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Sunday Worship 12 May | Jonah 4: Jonah Learns

Jonah 4 (NIV)
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”


This morning's reflection came in two parts. The first was given by a member of the congregation (Mike), and the second by our minister (Leigh).


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I don’t suppose what I’m about to tell you will come as a surprise, but just in case, I’m going to tell you all anyway. No one in this room is perfect. In fact, I’d suggest that compared to God’s divine standard, most of us fall pretty short, and yet with that being said, God is merciful, slow to anger and rich in love. We know this because God says it to Moses in Exodus 34:6 and it is quoted in worship in the Hebrew scriptures over a dozen times. I mention this now because it’s vital for understanding Jonah’s anger in this chapter. 


Jonah has wandered the city of Nineveh, centre of Assyrian imperial power, terrified and in awe. He has mustered his courage and stood and preached five words in the original Hebrew, or about eight depending on how you translate into English. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overturned” Were these words Jonah’s or were they given by God? As Jonah was a prophet we can assume they were God given, and if we look at those five words I think we can get an even better handle on Jonah’s fury when the Nineveh is not destroyed. 


Because Jonah is furious. He very strongly dislikes the Assyrians, specifically the Ninevites because of their fearsome reputation and their bloodthirsty ways. In our own lives there will be people who we dislike with equal intensity, even if haven’t got anywhere near the supposed brutality of the Assyrian empire. Take a moment to reflect on the groups or individuals who you just can’t stand. Jonah is looking at the very seat of his enemies, the word of the Lord fresh from his lips, and somehow it is he who has to confront one of the most difficult truths about God. God loves them and has seen their change of heart and will spare them the destruction that Jonah believed was promised. It’s outrageous! 


From Jonah’s perspective, he has been on a journey of disobedience, desolation and redemption. He fled from God and was cast into the dark pit of a fish belly, before repenting of that disobedience and returning to his life. If he suffered so much for his sin, why then do these supposed monsters not face similar destruction? Today, when we have been freshly wounded by our enemies, don’t we want them to experience some harsh retribution, if not by our hand then by the hand of fate or God or justice? Don’t we expect to face the same when we mess up? Confession is hard for this exact reason. We know academically that we are loved and saved by a God who wants only good things for us, and yet we are clouded by human ideas of justice. Part of the mystery of God is that God is both just and merciful, and so we fear justice no matter how often we receive mercy. 


If the words we are given are the words that God commanded Jonah to preach he might also feel tricked. “In forty days, Nineveh will be overturned!” The Hebrew word that is translated here as overturned is pronounced hephek, and is absolutely used in the sense of destruction. In fact it’s used to describe the fate of the city of Sodom. But it’s also used to describe what to do with bread when one side is cooked, or in Psalm 30:11 which says “You have turned my sorrow into joy”. While Jonah says hephek and means literally turning the city into destruction, God says hephek to mean turning to a new side, a fresh start and redemption. 


God reaches out to Jonah asking if he feels that his anger is fair. Jonah’s response is a masterclass in exasperation. He cries “Of course I’m right to be angry! I knew you’d do this!” Jonah knew that God is merciful, slow to anger and rich in love. He knew all along that this ludicrous, dangerous and terrifying mission was ultimately only going to end one way, and is angry because in his heart of hearts he wishes it were another way. So God teaches him, patiently creating him an example. Blessing Jonah with a shady plant one day and killing it overnight, God tries again to get Jonah to understand, but again Jonah would rather die than see God’s mercy worked on his enemy. This brings us to the whole point of this book. God recognises that Jonah cared for the plant and is sad that it died and uses that to form a connection. If Jonah can care so much for a magic plant that lasted only twenty four hours, how much more legitimate is God’s care for a city of one hundred and twenty thousand people?!


I think the temptation is to believe that we are always on God’s side, that we know better than Jonah, who is being overly emotional and letting his anger get in the way of truly living the life God has set out for him. But I would ask all of us, do we truly love those who think and act and believe differently to us as well as we should? I think we are all capable of loving our enemies, but it's as hard for us as it was for Jonah. We may remember to pray for them, but if you're anything like me, you may find yourself praying that they'll just be more like you, which is perhaps not quite the point! We need to be honest that we are often like Jonah, so that we can learn to be more like God. This story is a beautiful satire, poking fun at our human short sightedness. Jonah is taught that in God’s eyes we are all children with more in common than we could ever know. This story invites us to marvel with Jonah at the outrageous mercy and grace of God. May we ever seek to show the same radical grace to those who set themselves against us, in our thoughts and words and actions. 


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I subtitled chapter four ‘Jonah learns’, but perhaps I should have added a question mark. God certainly tries to teach him a lesson, but we can't be sure whether it sticks or not. The last thing we hear Jonah say is that he is so angry about the plant dying that he wishes he was dead too. God used Jonah's concern for the plant to explain his own concern for Nineveh, but then the narrative ends really abruptly without giving Jonah a chance to respond.


I spoke last week about ‘prophetic imagination', both in the sense of engaging with scripture in a way that looks at the gaps and the possibilities in the text, asking what happened between the stories or what might have happened if people had made different choices, and also in the sense of seeing the world with both lament and hope, recognising it for what it is but also seeing in it all it can be. I'd like to invite us to bring both senses to this story one last time, imagining what might have happened in Jonah chapter five, and also asking how this story might shape the way we see the world. There won't be any answers here, only questions and wondering, and we'll go slowly to give us all time to think.


Let's begin with Jonah, and the lost or imaginary fifth chapter. David Benjamin Blower notes that there is something deeply unsatisfactory about a protagonist who has not developed in some way by the end of the story. Jonah's actions towards Nineveh have changed, but we can't say the same for his attitudes, and he is just as miserable about the whole affair at the end of chapter four as he was at the beginning of chapter one. Perhaps we might say that he had been born again from the whale, but he still had some growing up to do. The story doesn't feel finished, and so let's continue it in our imaginations. How does Jonah respond to God? Does he double down on his own anger? Or does he at last understand why God wanted to show mercy to the people of Nineveh?


It is an interesting detail to add to the story that one site which claims to be home to the tomb of Jonah is in Mosul, the city that now stands where Nineveh once stood. The Nabi Yunus mosque was destroyed by Islamic State in 2014, but it contained a shrine which supposedly housed Jonah’s sarcophagus, and the mosque was built on an older Christian church, which was believed to mark the place of Jonah's grave. Did Jonah come to love the people of Nineveh as God did? Is it possible that he stayed and died there, and was buried with honour as the prophet who had led them to repentance?


We'll leave Jonah in whatever future we have imagined for him, and turn now to ourselves. In the first week of our series on Jonah, I spoke about the myth of redemptive violence, the belief that evil can only be answered with destruction. I said that the stories our culture tells us are saturated with it, and I suggested that we may need to start telling ourselves better stories. I do believe that Jonah is a better story, one which tells us that a more gracious and complete redemption is possible, even in spite of our misgivings. The discomfort of our protagonist allows us to be honest about our own fears, that justice will not be served or that the repentant will lapse back into wickedness, but it also allows God to address them. Whatever we might think of Nineveh or its modern counterparts, the people and the groups we believe to be wicked and find hard to love, they too are God's children and they too deserve the concern and compassion of their creator.


So, thinking with your prophetic imagination, open to seeing the world as God does, in all its gore and in all its glory, think again about who Nineveh is for you. What message would you take to your Nineveh? How might your Nineveh show it had changed? Now remembering that you may be Nineveh for someone else, what message do you need to hear and how could you show you have changed?


We've pulled a lot out of the four short chapters of Jonah, so we'll take another brief pause to let our thoughts settle, before I close in prayer. God, thank you for the strange and challenging tale of Jonah. May we hear in it that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and may we not grumble at your grace but marvel at your mercy. May we dare to face Nineveh, and may we be open to hear Jonah, that we may play our part in the redemption of the whole world. Amen.

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