Jonah Week 6: Gracious and Merciful

This is the final sermon in a Lenten series on the Sign of Jonah

Text: Jonah 4   Matthew 12:38-41

We have come to the end of a long journey with Jonah. It’s been an interesting though rough one hasn’t it? Running from God’s call, Jonah hopped a boat to Tarshish. God sent a storm on the sea to hound Jonah, not to punish him but to save him. Over the side of the boat Jonah went into the awaiting arms of the hungry sea ready to devour him. Was he doomed? No, God sent a fish to swallow him; not to destroy him but to save him. Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish and even though it is a self centered and God-blaming prayer, God had the fish spit him up onto the shore. It was almost as if God was hanging on Jonah’s every word, just hoping for a reason to give him another shot. And he does just that.

Once more, just as in the beginning of this story, God came to Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh to deliver his message to the people of that city. We can imagine Jonah sulking off to Nineveh : ‘FINE! I’ll do it! But I Won’t Like It!’

Then there was Nineveh, that huge, wealthy town that took at least three days to walk across! Jonah walks a little way into the city and announces: 40 days and it’s all over. Some sermon! It was almost like he didn’t want Nineveh to hear this message from God. It was almost like he didn’t think it was worth spending too much effort on proclaiming this message.

Yet, God uses even imperfect conduits for his messages. The people heard Jonah’s words. Even the king heard his words! And something amazing happened: they believed him. Even more than that, they believed there might be a reason to hope.

Sometimes we can hear this story and say—yeah! They heard that God was gonna get them for all their corrupt living! They heard this message and they were afraid and changed their ways in a hurry!

Well… yes, they did… but here’s the truly incredible part: they believed there was hope that God would change his mind. If you were afraid of impending destruction, you could just pack up and go. You’ve got 40 days after all. But they don’t pack up and get out of town. Instead, everyone, from the king on down, stops what they are doing, leaves behind their evil ways and takes upon themselves all the symbols of mourning and repentance. Even the animals. And God, as if he was just waiting, straining to see or hear any possible sign or the smallest inkling of the fact that they were willing to change so that he could show mercy, does just that. He does not destroy them.

Last week I said that I thought any preacher would feel a sense of fulfillment at knowing that someone benefited from their words. How wonderful that God worked through Jonah, even in his half-hearted sermon, to save so many people and animals! Jonah’s words saved an entire city!

But was Jonah happy with this turn of events? Nope, he wasn’t. In fact, we hear in tonight’s reading that Jonah is so mad he just wants to die. ‘I knew it! I knew it!’ He tells God. I knew you were going to do this all along! That’s why I ran away from you because you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. ‘

Now we see the answer to the very first of our questions: Why did Jonah run away? Because he knew God would be merciful. Jonah wasn’t the first or the last person in scripture to say this either. In fact, the words he uses here come from two psalms 145:8 and 103:8—psalms he likely knew by heart—that say God is Gracious and merciful……

In addition to Jonah and the psalms, there are many places where others in the bible have declared the mercy of God. The prophet Hosea writes that God says I will heal their waywardness and love them freely for my anger has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:4) And God will restore us on the third day, that we may live in his presence (Hosea 6:2) The prophet Zechariah wrote that God said: I will restore them because I have compassion on them.(Zechariah 10:6) The prophet Micah: You [God] will again have compassion on us you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

It’s not just the prophets either. From the very beginning and throughout the whole story of God’s relationship with creation this theme is present. The truth is that this whole idea that God will forgive—that God wants to forgive—that when we turn from God and harm one another and God’s creation, God does indeed get angry with us, but he is also hanging on our every word, searching our every action for any excuse whatsoever to let go of his anger and pour out his mercy on us and to help us to become his people and do his will in the world.

Even when we are like Jonah, when we don’t think God should be merciful to this person or that person or group, God still does whatever he wishes. Once again, God tries to teach Jonah by example.

Jonah is pouty and mad and goes outside of Nineveh to watch and see what is going to happen. Maybe he is still hoping he’ll see the end of that city! It is then that God sends a little tree to shade Jonah. And Jonah is thrilled with this nice comfy shade! But by the next morning, it is gone and, once again, Jonah is so mad he could just die! You know, in his own mind, it really is all about Jonah.

One of the biggest questions all of this brings back to us is this: What does all this have to do with Jesus? That is after all, why we are all here during Lent. In the Gospels people demand a sign from Jesus. They want something other than all those healings and miracles. No, that just wasn’t enough. They want something MORE than all that. Jesus tells them the only sign he’s going to give is the sign of Jonah.

So what does Jesus have to do with a gripey, whiney, pouty, self-centered prophet? We don’t ever hear Jesus say he’s upset because God is offering mercy nor do we see him run from God because he doesn’t say or do those things. In fact, Jesus is very much the opposite of Jonah in some ways. Jonah avoids God’s call, Jesus embraces it even when it is hard. Jonah blames God for his suffering; Jesus points to the sin of the world as the true source of suffering. Jonah reluctantly proclaims God’s message with as little effort as possible; Jesus pounds the dirt with his feet going everywhere to deliver God’s message. Jonah pouts when God shows mercy and gives life instead of death; Jesus speaks life, calls out of the grave and rejoices at life. Jonah wishes in anger to die when he does not get his way; Jesus says ‘thy will be done’ and goes to death willingly to give life to all, both friend and enemy.

Jesus gives us an idea of what he means when he says: ‘just like Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish, so too will the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights.’ He uses the life of Jonah as a foreshadow of what will happen to him when he comes out of his tomb after three days and night.

But there is something else here, too. The story of Jonah is, ultimately, not about Jonah (even though I think he’d like for it to be). The story of Jonah is about God who cares for all of his creation, all the people and animals too, and who is quite literally dying to show us all mercy. It is Jesus who will die to show us mercy. Jesus who will make God’s continuing mercy for us a reality by his death and resurrection. The sign of Jonah is that God loves feather headed prophets who run away, sailors in ships, the whole ocean, giant fish, entire cities of sinners who do not even realize he is their creator, all their animals, and you and me so much that he let his one and only son die and spend three days in the deep dark belly of the earth so that when he is raised to new life, we are, too.

For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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