Three weeks ago we started a series on Jonah, we heard about the adventures of a prophet who was reluctant (to say the least) to do what prophets do and go out and tell the world about God.
We heard how Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, a city where wickedness had reached such a level that it reached the heavens. Jonah has to go and tell them that God had decided to do something about all that evil and would destroy the city in 40 days.
Jonah decides he does not want to do that. He goes off in the opposite direction and boards a ship destined for a city called Tarsish. Down he goes, towards the seaport Joppah, down towards the ship, down into the ship, down into a deep sleep. Until he is awoken by the captain of the ship in dire trouble. A tempest is raging outside and the boat is about to go under! After some back and forth, on Jonah's suggestion, the only thing they can do is throw the reluctant prophet overboard to save the ship and the people on it. Again Jonah goes down, this time into the sea to end up at the lowest point imaginable: in the belly of a big sea monster. Really as good as dead!
That's when he starts to pray, driven to desperation by his need. His prayer is answered and after three days in the fish he is spewed out on a beach somewhere.
Again God commands him to go to Nineveh and deliver his message. This time Jonah goes, but not too far. He still seems reluctant to do as God has asked and he doesn't venture into the city further than 1/3 of the way. His sermon is extremely short and in Hebrew only consists of 5 words:
This city will be destroyed in 40 days.
He doesn't attempt to market or advertise his message in a very effective way, he doesn't explain anything and one wonders if he even took the trouble of translating his message from Hebrew in Assyrian or whatever they spoke in Nineveh at the time.
To cut a long story short: Notwithstanding his reluctance and less than satisfactory efforts to do what he has been told to do, Nineveh is turned on its head long before the 40 days are up but in different way than Jonah expected. From low to high the people in Nineveh repent their sins!
This in turn makes God repent his decision and he changes his mind about destroying the city. Jonah however does not like this one bit and becomes very very angry. And it is at that point that we pick up the story today......
Reading Jonah 4, John 3:16-21
The last chapter of the book of Jonah, the chapter we've just read, divides up in three parts: First we have Jonah, blazingly mad having a go at God for his generosity to save the wicked city of Nineveh. Then we have God teasing Jonah with a bush. And finally there is God's plea for Jonah's understanding of his generosity.
First of all: The anger. What do you think? Is it a bit over the top? Shouldn't Jonah be happy for the people of Nineveh and feeling satisfied that his short message has had such great effect?
Or can you understand his reaction? His frustration?
I think I can, although I know I probably shouldn't.
Wickedness that reaches up to heaven is no small matter.
The sins of those Ninevites would have had to be really very bad for that. Torture, injustice, immorality, abuse, every sin under the sun to the very worst degree imaginable!
Like Jonah I think most of us would like people who engage in things like that to be served their just deserts instead of instant and free forgiveness!
Sorry God, says Jonah, I don't think I want to live in the same world as those people, so if you want to keep them I'd rather be dead. You may feel he uses pretty strong language and imagery, but remember: their wickedness is really sky high: This is a city full of really very bad people!
Then God appoints a bush. A bush that makes life more comfortable for Jonah. And then he takes it away again. Things like that happen. One moment you think you've got it all sorted and life is smiling on you, the next moment everything is different to what you assumed, expected and planned for. No bush and a sultry east wind! Again Jonah is angry, angry enough to want to die. What good is life to him if he can't have his bush?
An adult temper tantrum.
God very gently points out that the bush was a gift, something Jonah didn't put any effort into and that he really doesn't have anything to complain about. Then God points out that for him Nineveh was much more important than the bush was to Jonah, that he was more attached to Nineveh than Jonah could ever be to the bush. God created Nineveh, and everything in it, people, children, plants and bushes. So, if Jonah was getting so upset about losing something he had not really put any effort into, could he understand that God did not want to lose Nineveh he had put so much into?
We will never know how and if Jonah reacted. But we can think about what the story of Jonah shows us and what our answer to God's questioning is.
God loves our world, and all that is in it. He abhors the evil that destroys and defiles it, but if there is any sign of repentance and honest effort to change from the dark of evil to the light of a godly life, he is generous with his mercy and ready to forgive. And that goes for anybody, anywhere, anytime. Even for those people we might have difficulty loving, forgiving, or even accepting as fellow humans loved by God.
God also loves Jonah, even when he has, from his own volition, gone as deep and as far away from God as he possibly can, God does not let go of him. Even when he throws a real adult temper tantrum God does not turn away but gently tries to show him his side of the story and pleads with him to understand his love for Nineveh.
God loves us like he loved Jonah and wants to be part of our lives too. In baptism he gives his blessing long before we can do anything to answer to his call. And it stays that way, as long as we live God will be ready to receive us into his loving presence if we chose to walk his way.