Notice – Roughly 100 years after Isaiah, the prophet Jeremiah grieved over Judah’s faithlessness which was leading to judgment and exile. But Jeremiah also looked beyond it to a future based on God’s mercy. Jeremiah said God pledged to “engrave” his instructions on each heart that was open to God’s love. Then Jeremiah added God’s merciful promise: “I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.” Jeremiah connected God “engraving” God’s instructions on our hearts (an echo of the tables of stone on which God engraved the 10 Commandments—cf. Exodus 31:18) with God mercifully forgiving our sins. In what ways do you believe mercy can change the way a person lives? How, if at all, has your awareness of God’s forgiving mercy in Jesus moved you toward living as God wants you to live?
Pray – God, in your mercy please keep engraving your ways on my heart, so clearly and so deeply that nothing I encounter in this life can wash them away. Amen
Read – Jonah 4:1-11
Notice – What did Jonah think was “utterly wrong”? He hoped to see Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, destroyed! In Jonah 3:10 it’s written, “God stopped planning to destroy [the people of Nineveh], and [God] didn’t do it.” The Hebrew Scriptures included this story, not to endorse Jonah’s attitude, and through God’s challenge to the angry prophet we see God’s caring and love truly extends to the whole world. The story of Jonah ended with a question, not a statement. God asked Jonah, “Can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Is there any person or group of people you’d rather see God “zap” than to see them repent? Is it right for God to extend heaven’s offer of mercy to all people?
Pray – God, sometimes, like Jonah, I wish you’d hate people I hate. But you call me to change my attitude, not yours. Guide and lead me as I wrestle with that change of spirit. Amen.