Jonah and the Plant – 7/11/10 – Jonah 3-4

Here’s a fun exercise to keep us in a worshipful mode.  Imagine yourself up on an elevated place, a perch, overlooking a large group of people.  This group is composed entirely of all the people in the world who give you the most trouble.  People who make you mad, annoy you, rub you completely the wrong way.   Colleagues who talk behind your back, neighbors who aren’t so neighborly, politicians you disagree with, family members who belittle you. 

In this crowd that you are observing are the people who have most hurt you and caused you and your loved ones harm.  Playground bullies, verbal and physical abusers, anyone who has ever stolen from you or intentionally ripped you off, those whose judgmental and accusatory voices you find yourself still fighting with.  You get the picture.  From your perch, you can survey all of them and call to mind specific instances where they have harmed you.

If you’re still feeling a worshipful attitude, I don’t think you’re doing the exercise right.  Anger would probably be the more appropriate attitude.  

In my little world, one of the members of my crowd is a guy named Andrew.  I met Andrew the spring of our last year in Elkhart, soon after Eve was born and we were trying to get things all in line for moving on to our next place of residence, which happened to be Cincinnati.  Andrew sold me a used car.  I had met him through an ad in the paper, gone to see his car, given it a test drive and asked him the typical series of questions that one wants answered when purchasing a vehicle.  He said the car had been in the family for a while and that they were its second owners, that the car had never given them any troubles and ran great.  We agreed on a price, shook hands, and a couple days later we gave him the check and he gave us the keys to the car.  Andrew got the better end of the deal, and he knew it as soon as he had the check in hand.  After driving the car for about a week, less than 100 miles, one of the cylinders in the engine froze up, making the car virtually undriveable.  The verdict from both mechanics I took it to was that the engine block had cracked however long ago and that someone…had put a temporary sealant in the system to make it run a little bit longer.  About 100 miles longer as far as I could tell.  The price of the repair was just as much as the original price of the car, not something we were planning on, given our life situation at that point.  Andrew wasn’t too pleased when I finally got a hold of him and told him about what had happened, was not agreeable to even a partial refund, and chose not to show up for a small claims court hearing.  He still has the money and I still have him as a member of that group of people who have done me wrong. 

Someone at seminary joked that some day this would make a good sermon illustration, which I did not take as a very funny joke.  I think there’re plenty of other examples out there of people getting ripped off and I’d rather not have my own, thank you very much!

That perch is not the most enjoyable place to be, but it’s one that we choose to visit from time to time.  Remembering, stewing, watching the person with our minds eye.  So what is it that we are doing up there?  Maybe having an imaginary conversation with the person where we back them into a corner with our wit and sharp tongue.  Maybe waiting for them to tell us they’re sorry and that they want to make it up to us.  Maybe watching and hoping that they’ll fail or be hurt in a similar way we were.  Maybe, on our better days, pondering what forgiveness looks like and trying to loosen the grip that they still hold over us. 

This imaginary, but real, perch, is a location that shows up in the story of Jonah and is actually the place where Jonah is left sitting at the open-ended parting words of the story.  It’s the final, unresolved scene when the curtains go down on Jonah the prophet.

The more I read these Old Testament stories, the more convinced I am that the writers were laughing as they wrote many of them.  The humor isn’t always apparent for those of us who are used to hearing them read in a serious way, but the more I study and try to understand the Hebrew imagination behind these stories, the more apparent the playfulness and comical nature of what is being told.  Balaam’s talking donkey and the ridiculously large and pompous statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, the stories from the last two weeks, are nice examples of this.  Entering this Jonah story, I was already aware of the humor of this story, the irony, the playful nature of portraying a prophet of God called to preach repentance to a people he despises, fighting God all the way, getting swallowed up and barfed out by that famous fish who saves his life and gives him another chance at his mission.

I was ready for the humor.  The part I wasn’t ready for, hadn’t anticipated noticing as much as I did, was the anger also present in this story – Jonah’s anger at the possibility of God extending mercy to these people he despises so much.  The story almost becomes something like Jonah’s anger vs. God’s mercy.  

Jonah, as we have heard, is called to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Nineveh was the capital city of the nation of Assyria, the empire that ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel.  They were ruthless, cutthroat, and showed no mercy to captive peoples.  They were Israel’s bitter enemy.  But Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s word to them.  The story from today picks up where we are used to the story leaving off.  Jonah has already tried to sail the other way, been thrown into the sea during a violent storm, been delivered by the big fish, and been belched up on to the shore.  Now the word of the Lord comes to him a second time, and this time he heads to that great city, Nineveh.  That great, evil, wretched city that was the cause of so much of his people’s pain.   

He plods into the city, no doubt mulling over in his mind the message he’s going to preach to these wicked Ninevites.  After a long day, he finally finds a good street corner with a nice soapbox, stands up and preaches his gem of a sermon that he’s been preparing this whole time, which turns out to be a one line zinger:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” – only five words in Hebrew.  That’s the extent of the word of the Lord that he delivers.  He most likely did not have to use notes, most likely did not end by saying “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  It might have been a fun sermon to deliver.  Watch out people, you’re about to get yours.  You’ve got some seriously bad karma heading your way, suckers.    

And then the worst possible thing happens.  The people of Nineveh pay attention to his sermon and actually believe him.  They go all out in repentance mode.  They throw a massive repentance fest.  They proclaim a fast.  Great and small, young and old, put on sackcloth.  The Twitter and Facebook feeds light up about this urgent action and the king quickly gets the message.  He steps down from his throne, takes off his robe, puts on the not-so-royal sackcloth, and sits in ashes, a sign of self-debasement and humility.  And he declares that no one in Nineveh can eat or drink anything, and that the sheep and the cows can’t eat or drink and are to put on sackcloth and cry out along with the people to God.  And everyone felt so strongly about the need to repent and fast that not even the local PETA chapter of Ninevah protested such a decree to the animals. 

And the king muses out loud this very intriguing line: “Who knows, but that God may turn and relent?  God may turn back from wrath, so that we do not perish.”  That phrase “turn and relent,” “yashuv venicham” is a tricky one to translate.  The NRSV suggests it could mean “God may relent and change God’s mind.”  There’s a theological conundrum for you.  God can change God’s mind, and people can have an influence on that – and fasting animals in sackcloth.

And then we get verse 10.  And this is my translation of that verse, in order to try and pick out some of the nuance of the language.

“And God saw what they did

how they were turning from the harm of their ways.

And God changed God’s mind

regarding the harm which God had announced to do against them.

And did not do it.”        

Most preachers I know would be quite pleased having delivered a one line sermon that changes the world.  Jonah could have returned home a happy prophet, riding the momentum of his astonishingly successful speech, taken up a tenure position at Jerusalem University and taught homiletics the rest of his career – how to compose a sermon that will bring an empire, and its animals, to their knees.  Aspiring prophets from around the nation would flock to sit at his feet to learn from his wisdom.

But this is not the Jonah we know.  As the story goes, this turn of events was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  The word for “displeasing” is the same root as “harm” in the previous verse.  The Hebrew word “Ra.”  This all was “Ra” to Jonah.  The Ninevites turn from their harmful ways, God relents of doing any harm, and all of this causes great harm to Jonah.  He is enraged, not because he is surprised at what has happened, but because this is exactly what he knew what going to happen.  So he gives God a great big, “I told you so” rant.  “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 then he gets quite dramatic: “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Then I like God’s response translated by the JPS, Jewish Publication Society.  “Are you that deeply grieved?”  Uhhhhh…really Jonah?

This is where the part about being up on the perch comes in.  Jonah sulks out of the city, past inner and outer ring suburbs, finds a perch overlooking the metropolis.  It must have been a week like this past one, because he builds a little shelter for himself so he can sit in its shade.  He is yet to give up on the ticking time bomb he declared to the city.  Maybe they’ll forget about their repentance and the whole place really will go up in flames in forty days.  If so, Jonah will have the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks.  He’ll just watch for a while. 

The Lord God, being the gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love God that he/she is, provides a bush, a plant, a vine, a gourd, whatever kind of plant a kikuyon is, to grow over Jonah’s head to give him shade to save him from his discomfort.  And there’s that word “Ra,” again.  Jonah is saved from his “Ra,” his discomfort.  And this makes Jonah quite pleased with himself and his good fortune of this shady plant.  Life really can be OK sometimes.  Now he has it made, cooling in the shade with a lemonade, cheering against the home team.  That they’ll strike out, screw up, do something evil and get the punishment they deserve. 

This is a good time for about a day.  Until God, who, as we know, always reserves the right to change plans, sends a little worm who attacks the plant so that it withers, just like our squash plant in our backyard this summer.  God flips the switch and shuts off the AC.  And not only that, but God sent a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and the ice in his cooler has all melted and he remembers how angry he is and how much he wants to die. 

And the Lord asks a familiar question, with a slight twist.  “Are you so deeply grieved…about the plant?”  And just so God knows exactly how he feels, Jonah assures God, “Yes.  Angry enough to die.”

There is certainly a way to read this that makes Jonah out to be a misguided counter-example to the faithful life, a drama-king so caught up in his own world that he is blind to God’s big picture of love and reconciliation.  He just doesn’t get it at all.  He is the victim of his own pettiness, preferring his own comfort to the well-being of an entire city.  God has delivered him, through the big fish, through calling on him a second time to carry out his mission, but he can only protest when God wants to deliver a repentant nation.  Jonah is a counter example to what we should be as agents of God’s mission.

I think this is a good reading.  But this week I was drawn to the legitimacy of Jonah’s anger.  His indignation that those who have brought such harm to him and his people are being let off the hook too easily and not getting the punishment they deserve.  Jonah has staked out his place up at that perch filled with unresolved rage watching this wicked city allowed to continue its life.  Protesting God’s mercy.

Has God acted justly toward Nineveh?  Has God acted unjustly toward Jonah?  God’s justice here is not what Detriech Bonhoeffer referred to as cheap grace.  The Ninevites must change their attitudes and their ways.  They must repent, completely turn around and become a new city.  That’s hard work, and sackcloth, I hear, is not so comfy.  But it’s just as hard for Jonah to accept that God longs to extend mercy to these wicked Ninevites.  It’s much easier for him to remain in his anger, his victimhood, his righteous indignation.

The story ends, as I mentioned unresolved.  It actually ends with a question.  God posing a question to Jonah who is still perched, still overlooking the city, still uncertain whether he can accept such mercy, still mad about the comforting little plant that shriveled.  God says, perhaps even pleading with Jonah, “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor 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?”  It’s a hard question to answer.  That’s the last line from the book of Jonah.  We’re not told how the prophet responded.

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Jonah and the Lingering Question – 7,15,07, Jonah chapters 3 and 4

When was the last time somebody asked you a really good question?  Not the kind of question that you can look the answer up in a book or on the internet, but the kind of question that sticks with you and keeps asking itself over and over again.  This last week we had some friends from seminary who stayed with us for a couple days and we had good time in the evenings to talk and catch up on thoughts and experiences from the past year.  And we had plenty of questions for each other, some small some big.    Some of the best questions were about what we all have learned in the past year, questions I will keep asking myself and pondering.  One of the evenings my friend Mike and I even had a conversation about questions.  He mentioned how he thought it was important for friends and especially people of faith to be asking each other certain questions.  One example he offered, given the busyness of our lives, was to be asking each other “How do you experience Sabbath rest?”  This is the kind of question that not only lingers in the mind, but also helps focus our thoughts and even point us in a positive direction.  Scripture has a number of these kinds of questions.  I think of Jesus’ question to Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”  Pilate’s rhetorical question to Jesus, “What is Truth?,” the lawyers question to Jesus “and who is my neighbor.”  These questions are just as important today as they were then.  Two of the first acts of communication between God and humanity in the book of Genesis are such questions.  After gaining knowledge of good and evil through eating the fruit the man and woman are trying to hide from God.  And God poses the question, “Where are you?”  It wasn’t that God didn’t know where they were and was trying to find them, but they didn’t know where they were.  They had lost their bearings.  It’s a question we’re supposed to keep asking ourselves.  Where are we?  Where am I? Another question God puts to humanity early on comes after the first sibling rivalry ends in a murder, Cain standing over his slain brother Abel.  God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  Again, a question that is meant to stay with us.  Where is your brother, where is your sister?  Because as we have come to learn, we are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, and our siblings include those well beyond a biological relation.  How we respond to these questions has effects on everything from our nation’s foreign policy to how we raise our kids to how we spend our time and money.  Where are you?  Where is your brother? Some of the questions up for discussion at the San Jose convention were extensions of these questions:  How we can maintain spiritually vital congregation in the midst of the rapidly changing world?  How can we continue practicing our value of mutual aid, especially when it comes to health care?  How do we help make immigration reform fair for families?   Coming up with a good question helps focus the mind in the right way and is a break through in itself. Jonah is one of the better known stories from scripture, yet has one of the most bizarre endings of any story I’ve ever heard, where a question plays an unexpected role.  The first part of the story is the most familiar, so much so that it is hard to think of Jonah outside of ‘Jonah and the whale.’  I’ll be working through most of the book of Jonah and if you’d like to turn there in your Bibles you are welcome.  It begins on page 844 in the Bibles in the pew, right in the middle of all those short prophet books.  As is often the case with OT prophets, his story begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah.”  Jonah, as we soon learn, is the son of Amittai, which in Hebrew means “My truth,” and throughout the story Jonah remains a child of his own version of the truth — the world as he would like it to be, which of course sets him up for a series of adventurous and often humorous encounters with this God whose word has come to him and whose truth is so much bigger than his own.  Jonah is commanded to go to “that great city of Nineveh” and warn it to turn from its harmful behavior.  Jonah, like all other non-Ninevites of the time, would have despised Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, that had invaded, conquered and carried off the people of Israel and relocated them in foreign lands.  After being commanded to go preach to them, a journey that would have taken him east, Jonah promptly sets out for the western most part of the known world, Tarshish, in Spain.  This is sort of like being commanded to go to northern Canada and instead catching the first flight south to Argentina.  He sailed to Tarshish to go quote “away from the presence of the Lord.”  Not surprisingly, he is unsuccessful in fleeing the presence of the Lord.  Things soon start to get stormy for Jonah and his ship mates.  After reading through their sailor manuals of how to placate an angry deity, everyone agrees that Jonah must go overboard.  Perhaps throwing Jonah to his death and feeding him to the storm god will help things calm down.  God, of course, is much more interested in Jonah’s redemption and conversion than Jonah’s death.  So instead of Jonah getting munched by an angry storm god, God sends a friendly, large, fish.  We usually think of this as a whale, but the Hebrew simply says it was a “dag gadole,” a great big fish.  This famous fish, as we know, swallows up the wayward prophet and gives him a three day and three night all-expense-paid private retreat for prayer and meditation to reconsider his path.  Chapter two of Jonah is a prayer that Jonah somehow manages to compose from within the fish belly.  It’s hard to tell whether to interpret the prayer as an honest plea for help, or a series of pious statements meant to get what he wants from God so he can get spewed up onto land and get on with his life.  Either way, after the prayer God has a few words with the fish who, no doubt gladly, upchucks the undigestible prophet and goes back to doing more normal kinds of things that big fish do.                This would be a nice place to end the story.  Maybe just a quick note about Jonah heading off to Nineveh and doing his thing there, then we would have a nice, tight story of rebellion and redemption with that big fish making all the difference.                  It’s actually not that simple and clean.  The story does continue, with the word of the Lord coming a second time to Jonah, for the same task, and Jonah does go to Nineveh this time, but aside from this the prophet shows little sign of having been remade by God.  He is bitter, pouty, and missing the spirit of this whole offering new life to a city in the same way that he was offered new life by God.  The fish, as it turns out, did not make all that big of a difference.  And the story doesn’t have a nice and tight ending.  It ends completely unresolved.  It ends with a question.                That storm and big fish incident is only one in a series of attempts of God trying to get through to Jonah who is set on remaining inside “my truth.”  Jonah goes to Nineveh, as the Lord has asked.  That wicked, sick, repulsive city full of filth and arrogance and everything Jonah despises.  Jonah walks into the city and delivers one of the shortest sermons on record – only one sentence long, only five words in Hebrew: (clears throat) “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”    and then he’s done.  He’s fulfilled his duties, he’s delivered the Word of the Lord, probably even without notes or much prep time.  The response from the Ninevites is Jonah’s worst nightmare.  They actually listen to him, that they’re in trouble if they don’t shape up, and they start changing everything.  The writer goes to great lengths to display that all of them are repenting to the extreme.  Fasting, putting on sackcloth, putting ashes on their heads.  Even the Ninevite animals repent of their evil ways as verse 8 in chapter 3 describes.  They fast, put on sackcloth, and cry out to God.  Instead of being pleased that he can preach a one sentence sermon and have this much effect on an entire city, Jonah is very displeased.  Most people complain about the Old Testament being too violent and God having all this wrath and anger.  But Jonah’s complaint is just the opposite.  He says in verse 2, “Oh 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.”In the last scene, Jonah has gone outside the city, maybe up on a nice hill, looking out over Nineveh, waiting to see if just maybe they’ll all go up in smoke and make his trip worth his while.  While sitting, a nice plant grows up over his head and keeps him shaded from the sun.  Jonah is delighted.  This is great.  Some nice shade, a nice view, now all he needs is some fireworks destroying this city and things will be perfect.  But the plant soon withers and sets us up for the question.  God says, Jonah, “you are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  (then the question) And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, right from wrong, and also many animals?”  A question made bizarre and even humorous by the fact that God can’t seem to get those lovable repenting animals out of God’s mind.  But a question nonetheless.  One that both Jonah and the reader are meant to have lingering in their minds.  If Jonah can care so much about that little plant, and if we can care so much about the little things that are here today and gone tomorrow, shouldn’t God care deeply about cities and nations and those so lost they barely know up from down.  And the animals.  Shouldn’t God also care for all those creatures?      Jonah’s concerns kept getting more and more narrow, even while God was trying to open him up to the vastness of divine compassion.  Jonah has no sense of humor, even while God is playfully speaking through the worlds of oceans, big fish, animals in sackcloth, and miracle grow plants, and reminding Jonah in the end about just how important those animals are.  But God has the final trick for Jonah.  Rather than giving him a lecture or a prescription for how to be a better prophet, God leaves him with a question.  The question is one of God’s greatest creations.  And the best kind of question is the one that lingers, the one that stays with you, even upsets you, takes a hold of you, and won’t let go.  The kind of question that shapes how we go about our lives, how we see the world, what we look for and who we look with.  Questions that are intended to make their way into our consciousness, to be put into the mix of our thoughts and ponderings, to work through our brains, firing through our synapses, until they allow everything to appear in a new light.  Perhaps the whole story of Jonah can be summarized as God playfully working to break through to a human being who has determined to live by “my truth.”  The smallness of the human’s vision being cracked open slowly by one from whose presence we cannot escape.  And the best way of God doing that, better than a raging storm, better than causing us to be swallowed alive, even better than having our enemies and their animals repent in front of us, is leaving us with questions that slowly work their way into us and change us.  Jonah and we are left with unanswered questions ringing in our ears.  Not questions that can be fulfilled with a simple reply and not questions that even demand an immediate answer.  But ones that hang with us, and maybe even bring us down from our perch looking out over the world in judgment so we can do a little more walking alongside people in their struggles.  Where are you?  Where is your brother, your sister?  If we can get so concerned about little fleeting things in life, shouldn’t God, and also we, be concerned about lives of cities, human beings, and other creatures?  Consider for a moment, some of the questions in your life.  I’d like to end by leading us in a brief guided meditation with this, so feel free to get comfortable, close your eyes or leave them open, and think about some of those lingering questions that you live with.  Think first about questions that have been important to you in the past.  Maybe questions about calling, about relationships, about how to live with integrity in a world where so many are in need.  A question somebody asked you a long time ago that has stuck with you.  Maybe deep faith questions and maybe even some of those mentioned in scripture.  What is truth?  Who do you say that I am?  Whatever these questions have been, let them come to mind.  Give thanks for these questions.  They are gifts from God.  They have been lights on your path, helping direct you.Call to mind now lingering questions that God has given you recently.  Embrace these questions as gifts from God.  Let them crack through you and be a part of you.  Know that God is in both the question and the answer.     Consider now what kinds of questions you may be able to be asking other people, to friends and family and church family.  How can you give the gift of offering lingering questions to people you care for?  The question maybe one like Mike suggested – How are you experiencing Sabbath?  Asking a meaningful question is a way of being God’s presence to others.For all these questions, for how you upset us and how you comfort us, and for your persistence in guiding us away from our small vision toward your wide wide vision of compassion we give you thanks O Lord.  Amen.