Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fourteenth after Pentecost: Jonah and the Bush

Proper 20A2, Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

Good morning, and grace and peace to you this morning, which is on the calendar the last Sunday of the summer—the autumnal equinox arriving for us this year at 5:05 a.m. next Friday morning, September 23rd. It sure felt like Fall already a few mornings last week! I know for us in our family it has been an eventful summer in many ways, some of it challenging, but also a time of enjoyment and even with a little bit of break for rest and relaxation--and it does feel good now to be moving into the more active season of the fall. So may it be a new season of good things and many blessings for you also.

The short Book of Jonah falls into two parts. The first part of the story is more familiar, even kind of fun, and often good for Sunday School lessons and sermons. God comes to Jonah and tells him he is to leave his home in Israel and to cross the border into hostile territory and make his way as a hated foreigner to the city of Ninevah in ancient Babylon. Modern Iraq. And actually I think our former St. Andrean and good friend Scott Kleinschnitz was briefly stationed near Ninevah when he was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom a few years ago. And when Jonah arrives, if they don’t arrest him on site or stone him to death in the streets right away, he is to go to the City Center and address the Great Men and leaders of the people and instruct them to abandon their evil ways and repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

And of course we know the story. Jonah is terrified, and for good reason, and he immediately gets up and flees as far as he can as fast as he can in exactly the opposite direction. Thinking he can somehow escape the claim that God has made on his life. But we discover that while Jonah can run, he can’t hide. Fleeing in the opposite direction, even as he gets on a ship and sails out into the sea, but the call of God pursues him, and his inner turmoil, guilt, and distress is matched by a roaring wind and storm, great waves, rolling seas. The others on board the sinking ship are terrified, and finally Jonah says, “this is all about me, because I haven’t responded to God’s direction for my life. Save yourselves now by throwing me overboard, and all will be well.” Which of course they do. And the storm suddenly ends. And then the story goes on, and this is the part the Sunday School kids like the most, how at the point of death in a watery grave Jonah is miraculously swallowed whole by a great fish, in which he rests for a wonderfully symbolic three days, and then miraculously he is disgorged and finds himself back on dry land.

Thematically of course this all about what it means to be faithful, and about renewal and restoration, about rebirth, about death and new life, and in Matthew 16 we hear Jesus himself talking about “the sign of Jonah” in a way that seems to reference and anticipate his own coming death and resurrection. But in this beginning of new life, Jonah steps forward a new and reformed man, this time in faithful obedience to God’s call, and sets out for the mission to Ninevah. And all this a wonderful framework for talking about how we would each of us in a way think about our vocation, about our relationship with God in Christ, and the kinds of storms that come to us when we run away from that relationship, and how there is a new birth for us when we seek to hear and respond in a spirit of obedience.

Then the second part of the story, including the very end, which we have in our lesson this morning. Not quite so familiar as the story of the Big Fish. Jonah indeed travels into enemy territory and gets to the City Square Ninevah and issues his announcement of God’s judgment and his call for the whole nation to repent of its evil ways. A moment that would seem sweet I suppose to an Israelite audience for the story, as they and it seems as Jonah as well are almost leaning forward in anticipation to see the first fiery bolts of God’s lightning to crash down on the city as the people receive the consequences of all their wickedness—and most especially including the crimes of war and hostility which they had committed against the Israelite people. It’s going to be a sweet moment of perfect justice.

But then of course this odd and incredibly surprising thing happens. The leaders hear Jonah. And they say, “My goodness, you’re right. We have been horrible and truly wicked. We are now so very sorry, and we repent profoundly for all the evil we have done in the past, ruin and destruction, rape and pillage, and we promise to do our very best never to do anything like that again.” Jonah doesn’t know quite what to make of this, but as we read this morning, he apparently doesn’t think these words are going to count for much, and he goes up to a nearby hillside hoping for a good view of the fireballs falling on the city from heaven. And then when that doesn’t happen, when he finally realizes that as a result of his preaching and the people’s repentance, God is no longer going to bring about the city’s destruction, Jonah is disappointed. More than disappointed. Angry. Generations of horrible conflict, war, oppression, destruction, war crimes of every imaginable variety, in a world where there of course was no such thing as the Geneva Convention. And now they say that they’re sorry and that they won’t do it again, and God wipes the slate clean? No retribution; no punishment fitting the crime? What’s the good of being a fire-and-brimstone prophet, if God is going to go all touchy-feely and Kumbaya at the last minute? Where’s the divine justice in that?

That’s the heart of the story. And then we get as a brief postlude the story of Jonah and the Bush, so that God can explain the moral of the story to Jonah. Jonah sitting out there on that desert hill, watching and waiting, and suddenly the bush grows up over him and gives him a delightful day of shade. Then, just as suddenly, the next day the bush is attacked by a worm, and so it withers and dies away, leaving Jonah once again baking in the sun. Jonah is once again swept up in anger. And God says, “you didn’t do anything to earn the comfort that the bush gave you yesterday, and I didn’t hear any comments from you about fairness or what you deserved or anything else then. And so what right have you to complain when I decide to take away the bush that I made in the first place? The fact is, your perspective is once again just way too limited, your understanding of my perfect righteousness always far too distorted by your own personal interest. When your idea of what I should do, when your idea of what is good, and fair, and right, is different from mine, Jonah, then you will just need to take a deep breath and let all that go. My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord, nor are my thoughts your thoughts, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And the moral of this story of course falls into line with the moral of the parable of the Vineyard Laborers in Matthew 20. We understand perfectly the outrage of the workers who have toiled all day long in the hot sun, only to see those who arrived at the very end of the day rewarded equally with them. We’ve been there ourselves time and again. To see the world rolling on in ways that seem just beyond our comprehension. Lost in our grievances, and sometimes confused by what seem to be gifts that fall into our lives entirely unearned. How is that possible? What sense are we to make of a “peace of God that passeth all human understanding?”

The “sovereignty of God” a doctrinal thread that is of course woven tightly through just about every page of the Biblical story, and a concern of emphasis especially of the great Reformers of the Protestant era in the 16th century, as they attempted to counter a view of God that was becoming a bit too mechanistic. When I do this, God rewards, and when I do that, God punishes. A tempting view, even though it obviously runs against all the evidence, and as we struggle with Rabbi Kushner about “why bad things happen to good people,” and with the experience all too often of wondering why so often such good things seem to happen to bad people.

The Prophet Jonah and all the workers of the vineyard—those who came to work at dawn, and those who arrived in the middle and at the end of the day—each simply had the opportunity, the challenge, to live faithfully with the call that was placed on their lives by God, whose vineyard this all is. To enter into a relationship of trust that will move beyond our own limited perspectives of what we deserve, of what the other guy deserves, of how this particular chapter of the story ought to end. Thinking of all those readings about forgiveness that we had appointed for the last few Sundays from Matthew 18. We receive the bread and the cup into our hands at the Holy Table, and in doing so we place our lives in his hands. Even in the midst of things so often that we can’t understand, or even that seem just plain wrong, of course we have our opinions, our sense of what’s fair, what’s right, what’s good, and as we push back, which seems to be something at the heart of our human nature, that we would remember this morning that this is his vineyard, not ours. And that he has better things in mind for us than we can ever ask for or imagine.

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