A repeat of a sermon from several years ago as the same verse comes up in the lectionary and I work with the same ideas. Apparently God still has something to say to me in this passage.
The trendy word schadenfreude refers to the pleasure someone
takes in someone else’s misery. It’s German. In English, we call it
"epicaricacy," or one of the Real Housewives shows.
It’s also what powers Jonah’s speech here as we get to the end of his story. We know a little bit about him, but let’s recap:
the prophet hears God’s call to warn wicked Nineveh of its impending
destruction. He responds by boarding a boat for Tarshish. It would be
like a modern-day prophet who lived in New York City being told to warn
Las Vegas and taking a boat to Australia that leaves from Miami. In
other words, Jonah plans to get as much out there between him and
Nineveh as he can.
During the voyage, a severe storm
comes up which the ship won’t survive. Nobody seems to know what to do –
well, nobody but Jonah, who might have an explanation as to the storm’s
cause but doesn’t share it with anyone. The sailors cast lots to find
out what the problem is and eventually the lot lands with Jonah.
yeah, funny story!” the prophet says and explains he’s running away
from God’s call. If you thought a prophet might say, “OK, God, I give,”
or maybe, “Lord, if you will spare these innocent folks I will head for
Nineveh the moment we reach the shore,” then you’ve never met Jonah. He
lets the sailors make another try for land, but they can’t overpower
this divinely-powered storm. Now Jonah does have an idea. “Toss me
over,” he says. The sailors do and the sea calms.
giant fish swallows Jonah. He sits in the fish’s stomach for three days –
and if you think about it, the only kind of air anyplace inside the
alimentary canal is what we take Pepto-Bismol for, which means Jonah
spends three days inside a giant fish burp. After three days of this, it
occurs to him to pray. Like many of us, he prays quoting some of the
prayers and songs he knows. My Old Testament professor in seminary
pointed out the different psalms and songs Jonah quoted, weaving them
together in a lament about how bad he had it.
When Jonah finished, my professor said, the fish threw up. His sympathies were with the fish.
now finds himself near Nineveh, and when God calls again he decides
he’ll answer. Nineveh the city stretches so far a person takes three
days to walk across it, which makes the hotel chains like it very much.
Jonah ambles in about a third of the way and says five words in Hebrew.
He did raise his voice, and that may have been because nobody would get
near him since, as far as the story we have says, he hasn’t taken a bath
since leaving the fish.
The Ninevites speak a language
close to Hebrew but not exactly, but in any event, this five-word
warning – “In forty days Nineveh will be wiped out” – sparks an amazing
revival among people who the day before this wouldn’t have given two
figs for what the God of some no-account wide spot in the road nation
down south said. Everybody repents of their sins. Everybody, from the
king on down to the livestock, vows to change their ways in the hope God
will not destroy them.
God decides exactly that and it
ticks Jonah off mightily. Here we learn he didn’t run away because he
was scared. He knew that if he warned the people and they listened God
wouldn’t destroy them. Remember Ezekiel being unsure if the people would
listen to his harsh message? Jonah fumes because he knew the people
would listen to what God said through him and it would work.
After all of this mess, his one hope was that he would at least get to see the wicked get what’s coming to them. He could at least enjoy a good ol’ Sodom-and-Gomorrah, fire-from-the-sky style hiney-whuppin’.
noooooo, God has to go and be all Mr. Lovingkindness Mercy Forgiveness
and now Jonah can’t even enjoy that. To top it off, his shade tree got
eaten by a worm.
“You’re mad?” God asks.
“You bet I am! Mad enough to die right now!” Tops the list of dumb things to say to God, I believe.
mad because this bush died, and you don’t think I should pay attention
to this huge city and all its people and let them off the hook when they
turn to me?” The conversation kind of grinds to a halt, which is
probably good for Jonah.
Who’s Jonah today? Well, we
probably all know some people in our churches who just don’t seem happy
unless they or someone is talking about someone else going to hell.
’em have it, Lord! Give ’em what they got comin’! Bring up the idea
that God may forgive those people and be met with some shock or some
dismay. I can’t say I’ve never done it; I’ve made the joke that if I get
to the heavenly city and meet this or that famous criminal or
ne’er-do-well of history, the first words out of my mouth will be,
“Well, there goes the neighborhood.”
But what Jonah
needed to understand and what we all probably need to understand is that
God’s in the business of spoiling us, where “spoiling” means giving us
way, way more than we ought to get. In fact, giving us the exact
opposite of what we’ve earned, what we’ve all “earned,” to use
the word, by our sin. We’re all separated from God, and the degree of
separation is unimportant. That separation means death, but a loving God
decided on life, and decided to give that to us instead.
We’re spoiled, all right. Spoiled un-rotten.