A Better Epilogue: January 21, 2024

February 5, 2024

 Year B,
Epiphany 3                                       
Jonah 3:1-5,10              

               We all know the story of Jonah and the whale.  It’s in every children’s Bible.  There are songs, movies, shows.  But they usually focus on the whale part,
maybe a little before and after, but mostly the whale.
  I mean, what’s cooler than a picture of the
inside of a whale? Our reading from today comes after the whale…when Jonah
finally arrived in Nineveh.

 You see, Jonah had never
wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place.  
When God called on
Jonah the first time he said, “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and
preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” The beginning of
that request doesn’t sound so bad.  God
is asking him to visit a great city. 

Yet this was Nineveh,
the heart of the Assyrian Empire, the empire that had destroyed Israel and was
thus the enemy of God.  It was great
because it was big and powerful, which is wonderful when that big and powerful
entity is on your side, not so much when they are your mortal enemy. And God’s wasn’t
just asking Jonah to do some reconnaissance. 
He was asking—no telling Jonah to go and preach against the city
telling them how wicked they were. 

did what any sensible person would do, he ran the other way.  He ran as far as he could on dry land and
then hopped on a boat.  God was not
pleased and sent a great storm.  When the
sailors on the boat realized that this storm was sent by God, they called upon
Jonah who explained to them that he had fled the call of God.  Jonah decided that the only way to save the
boat was for the crew to throw him into the sea and they complied. 

However, we know God
is persistent—hence the absurdly big fish. 
Once he was swallowed by the big fish (or whale depending on what
version you are reading), Jonah had three days to think about the situation. He
finally prayed to God (you see that is one of the things that had been missing
thus far-prayer) and the fish vomited him onto dry land—right next to Nineveh.
One can only imagine that this was a traumatizing experience, but things were
about to get deicer, because now, he was behind enemy lines.  

first line in today’s reading is, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second
time….”  This seems like a benign
statement. It’s not.  God wasn’t
accustomed to being disobeyed by one of his prophets.  Sometimes the prophet would resist, or take
awhile to catch up…but to run in the opposite direction of God’s call…that was
a new one. Jonah finally realized that he had no choice but to follow the call
of God. 

Jonah went and did
what God asked.  He walked through the
entire city and told them,
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Then a funny thing happened, the people actually believed him.  This was an unusual response to a
prophet.  Prophets were often ignored,
usually by their own people.  The idea
that this superpower would hear eight words from a man they had never seen
before (and probably still smelled like fish guts) and pay attention is harder
to believe then a grown man being swallowed by a fish and surviving.  The people of Nineveh not only listened, they
took action.  They immediately proclaimed
a fast and sat in ash, which was the ancient way of repenting.  Even the king removed his robe and all his
royal jewels and sat in ash.  (They
skipped that part in our reading.)

When God saw that
change of heart, God forgave them and didn’t punish them. Do you think Jonah
was happy about that?  Did he find any
joy in knowing that he had saved a whole city of people with his words? Of
course not.  He got mad.  He told God that he was being too
merciful.  I mean, look at all that Jonah
had to go through and he started on God’s good side.  Yet he was punished more than the people of
Nineveh.  He was so mad, he sat down in
the hot sun and wished he could die.

God is loving, so he
gave him a bush to protect him from the sun. 
Jonah was happy about the bush, so God sent a worm to kill the bush and
Jonah was sad again.  It all seems rather
cruel of God, but he had a point.  He
always does.  He said,
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you
did not labor and which you did not grow…And should I not be concerned about
Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand
people… and also many animals?”

You know the worst part…for
me at least?  That’s the last line of the
Book of Jonah.  We have no idea how Jonah
responded.  Did Jonah realize that God
was right or did he stay mad and bitter? 
We will never know.  There is no
epilogue.  That often happens in the
Bible.  We never hear the whole story. In
the Gospel of Mark, we hear the calling of 4 of the apostles.  We know that they dropped their nets as soon
as they were called and followed Jesus. 
They behaved much better than Jonah. 
But we also know that that they all had their moments of doubts.  They all did some stupid things. Peter would
deny him. They would all abandon him at the cross.  But Jesus forgave them all, which is why I
think Jonah did ok in the end as well. 

We won’t know their
full stories.  But we know ours and we
even have some control in our stories. 
While many of might not admit it, we want life to be easy, fair and
completely linear.  As Christians, we
want to follow Jesus, as long as he is going in about the same direction that
we are.  I mean, we will deviate a
little, but let’s not go too far off the path Jesus. We each have a life plan
and we can’t let God mess with that too much. 

When I have had to
make difficult decisions, I prayed that God would give me peace so I knew I was
making the right decision.  Yet peace has
often evaded me and I have begun to I wonder if the way we know we are
following God is not a sense of peace, but a sense of urgency. That is what
Jonah had.  That is what the disciples
had. And while urgency is not the same thing as anxiety, it’s also not the most
comfortable feeling.  Sometimes it means
doing something that is harder than we anticipated.

I’ve always identified
with Jonah under that bush, being so angry that it didn’t work out the way he
expected…even though it worked out exactly how God expected because Jonah
finally…finally followed God’s directions. 
The problem with Jonah was he thought he knew what God was going to do—what
God should do.  The wicked would be
punished and he would get to be the righteous servant of God.  But God was merciful and loving to the enemy
of Israel and that didn’t fit Jonah’s expectations.

So often, we let our
expectations lead us.  We think we know
how something should go and we are pretty sure God is with us on this.  When that doesn’t happen, we can get angry
and bitter like Jonah. Maybe that happens once and you get over it.  But maybe it happens over and over again and
then you are sitting in the sun cursing a bush and the worm that killed it. 

Fortunately we all
have our own epilogue.  God is the
author, but I like to think that we have some sway in the editing process.  We get to decide whether to stay bitter and
angry or progress to a place where a mere bush cannot dictate our happiness, a
place where God’s mercy is not just a gift to others, but to us as well.  A place where God calls us not just to warn
the enemy, but befriend the enemy.  God’s
plan for us—God’s call for us—is rarely predictable or easy, but it’s a
call worth following, wherever and to whomever it may lead us.

If you find that you
have some bumps in your life, some things that don’t go as expected—instead
of cursing those moments, consider those interruptions as God breaking through.
Don’t wait for a major calamity to pray to God’s for help and direction.  God is with you through all of it.  We don’t get to write every detail of our
story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t our story. It doesn’t mean we aren’t
going to have one fantastic epilogue.