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Sermon Briefs: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

In the introduction to his collection of Christmas and Epiphany sermons, Harold Warlick notes the paucity of published sermons for this season of the church year which are based on the first lesson from the Hebrew Bible.1 One exception to this trend is this 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, for the tale of Jonah has long drawn the attention of preachers and congregations alike.
Warlick's sermon on the Jonah text, Will we enjoy heaven?, like so many sermons on Jonah, focuses on the hardened heart of the prophet. "The crux of the book is to be found in the fact that Jonah emerged from the belly of the fish with the same hatreds and limited perceptions which had accompanied him when he began."2
Warlick sees our modern struggles with pluralism and diversity addressed by Jonah. A contemporary Nineveh might be likened to an urban airport, teeming with numerous nationalities, persons of all manner of religious faith, and various racial groups and political persuasions. Gaining a bird's eye view of such a mass of humanity, the differences would stand out, provoking one to ask, "Will everyone enjoy heaven?" Jonah was one who would not enjoy a diverse, inclusive heaven—and he would not be alone, for there are many who find equality before God hard to swallow.
Erskine White3 offers a traditional expository sermon on Jonah, but like Warlick, sees the text addressing very modern concerns. White begins by retelling the story, placing the book within the context of post-exilic Israel. Resisting his call to ministry, Jonah ends up on a ship owned by foreigners, who at first he hates. It is only as he learns the crew members' names and families that they become persons to him. So also today, White suggests, those unlike ourselves remain our enemies unless and until we learn their names and families, thereby becoming human persons of worth to us.
After retelling the story, White draws a few literary themes from the tale. The story is about tolerance and understanding, about saying "yes" to God's calling to ministry, and about spiritual humility. Most of all, the story reveals to us the real nature of God as welcoming and merciful.
Barbara Brown Taylor4 also offers an expository sermon on Jonah, this time focusing on Jonah's motivations. "As far as I am concerned, the book of Jonah has the best last line in the Bible: `And should I not be concerned about Ninevah,' God says to Jonah."5 If this had NOT been the last line, Jonah would have said something like "No, don't be concerned, God, just go ahead and wipe them out!"
Given his attitude, Jonah is a hard guy to defend. One the one hand, he gives one eight-word sermon, and a great city falls to its knees in repentance. But on the other hand, there is no forgiveness—or repentance in the prophet's heart.
Like the laborers in the vineyard (a favorite parable of Brown's), Jonah resisted the blessing that came to Nineveh, while eagerly and expectantly waiting for God's blessings for him. We tend to be more like Jonah, than like God. "We are such bookkeepers! And God is not! God does not give any of us what we deserve, but what we need."6
None of this is fair—it's grace—and that is the whole point we need to take from the story of Jonah. Brown concludes that maybe from God's point of view "we are all ne'er do wells"—except that is one of those human categories that God never uses.7
In a memorable 1956 sermon on racism in the church, Edmund Steimle,8 in a Protestant Hour sermon, also focuses on the attitudes of the prophet. Jonah ran away because he was afraid that Nineveh might repent and that God would forgive the people. Jonah protested and resisted, but discovered you cannot run away from God. "What a picture—2300 years old! Of the classic answers to prejudice and exclusiveness."9
Steimle likens Jonah's stubborn refusal at the end of the tale to that of "respectable" church people today, who don't view others unlike themselves as even being potentially good enough to be their neighbors. Hence, they "relocate" their church out of "undesirable" neighborhoods.10
The tragedy of Jonah, Steimle concludes, is not that at the end of the story he is still squatting and complaining about God's mercy for Nineveh. The tragedy is that after 2300 years, and after God's decisive revelation in the crucified and risen Christ, that we are still tempted to be reluctant prophets.11
In a novel and whimsical but also poignant unpublished sermon, Jeff Kellam draws on the contrast between Jonah's stingy forgiveness and God's gracious mercy.12 Preached on the day of the Super Bowl, Kellam likens Nineveh to modern day New Orleans (site of that year's game). Drawing effectively on Thomas John Carlisle's poetic treatment You! Jonah!, Kellam offers a free verse retelling and interpretation of Jonah. The contrast Kellam sees is between Jonah's complaint and Psalm 103: "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God's steadfast love toward those who fear him" (103:8-11).
Kellam adds:
It is one thing to believe in God. (Many people do.) It is something else to believe God. It's a little like believing in Jesus. A whole lot of people believe he lived. But fewer, apparently, believe what he said. He came into Galilee, Mark tells us, saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel"… If more believed Jesus, More would believe God. And more would turn around from the din of the world And settle in to the peace that passes understanding.
R. Charles Grant
1. Harold Warlick, Light in the Land of Shadows (Lima, Ohio: CSS, 1996) p. i. 2. Ibid. p. 66. 3. Erskine White, "A Whale of a Tale," Together in Christ (Lima, Ohio: CSS, 1990), pp. 79-85. 4. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Ninevites and Ne'er-Do-Wells," Gospel Medicine (Cambridge and Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 91-95. 5. Ibid. p. 91. 6. Ibid. p. 95. 7. Ibid. 8. Edmund Steimle, "The Reluctant Prophet," Are you Looking for God?" (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1957), pp. 85-94. 9. Ibid., p 85. 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid., p. 94.
12. Jeff Kellam, “Believing God,” unpublished sermon at East Craftsbury, VT, Presbyterian Church, January 26, 1997.