Third Sunday in Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
If you remember the past few weeks, God spoke to Jonah. God spoke to Jonah and sent him to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh—headquarters of one of history’s bloodthirsty empires. The people who his own people had been victimized by. But instead, Jonah ran in the opposite direction, a city called Tarshish (rhymes with what?). A resort amusement park on the other side of the world. But God caught up, sent a storm, and long story short Jonah was at the bottom of the sea in the belly of a whale. Jonah prayed for deliverance, put his trust in God, and the great fish spat him on the shore at Nineveh. Where he was supposed to be in the first place.
And so Jonah ends up on the shore. And this time, he finally does what he’s told. He tells the citizens of Nineveh that in forty days their city would be levelled (or transformed, depending on your translation of the Hebrew). And, snap, it worked. Just like that, the city gave in. It was that easy. The king directed everyone to repent, to put on sack cloth and ashes, and to turn away from their violent, imperial ways. And, it says, And it says that “changed his mind about the calamity he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” It worked! The city converted en mass. Ten thousand citizens were spared! Disaster averted! All thanks to Jonah.
“Jonah was furious,” it says. “He lost his temper. He yells at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy. Not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So,” he says. “So God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!” And so he stomps away, outside of the city. Sets up a little tent on the outskirts. And he waits in the shade to see if God would destroy it. If God would do what God said.
So Jonah had a problem with the mission from day one. He didn’t wanna go. Not just because it was too hard. Or too scary. Not just because there’s some other place he’d rather be. No, he knew God would reach out to these people, forgive them and love them. He’s mad because he wanted to see the city burned to the ground. He wanted these wicked pagans punished. He wanted to see some justice against this bloodthirsty empire that caused his people so much suffering and pain. But he’s getting none of that. Now they’ve turned everything around, and the city won’t be destroyed. Where’s the justice? It’s just so damn unfair.
A few months ago, my two boys, Walt and Bram were fighting over some kind of toy. And Walter (who’s seven) just shoved Bram (who’s three) over, and just yanked the toy out of his hands. Bram, of course, just burst into tears. I took Walt aside, making it very clear he was in trouble. But, surprisingly enough, the first words out of his mouth were “sorry Daddy” (immediate remorse, which is kind of a strange thing to witness). And he immediately went over to Bram, gave him the toy, apologized, then went in for the hug. But Bram wasn’t having any of it. Just as Walt’s arms wrapped around his tiny torso, the crying got harder. There was a shout, and Bram swung his best right hook. Just missing him. Walt left the room, and here was Bram still swinging at me. “Walt gave you the toy back,” I said. “And he apologized. What more do you want?” I asked. “Whaddaya want me to do? Punch him in the face?” But once I said this, his expression just shifted immediately from crumbled up crying to stone cold glare. “Yesssss,” he said. “Punch him in the face.”
It was funny, for sure. Kids will be kids. But Bram’s reaction is kind of a parable. It’s typically human. Walt made a 180, he repented of his wrongdoing. But Bram didn’t want to see a change in his brother. He wanted punishment. What was supposed to happen happened. Walt received mercy. He even changed his mood. But Bram wanted vengeance. He wanted to see Walt fall. Hard.
Vengeance over mercy. Punishment over change, over transformation. It’s what we’d all prefer, actually. If we’re honest with ourselves. We want those who wrong us to be wounded in the same way we have so they know what it feels like. We want criminals to be punished with mandatory sentences, not rehabilitated. We’d rather see terrorists to be blotted off the face of the earth, rather than rescued from the powers of sin and death. Even us bleeding heart “we love everybody” liberals, we’d love to see homophobes and racists punished for the hurt they’ve caused instead of having their hearts and minds transformed. We’d love to see Donald Trump shackled and put away for good at Guantanamo Bay, rather than have him find Jesus (for real this time). A medieval Christian writer once wrote that all the saints in heaven would be given courtside seats to watch sinners burn in hell. And it would give them special joy because they would be seeing God’s perfect justice in action. No wonder there are countless stories of Christians who will tell everyone that God loves them, but then take special glee when we see them suffer or fall. When you’ve got friends like this…
It’s what Jonah wanted. It’s what dear sweet Bram wanted. We’d probably never say it. But when it comes down to it, it’s what we want, too. It’s no different for you or I. When it comes down to it, we’d rather our enemies suffer than be saved.
Now, this is understandable. We want justice. We want people to be accountable for their actions. We want wrongs to be righted. These are understandable things, good and right things, even. And these are things God wants, too. Isaiah 61:8, written to Jonah’s people, who’d been crushed by yet another empire: "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” God wants human beings to put aside their violence. God wants justice, God wants human lives set right, God wants the world set right. But God wants it done in God’s way.
After Jonah sits in his tent to sulk, appoints this bush it says. God has this bush grows up huge and tall over Jonah. Gives him some shade from the hot sun. This makes Jonah pretty happy—no sunburn. But the next day, it says, God sends this worm who inches up the tree, and attacks the bush. So the bush gets sick, it withers and dies. And so by the time the sun rises there’s no shade. Just scorching heat. And God sends a wind down on Jonah so he’s tired, he’s thirsty. He’s dying in the heat. So much so that he cries out to God again. “Kill me now!” he says. But God’s not having it. Again, from the Message: “then God says to Jonah, ‘What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?” Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!” But God’s not having it. “What’s this?” God says. You think it’s okay to change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a this tree that you didn’t do anything to grow? You didn’t plant it. You didn’t water it. It grew up one night and died the next. So, if you can do that,” God says, “why can’t I change the way I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure. This big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong. And the cows. Don’t forget the cows.”
You see, where Jonah goes from loving the plant to hating it, loving his life to wanting death, God’s concern for the Ninevites never wavers. Jonah’s withering away because he’s been drinking poison, but expecting it to kill his enemies instead of him. But from beginning to end, God has been a God of steadfast love and compassion. Jonah kept turning away from God, but time after time, God brought into the arms of grace. But Jonah doesn’t get it. Jonah doesn’t fully understand grace. Even when it bites him in the… well, you know.
Where Jonah wants punishment and destruction, God wants repentance and restoration. Where we want vengeance, God wants mercy and reconciliation. In fact, God’s posture of forgiveness discloses to us the radical heart of the Christian message. “While we were still sinners, writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. “While we were still sinners Christ died for the ungodly.” And again in 1st Timothy: “God desires that all be saved.” Jonah is just another chapter in the long, beautiful story of scripture. The story that is in its very definition a love story. God’s steadfast love for us. God’s rescue mission to save humanity from the powers of sin and death. It points us forward to the meaning of the cross. That God would rather die than see any of her creatures consigned to destruction. That God will never give up until every prodigal returns. And every sheep is back in the fold.
And that’s where the story of Jonah ends. It kind of leaves us handing. With a declaration of God’s love and compassion, even for Nineveh (and its cows). We don’t see Jonah’s next move—whether he finally changes or not. But that’s part of the story. That’s because we, the listeners, we’re invited in to this story. To take part in the next chapter. Together as the gathered people of God, we’re invited into a completely different journey. We’re invited to turn away from our destruction. To turn away from our hatreds, our own judgments, because they are poison. No matter how right or justified they may be. To give them up, and instead to walk the path through Nineveh, walking side by side with Christ. Depending on nothing but the mercy of the Lord. The journey is not an easy one. But it leads us in to our destiny. Full life in the heart of God.
As much as it drives Jonah crazy, as much as it drives us crazy (as much as it drives Bram crazy!). As much as it takes away the sweet satisfaction of revenge. As much as we, like Jonah, would prefer an eye for an eye. God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts not our thoughts. God is a God of justice. Vengeance is mind, says the Lord. But God brings it to us in a different way. God brings salvation through forgiving, eternally patient, unwavering mercy. Even for the sin-sick, the violent, the godless. One that mends our malformed hearts. One that jams a stick in the spoke of the world’s violence. All for the sake of salvation. All for the healing of all creation. Even for our worst enemies. And even for us at our worst.
Friends, be free from your hatred. Be free from revenge and violence. Because in Christ you are free. Turn around. And believe in the Good News. AMEN.