We Belong to God

Readings: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

Candidating Sermon for the Miami Shores Community Church

Pity Jonah, and not just because he got swallowed and then spit up by a whale.

Jonah’s not a bad guy, although he is a bit stubborn and melodramatic. Thankfully those qualities alone aren’t enough to condemn us.

Frankly, if God condemned everyone who was stubborn and melodramatic, we wouldn’t have telenovelas, musicians, or Miami Dolphins fans.

Jonah, however, is not a character in a soap opera; he is a prophet- and to his credit, in the bible, the prophet’s job is a tough one. It’s not to tell the future- that’s something Greek Oracles and diviners did.

Instead, a prophet’s job is to mediate communication between people and God. For many of our prophets in the Bible, usually this involves communicating God’s displeasure at the harm that society was doing to the poor, like Amos does, imagining new forms of leadership, like Isaiah does, or even demanding answers from God in the form of a trial, like Micah does.

Usually these prophets spoke directly to the Israelites and Judeans, although sometimes they spoke to foreigners- Daniel is particularly notable for this.

So Jonah’s mission, to proclaim repentance- turning away from evil- and the good news of God to a foreign adversary isn’t unique to him, but what is unique is his success. Nineveh was a city in what is today Iraq, near the modern city of Mosul, and the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the biggest and baddest empire on the block, and possibly in the world at its time.

As empires often are, they were bullies, and the Israelites were often a target of that bullying. As the product of such bullying, the Israelites hated and feared the Assyrians, and the city of Nineveh as its capital was a symbol of that hatred.

So its especially astonishing that the book of Jonah tells us that Jonah has merely to say the words once, and the people of Nineveh heed him. They fast and pray in sackcloth and dust and ashes, all the way from the donkeys to the king.

Normally, a prophet actually succeeding on their mission would be a cause for triumph and celebration. But that’s not the case here. For Jonah this mission that God called him on is one he’s deeply conflicted about.

He’s so conflicted about it that he actually attempts to runs away from his duty, first on land then by sea, to the ends of the earth. The city that he attempts to flee to, Tarshish, was in modern Spain, clear across the Mediterranean. He is only set back toward his calling when he leaps overboard in the midst of a storm and is famously swallowed up by a whale and spewed back up on to dry land.

Yet even though Jonah is conflicted, God uses Jonah all the same, to teach Jonah and to teach us something about God’s mercy and love. Jonah reminds us that although it is our duty to proclaim the good news, the gospel that Jesus preached about; of freedom to the captive, liberation to the oppressed, good news to the poor, God’s love will always work beyond the borders of our words to places we cannot yet imagine.

God’s love will be present, even when we are not.

As an aside, if Jonah’s story seems a little too neat and easy, you aren’t alone. There’s no historical record of something like this happening in Nineveh, and many scholars don’t believe that the events in this book ever “really happened”, or on this scale at least. Even if it did, this transformation didn’t last long, as the Assyrians would still later invade and destroy the Kingdom of Israel, and scatter its people.

Instead, I would encourage us to think of this story as an instance where we can uphold the bible’s truth; that it says and teaches things that are true, in the form of a story.

Most prophets have to sing, shout, and preach in the streets, practically begging for the Israelites and Judeans to listen to them, yet Jonah has merely to go to the foreign land, the capital of a cruel empire destined to invade and scatter his people, and they listen.

This is where we pick up our story with Jonah for today’s reading.

We see a Jonah is sullen and moody, at times sounding more like the worst stereotypes that we adults have of teenagers than a wise and faithful prophet.

Jonah angry prays to God. That’s right; Jonah gets angry, and then he prays. How beautiful is that! Indeed, I think God loves it when we do so, for as we see in this story, like a good parent, God handles our anger quite well.

Who hasn’t angry prayed at God before?

Even if it’s just driving down Biscayne Boulevard and someone makes a right turn from the left lane, and we say “oh Lord, give me patience this day,” at least it’s not a stream of vulgarities. Which, to be honest, God hears those prayers just as well.

But back to Jonah. In the course of his prayer, we get not only his internal motivation for running away from his calling, “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.”

We see the roiling in his spirit through this prayer; his knowledge of God’s goodness, mercy, and love, is in direct conflict with what we would today call his xenophobia or racism- his anger and hatred of the Assyrian people. He is a man at war with himself.

I think it’s telling of something true about humanity that divine intervention is not quite enough to overcome Jonah’s xenophobia and racism.

Let’s sit with that for a moment.

Literal divine intervention is not quite enough to overcome Jonah’s xenophobia and racism.

Jonah continues on in his prayer, and here’s that most melodramatic of moments, “And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah would rather die than let his opponents live. Jonah would rather die with hatred in his heart than acknowledge that love wins, that all means all, that love is indeed, love.

Jonah, a good and faithful man, would rather let hate and death win out in his heart than have those people be loved by God just as much as he is.

Yet even so, God does not cancel Jonah. I’m not sure we should either.

To Jonah’s credit, with some heavy duty pushing by God, Jonah does the work.

He goes to the city that he hates, holds his nose, and he calls, however quietly, on the people to repent of evil and return home to God.

He does the work.

The work succeeds not because of his personal charisma or organizing efforts, not because he has a business plan or a 17 step model to building a better church, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

For what else could explain the repentance of a people so complete that everyone, from the animals to the king fasted?

Who knows, perhaps it is precisely the fact that Jonah comes to foreign and hostile city, where his safety was not guaranteed, implies that he is no charlatan looking to make a quick buck, that this testimony is no message from him, but the source of that message must have been divine.

It is after seeing the miraculous, almost certainly life changing repentance of a city that Jonah still acts like this.

So God decides to give Jonah an object lesson.

After Jonah leaves the city, he builds a booth; folks familiar with Jewish practices would recognize this as a Sukkah, a structure many observant Jewish families build outside during that holiday and eat meals in during Sukkot.

God has a vine grow up and over this booth to give Jonah some shade, and he is very grateful for the respite from the blistering sun.

But over the course of the night, God sends a pest- possibly a worm, to destroy the bush.

So when Jonah wakes up, the sun beats down, the hot and sultry winds blew from the east, making it so hot that Jonah, once again, wishes he would die.

In one of my favorite teaching moments in the Bible, God reminds Jonah that if Jonah is “allowed” to be angry over the destruction of that single bush, that Jonah did not create and only lasted for a single night, that God is all the more “allowed” to love the city of Nineveh, which, if nothing else, was home to hundreds of thousands of children and animals, all of whom are God’s Creation.

This is a reminder to Jonah that our God is not the creator of any one people, but of all peoples.

God’s vision for the world is more just and merciful, kinder and more hopeful than even the “most effective” of prophets.

It’s a reminder that our default conceptions of fairness and rightness are much more limited than the vision that God has for us.

Jesus picks up this theme in our Gospel story, the parable of the vineyard workers.

In it, there is a man who owns a vineyard and hires out some day laborers. Throughout the day, the man hires various workers, some working from the dawn, others only working for an hour.

He then lines the workers up, in order from the most recently hired to the earliest hired, and proceeds to pay them each the exact same wage.

The workers who were hired first grumble, but the man tells them that it is not theirs to grumble about.

“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Is that not the same issue that Jonah had? A selfishness that would have others starve – because no money means no food- rather than all be treated equally in the sight of God?

These stories remind us that we all have work to do in proclaiming the gospel. Whether that work is provoking spiritual growth in ourselves and others, community building and creating connections, especially across differences, witnessing for God’s love that society has tossed aside, or even just showing up for one other, we all have work to do.

God loves that we do that work, for the work of love is the work of God. Yet we must remember that this work does not make us better than anyone else in the eyes of God, and we must always remember to leave room in our ranks for those who would walk beside us who either come late to the party, or who aren’t like us in many different ways.

For God’s love is bigger than any one of us. Indeed, there is no greater force in the universe than when our faith, hope, and love, unite with that of God.