- January 24, 2021
- 8:00 AM
Sermon for 24 January 2021 (Epiphany 3 B)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Jonah 3.1-10; Psalm 62.6-14; Mark 1.14-20
Title: Pleased With What God Does
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it” (Jonah 3.10).
My friends, are you pleased and happy with what God does?
I’m sure all of you have heard of the King James Bible, but have you also heard of the King James Book of Sports?
It’s probably not what you’re thinking. It’s a list proclaiming which recreations were permitted in the United Kingdom on the Lord’s Day, and also which ones were not. A few of the sports permitted by King James were dancing, archery, leaping and vaulting (I’m thinking this was like track and field), dancing around May-poles, and enjoying Whitsun ales – these were common parish fundraisers at which people danced and drank ale supplied by the wardens. (I think we should recover that idea!)
So long as these did not interfere with divine worship, the King decreed that these were lawful! … in addition to women carrying plants into church for use in decoration – that, too, was perfectly fine.
A few of the entertainments considered illegal on Sundays were bull-baiting (running dogs at tied-up bulls), plays and dramas, and bowling. Not even a mention of golf anywhere in the list.
In 1618, the King ordered all clergy in the Kingdom to read this declaration from the pulpit. But do you know what happened? The Puritans refused. Not because they did not like the list, but because they rejected every single form of recreation on the Lord’s Day. And when Oliver Cromwell took over a few years later, they got their way and enforced a strict Sabbath observance. No more dancing, no more archery, and certainly no more drinking ales on the Lord’s Day, declared the Puritans.
Have you ever known people who are just angry and grumpy and dissatisfied with life? People who seem to enjoy being angry?
That’s Jonah. Much like the Puritans, Jonah was the angry and the grumpy prophet.
In the Bible, Jonah is part of The Twelve, the collection on texts from twelve minor prophets that were written and copied onto one scroll.
Jonah is very different from the rest, however, because Jonah tells a story. The other prophets contain long lists of divine proclamations, and they are all focused on Jerusalem and the people of Israel. But there is none of that in Jonah. The only prophetic word in Jonah is that simple little phrase: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
That’s about the same length as the proclamation of Jesus when he began his ministry: “Repent, and believe in the good news.” Except that Jonah did not have any good news for these people! Only a stark warning.
You see, most of the prophets are quite loquacious, but not Jonah! He seemed to speak as little as possible. And yet, Jonah is presented here as the most successful prophet in biblical history! An entire city of 120,000 people repent and show respect for the ways of God, and even the animals repent!
The most important thing to remember about Jonah is that this is a work of satire. Jonah is the anti-Elijah, the prophet who refuses to act like a prophet, the prophet who wants to fail, who even would rather die than succeed! And yet Jonah succeeds anyway, in spite of himself.
When you read Jonah, you are supposed to smile and laugh at the sheer absurdity of this story.
And allow me to remind you all of the shape of that story. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and rebuke them for their wickedness. This would have made a lot of sense to the original audience. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians were well known to the Hebrews as cruel and bloodthirsty and violent. Yes, of course God was going to punish them.
But Jonah did not want to go. Why exactly? We are not told why until later. So Jonah fled to the sea where he boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction. But a fierce storm stopped that ship. The sailors realize that Jonah is the cause of their trouble, that Jonah is the one in trouble with God, the one who is disobeying his God, so they throw him overboard, because Jonah himself suggested it. Just throw me overboard, he said. These pagan sailors did not want to do this, but when they ran out of options, they did what Jonah suggested and threw him into the sea.
Jonah, it seems, did not even care whether he lived or died. Perhaps he was even suicidal. But God still had a dream for Jonah’s life. This is what the text says: “But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1.17).
In that very unique setting, Jonah prayed to God and God caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto the dry land.
Now God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and to rebuke them for their wickedness. This time, Jonah did it. That is the portion we heard here today, the part in which even the animals repent!
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” What kind of warning is this, anyway? In the Hebrew, the word at the end literally means turned over, and it could have two different meanings.
It could mean that Nineveh will be turned over by someone, or something, else. Or it could mean that Nineveh will turn over, meaning it will reform itself, as in turning over a new leaf or in turning around and changing direction. Meaning Nineveh will repent.
Either way, it’s a remarkable turnaround. And it is good news! But immediately after the final verse of our portion today, about how God repented and decided not to bring calamity on Nineveh, the very next verse says this:
“But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (Jonah 4.1).
OK, can we be clear that this is NOT how prophets are supposed to behave! Jonah basically rebukes God for being too merciful and forgiving, and he finally explains that THIS is why he did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place! Because he knew that this would happen – that God would find some way to show mercy and compassion on these people, when in fact, from Jonah’s point of view, they were evil and violent and deplorable what they deserved more than anything else was punishment!
Amazingly, God is not angry with Jonah in return. Instead, God toys with Jonah, plays a little game with him. God provides Jonah with shade from the desert sun with a special bush, and then God takes the bush away, and God asks, is it right for you to be angry about this bush?
Sadly, Jonah never did learn the intended lesson, because he replies and says, “Yes, angry enough to die!” After all of his success, Jonah is not a happy camper. No dancing on the Sabbath for him!
This is a story about God, after all, and God gets the final word. In fact, God ALWAYS gets the final word, in every story of every life. Don’t ever be confused about that.
In this case, the book of Jonah ends as God poses this rhetorical question back to the angry and sulking Jonah: “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, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4.11).
Jeremiah Burroughs was one of the Puritans who refused to read King James Book of Sports, but at least he was not one of the angry Puritans! He did not advocate for chopping off peoples heads or for whipping children who were caught playing football, like many other Puritans. He was a moderate, and a good preacher who taught his people to love God and one another.
One of the books by Jeremiah Burroughs is called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (repeat) and in it he left us this memorable line:
“It is but one side of a Christian to endeavour to do what pleases God; you must as well endeavour to be pleased with what God does”. Let me repeat that.
Poor Jonah was not able to do either! Jonah did not endeavor to do what pleases God and Jonah did not endeavor to be pleased with what God does.
But here is our question today: what about you? Are you pleased and happy with what God does, what God has done? Do you agree with Jonah that God ought to be more just and more demanding, holding people accountable for their wrongdoing?
Or are you happy that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6.35), as Jesus taught when he came and announced the good news?
Are you able to experience that rare jewel of contentment by accepting who God is, by accepting what God has done, by accepting the reality of this life – just as it is and not as you want it to be?
May it be so. Amen.