Sunday’s sermon: Hidden Potential

Text used – Jonah 3:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11

  • So Julia is 2 now – 2½, actually (if you want to get technical) – and she’s started doing this thing lately. Nearly every time you ask her something, she’ll say, “No.” Not surprising, right? She is 2, after all. The funny thing is when it’s something that she actually does want to have or to do. Her automatic response is still, “No,” but half a second later, shoe goes, “But … yes.” “Julia, do you want some milk?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, do you want to go outside?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” “Julia, should we read some books?” “No. [PAUSE] But … yes.” (Just kidding … the answer to that last question is ALWAYS yes!) Oh, toddler-hood! It’s an easy thing to joke about, right? “Toddlers always say no. Hahahahahaha!” But do you know when it becomes less funny? When it’s adults.
    • Adults who refuse to listen to each other
    • Adults who refuse to talk to each other
    • Adults who resist any form of communication with each other whatsoever
    • Adults who have decided the other side is
      • Unreasonable
      • Unreachable
      • Unredeemable
  • Enter our Scripture story this morning: Jonah. Most of us probably think of this story as “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Big Fish.” I have a tendency to think of this story as “Jonah the Adult Toddler.” I bet you can figure out why. Let’s read the story. [read text] Like I said … “Jonah the Adult Toddler,” right? Jonah … who ran away from God when God said, “Come here.” Jonah … who tried to hide from God in the hold of a ship heading in the opposite direction. Jonah … who was pretty sure he knew better than God. Jonah … who, when he was proved wrong, decided to go up on the mountain and pout. Jonah … the adult toddler. → two separate judgments that Jonah makes in our text this morning
    • First judgment = Jonah’s judgment of the people of Nineveh
      • Now, Nineveh had quite the reputation back in Jonah’s day.
        • Huge city – text: Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.[1]
        • Wild and sinful city Let’s just say the motto for Nineveh could easily have been: “What happens in Nineveh stays in Nineveh.”
          • Described this way in various parts of the OT
          • Also described this way by various ancient writers and historians (Herodotus, Aristotle, etc.)[2]
        • Foreign city
          • Capital of Assyrian empire at the time relations between Assyrians and Israelites were never good
            • Antagonistic
            • Hostile
            • Violent
          • So in Jonah’s defense, God calling him to take a word of rebuke and call to repentance to the city of Nineveh is no small feat. It is a frightening call. It is an intimidating call. And it is a potentially dangerous call. On the other hand, Jonah is by far the first person God calls to do something hard. God called David to kill the giant Goliath.[3] God called Daniel to worship despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous decree, and Daniel ended up in the lions’ den.[4] God called Esther to circumvent Haman’s political manipulations and plans of genocide.[5] God called Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, to defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all male Hebrew babies born in Egypt and ended up saving the life of Moses.[6]
        • As an Israelite, these are all stories that Jonah would have known – stories from which Jonah could have drawn courage and conviction in the face of his challenging call. And yet, when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah flees. Jonah runs from God as far and as fast as he can in the exact opposite direction.
          • Makes is way to Joppa (modern-day Tel Aviv) and gets on a ship headed for Tarshish (modern-day Lebanon) literally flees west when God has called him to go east
          • And why does Jonah do this? Because of his pre-judgment of the people of Nineveh. They’re supposed to be lawless people. They’re supposed to be scary people. They’re supposed to be immoral people. They’re supposed to be people beyond saving. Surely, Jonah’s never been there himself.
            • Jonah = one of the Hebrew people from the northern kingdom of Israel
            • Jonah served as a prophet for God during a time of relative peace means Jonah got to bring words of affirmation and comfort … You know, words that people liked to hear. Words that people were happy to hear. Words that people found to be a blessing rather than a condemnation. So Jonah’s life was pretty cushy. This whole “taking God’s word of judgment to a giant city full of rough-and-tumble people” didn’t really fit in with Jonah’s vibe.
          • So without even meeting the people of Nineveh … without ever setting foot anywhere near the city itself … Jonah dismisses them as not worth his time. Not worth God’s time. Certainly not worth even the possibility of God’s redemption.
    • Middle of the story
      • Jonah gets on the ship headed for Tarshish God causes a massive storm at sea that puts the ship and its entire crew in jeopardy Jonah finally fesses up that he’s running from God sailors throw Jonah into the sea (at his own request) sea immediately calms Jonah is swallowed by the giant fish and spends 3 days in its belly giant fish vomits Jonah out onto the shore God calls Jonah a 2nd time to go to Nineveh Jonah finally relents – text: And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. … Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[7]
      • But then, something miraculous happens. The people of Nineveh – those scary, evil, immoral people that Jonah had tried so hard to avoid! – heard God’s word through Jonah. They believe God’s word, and they repented. – text: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant. When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.[8]  And indeed, God does And indeed, God does turn away from the path of wrath and destruction that God had laid out for the people of Nineveh. God was, indeed, merciful and gracious to them.
    • And here’s where Jonah’s 2nd judgment comes screaming into the story – text: But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”[9]  So Jonah stomps out of the city, heads up to one of the hillsides surrounding Nineveh, and sits down to pout. And there he is, folks! There’s the adult toddler Jonah, full of petulance and backhanded compliments. “I knew you were too nice, God. I knew you were too loving, too forgiving. Thanks for wasting my time, God, since you’re too nice to destroy this city. You brought me all the way here for nothing. Might as well kill me because this is lame. Humph!”
      • Jonah is judging God’s mercy as too broad
      • Jonah is judging God’s forgiveness as too easy
      • In Jonah’s mind, he’s come all this way, he’s gone through all these trials and tribulations (which, let’s remember, were his own doing), he’s shouted himself hoarse delivering God’s word to such a giant city, and he wants to see some punishment! He was to see some real live fire and brimstone! He wants to witness the destructive power of a righteously angry God. He doesn’t want to see this wimpy, predictable, lackluster response from God. Forgiveness, for Jonah, is just not exciting enough. So he judges God’s response as inadequate.
        • God tries to reason with Jonah and teach him in this strange little vignette at the end: Jonah builds a sulking hut on the side of the hill God causes a bush to grow up beside Jonah to provide him some shade (which Jonah thoroughly enjoys) next day, God sends a worm to eat the shrub so it withers and dies God doubles down and adds a full, hot sun and a “dry east wind” to the mix, making Jonah’s sulking hut on the hillside definitively uncomfortable Jonah gets angry again (maybe a touch more justified this time) – text: God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?” Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good – even to the point of death!” But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[10]  God is trying to get Jonah to understand just how misguided it is to mourn the passing of a simple shrub while rooting for the destruction of an entire massive city. God is trying to provide Jonah with some much-needed perspective.
  • So what happens to Jonah? Who knows? That last question that God poses to Jonah about pity for Nineveh’s 120,000 people and animals is the end of the book. Maybe Jonah stayed up on that hillside until he did, indeed, perish. Maybe he stayed up on that hillside until he was too hot, hungry, and thirsty to continue, then went down to seek refuge from the very city that he argued so hard to condemn. Maybe he saw the error of his ways and engaged in a little repentance of his own. We simply don’t know.
    • What we do know: this story isn’t really about Jonah it’s about God and the lengths to which God will go to reach out to us
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh à traveled every frustrating, circuitous step of the journey with Jonah
      • God went to great lengths to reach out to Jonah through his stubbornness and indignation
        • A storm at sea
        • The belly of a giant fish
        • A shrub, and a worm, and a hot, hot day
      • And God does this – God goes to these lengths to reach out to the people of Nineveh … to Jonah … even to us today – because God loves us. God loves us enough to see through all the barriers we put up and the false selves that we cling to. God love us enough to see the truth of our hearts and our souls. God loves us enough to recognize hidden potential in us even when we refuse to see it ourselves … when we are too busy getting in our own way.
        • Potential that we don’t see
        • Potential that the world doesn’t see
        • Potential that some, out of their own ignorance and prejudices, may try to diminish, deny, or destroy not unlike the way Jonah wished for the destruction of Nineveh despite the potential that God saw there But God sees through those false judgments and malicious intentions of the world, too. Whether we are the ones hiding our own potential or the world is trying to crush it out of us, God is greater. God sees. God knows. God loves. And God will move.
      • Beautiful thing: God’s love makes that initial move to reach out to us because God sees that potential But it doesn’t stop there. As God’s love claims us and enfolds us, it also begins to change us. God’s love works slowly but surely within us – our words and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our hopes and our prayers – and transforms us bit by bit into a greater and greater embodiment of God’s love in the world. And in that transformation, even more hidden potential is revealed in us and through us. It’s like a fabulous upward spiral, going higher and higher and getting wider and wider as we draw nearer to God. All because God sees potential in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3:3.

[2] Thomas M. Bolin. “Nineveh as Sin City” from Bible Odyssey. https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/nineveh-as-sin-city. Accessed Nov. 7, 2020.

[3] 1 Sam 17.

[4] Dan 6:10-24.

[5] Est 5-8.

[6] Ex 1.

[7] Jonah 3:3, 4.

[8] Jonah 3:5-9.

[9] Jonah 4:1-3.

[10] Jonah 4:9-11.