Indelible life lessons: My dad worked for the national church, which meant that he wasn’t serving a congregation. So on occasion, he would do “supply preaching,” preach at a church without a pastor, or, preach at a congregation that wanted to learn more about what the national church was doing.

You probably don’t know this, but there are as many Lutheran churches in eastern PA as there are in Minnesota, flung out around small towns, into coal country, and into the rural areas of the Pennsylvania Dutch… (Another lesson: Pennsylvania Dutch was a corruption of “PA Deutsch,” or German. They weren’t Dutch at all…)

As a child, my dad would take me on these trips, and I loved them: it meant time alone with my busy father, as we would get up very early in the morning and head off on the long drive. It meant standing in the back as he (and I) shook hands with people as they left, and it meant stopping for lunch on the drive home. Everything about it was wonderful.

Until the Saturday that he announced that my brother Jeff was old enough to go, that he was taking him (and not me) the next day, and that from now on, I would have to take turns…

I was outraged, sad, heartbroken- a range of emotions… I sulked through the evening, refused to speak to anyone… Dad tried to explain, but I wanted none of it. I told him “you don’t love me anymore…” And when he said, “Just because I love Jeff, too, doesn’t mean I love you less,” I simply didn’t understand…

Now I start with that this morning, as we enter week 2 of our series “God is/n’t,” where we are discussing the attributes of God- what God is, or isn’t- that we find in the Bible. So often, we define God through the way we behave; we expect God to be like us, to be on our side, to the exclusion of others…

Last week, we discussed what it means to see that God is “dialed in,” as we looked at the marvelous story in Genesis 2.

We saw both how God was so focused on the needs of the human that God had created that God knew the man needed a helper as his partner, AND that it was important to engage the man in the process of defining just what that meant…

Today, we’ll have a look at the God who “isn’t what you’d expect…” And we have as our text the second half of one of the best stories in the Hebrew Scriptures.

And to best do that, I’ll quickly summarize the first half of the story: Jonah, son of Amitai, was sent by God to Ninevah, to “cry against it,” because of the city’s wickedness. Jonah wants nothing to do with this, and he sets out from the port of Joppa in the exact opposite direction- to Tarshish, which was thought to be in southern Spain.

God wants Jonah, though, and though Jonah runs, he can’t hide… A storm comes up, and while the seasoned sailors panic, Jonah sleeps in the hold. The captain wakes him, and asks him to pray…

Jonah tells the crew that storm is on account of him, and asks them to pitch him into the water… They refuse- they try and row the ship back to land, but they cannot; the storm worsens.

These gentiles/unbelievers actually pray to God to not hold Jonah’s death against them, and then, in desperation, pitch him into the water. The storm immediately calms, and the crew offers sacrifices- they worship God!

God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah- to save him from drowning- and gives Jonah three days and nights to ponder what he should do on the bottom of the sea. And it is in the belly of the fish, that Jonah rethinks his calling, and reaches out to God for help… You might say that “when you hit bottom, look up!”

There’s no place so awful that you can’t reach out for God’s help!

God responds to Jonah’s pleas, and the fish vomits Jonah out on to dry land- presumably somewhere around Joppa…

Quick interlude: so who was Jonah?

In the Bible, Jonah was a counselor to the King of Israel, Jeroboam II. Jeroboam was the last successful ruler of the north, in the 8th Century BC… If you read 2 Kings, you will see that Jeroboam did “evil in the sight of the Lord…” Remember that Israel had been divided into two kingdoms after Solomon’s death- the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

Remember, too, that the histories of Israel were written by the folks in the southern kingdom, so that, by definition, the northern Kingdom ALWAYS did what was evil… And chief among the evil was their failure to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem- which they were not allowed to do…

Just thirty years after Jeroboam II, the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom, and dispersed the residents across their empire. Those would be the “lost tribes” of Israel…

Jonah, as a book is very different than the rest of the prophets in the Bible- there are no oracles, or sermons, which were normally very specific- Amos preached in the north, for example: I hate your burnt offerings, your worship when you trample on the poor! Jonah is a story, and a tight one- it is not a collection of sermons!

And, there are some other strange things: The sailors are devout, good people, even though they are foreigners. They truly desire to do the right thing with Jonah, and are converted, apparently, when the storm calms.

Then, Assyria was the ascending power in the days of Jeroboam. And yet, there is no mention of the name of the Assyrian King. Neither is there is mention of the specific sins of the Assyrians. Nor is there any citing of Jonah as a prophet, and his mission; he is a counselor to the king, and apparently a very good one…

So, we’re not talking history as we understand it. It’s far more likely that Jonah’s name was ascribed to the story, just as Job’s name was connected to the book in the Bible that bears his name: there’s enough information to tag both of them as important characters in history that people would recognize, but that’s about it.

It’s a leap to claim it as literal history- and you miss the point if you try and argue that… Everyone still with me?

Back to our story: Jonah’s on the beach; we hope he has cleaned up some… I love the first line: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” Jonah gets to try again…

Aren’t you glad we serve a God who gives us second chance- third chance- a multitude of chances to respond to God’s call, God’s love… It is built into the nature of God to reach out to God’s creation with continuing chances to heed God’s call- to do God’s work.

It’s not a “one and done thing…” God doesn’t say to Jonah, and God doesn’t say to you and me, “you had your chance; now you’re done…”

So Jonah gets to this enormous city- three days walk across, and shouts out God’s judgement: “forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Two amazing things happen!

First of all, unlike the rest of the Hebrew prophets in the Bible, Jonah is not arrested, killed, or kicked out of town. Imagine a stranger strolling through Minneapolis, announcing the judgement of a god we don’t know…

“Cthulhu’s judgement is at hand!” At the very least, the stranger would be taken in for a check-up…

And then, even more remarkably, the people all the way up to the king, listen to Jonah! They repent! They show mourning for their sins, they don sackcloth and ashes, traditional symbols of sorrow and grief. They even put sackcloth on their animals, in hopes that God will forgive them; that God will turn from God’s righteous anger, and forgo the punishment they so richly deserve…

Sure enough, God does! And Jonah goes through the roof! “See, this is why I fled; I knew that you were a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…”

Utter nonsense: he fled because he was terrified of what would happen to him if preached judgment to Nineveh. And he’s furious, because in his understanding of God, the Ninevites deserve everything they have coming to them. How in the world can God display “steadfast love” a very particular formulation in Hebrew, referring to the covenant God made with Israel to people who aren’t part of the family?

And now, we begin to get a feel for just when Jonah began circulating… After the exile, when the leaders of Judah returned home, with Nehemiah and Ezra leading them, they rebuilt the walls around the City of Jerusalem- signifying that the City was once again intact, and they rebuilt the Temple, signifying that God had returned…

They also insisted that if those who had not gone into exile wanted to be a part of the new civic and religious order, they were going to have to follow the Law of Moses in a draconian way, and leave the husbands and wives who weren’t ethnic Jews… They would have to decide whether family or God was more important…

And here is a story that tells everyone who hears it that God’s love is not what they expect: it’s not about getting the rules right. And it’s not just for the family, it’s for the human family- for all people, whether they are ethnically connected, or not!

Just like Ruth, which began circulating around the same time- reminding the “ethnically pure remnant” that the most famous king in Israel’s history, David, had a Moabite great-grandma… The hated, unclean, dirty, impure Moabites could be used by God in the story of Ruth. The hated, unclean people of Nineveh could be used by God, and could be loved by God, in Jonah…

And the story of Jonah ends with an extraordinarily patient God illustrating how He works, in a very personal way: Jonah makes a booth where he can sit and watch what happens to the city- maybe he is still hoping God will squash them… (Isn’t that something you have done- boy, that person, those people deserve bad things! I have, I confess…)

And God makes a bush grow over Jonah’s head for shade in the hot temperatures, and Jonah delights in it. But the next day, God sends a worm to attack the bush, which then dies, and exposes Jonah to the hot sun and scorching breeze…Jonah wants to die again…

God asks “is it right to be angry about the bush?” Jonah walks right into it: “Yes, angry enough to die…

And the Lord says to him, “You’re concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that Great city where there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals???

And the story ends with that question. And Jonah- and you and I- know the answer to that question, don’t we? Let me phrase it this way: “If God doesn’t care about them, maybe God doesn’t care about us…” Let’s be very careful with this whole “chosen people” thing, whether we are fifth century BC Jews or 21st century American Christians…

If it didn’t play out for the actual chosen people- the Jews- in the Bible, why in the world would we think we could claim that kind of exclusivity today???

Because God isn’t what we expect- and that’s a wonderful thing! We see in the Story of Jonah a pre-figuring of the gift of Jesus- a God who comes to us and invites us to follow. Who in his life, death and resurrection, shows us, not tells us, that his love is for all people- whether we think they are worthy or not! A love that can never be taken away- that there is no place you or I can go where Jesus hasn’t already been!

We see in Jonah that we have a God who is patient beyond compare, and will teach us to follow…

We have a God who offers all of us a second chance- a third- a fourth chance and on and on…

And, we have a God who loves all of God’s creation- Iranians, Indians, Russians, Syrians, Nigerians, and on and on…

It’s not a zero-sum game, as much as we try and make it into one…

It took me awhile to wrap my head around that as a little boy- that my father’s love for my brother- or my sister- or my baby brother yet to arrive- had nothing to do with his love for me. There was more than enough love to go around- and it had nothing to do with who went with him during supply preaching. That was more a matter of learning to share…

That was, I pray, the lesson that Jonah finally learned from God as he sat on the hillside, looking down over Nineveh… Will you pray with me, please.

Loving God, we thank you that you are not what we expect- or what we deserve, but instead, are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Let us see the world, and the people in it, as you do- worthy to be seen as your children, and our brothers and sisters. We ask this in Jesus’ Name, and for his sake. Amen!