Jonah and the plant.  The Lord and the great city. | January 21 

Text: Jonah chapters 3 and 4  

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

The first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah it said, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the empire that ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel, Jonah’s home.  They were ruthless, cutthroat, and showed no mercy to captive peoples.  They were Israel’s bitter enemy.

When Jonah is first commanded to go at once and preach to them, he does go at once, in the opposite direction.  Rather than head east, toward Nineveh, he boards the first ship he can find heading west, to Tarshish.  If Jonah lived in Columbus and was commanded to go preach in Washington, DC, he would have jumped on the next flight to LA.

This does not work out well for Jonah, or his ship mates.  A storm arises, and their ship experiences heavy turbulence.  Jonah takes the blame for the storm.  They throw him overboard.  The sea goes calm, and peace is restored.  Except for Jonah, who is sinking like a stone.  But the Lord sends a big fish, which swallows Jonah whole, giving him a three day retreat in the belly of this beast to ponder the meaning of life.  Unable to digest this wayward prophet, the big fish barfs him up onto dry ground, and heads on its way.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

It’s the same word as the first.  To get on his way to Nineveh, that great city, and call for their repentance.  And so we pick up the story from today’s lectionary reading.  The second, less familiar, half of the book of Jonah.

And so Jonah heads on his way, toward enemy territory.  Nineveh, we’re told, was such a massive city it took three days to walk across.  Upon arrival, Jonah plods into the city, into the belly of the beast, no doubt mulling over the message he’s going to preach to these wicked Ninevites.  After a long day, he finds a good street corner with a nice soapbox, stands up and preaches his well-rehearsed sermon, which turns out to be a one line zinger:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s the entire sermon, only five words in Hebrew.  That’s the word of Lord he came all this way to deliver.  “Ninevites: Your… days… are… numbered.”  He most likely did not have a manuscript, did not end with reflective silence and a hymn of response.    He steps down from his box, tosses his megaphone in the trash, and checks in to a motel, his duty to the Lord technically complete.

And then the worst possible thing happens.  The people of Nineveh pay attention and actually believe him.  They shift into repentance mode.  They throw a massive repentance fest.  A repentance fast, giving up eating and drinking.  The Twitter and Facebook feeds light up about this urgent action.  Great and small, young and old, must put on the punishlingy uncomfortable sackcloth.  Sackcloth has its single greatest day of sales in Ninevite history.  The king quickly gets the message.  He steps down from his throne, exchanges his robe for the not-so-royal sackcloth, and sits in ashes, a sign of self-debasement and humility.  Just to cover his bases, he decrees that even the sheep and cows are to participate in the fast, and put on sackcloth.  Ninevite cattle and people join in solidarity.  The king puts up a hail Mary and says: “Who knows, but that God may relent and change God’s mind?  God may turn back from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

And it works.  God turns, changes course, calls off the fire and brimstone.  Calms the Ninevite sea.  The city is saved, and all the peoples and animals in it.

Most preachers I know would be quite pleased having delivered a one line sermon that changes an entire city.  Jonah could have returned home a happy prophet.  He could ride the momentum of his astonishingly successful speech, take up a tenured position at Jerusalem University and teach 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 his secrets to success.

But this is not what happens.  As the story goes, this turn of events was displeasing to Jonah, and he becomes angry.  He is enraged, not because he is surprised at what has happened, but because this is exactly what he knew what going to happen.  The prophet of few words suddenly has many words for the Lord, which can be summarized in four words: “I told you so.”

“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.”  To which God replies by saying, more or less: “So what I hear you saying is you’re angry?”

Jonah is not done here.  He sulks out of the city, past inner and outer ring suburbs, and finds a perch overlooking the metropolis.  He scavenges for materials and builds himself a little campsite.  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’s willing to wait.

The Lord God, being the gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love God that he/she is, provides a plant, a vine or tree of some sort, to grow over Jonah’s head.  Jack has his rapidly growing beanstalk, Jonah has this rapidly growing plant of his own, not to climb, but to give him shade, to save him from 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 that attacks the plant so that it withers.  Just like the squash in our garden every summer.  And not only that, but God sends a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and the ice in his cooler has 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 angry…about the plant?”  And just so God knows exactly how he feels, Jonah assures God, “Yes.  Angry enough to die.”

The story ends 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 only thing giving him temporary comfort, that 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?”  That’s the last line from the book of Jonah.  We’re not told how the prophet responded.

So is Jonah 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?  Maybe.  Probably!  You can read it that way.  It’s kind of fun to read it that way.

And here’s another angle.  The scholarly consensus is that Jonah was written when the Jews were under the rule of Persia, maybe about 500 years before Jesus was born.  By that time the city of Nineveh as a center of power was long gone, destroyed by the Babylonians who came before the Persians.  The Assyrians conquered the world, decimating Israel, then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, including their capital Nineveh.  Then the Persians took them down.  The Jonah story shows all kinds of signs of being a fable and parable rather than history, but it is based on a character of Jonah the prophet who lived only decades before the Assyrians had conquered Israel.  This Jonah is mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 14:25.

So you got that?  For the original readers – or hearers – of Jonah, Nineveh has already been wiped from the face of the earth, yet only after they did irreparable harm to Israel.  And this is a story about a prophet who lived right before they did that harm.

If you are Jonah the prophet, do you go to your future abuser and warn them of the evil of their ways, or do you stay as far away as you can, hide out in Tarshish and let the Lord destroy them before they destroy you?  Because they will destroy you, that much is known.

As the story goes, the Lord doesn’t give Jonah the option of getting to Tarshish.  Jonah’s resistance is met with a storm, and even though he voluntarily opts to end his own life by having his shipmates toss him into the sea, thus saving them, the big fish comes along and keeps the story alive, keeps Jonah alive.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

And so he goes.  He heads toward this so-called great city which has built its fortunes on the destruction of others.  A city of plunderers and war profiteers.

There’s a unique Hebrew phrase that gets translated as Nineveh being an “exceedingly large city.”  More literally, it could be translated as a city as large as the gods.  Big like god.  Titanic proportions.  Like people drove around with bumper stickers on their chariots that said “Not even god can sink this city.”

The foreigner Jonah gives his little sound bite of a sermon, and the city instantly goes from terror alert code yellow to code red.  The whole city fears impending danger, and follows protocol to avert the crisis, in this case putting on sackcloth to appease the angry deity.  If the Lord won’t be moved by people, maybe the Lord at least not attack if reminded that the animals would be collateral damage.  And so the cows and sheep are enlisted in the pageantry.

And it works.  God does not sink the city.

The powerful are pardoned with no questions asked.  Nobody is put on trial, nobody goes to jail, everybody walks away with a clean record.  No need to pay reparations toward those they have harmed.  No need to restructure society or call off the next conquest of the empire.  The conquerors live on.  The sea is calmed, and everyone is at peace.

Except for Jonah, who’s still rocking the boat.  As it says: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

“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.”  To which God asks Godself: “Is it right for Jonah to be angry?”

In this reading Jonah is accusing God of practicing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.”  Grace that demands nothing of those who ask for it.  Grace that simply lets people off the hook without the difficult work of re-orienting their lives toward repair of harm.  If this is how it’s going to go down, Jonah doesn’t see the point in living.

And so for Jonah, this is not good news.  He finds a place outside the city where he will keep vigil.  Where he will sit with his anger.  Where he will contemplate what is next.  He is alone.  He continues to wonder whether it would be better if he were dead.

The plant that grows up gives him a passing glimpse of contentment, but it doesn’t last long.  It quickly gives way to the worm.  And the burning sun and scorching wind.

The Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt captures the essence of this alternative reading in the woodcut image that we put on the bulletin cover.  Jonah is angry and depressed, holding on to the dead plant, which had been his only source of comfort – defeated by God who sent the worm and sun and wind, and who has allowed the great city to thrive, the city that will soon ravage his people.



The story ends unresolved.  We don’t know what the Lord’s next move will be.  If the Lord might again change course and affirm Jonah’s anger.  We don’t know what Jonah’s next move will be.  Will his anger be constructive, or will it drown him?  Will hard anger and soft grace merge and mature into fierce compassion?  We don’t know what the great and powerful city of Nineveh will do next, and if its people and animals will learn the ways that make for peace.







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.