Jonah Had Issues (8:30am)
Topic: Jonah is Reproved Scripture: Jonah 4:1–4:8, Jonah 4:9–4:11
We might hope for a Hollywood ending to Jonah’s tale, a happily-ever-after that neatly wraps the story of the wayward prophet. There isn’t one. We leave Jonah sulking in the desert, still angry, still hoping for his enemies to suffer divine punishment. Jonah had issues.
One of his issues was this: he had his theology all put together—but it didn’t do him any good. He had great insight into the nature and character of God—but this knowledge didn’t make him a better person. “I know you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love….DARN IT!” The last thing he wanted shown to his enemies was steadfast love. He wanted some serious condemnation toward the Ninevites—and he suspected, rightly, that God would instead demonstrate kindness. He was furious!
This is a problem. Despite his wonderful insights into the nature of God, Jonah remained narrow, xenophobic, and eager to exclude certain people from God’s love. He embodied the supreme irony that people who claim the Name of the Compassionate One, can come across as the opposite: hateful, harmful, and harsh toward individuals and groups. Today, in the minds of many millennials and others, when they think church or Christianity, they think bigotry and judgmentalism. Jonah struck this pathetic pose, which is so at odds with the Christian gospel and the insights of Hebrew faith. Jonah was a living contradicting of the belief he proclaimed.
To represent Christ, we want to exhibit the welcoming arms of God’s all-embracing care in our own lives. We want who we are to match what we believe.
We were at a McDonald’s in Indianapolis. Usually McDonald’s is highly efficient, but this one suffered from low morale and had a long, slow line waiting. Things seemed to be going wrong behind the counter at every turn. We placed a breakfast order for a couple of Egg McMuffins, and also 3 hotcakes for our granddaughter. We got the Egg McMuffins, and we also got the hotcakes—only, instead of just 3 hotcakes, we got three orders of them, for a grand total of nine hotcakes. I went into “Jonah” mode: angry about the mix-up, all that food we didn’t want, and the fact that we were charged for—plus, I didn’t want to stand in line again to try to get our money back. I preferred to stew in my own juice for a while. Sometimes we enjoy being ticked off, and we nurture that delicious feeling of anger.
My wife had a compassionate solution. She spotted a person at the other end of the restaurant looking bedraggled and possibly homeless. Leslie said, “I’ll bet he would take the extra hotcakes.” Guess who got to go ask him? His eyes lit up when I said, “Would you like our extra hotcakes?” With gusto he said, “Why, yes I would!” Problem solved. Do we have eyes for the needs of others around us? Or are we, like Jonah, too turned in upon ourselves? I could have sat there a long time and never noticed the homeless man, and never thought of giving the hotcakes to him. God provides answers if we’re open to being part of the solution.
Jonah had another issue. He couldn’t control his moods. Instead, he was controlled by his moods. We find him in the grip of anger, hungry for revenge. He was severely disappointed that God didn’t take out the sinful city. He said, “Okay, God, just kill me now.” He was a drama queen. Then it seems that God is having a little fun at his expense. The good Lord sent a bush to give him some shade from the desert sun. Jonah was thrilled at this divine favor. Then the shade went away—and Jonah resumed his pouting. “Just stick a fork in me, Lord. I’m done.”
Is our life dictated by outward circumstances and inner turmoil? Or is there a greater force, a steadying power, which can help us transcend the mood of the moment? We can be addicted to negative feelings as much as people can be addicted to opioids or alcohol. We can choose to turn our feelings over to God. We affirm the value of medication and therapy when needed, and we also affirm the readiness of God to help us let go and grow in maturity, so that we’re not controlled by our emotions.
Alissa Parker has written of her experience as a mom who suffered one of life’s greatest tragedies. Her beautiful 6-year-old daughter Emilie was a first-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the day the gunman went through. No words can describe the agony of Alissa Parker and her family and all the other families. Alissa had a strong faith. Sometime after the tragedy, Alissa was in her place of worship, alone, meditating. She distinctly heard what she took to be God’s voice telling her to do something. Like Jonah, she didn’t want to do this something. The Voice said, “Go to the shooter’s father, and talk with him.” After a Jonah-like period of resistance, Alissa Parker and her husband reached out to Peter Lanza, who was eager to meet with them. The rejection and hatred he had received as the shooter’s father were all but overwhelming, and he welcomed their effort to reach out to him. Alissa Parker writes, “The meeting lasted two hours. When I first arrived, frankly, I didn’t care what Peter Lanza felt. I was thinking only about what I felt. By the time we left, my perspective had changed. I was surrounded by sympathy and compassion for what had happened to my daughter. He, on the other hand, was blamed and despised for what his son had done. Peter Lanza was alone in the world.” Alissa’s willingness to respond to God’s lead—even though she didn’t want to—was key to her healing, and to his. The moods that grip us, the feelings of anger and revenge that we hold onto, can be transcended by a deepening spiritual life and responsiveness to God.
There’s one last issue that Jonah had: he missed a lot of life’s joy because he couldn’t see the connections. The unusual scene of the bush in the desert, which lived and died in 24 hours, was meant as a parable. It’s a parable of mercy toward people, yes, and even toward animals. Jonah didn’t get the parable, He didn’t make the connection. The spiritual wisdom of the ages tells us, “All things are connected. Nothing happens apart from the profound love of the Creator. All has meaning. We are, all of us, in the palm of God’s hand.” Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” Scripture and nature alike are God’s book. “God shines in all that’s fair: In the rustling grass I hear him pass. God speaks to me everywhere.” Make the connections.
When we regard earth as existing only for our pleasure, like Jonah in this scene, or simply to be exploited for the sake of money, we cut ourselves off from God and imperil the home that sustains us. Creation is not a dead object: it is the theater of God’s glory. We are surrounded by the sacred. Existence is permeated by the One who dwells at the heart of the universe.
Jonah had issues. We all do. It’s part of being human. Maybe we are put on this earth to overcome, and grow, and become a little more like Christ. Listen to these words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped from Poland in 1939, just before the invasion, and whose whole family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Fully aware of the dark side, he nevertheless declared, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. Everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”