January 24th, 2021: Rev Marilu Thomas, “The Mirror of Fear”

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Our scripture today in Jonah amazingly speaks to us through the ages today. Jonah and the Whale is an iconic story that people who have never been  know the basic narrative. It’s a short book- only four chapters and filled with imagery and metaphors that are very relevant to us today. It is, however, about so much more than a big fish. It’s about us. You and me.

A quick review. There was a prophet named Jonah who didn’t want to do what God was telling him to do, so he ran away on a boat as far as he could get from God’s plan. There was a terrible storm and the sailors on the boat asked Jonah if he knew why. Jonah tells them, “Throw me overboard into the sea. Then the storm will stop.” The pagan sailors realized he was running away from God and prayed, “You are God. Do what you think is best,” and threw him overboard. God assigned a big fish to swallow Jonah for three days and nights- obvious symbolism there. In the chapter just before the one in our lectionary today, Jonah confesses to needing help, “I’ll do what I promised to do! Salvation belongs to God.” And so, God tries again. How about now, Jonah? And so, Jonah goes to Nineveh, his least favorite people on the planet, and gives them God’s message to repent. And they do—even the cows- it says!

The truth is Jonah absolutely hates the Ninevites and he yells at God for forgiving them, saying, “I knew it! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!” 

What would make a person behave like this? Bitter? Angry? Rageful? Unable to see the good in others? Turning a deaf ear to God’s command to love our enemies? Preferring running away to doing it God’s way? What makes humans like us act like that? 

It’s something we have in spades these days—fear. Alcoholics Anonymous calls fear “an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. It set in motion trains of circumstances which brought about misfortune we didn’t think we deserved.” Jonah is afraid that his bitterest enemies, the most violent society at that time, would not be punished by God. He felt God was not doing his job correctly. He wanted God to hate whom he hated because he felt justified. These Ninevites were obviously unworthy of living or being offered any shot at repentance or forgiveness. 

To that end, Tim Mackie points out that the book of Jonah is a satire about us. This book holds up a mirror to the one who reads it by asking, “Are you ok with the fact that God loves your enemy?” And God’s question in Chapter 4 is addressed to us, “Is your anger justified?” In Jonah we see the worst parts of our own character magnified, which should generate humility and gratitude that God would love HIS enemies and put up with the Jonah in all of us.  

These two questions circle around believing ourselves justified in our anger and not being ok with God loving our enemies. Tim Keller says, “All sin has a storm attached,” like the storm in Jonah’s life.  If we think of the storm that self-centered fear starts in our relationships, this will make sense. The storm is the outcome of putting ourselves at the center of our lives without regard for the needs of others or the will of God. Placing anything above God puts us in a storm of confusion, self-pity, spiritual emptiness and tiresome rage. It’s easy to blame others for the tempests in our lives, but the storm is within us. The waves were calmed by giving Jonah over to God. Our hearts can truly only be calmed by giving ourselves, and others, over to God.

There is also an issue about deserving. Jonah does not believe that the Ninevites deserve to be saved or be given a chance to repent. Jonah is one of the only prophets to be sent to a pagan nation, instead of to the Hebrew nation, to preach repentance. The Ninevites were Assyrians and violent enemies of God’s chosen people.  They couldn’t possibly be deserving of God’s forgiveness no matter how much they repented.

Keller writes, “Sin always hardens the conscience, locks you in the prison of your own defensiveness and rationalizations and eats you up slowly from the inside.” We, like Jonah, project non-deserving on others because we fear that subconsciously we are undeserving of love and forgiveness. It starts to eat us up from the inside. But as St. Paul tells us in Romans 3, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” None of us deserve grace—that’s what makes it amazing. God pursued Jonah over and over again with amazing grace.

When I was young, I wondered why God cared if I loved my neighbor as long as I loved God. What has become clear to me is that God wants me to love my neighbor because the neighbor is God’s child and God wants all of his children to be loved. It is His Will for us. Jesus gave it as the summary of the law.

Does this mean that God doesn’t care that the Ninevites had been murderous and oppressive, like misbehaving children? God cares so much that he sends Jonah, the reluctant prophet, because he will be believed. He wants them to repent so that they may live. God never gives up on us no matter what we have done or left undone.

Which brings up Jonah’s nationalism. Tim Keller tells us, “Jonah’s particular national identity was more foundational to his self-worth than his role as a servant of the God of all nations… when Jonah refused a direct order to bring God’s message to the Ninevites, he was making a decision to put Israel’s national and political interests ahead of God’s will. To make your nation and race more important than God is by definition to make them into idols.” Rev. Keller hit me right in the gut. I had passed love of country into putting all my security in my country. In God we trust but we trust our country to God. Rector Paul Walker wrote in the weekly parish email, “I am also reminded that though we thank God for our nation, our primary allegiance is neither patriotic nor nationalistic. Instead, as St. Paul [preached to the Philippians], “Our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  

As Christians, we know what the Jonah story is pointing toward God’s rescue mission. Jesus speaks of himself as the ultimate Jonah in Matthew 12:41 saying, “something greater than Jonah is here.” The book of Jonah is a well-crafted prologue to the intervention of God into the world of darkness by coming to be among as Emmanuel, the Christ, who love our enemies, which includes ourselves. God loves us even when we are enemies to Him and his other children. Like Jonah, we are running from God’s will, intent on our own will in the world which keeps our wandering hearts in the storm. And like Jonah, we will find that our anger is not justified when compared with God’s great love for us to come as Jesus Christ to save us from ourselves. 

I would like to end with a prayer written by our Bishops to comfort us all during these days:

God of all ages, keep us mindful of the loving guidance you give us: we may not yet know all, but if we are guided by love and are instruments of God’s love, we honor you. We don’t know what is ahead, so our best path is to look for you path of love. We may not ever know the whole story, at least in our lifetimes—Jesus reminded us of that—but we do know this: you are love, You are eternal love. You created us in love to be sharers of love. This is our work for those who suffer, for those who are victims of injustice, for those who are hurting, for those who are confused. Guide us in this work so that we are reflections of the love that created us. Reorient us when we are mistaken, strengthen us when we are afraid, lift us up when we are tired. With love, always with love. Amen.

OR

I would like to end with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from Strength to Love

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzed life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumintes it.