**This sermon originally preached at Lytton Springs UMC in November 2013.**
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Jonah was not having a good week. In fact, you might say that he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was about a boy named Alexander who was having just the sort of day that fits this long-winded, depressing description: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.
Reading about Jonah, I can’t help but remember Alexander and his bad luck. He wakes up with gum in his hair, chooses the cereal box with no prize, and winds up with plain old white sneakers when they don’t have the pair he wants in his size. He gets smushed in the middle during carpool, and his teacher likes his classmate’s picture of a sailboat but doesn’t like Alexander’s clever picture of the invisible castle. She tells him he sings too loud and forgot number 16 when they were counting. “Who needs sixteen?” He wonders indignantly.
This litany of unfortunate events leads Alexander again and again to the same conclusion: Arms crossed, frown firmly fixed, he huffs, “I think I’ll move to Australia.”
But by the end of the day, Alexander has resigned himself to a good night’s sleep and the possibility of a better tomorrow. His mom has convinced him that “some days are just like that, even in Australia.”
There is a lot in Alexander’s story that reminds me of Jonah, but here is where I think they are different. After all, the maladies that befall Alexander have happened to all of us at one time or another—some days really are just like that—as his mother says. But it is not every person who wakes up one day with a call from God to march into a city filled with violent, wicked, lawless people and tell them that God is going to annihilate them. For most of us—days aren’t really like that, but Jonah is a prophet—so for him, it’s just the beginning of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.
Like gum in the hair and no prize in the cereal box, this command from God does not sit well with Jonah. Jonah would probably have been happy—on that fateful morning—to move to Australia. Instead he settles for Joppa—the opposite direction from Ninevah, the city to which God has sent him. From there, things only get worse.
The ship he barters passage on gets battered by a storm, and in an effort to spare as many lives as possible, his shipmates reluctantly toss him into the sea where he is promptly swallowed by an enormous fish. After three dark days in that piscine belly, he is vomited onto the shore and commanded once again to go to Ninevah and declare their impending doom. When he finally does it—marches into this city full of terrifying heathens and proclaims their annihilation—God changes God’s mind. God decides to spare the Ninevites when they repent.
Jonah is not pleased. He goes out to the desert to pout about this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week he’s had. He’s upset that after all he’s been through, the Ninevites are received with love and mercy by God and end up having a much better week then he has. It’s just not fair.
I have to say, I feel for Jonah. I get it. I would not be excited about this call from God. I would want to move to Australia. Or Joppa. Even, perhaps, the belly of a fish.
And I’ll tell you what—I would be mad and scared if I had run into a city telling everyone they were going to die because they were such terrible people and then that turned out not to be true.
But there is one thing I can empathize with about Jonah that I am more reluctant to say. See Jonah is upset after Ninevah is spared for a very particular and uncomfortable reason. During his temper tantrum out in the desert he says to God,
“‘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 isn’t upset because of what he’s been through or because of whatever way the Ninevites might retaliate against him. He’s upset because God loves them. Just like he knew that God would. Nevermind that God has shown arguably even greater mercy to Jonah as he ran from his calling than these people who were immediately repentant. They are Ninevites! And now that they’ve repented they are family. But Jonah doesn’t like them.
It sounds so obnoxious – Jonah’s fury at God’s forgiving nature. But the truth is – I get it.
We talk a fair amount in our faith about the enemy. But I think sometimes the harder population to accept are the people we don’t like. The children of God who just annoy the heck out of us. Enemies can be this abstract, distant reality. And we don’t have to share table space with them. We don’t have to get along with them. But what about the friend of a friend who always makes passive aggressive comments to you? Or that man that [not so] subtly clarifies that he thinks you have no place in your job? Or that woman you know that cannot stop talking about herself and her problems?
It is sometimes hard to accept that God loves them too. It’s even harder to accept that God loves them just as much as God loves us.
It’s just not fair, is it? Except of course, we don’t believe in a God that’s fair. We believe in a God that is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. And even when it’s annoying, that can only ever mean one thing – that God loves the ones we don’t like. Loves them enough to spare them from just desserts. Loves them enough to want them at the table just as much as God wants us at the table.
The thing is, God sees these Ninevites in a way that Jonah just can’t. God sees past the things that so annoy Jonah. They are repentant; they are seeking the love of God. They are just human trying to be better than they have been. In this way, they are remarkably like Jonah. And remarkably like us. And so God loves them like God loves us.
This is hard stuff to accept. It makes me want to go pout in the desert. But it is who God has revealed Godself to be. Perhaps we could just roll our eyes and grudgingly say “okay, fine, whatever.”
But I think there are some deeper elements to our dissatisfaction that this story about Jonah is calling upon us to confront. Jonah is mad at God for showing exactly the kind of mercy to the Ninevites that God has already shown to Jonah.
God loves the ones we don’t like. And that is true even when the one we don’t like is us. God loves the parts of us we hate, the parts that scare us, the parts we wish God would just take away. God loves them. And so the pathway back to God is not about trying to suppress the parts of ourselves we don’t like – but learning how to see them with God’s eyes. With compassion and expectation and hope – rather than judgment.
And this is the other thing underlying our resistance to God’s all-encompassing love. We know it doesn’t stop with God. If we love and believe in God, then we are called to love who God loves. Maybe this is the hardest part.
Loving our enemy means not hating them. Trying to see them as people. Interacting with them justly.
But loving the one we don’t like? The one at the table whose lip-smacking drives us up the wall? What does that look like?
Maybe sometimes it means speaking truth to power. Maybe sometimes it means challenging their assumptions and calling out destructive behaviors. But it also means listening and being challenged. It means understanding that without them the kingdom of God is less than it should be and so are you. It means faith seeking understanding—not just of God, but of each other. And it means hurting when we are at odds and growing from their strengths when we would rather see them as weakness. It means believing in a better world and reality that is only possible because the people we don’t like are a part of it. It means rejoicing when God makes their day better than ours has been and better than we think it should be.
It means confronting those qualities in someone that kill us, and seeing the parts of ourselves that we’re afraid to see and knowing that God loves it all – loves it all. And because God has created and empowered us, we are capable of loving it all too and God expects to.
Even on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Even in Australia. In Tarshish and Joppa. In the belly of a fish. In Ninevah. Even right here. Right now. This moment.
Love in a way that drives you absolutely nuts. Even the one you don’t like. Even when the one you don’t like is you. And know that God does too.
This is the way to a better tomorrow.