Dear sisters and brothers, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
There’s something almost stupefyingly obvious about this week’s theme. Of course God isn’t what you’d expect. God is God. We’re not. God defies expectations, that is sort an essential characteristic of God. Someone must have been having an off day when they “creatively” came up with this weeks title. That someone is of course me.
By all indications, in this big fish story, God is exactly the God that Jonah expects. As we pick up reading this short, but action packed book of the bible today, Jonah has just been vomited onto dry land after spending three nights in the belly of a giant fish.
God then reissues the call to Jonah. God’s says again, go to Nineveh, the great city, and deliver a message.
This time, instead of fleeing to the west, Jonah reluctantly goes east. Begrudgingly he heads to the capital of the evil empire, to Nineveh, the home of the people that violently and ruthlessly ruled the region. Jonah goes to preach, he delivers a message of destruction, and shockingly the people repent. From the king on down the people and the animals all turn to God in the hopes that they might be forgiven.
And now Jonah is irate. The Hebrew literally says that Jonah’s nostrils are burning. It’s more than displeasure, as the NRSV and the NIV translate it, Jonah is seething.
And why? Because as Jonah said,
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah is angry because God is who Jonah thought God was, who he expected God to be, for him, for his people. But not for them.
Not for them. Not for the Assyrians. Those people deserve punishment, not mercy.
And they did. The Assyrian empire was responsible for destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel, for tormenting the southern kingdom of Judah. When they sacked a city they flayed some of the inhabitants alive to show off their power, and intimate those that would oppose them.
So for those people to receive mercy, for them to be forgiven, it’s unthinkable. It doesn’t make sense. How can the God of Israel, the God who chose these people, Jonah’s people, forgive those people?
How could God love those people? What kind of God is this?
We do well to linger with that question for a moment. It is after all at the root of our discussion over the course of these seven weeks as we are sharing this sermon series entitled God Is(n’t). Together we are paying attention to two school of thinking when it comes to speaking about God. One that seeks to make claims about who God is and one that seeks understanding by talking about who God is not.
Last we Pastor Chris spoke out here about how God is dialed in, God is in tune with what is going on in the lives of God’s people. This week we see a bit of that again, as God weathers some difficult and uncomfortable conversation with Jonah, and yet is unwilling to give up on the relationship, even though it’s fraught with challenges.
This week we have this claim that God isn’t what you or I would expect. I don’t know about you but I can identify with Jonah. I, like Jonah, can get a little angry when God doesn’t meet my expectations. If I’m honest, I can get angry, frustrated and anxious by the whims of God’s mercy. Or put it another way, I’m happy to have God be gracious toward me, but I have a harder time with God forgiving someone else. And that’s if they ask for forgiveness.
What gets really tricky, in this story at least, is what is God’s motivation for mercy. Of course the entire city of Nineveh does repent, they put on ashes and sackcloth and fast, but God doesn’t really mention that in his conversation with Jonah as Jonah sits outside the city sulking and stewing in his anger. What God does speak about is his concern for Nineveh, “that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
It seems that God is merciful to Nineveh simply because it exists. Because God made it.
Phyllis Trible, a wonderful Old Testament scholar notes,
Nineveh evoke pity, not because it turned from evil, but according to its size, its ignorance, and its animals. As a move of grace, Yahweh’s last speech bodes well for Nineveh and for Jonah. But is not this move also an act of caprice?
At the conclusion of this story the why of God’s mercy hangs in the air. God says,
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
As the hearer of this story we are invited to consider what position we will take in response to a grace that doesn’t conform to our own standards, our own conceptions of what is right, what is fair, or even what is safe.
There’s risk here. And yet, God invites Jonah into sharing that risk, into beginning to see the world as God does. As seeing even the greatest, most dangerous city, as one worth saving, not through acts of compulsion or power but mercy and love.
This past week there’s been a lot of conversation about skittles on social media and in the news. Earlier in the week, Donald Trump Jr, posted a picture on twitter with the following words posted across,
“If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
As you might imagine there have been all kinds of reactions to this tweet, and the responses have been wide ranging, from complete and total agreement to shock and outrage. The company that makes skittles has tried their best to distance themselves, saying, “Skittles are candy; refugees are people. It’s an inappropriate analogy. We respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing.”
There are never as many one for one analogies between scripture and our lives today as we might like. As people of faith we have to try and listen deeply to God and God’s word as we try and discern how the Spirit is calling us to live.
We live and a time when the voices of people who are hurting are amplified by the technology that pervades our culture. In almost real time we see startling images of those who suffer and those who perpetrate suffering. We see little boys loaded in ambulances and washed up onto beaches. We see grown men in our country whose lives are cut short because of miscommunication and deep seated misunderstanding.
Like Jonah, I find myself sitting on the outside, waiting and watching to see what will happen to the great city. And like Jonah, I hear God’s voice saying, “And should I not be concerned about that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons, and also many animals?”
And I wonder, who am I to stand in the way of God’s unexpected and surprising mercy, grace and love?
 Trible, p. 525 – New Interpreters Bible Commentary Volume VII