God loves even our enemies, darn it. In God’s care, they have an opportunity to move closer to God. God sends us to the places and the people we call unworthy, and God is insistent that we go there, even when we don’t want to. These are interesting truths for the Sunday after a bitter election in the U.S. By Sunday, we may or may not have firm election results, particularly in the race for President. We will surely still have lingering bitterness, court challenges and accusations of cheating. We will still have harsh divides, no matter who wins the Presidential election. Into our season of discord comes this word from scripture about God’s care for the people we despise.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
God shows a long pattern of concern for the people of Nineveh, calling Jonah to go to them, and giving time for them to hear the message and to repent. When Jonah is delayed, God waits. Finally Jonah goes, and then everyone from the people to the king hear God’s message is displeasure. When they lament, and promise to change, God seems a little surprised. Here again, as God has done with Abraham and Moses, God changes the divine mind, and chooses mercy.
The interaction between God and Jonah reminds me of a conversation between a stubborn fifth grader and a patient parent. God gives Jonah a second chance to do what he’s supposed to do, and when Jonah whines about the results, God sends an object lesson. God alternates between understanding and tough love, until Jonah can finally see a different point of view. God reminds Jonah of his own pettiness, and forces him to see his lack of compassion, even though Jonah has received his own dose of God’s mercy.
Coming at the end of the election week in the U.S., the text is an uncomfortable nudge toward concern for our enemies. What are we to make of God’s love for Nineveh, especially when they repent and start to be more faithful to God than Jonah seems to be?
There’s a playfulness to God in this story, even as God is trying to deliver a serious message to both Jonah and the people of Nineveh. God uses the waves, a shrub, a worm and the wind to convey messages, and to advance the divine plans. The sermon might look at the tools God uses to move us. Conversations? Job losses or gains? The way God works through the physical challenges we face?
The sermon might take up the challenge of exploring what we owe the people we despise. Even though we know that God must care for them, it’s hard to believe that God loves them as much as God loves us. Who are our Ninevites? How do we come to see them with compassion, especially when they are so very difficult?
Or the sermon might explore the times when we are spiritually pouty, like Jonah is here. What happens when we don’t get our way, and need to withdraw and sulk for a while? Can there be a place for unhappiness in our spiritual lives, and what do we do with it?
In the Working Preacher commentary, Roger Nam notes, “Jonah identifies himself with an ethnic marker. The use of designating an individual as a “Hebrew” is quite rare in the Old Testament, and first used with Abraham (Genesis 14:13) and then with Joseph (Genesis 39:14, 17; 41:12), both of whom were similarly called to a long journey. The designation is significant in considering God’s call to send a Hebrew to the Ninevites.” The sermon might explore what kind of journey God is calling us on, as spiritual descendants of these people. We’re not physically traveling much right now, and yet there are other, inward journeys. Where is God calling us out of one mental or spiritual state, and into another?
Where are your thoughts taking you this Sunday? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. She’s trying to fit in as much outdoor fun as possible before the cold weather comes. The image above is from Pexels, by Lianne Dipp.
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