Sermon for September 20th, 2020
At one point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching his disciples and he says to them:
Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.
Jesus was, of course, referring to his own death and resurrection. Jonah was three days in the fish and came back; Jesus will be three days in the grave and come back. So, in the early church, Jonah was often used as a symbol for Jesus. But Jesus also went on to say that: “something greater than Jonah is here,” and I think it is really important not to miss that, Jesus is far greater than Jonah, because although they were both gone for three days and came back, that is where the similarities end between Jesus and Jonah.
Because Jonah, is a jerk. Jonah is a jerk. If you didn’t pick up on that from our Old Testament excerpt this morning, then let me fill in for you some of the back story.
God sent Jonah to Ninevah to tell them that if they didn’t change their ways their destruction would soon be upon them. But Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t care about the people in Ninevah. They were making their own beds, so let them lie in them. Jonah turned and headed off in the opposite direction. He got on a boat and headed out to see. But God sent mighty winds and waves, that rocked the ship and almost destroyed it and everyone in it, but did Jonah care? No.
Jonah didn’t care that his disobedience was threatening the lives of his shipmates. He didn’t even want to help them row or bail water. He just decided to crawl down inside the hull of the ship and take a nap. He went to sleep while his shipmates where scrambling to save their lives. Oh and when they did wake him up, he was really reluctant to own up to the fact that it was his fault that God was rocking the ship. His shipmates, they immediately prayed to God and repented, but did Jonah? No.
Jonah didn’t start praying until he was tossed overboard and swallowed by a giant fish. When the fish spat Jonah up on shore a few days later, then he finally decided to go to Ninevah to do what God had told him to do in the first place. He goes there; he gives a very simple sermon about their coming destruction, and miraculously they all repent. They sit in sackcloth and ashes, they cry to God, they change their ways.
Now as a preacher, I can tell you that that is the miracle in this story. Forget about the giant fish. The miracle in this story is that a bunch of sinners heard one sermon and decided to change. But I’m not even gonna go there right now, let’s get back to Jonah.
Jonah preaches his sermon and he finds himself a nice spot just outside of town where he can watch the action. He is ready for some Sodom and Gomorrah type destruction. He wants to see some explosions and some divine justice coming down hard on these sinners. But what happens? God decides to forgive Ninevah. God decides not to destroy the city and all the people in it, and it makes Jonah so mad he wants to die. He wants to die because he didn’t get to see God punish some people that he thought needed punishing. He didn’t get to be an agent of God’s justice.
Jonah is a jerk. He doesn’t care about the Ninevites, never did. He doesn’t want what’s best for them. He doesn’t want God to forgive them. He didn’t want to see them turn, we wanted to watch them burn. And oh is he mad at God, when God doesn’t treat the Ninevites the way he thinks God should treat them. He thinks sinners should be punished, not forgiven. But what Jonah can’t see, is that the most hardened sinner in this entire story is himself. Jonah was shown forgiveness, given a second chance to follow God, a second chance at life, but Jonah didn’t want anyone else to get a second chance. In the end, what we see is that Jonah never cares for anyone but himself.
Jonah is a jerk and he is nothing like Jesus, because Jesus understands something that Jonah doesn’t: Jesus understands love. Jonah might love himself, but he certainly doesn’t love others. If you really love others, you want what is best for them. And if you really love someone else deeply, you will want what is best for them, even if it isn’t what is best for you. Probably the closest we get to that kind of love in this world is the way a parent usually loves a child. Good parents are often willing to suffer quite a lot to do what is best for their children. But there are other times when we see that kind of self-sacrificing love: between spouses, in the daily lives of soldiers and first-responders, even occasionally between complete strangers; we see love, love that isn’t concerned about what’s in it for me. That is the love that moves God to forgive, because God wants what is best for his children, he doesn’t have to destroy a village just to satisfy his pride, God would rather see them live. That is the love that caused God to be born among us as Jesus Christ. Was it best for him? No, he died on a cross. But it was best for us.
How then should people who proclaim to worship and follow this God that died on a cross for the sins of others, how should those people live? Should we be concerned that everyone gets what is coming to them? Should we at all times do what is best for us? Should we be looking out for number 1? Should we act like God’s judgment is for everyone else, but God’s mercy is just for us? Do we really want what is best for others? That is the real test of love. Do we really want what is best for someone else, even if it means that we don’t get what we think is our fair share?
You know what, let’s be honest, a lot of times we don’t. We don’t. Those early laborers in Jesus’s story in the gospel, they didn’t want what was best for the workers that came later. They weren’t concerned that these folks needed work and got work and got paid. For some reason, they thought they deserved more. The landowner hadn’t promised them more, but they thought they deserved it. They had ideas about what they thought was fair, but the landowner didn’t seem to be too concerned about what was fair; the landowner wanted what was best for all of his workers.
You will not often hear me use the terms “justice” or “social justice” in my preaching, and there is a specific reason for that. I think that questions of justice are something of a red herring. Because when we start talking about justice we inevitably start talking about fairness and deserving, and that usually ends up with people just being defensive about their right to be angry and what they think belongs to them, sort of like Jonah arguing with God. Questions of fairness and justice have been a part of human civilization since the beginning of time, right along with war and fighting. Maybe they are the wrong questions. Maybe the question we should be asking is how can we learn to want, simply want and truly desire, what is best for someone else. How can we appreciate the gifts and the grace that we have been given and truly desire to see others share in them? You see, if you truly want what is best for someone else, then questions of justice and fairness become completely irrelevant. If I truly love you and want what is best for you, then I don’t have to worry about what is fair or whether or not I am getting what I deserve. Maybe, not getting what we deserve is truly a sign of God’s forgiveness and grace. Jonah didn’t get what he deserved, he was given so much more than he deserved. He was forgiven. He was given a second chance.
But Jonah doesn’t really want to see others blessed and graced by God the way that he has been. Because Jonah is a jerk.