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09.06.20 Following God in Spirit Jonah 4:1-11 Sermon Summary

by on September 8, 2020

When God called Jonah to Nineveh the first time Jonah ran. He spent “three days and nights” in the belly of a big fish. Then in the book there is a psalm. Finally Jonah goes to Nineveh and they repent! Here we are at the final scene, but this is not the end.

Jonah is among the most colorful characters in scripture, which is impressive because his story is only really three chapters long when you take out the psalm that was inserted later. After Jonah followed God in body by preaching through Nineveh, and after the Ninevites followed God in body by fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes, they also followed God in Spirit. They repented.

But Jonah never repents. He wants Nineveh punished at the beginning. And he still does here at the end. When God failed to punish the Ninevites, it “displeased Jonah and he became angry.” Jonah should have known. In fact he did know. 

In his Sunday School faith fashion Jonah knew the “right” answer: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” But Jonah never let that knowledge into his heart. He never let it change him.

Being the drama king he cries out, “Just let me die!” and stomps off to the East. God asks him if he’s right to be angry and Jonah gives God the silent treatment. He builds a shelter for himself and waits to see what happens. He’s still holding out for punishment, and he’s willing to wait.

Here’s a really interesting part: God causes a bush to grow to give Jonah shade. Jonah already had shade. That’s what the shelter is for. Then God causes a worm to kill the bush. And this makes Jonah angry again. 

Why did God cause the bush to grow and the worm to kill it? Here are four reasons.

First, it reminds Jonah of God’s sovereignty (as if the storm, the fish, the lots weren’t enough). Sovereignty means that God is free: Free to let us make choices like Jonah did; Free to override those choices as God eventually does; and Free to change the divine mind, as God did with Nineveh.

Second, it reminds us that no matter we can do for ourselves we still need God, and God is still there. Jonah had shade he made for himself. God provided more pleasant shade.

Third, God caused the bush and the worm to expose just how shallow, selfish, and emotion-centered Jonah is. Jonah is angry all over again. God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Before, about Nineveh, Jonah was silent. But now, when it’s about the bush, about him, he answers: “Enough to die.”

Jonah cares more about his comfort than about the Ninevites’ lives, more about his feelings than about God’s truth. And God’s truth is that he cares about Jonah, and God cares about the Ninevites. Black lives matter to God, and so do the lives of white supremacists. God’s truth is that God loves you, and God loves your enemies.

Jesus knew this. When we follow God not only in body but also in spirit we become like God. This is why he says, “Turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you” (following God in body), and, “Pray for and love those who persecute you” (following God in spirit).

Not so Jonah. Jonah is shallow, selfish, and short-sighted. This scene reminds me of another parable about two brothers. The younger one spends his inheritance on dissolute living. The older one works the family farm. The younger returns to a welcome party which the older one refuses to join.

Their father comes out to plead with the older brother: “Your brother was lost, but now is found.” And the parable ends there. Just like Jonah. 

Our parable says Jonah built his shelter East of the city. “East” is a symbol for being separated from God’s presence, as in “East of Eden.” God wants Jonah to rejoice, to experience God’s grace with thanksgiving, to have love for Ninevites people and their animals.

But the parable of Jonah, like that of the two brothers, ends unresolved. It’s an open-ended invitation for Jonah to become less selfish.

Finally, the bush and the worm teach that God doesn’t leave Jonah out there alone. The father doesn’t leave the older son out there alone. God is trying to save Jonah from himself, and saving us takes time. 

To conclude, let us think of the ways we are like Jonah. Here are six things that keep us out East.

1. Not letting God be God, that is, not trusting God to be God. We want God to hold the same values and the same grudges as we do. 

2. We think we know better than God. We know the Bible better than God (“But the Bible says . . .”). We know about justice better than God. We know about eternity better than God. We don’t let God be God because we know better than God.

3. We hold on to past hurts. Jonah was written after the Assyrian invasions (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria). Israel was still hurting and increasingly angry with God. The parable invites Israel to trust God and to let go. 

Holding on to past hurts leads to bitterness. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “The one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness. Bitterness has not the capacity to make the distinction between some and all.” Which leads us to number four.

4. We maintain simple, dichotomous prejudices. “Jerusalem is good; Nineveh is bad.” “All protesters are the same.” “All cops are the same.” “All conservatives are the same.” “All liberals are the same.” Such prejudices separate us from others—from others in whom God is also at work.

5. We have a narrow view primarily determined by emotions. Hurt, anger, and prejudice are self-serving, self-preserving emotions. But they don’t give us the whole picture. Without a story that includes everyone, despite our emotions about it, like Jonah and the older son, we can’t see the Kingdom of God.

6. We need religion that is not just head-strong, but heart-felt. We need a religion that penetrates our hearts and transforms us. It isn’t enough to think about God. It isn’t enough to follow God in body. God wants us to follow in spirit also.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are the greatest commandment. Do this and you will live.”

May we set aside our bitterness and prejudice, set aside our pride and our slogans. May we let God be God and trust God to transform our hearts. May we follow God not just in body but also in spirit, that we may enter fully the kingdom of God. Amen.

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