I preached this sermon on September 18.
It happened quickly. It happened on F@ceb00k. (Doesn’t everything these days?) It was just a day or two after the flood, and the internet was filled with images—photographs, videos—all depicting the devastation, the parking lots and intersections turned into lakes, the standing water chest high on the first floors of houses, the stunned looks on the faces of the people. And there it happened, in the comments under one particular photo, a shocking aerial view of downtown Binghamton. A woman wrote, “God sure is trying to send some people a message, don’t you think? I wonder if they got it?” She followed up her comment with a little heart.
And that comment, honestly, felt like a little kick to the heart. I was stunned that someone could look upon the scenes of our lives these past two weeks and say something so callous, so hateful. But the woman was saying something I’ve heard several times recently, each time in response to a natural disaster—the earthquake, the hurricane, and now the flood. On each of those occasions, someone expressed the opinion that this was God’s doing, and God is angry.
Other people in the F@ceb00k community very quickly took the woman to task for her words. And, while I was glad that the prevailing attitude in that forum was one of compassion for the flood victims, the entire episode left me feeling uneasy. Why are some people quick to assume, when disaster strikes, that the victims are sinners in the hands of an angry God? Do we believe that God’s anger is the impetus behind all the bad things that happen to us? Is God’s anger the reason for the rain? I think today’s passage from the book of the prophet Jonah has something to add to this discussion.
Most of us know at least a little about Jonah, whether we grew up attending a church or not. When they were very young my children were involved in a Christian education program designed to give them a hands-on experience of faith and church—acting out bible stories with little wooden figurines, “playing” with items like candles, communion plates, etc. I remember looking through the curriculum and sensing that its creators were really on to something… church for children is so often about what they can’t do, what they are prohibited from doing. How refreshing to find a program that invited and encouraged the very young to have ownership of their spiritual home. I remember leafing through the materials and laughing out loud at the description of Jonah. Jonah was the Backwards Prophet. When God says “Go right,” Jonah goes left. When God says go east, Jonah goes west (quite literally).
Truth be told, all the stuff for which Jonah is famous (or infamous) happens in chapters 1 and 2 of this tiny book from the Minor Prophets. His famous reluctance to do what God tells him to do. God’s desire to get Jonah’s attention, causing the storm that gets him thrown overboard like a case of rotten fruit. And of course, there is the matter of his languishing in the belly of the fish for three days. We come upon Jonah after his fishy sojourn, when he is more—shall we say receptive?—to God’s commands. As chapter three begins, God says, “Go to Nineveh,” and instead of lighting out for parts unknown, Jonah finally obeys. He has become, as my grandmother would have said, “biddable.” What follows is a tale full of exaggeration (I’m not sure it would take three days to walk across the 5 boroughs of New York City); a tale full of absurdity (can you say, livestock dressed in sackcloth?) and, ultimately, a tale that has the outcome God is seeking.
Make no mistake. God wants the people of Nineveh to repent. “Their wickedness has come up before me,” God says, and one gets the image of the divine nose wrinkling with disgust at some foul stench. But God, here, is like nothing so much as a parent who dreads doling out punishment to her children, and who does everything she can do to avoid it.
In the book of Jonah, God reminds me powerfully of one particular episode and one particular character from “Desperate Housewives.” For you uninitiated, Lynnette Scavo is the woman who, at the outset of the series, is drowning in the mayhem of life with four children under the age of six. When we meet her, Lynnette is longing to return to corporate America, a place where she was actually able to exercise some power and control over her life. That is most dramatically not her experience as a mother of young children. In one early episode Lynnette has to cope with the embarrassment of knowing that her three riotous boys have stolen from a neighbor, and they must be punished.
In this scene, the boys are sitting at a table. Their mother stands across from them, looking down sternly. Laid out on the table are implements of torture—that is to say, a hairbrush, a spatula, a “hickory switch,” improbably cut from some tree in their Southern California suburb. She then enumerates in disturbing detail how much pain will be inflicted by each item when it is used for the inevitable spanking. The boys protest loudly. Lynnette is stern and immovable.
"Too late. You STOLE. And then you LIED. Even worse, you made me look bad in front of Mrs. McCluskey, who you know is Mommy's sworn enemy." So, she says, “Pick your poison.” Gesturing to the aforementioned instruments of torture: "How about a belt? It's a classic." She runs through the rest of the choices, as the boys continue to wail that they don't want to be spanked. Lynnette reminds them that, "thieves get spanked, that's just the way it works." Unless! Unless they swear never to steal again and write Mrs. McCluskey a nice letter of apology.[i]
Of course, the boys agree to the plea bargain. And of course, they are not spanked. Do you know why? Not because they don’t deserve punishment of some kind—they certainly do. They are not spanked because their mom doesn’t want to spank them. They are not spanked because she cannot bear to make them suffer. And so she devises her own form of psychological warfare to ensure that the boys will escape their dreaded fate. The mother protects her beloved children from her own wrath.
Just like God in the book of Jonah. It is hard to see the Almighty in the story of Jonah as anything except an anguished deity who dreads punishing the evil deeds of the people of Nineveh. The Ninevite king asks, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” But what he doesn’t understand is that God is already doing absolutely everything in God’s power in order to avoid having to carry out the sentence. God has appointed a prophet and given the wicked a chance to reform themselves. And on the strength of just one pronouncement, we have a turnaround so startling that, yes, even the cattle are quickly dressed in penitents’ clothes. God chuckles. And then God relents, because that’s who God is. Just as Jonah grumbles: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” Jonah is so mad he just wants to die. The world makes more sense to Jonah if God punishes the wicked, period. He doesn’t want to envision any other possibility.
But Jonah, thanks be to God, is not God. What we need to understand is that God is far less like a furious dictator and far more like a wounded lover. God longs for the people to repent, and beneath that longing is God’s desire that the people would love God, and recognize and appreciate God’s love for them. That they would simply wake up to the fact that God is there, caring for them, loving them, cheering them on to new and better life. When we become convinced of the fact that we are “bathed in [God’s] encircling kindness”[ii], there is no question of condemnation. There is only grace.
So Jonah is royally ticked that his preaching worked and the people are saved. And God pulls a splendid little practical joke on him, the bush growing up, the bush being eaten by the worm, and then God’s unassailable logic, “You cared more about that bush than about 120,000 people. AND animals. You silly, silly man.”
My answer to the woman on Facebook is much the same as the comments of the others who responded to her: God is not the reason for the rain, except insofar as God created a universe and a world that are governed by natural laws. God is not vengeance personified. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God is love. We truly are surrounded by God’s encircling kindness. Indeed, our only comfort, in life and in death, in storm and in flood, is that we belong, not to ourselves, but to God, who loves us.
The final picture we have of Jonah is, in itself, an object lesson in how not to experience the love of God. I have an image of him, all curled in upon himself, head down, arms folded, eyes squinting shut. Exactly the opposite of how we are invited to come to God—open. Hearts open to God’s healing touch; arms open to God’s loving embrace; eyes open to God’s wonders, ever unfolding. By all means, have a look at the backwards prophet. And then, do just the opposite of everything he does. Open yourself to God. That’s all God really wants. That’s all we really need. Thanks be to God. Amen.