We ended our exploration of the book of Jonah by asking the question, “what if God is really like that?” That seems to be the question that scared the heck out of the prophet…and me, too, on a lot of days.
Here’s a little question for you all to consider when you’re waiting for the Super Bowl to begin…What is the greatest television show of all time? According to TV Guide, it’s the most popular show of the 1990’s, Seinfeld. One of the recurring themes on that show, which was never really explained, was Jerry’s hatred of his neighbor, Newman. Do you remember scenes where Jerry would greet his nemesis with those two little words, “Hello, Newman”?
After the show ended, Seinfeld did a stand-up program in which he responded to questions from the audience. One visitor asked him to say, “Hello, Newman”. The comic answered by saying that he couldn’t just come out and simply say those words. Seinfeld said that he would “stare into his beady little eyes, because if you looked into those eyes you could see all the evil that has ever taken place, and when you see that, then you say, ‘Hello, Newman’.”
I thought of that exchange last week as we listened to Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh. He didn’t want to go there in the first place, and God finally dragged him there so that he could deliver the Word of the Lord. After a lot of drama, Jonah utters five simple words in Hebrew, and the town goes wild. People repent. They turn to the Lord. Revival comes to Nineveh! They listen! God saves Nineveh.
Do you remember how Jonah responded in chapter two, where God saved Jonah from the great fish? He was ecstatic, wasn’t he? He composed a psalm for the occasion, and he ended it by blurting out Yeshuata LeYHWH – “deliverance belongs to the Lord!” In Jonah’s own life story, God acted in grace towards someone who was undeserving, and Jonah was delirious with thanks and liberal in his use of amazing adjectives to describe God. But when God saves Nineveh, it’s a different story. Jonah barely spits the words out. “Oh, I know you, God. That’s right. You are so gracious…so merciful… slow to anger, abounding in love, ready to relent from punishment…” You see, when these attributes were focused on Jonah, Jonah loved them. But now that they are directed towards the ones for whom Jonah has learned to nurture hatred, well, he names these qualities of God as if they are flaws in the Divine character. “Do you wanna know what’s wrong with you, God? You are so gracious…so merciful…so abounding in love…”
After throwing a tantrum in the middle of the city that God has decided to save, the prophet storms out of town, saying essentially, “Look, if God’s love includes the Ninevites, I want out. I’d rather die than work with a God who cares about those people.”
Isn’t that so human! As if God’s love is somehow limited. If God gives his love to you, then there is less of it for me. Jonah sounds like an older sibling, hearing that mom is going to have another child, who fears that any change of family structure will result in less time and energy for himself. There’s only so much love, so much attention, so much forgiveness… and if he’s giving it to them, then he might take it away from me.
What if it’s true?
What if God really does love them? What if God loves Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers?
I’m not saying that God is ready to sign off on all the things that Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers DO, but what if he actually loves them?
What if God is bigger than I imagine or allow God to be? Isn’t that the key question in Jonah 4?
I’d like to try something. I know that not everyone can do this, but I’ve been professionally trained. After all, I was an English major at college. Let’s look at the verbs in this passage. Verse 6: God appointed a plant to grow and give shade to Jonah as he sulked. Verse 7: God appointed a worm to eat the root of the plant. Verse 8: God appointed a wind to come and beat down on Jonah. That reminds me of chapter 1 verse 17, where God appointed a great fish to come and swallow up the prophet, or even earlier in the book where God commanded the storm.
All through this little story, God’s power is evident, isn’t it? God is in control of everything! It’s ironic to me that God commands the sea and the storm, the fish, the wind, the worm, and the plant – but God calls to Jonah. God seems to be in charge of everything…except the prophet who is supposed to carry God’s word to the world. God loves Jonah enough to allow Jonah his disobedience and his tantrums. And it would appear that Jonah evidently expects that kind of love from God – Jonah expects that God will deal with him, even in the midst of his sin and his brokenness and his disobedience.
Yet it would appear as though for the life of him, Jonah cannot begin to wrap his head around the idea that God would care for them in the midst of their sin and brokenness and disobedience.
As I said, I’m an English Major. A trained professional. So let me ask you to leave the verbs and look at the punctuation. So far as I can tell, Jonah is one of only two books in the entire Bible that end with a question. If you were to flip back a hundred pages or so in your bibles, you’d find the little book of Lamentations, which was written to describe the ways that God’s people felt about and dealt with the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC – about 150 years before Jonah is said to have taken place. In Lamentations, God’s people, well, lament the destruction of Jerusalem, the holy city. They sense the loss of their very identity, and the book ends with God’s people and God’s prophet Jeremiah asking God, “Have you utterly rejected us? Are you angry with us?”
And the answer to those questions, as asked by the people of God, is, of course, “No! God has not rejected us. We are God’s people still. God loves us!” Lamentations ends with us asking God whether God still loves us. And we know the answer.
The book of Jonah ends with God asking us, “Can’t I love them too?”
It occurs to me that along with the Israelites, we are ready to claim with certainty that God does love us, that God will not forsake us, and that God will always be there for us. Amen.
But what if in addition to loving us that way, God has decided to love them that way, too?
Here’s what I’d like you to do this morning. Think about the person, or the group of people, that you’d most likely have to grit your teeth and say, “Hello, Newman” to. Think of the person or the people who, if they walked in the room right now, you’d want to get up and walk out as quickly as possible. I’m thinking that this is probably a person or a group who has offended, scared, angered, or stolen from you. Can you think of anyone, or any category of people, for whom you feel that kind of anger or loathing or contempt?
“Oh, great. Now Pastor Dave wants us to love the Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers. Pastor Dave wants me to love the man that beats me, the mother that abandoned me, or the lover that threw me under the bus.”
Relax. Pastor Dave is not asking you to do that. No, no, no. Nothing of the kind. Jesus might want to speak with you about that, but I’m not saying anything about that this morning.
I am asking you to ask God for a vision in which you see that GOD might have a way to love these people. Ask God to help you see that GOD might have a claim on their hearts and lives.
And then, I’d like to ask you to ask God for a glimpse into God’s heart – the bigness, the enormity, the immensity of God’s heart – the heart that is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
And if God lets you peek into that heart, I have a hunch that you’ll be able to see, pretty clearly, that God is crazy about you. That God is calling to you. That God has a claim on your life. And if you look deeply enough into the heart of God, you will also see that God’s love for someone else cannot ever, ever, ever diminish God’s love for you.
Listen, I’m not saying that God is telling you to stay with the man who hits you or to keep taking crap from the woman whose habits are killing your children.
But I am asking you to ask God to see that one, or those people, the way that God sees them.
I have a hunch that if I can come to see the Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers the way that God sees them, then I will find it harder to hate. If I see that in the heart of God, I might learn something about love.
I may wind up, as did the whale, the plant, the worm, and the storm, as being useful to God and to God’s purposes.
I may wind up, as Jonah did, with some questions.
Beloved, this is the word of the Lord: God wants us to let God be God. God is bigger than any of us can imagine. Oh, how I know that is true. May I – and may you – have the grace to live that way. Thanks be to God! Amen.