A reading from the Book of Jonah:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, "Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. So Jonah set out and went to Ninevah according to the word of the Lord. Now Ninevah was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city going a day's walk, and he cried out, "Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" And the people of Ninevah believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Ninevah. By the decree of the King and his nobles, no human being or animal, no herd or flock shall taste anything. They shall not feed nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows, God may relent and change his mind. He may turn from his fierce anger so that we do not perish. 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 he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, "Oh, Lord, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the Lord said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah to give shade over his head to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was very happy about the bush, but when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
The story of Jonah begins with God's call to go to the evil people of Ninevah and to there cry out against their wickedness. Jonah says, "No." He says no by going to Joppa where he buys a ticket on a ship headed for Tarshish. Now Tarshish is on the southern coast of Spain at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, as far away from Ninevah as Jonah could travel in his eighth-century BC world. Jonah flees God, who he assumes he can leave behind, which, of course, he can't. Once at sea, it isn't long before the storm comes and the sea rages and the ship threatens to break up and come apart. Quickly, Jonah finds himself in the water drowning beneath turbulent seas.
We are told that God then provides a fish that swallows Jonah. It is while Jonah is in the dark belly of the fish for three days and three nights that he comes to himself and asks God's help. The fish spews Jonah out on the shore-vomits him up for a second chance at life. This time Jonah does what he refused to do in the beginning. He does go to Ninevah.
This part of the story is familiar. Most of us recall the powerful images, but even if we have never heard the story in its Bible version, we know it from our own experience. Some people hear voices or dream dreams or see visions or read signs or pray and know it as God speaking to them. For others, it is an intuition or hunch or vague longing or deep knowing. The Jonah story suggests those times when we have heard God's voice and said, "No."
The story happens on those occasions in our lives when we hear God speaking but listen only to ourselves, mind no warning and heed nothing but our own wants and druthers and set off on our life journey towards the Tarshish that we decide is what we are about in this world. And on the way, the storms arise and the seas rage, and even after we are thrown over along with our baggage, and usually a few other people, we end up in the soup, drowning only to find ourselves in the belly of the fish, where we spend three days and three nights or three months or three years or even thirty-three years, poking around in the darkness until we get it and the nickel drops. Only then are we vomited up on the shore, exhausted and broken but with a second chance. After that, we begin to listen as we haven't before, listen to hunches and intuitions and even conscience, to pains in the neck or back or stomach as well as deep aches in the soul, to pay attention to our dreams and wonder about the tears from nowhere that come for no reason at all.
My guess is that everyone of us has said a no to God and headed to Tarshish once or twice, had our ship-be it career, marriage, health, hope, dreams, sanity, self-come apart in a raging storm, done time in the dark belly of the fish and then spewed out with a different idea of who we are and what life is about and what God may want for us.
The less familiar part of the story of Jonah is what happens next. That's the part where Jonah does indeed go to Ninevah to do the thing he has been meant to do from the beginning. He preaches repentance to the wicked Ninevites. They listen. It works. The king and all the people repent. Jonah succeeds. Even though they do not know their right hand from their left, the Ninevites are smart enough to hedge their bets. The king says, "Who knows, God may relent and change his mind. He may turn from his fierce anger so that we do not perish." And, of course, that's exactly 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 said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
Now, you would think, wouldn't you, that Jonah would be pleased, elated by his success? He has done what God wanted and told the Ninevites that they were to be overthrown, perish because of their evil ways. But they hear Jonah and turn from their wickedness. As a result, God relents from punishing and, instead, shows mercy. But Jonah is far from pleased. In fact, Jonah is very unhappy; he is so unhappy that he tells God that it is now better for him to die than to live. He is angry enough to die. Jonah leaves Ninevah and goes out to build a booth, separating and distancing himself from the city. He sits, sulks, and watches. The Lord, we are told, seeks to save him from his discomfort and so appoints a bush to give him shade at least for a while, which makes Jonah very happy. But the next day, God sends a worm that eats the plant and ends the shade. The sun beats down; a sultry east wind blows, and Jonah says again that he would rather die than live. God lets Jonah be. All God does is remove the shade and ask him the question: "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" God asks. "Angry about God relenting and showing mercy upon the Ninevites?" "Yes," Jonah tells God, "angry enough to die." Which is where the story ends.
There is no footnote or right answer in the back of the book explaining why Jonah is so angry or telling where it will lead. But one possibility-what about the possibility that even though, or may especially because, Jonah feels like he is doing what he ought to do-being faithful to God, he is angry because the scenario is not the one he would write. God is not doing the world the way Jonah is convinced it ought to be. Jonah's passion is justice. He wants justice done, sentence pronounced, transgressions redressed, and iniquity punished. Jonah wants the piper paid and the world set right. Jonah would rather live in a world where everybody gets theirs in the end than to live in a world of benevolence and mercy. Fairness and punishment are more important to Jonah than clemency and compassion. Jonah is convinced about the rightness of his version of the way things ought to be in God's world. Anger for him, as it often is for us, is a way to justify himself, protesting and protecting his own righteousness. Jonah would rather be angry enough to die than walk into the city of Ninevah and rejoice with them in their new life. Jonah prefers to sulk and be miserable, stay dead than celebrate with the Ninevites their second chance that is not unlike the second chance he himself once found.
Don't waste time trying to figure out if or how this story might have ever really occurred. The question is not whether it ever happened or not, but whether it is true. It's true if it is taking place right now in the lives of people like us, not just like us, but in you and me. Only you know if this is a true story for you. Test yourself. What do you know about sitting in your booth-alone and observing, watching that part of your life that is unfair and not working as you think it should, watching people who deserve punishment and calamity in a fair and just world getting off scott free and you angry enough to die.
How is Ninevah those others who mess up your world-people in your office or school or your church. Those closer to home, faces around your dining room table, under your roof, those for whom you would lay down your life but for whom you require justice, payment, tit for tat. How might your anger with them be your one last hope of controlling the world rather than capitulating into arms of loving mercy?
A while ago I was having dinner with close friends who were privy to a very painful family wound in my life that is surrounded by much silence and sadness. Several years had passed since the event, and none of us had made any effort to reach out or reconcile. Only anger and my guess for all of us-blaming. Over great food and enough wine I recounted again the caring and tears that had ensued. The story ended as it always did. Donna, who had heard all this before, and perhaps enough, finally turned to me and asked, "But what do you want now?" Which simply revved it up again-all the injustice and unfairness. "But what do you want to happen now?" she asked me. I didn't answer her. I didn't know. I suddenly realized that my anger had become too important. It was driving my life, that what I was holding onto as if my life depended upon it was killing me.
Our anger is often a way of being sure that all the possibilities die rather than giving up on our idea of what should have been and ought to happen next. For many, it is a choice to die angry and alienated rather than go to Ninevah and try life out on different terms. It is the awful revelation that forgiveness and mercy are more frightening than staying angry enough to die.
Jesus of Nazareth is often asked for a sign-a sign that would tell them who he is or give away what he is about or even might signal what God wants. In response, the only sign Jesus gives them is what he calls the sign of Jonah. How might the sign of Jonah have been a sign for them and even be the sign God offers to you today? Where might the shadow of Jonah be in your life? Where is your Ninevah? Your Tarshish? Who are your Ninevites? Where is the booth that shelters you from the hot sun beating down and your hideout from the sultry east wind blowing? Like Jonah, where in your life are you angry enough to die? What would you have to give up for you to let go of your anger and go into the rejoicing city? What might you find there? For all of us Jonahs, time is running out.
Ask yourself what you are choosing today and what then about tomorrow.
Let us pray. We give you thanks, Lord God, for times when we are tossed about in the storms, end up in the darkness for three days and three nights and are then spewed back into life for another chance. Once safely on the shore again, give us the grace to rejoice over mercy as available to all of us rather than resentful in our self-righteousness retreating and withdrawing into an anger that is as good as death. Amen.