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February 24, 2013 - Jonah 4.1-11

“What Right Do You Have to Be Angry?”

Jonah 4:1-11

February 24, 2013

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Have you ever really considered this story of Jonah since you were a child in Sunday School?  When we were children we all learned it well.  You get bonus points if you remember that Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh and that the city repented.  If you vaguely remember something about a plant and shade – well, then move to the head of the class.  Most people know the fish part and that’s it.  That’s a shame, because this is a really powerful story.

 

Most of us are no longer children, so we can no longer read this like a child.  There are lots of questions that this text raises, and they can shed great light on the impact this text can have on our lives.

 

Recount Jonah Story to Chapter 4:

  1. Told to go to Nineveh - Flees to Tarshish
  2. Storm comes – sailors pray and throw Jonah overboard – Jonah is fish food
  3. Jonah prays in fish – recites Psalm – fish vomits
  4. Jonah’s big entrance – Repent – Begins to walk the town
  5. Miracle – Nineveh responds – Sackcloth and Ashes! Yeah Yippee!
  6. But Jonah is unhappy.  Vine dies.  Anger.

 

SO my question is why?  Why?  Why did he run?  What was he running from?  Why the anger?  Jonah begins to provide us with answer at the beginning of chapter 4.

 

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple is the preacher at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford.  He says that Jonah’s sin is “willful disobedience.”  (Boy will that preach.)  That’s not wrong.  It is wrong to limit Jonah to just one sin.  His willful disobedience gives no clue why he is so angry. 

 

Here is God’s question of Jonah: “What right do you have to be angry?” (4.4)

 

The key – Jonah’s answer in 4:2 takes us right back to chapter 1.  Jonah hates the NinevitesJonah is a bigot.  Ninevites = Nazis of their day. 

 

Amos 4:2 – There will come a time when each of you will be led off with fishhooks…Refers to the Assyrians – Nineveh is the capital.  It would seem that Jonah has a “good” reason to hate them.

 

Verse 2 – words “gracious and Merciful” – Hebrew for them is “hannun and werahum” meaning to succor and love – werahum is closely related to the word womb – so Jonah is saying that God is like their Mama – you will forgive them – slow to anger – “long of nostrils”. 

 

There is a sustained focus here on Jonah’s angerGod does not tell Jonah “you should not be angry.”  Instead he asks Jonah “What right do you have to be angry?”  God forces Jonah to ask WHY he is angry and to see if there is value in his anger.   God teaches Jonah a lesson with the plant.  God grew it.  God gave it.  It’s God’s plant.  Does Jonah have a right to be angry about the plant?  No.  God created Nineveh.  Their sin is against God.  Granted, the Ninevites were sinful people that sinned against Jonah’s people, but their sin is first and foremost against God.

 

Jonah’s anger is narcissistic and egotistic – that is – it is self important and self centered.  Jonah has clearly forgotten who the more offended party is here.  God has the ultimate sovereignty in all things.  Why is Jonah angry?  Partly because he is human, and partly because he has not given his anger to God. 

 

In all matters of sin, especially other people’s sin, we must defer to God’s judgment.  The poet Robert Frost said, "After Jonah, you could never trust God not to be merciful again." The prophet discloses why he ran away from God in the first place: he was afraid God would forgive his archenemies. In fact, God did just that, after Nineveh repented with an eagerness that the Jews themselves often lacked (see Matthew 12:41).

 

For an organization whose existence depends upon forgiveness, we sure are slack about knowing how to use it.  Let us be honest about church folk.  Do you know anybody that can hold grudges longer over incredibly trivial things like church folks do?  Jesus was a healer of souls, but somehow it seems more common to see a church kill its own wounded than to heal a broken life that’s fallen from grace.  Too many churches tell their members who are divorced that they can’t be deacons.  There is no Biblical injunction against it, but there are those that interpret scripture differently than I do…Seems to me that some churches are just not willing to forgive divorced people for being sinners.  Some churches won’t forgive some people for being women, and that’s not even a sin.   Why are grace and mercy so rare with us and so abundant in God?  Perhaps its because we like the idea of being the kind of people that forgive others because we like being forgiven, but we take for granted how hard it is to forgive.  That makes God’s grace and mercy all the greater.  It makes Jesus much more important to us.

 

The last verses of this book have got nothing to do with the city of Nineveh. It is all about Jonah and his relationship to God.  Jonah was never concerned with anything unless it had something to do with him.  Jonah never cared about the plant until the sun baked his head.  The worm came, he did nothing, it died, he barely noticed.  Jonah only noticed when it affected him.  Whatever happens contrary to Jonah’s will, destructive or salvific, tremendous or trivial, impersonal or personal, Jonah would rather die than deal with it.  He is self-absorbed.  God is trying, leading, and guiding Jonah to think beyond his own existence.  God is trying to bring Jonah along.  God is persistent, but not coercive with Jonah.  He lets Jonah rant and rave; even get it out of his system.  God will treat us the same way.

 

Like Jonah, we will answer to God for how forgiving we are of others.  How do you want God to greet you when you see him face to face?  Would you rather have God tell you that your fault was that you were too judgmental, or that your fault was being too forgiving of others?

 

This book does not really end, it just kind of stops.  It is a cliffhanger. It stops by asking a question.  The story trails off, however, without a real ending, and we are left hanging. This feeling of incompleteness certainly must be intentional.  It puts us, the readers, in place of Jonah, where God's final question, "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?" is asked of us.  This question makes us squirm for three reasons: (1) It makes us admit that we all have our own Nineveh, (2) the question makes us realize how uncomfortable we are with the idea that God forgives people we wouldn’t, and (3) God works with us in spite of our prejudices.  God loves Nineveh, and is not looking for our permission to do it.  Note one thing about the book of Jonah.  God gets the last word.  God always does.

 

Who are your Ninevites?  Who has sinned against you?  Who do you hold a grudge against?  Who has wronged you and never blinked an eye about it?  I know there is someone. 

 

I know what you might be thinking.  You are probably thinking the same thing an old friend of mine was thinking this week when I reminded him that Jesus said to “You’re your enemy.” “Come on preacher.  Be practical.  It has to stop somewhere.  Someone has got to draw the line.”  Yep. 

But it God’s line to draw, not ours, and only God gets to decide who’s crossed it.  God’s question is “Shouldn’t I be the one concerned with Nineveh?” “Yeah but preacher, we know these people.  Just look at them and what they have done.  Look at what they do.  I agree, God is their judge and I say let God judge them now. We know them too well.”

We do know them…very well.  Did you ever stop to wonder why we know the people of Nineveh so well?  I already said that we each have our own Nineveh.  Did you ever stop to think that all of us – WE – are in someone else’s Nineveh?  We know Nineveh as well as we do because we all live there.