Friday, September 19, 2008

Spoiled Rotten? (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

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 The National Enquirer.

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:

Jonah 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.

“Oh, 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.

A 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.

Jonah 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’.

But 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.

“You’re 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.

Let ’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.

Good news.

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