I am Pastor Mariah, and I bring greetings to the people of Church of Peace United Church of Christ and to the people of Two Rivers United Methodist Church. It is a joy to bring a message to both congregations for today, Sunday November Eighth, but I have to tell you. I’m recording this sermon before November Eighth; it’s even before November Third. Which means, when you’re hearing this, I don’t know how the world will be doing. I don’t know how you will be doing. I do know there’s a promise in our story we’re all going to need on November Eighth and beyond.
Just like I am speaking to you from the past, why don’t run with this and go even further into the past, say about twenty-six hundred years, give or take…
What happened was the Babylonian military invaded Judah. The troops uprooted the Jewish people forcing them to resettle and live in exile. Now let’s say decades have passed, and the exile is over, and some families are starting to return. Let’s say Miri was a young woman who remembered her family moving back to this region when she was little. They would complain about the struggle of coming home, which to Miri sounded out of tune. Sure this was their home, and their parents’ home, but it wasn’t really hers… not yet. Could be her faith was like that too.
One night, the neighbors had come over for dinner, and Miri’s house was brimming with people. It was the moment after the meal when the little ones had disappeared on their own adventures and the old ones were refilling their glasses. One of the neighbors pushed back in his chair. Oh, you’ve got to hear this story! That’s when he dropped a first sentence that shocked everyone.
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Good thing the children weren’t in the room! He just said Nineveh! Everybody knows: Nineveh is the Nazis making the Jewish people line up against the wall. Nineveh is the Klan shaking a bus, and busting inside, and dragging a man off the bus. Nineveh is the terrorist group making an execution video then laughing into the camera. The room is silent.
The LORD sent Jonah to Nineveh, but it’s okay you can relax. Obviously, Jonah didn’t go! Who would?! Jonah ran as far away from God as he could. He boarded a ship sailing to the other side of the world, then he went down and hid in the hold. Miri finds herself rooting for Jonah the same way you cheer for the kid in the class who protests getting homework on a Friday. That kid is saying out loud what everybody’s thinking, but clearly it’s not going to end well for him.
Sure enough, the LORD sends a storm upon the sea; the Gentile sailors realize they have gotten themselves into the middle of something terrible! Something in Jonah already knows what’s wrong. You’ve got to throw me into the sea! He tells them. And they sailors say, No, we’ll just row harder. But that doesn’t work. They throw Jonah headfirst off the ship into the chaos, and God sends a fish to find Jonah and swallow him whole.
Once Miri heard that she wondered: Did God send the storm and the fish in order to punish Jonah for running away? Or did God send the storm and the fish in order to rescue Jonah?
Miri didn’t mean to wonder this, but she did. And once she did, she realized she’s been carrying this question her whole life. It’s not just the storm, and the fish, and Jonah. It’s the exile. It’s the cruelty of the agents who kidnapped the people and then mocked them. It’s the child who died on the way. Is God doing this to punish us for our sin, or is God doing this to rescue us?
And Miri’s question is so important because you and I know, we ask it too. We absolutely do. Usually on the worst night. Here’s the thing I wish I could tell you… Here’s the thing I wish I could tell Miri:
If your question goes: Is God doing this thing in order to punish me or in order to rescue me? That is not God.
If someone is doing something to you and you can’t tell whether they’re doing it to punish you or save you, what they’re doing to you is abuse. That’s abuse.
And the truth is, something in us already knows that.
From the belly of the fish, Jonah issues a prayer that is trying way too hard to say the right words. The fish can’t even handle it, so she throws up Jonah. Before he can even wipe off her fish vomit, God says to Jonah, Go to Nineveh and tell them what I’m going to do! And this time, Jonah goes.
Jonah begins walking across Nineveh shouting God’s plan to destroy them. Everybody knows: Nineveh is the Nazis marching across Charlottesville. Nineveh is the paperwork issued to a family at the border whose child has been taken. Nineveh is the pretty girl in the cafeteria who thinks it’s hilarious to make fun of the kid whose dad is in prison.
Well, the storyteller leans back in his chair and rests his hands on his belly. What happened was that Nineveh heard Jonah, and something in them knew he was right. So the whole city repented. The king issued a decree. Even the babies were dressed in sackcloth —they put sackcloth on their cows! Even the dogs of the city began howling in sorrow. The whole city cried out to the LORD hoping he would change his mind. And you know what? He did.
Miri felt rage flash through her chest. You would think Jonah would be furious with the LORD, and you would be exactly right. You would think Jonah would be shocked and would say to God, Seriously! How could you forgive them? How could you do this?! But oh my friends, what Jonah says is worse.
O LORD, said Jonah with tears prickling in his eyes. I knew you would do this. You are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And I knew you would do this.
And the truth is, something in us already knows this too.
Once Miri hears what Jonah says, she realizes this whole time she’s been trying to figure out whether God is hatching a plot to punish the people or rescue the people when what kind of God is this?! Miri realizes this whole time, she has been angry with God.
Around the table, people are chuckling and shaking their heads like Jonah’s a silly child who’s throwing a tantrum. But Miri thinks maybe Jonah is her hero! So she’s had enough. Surely there’s a happy ending, and a moral to the story, and no thank you, she doesn’t need that. Miri stands up and begins collecting the cups from the table.
But it was too late; already the story had gotten to her. As she was getting the water, she dreamed up the most chilling outcome. Now everybody knows that God will forgive Jonah, no twist there. But what if… What if Jonah forgives God? Now he really doesn’t. At least, it’s not in the story. But that possibility finds its way into Miri’s imagination, now it won’t stop haunting her!
Surely Jonah has some compassion in his heart. That’s why he’s outraged on behalf of all the people who suffered the violence of Nineveh.
What if he does it?! What if Jonah forgives God…
Well, anyway I never would, Miri tells herself. I mean, probably not. As she’s drying her hands, she hears whimpering at the door, and that’s nothing new. A whole romp of street dogs routinely patrolled the outside. One of them was always whining at the door. If you were to open it, you would be faced with the most pitiful puppy dog eyes appealing directly to the soul of your soul. Usually Miri could ignore them and they’d go away, but tonight her mind is wrapped up with Jonah.
Without even realizing what she’s doing, Miri let the hungry dog into the house.
She got a bowl of water, and once the dog lapped it up, it looked at her, then tilted its head, and the water was dripping from its furry chin, and Miri didn’t mean for this to happen!
She looked at that dog, and her whole heart melted. Where did this tenderness even come from! A minute ago she was vowing that she’d never forgive the LORD. And we don’t know whether she does. At least, it’s not in the story. It’s just, I could make a guess, and I bet you could too.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know what’s happened in the world in the past couple of days. I don’t know how the world is doing, and I don’t know how you are doing, but I know this: The mercy of God is what has the power to get all the Ninevehs to fall down weeping, and all the Jonahs to consider forgiveness, and all the Miris to let the dog in the house.
In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. You have this tender mercy in your own heart, and I do too. Whatever is happening in the world right now, I promise, your compassion is needed. If it’s going to be up to us to dismantle oppression, and confront evil, and end violence, and support those who are vulnerable, and it is exactly up to us to do that, we’re going to need the mercy you are harboring in your heart. The world is desperate for it.
And something in us already knows that. Amen.