Sunday, March 25, 2012

From Vine to Whine

Jonah 4
Preacher: Mr. Ken McGarry, Director of Youth Ministries, Wilton Congregational
Jonah at Ninevah by Ulrich Leive
Happy spring, everyone! Can you believe that we made it through the winter months without a whole lot of snow?...Maybe because we received it all in one hefty lump sum in the fall...and remember how much we received over last year’s winter months? Well, I, for one, am very glad that we’re now into spring, not because I dislike the winter weather, although shoveling mountains of snow is not one of my favorite hobbies, but because it means that professional football, which is one of my favorite hobbies, has started its new year. And with that new start has come some happenings that were about as wacky as our last couple of winters. I’m quite happy about one of these: Peyton Manning is now playing quarterback for my favorite team, the Denver Broncos. And young Timmy Tebow is now a quarterback for the local-ish New York Jets. It is wacky, but I’ll take it!
Who knows what the future holds? Life, like football and the weather, is unpredictable. Fortunately, I brought a “fortune teller” today. My young friend, Alyson Schuerkogel, made this for me yesterday, and I thought that I’d bring it in and give it a test run this morning. So, who wants their fortune told?
In last week’s message, we learned about another surprising event that was wackier than a fortune teller, any athletic teams’ trades, or winter weather events and non-events. Nineveh, a great city of the mighty Assyrian Empire, repented from its wickedness after one lonely, foreign religious man, smelling of fish guts, came into town proclaiming his message of its impending destruction. You would expect that the Ninevites would have laughed a bit and then Jonah tossed out of city walls, or maybe had him publicly humiliated, tortured, or killed. But after only one day of Jonah’s visit, the people of Nineveh, from the common folk to the king, believed Jonah’s message, humbled themselves, mourned about their wicked ways, and called out to God for mercy.
Today’s message comes from the fourth chapter of the Book of Jonah, in which we read of the prophet Jonah’s response to this wacky, repentant behavior. Hear the story from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message:
“Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, "God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That's why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
God said, "What do you have to be angry about?"
But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.
God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.
But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah's head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: "I'm better off dead!"
Then God said to Jonah, "What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?"
Jonah said, "Plenty of right. It's made me angry enough to die!"
God said, "What's this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can't I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don't yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?"

And so ends the Book of Jonah...with this question from God to the prophet: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The answer should be obvious. Of course God should be concerned about Nineveh and its sackcloth-sporting livestock: The people of that great city as well at its animals were created by God. God is the Father of all the living; God gave birth to the world around us. Just as a parent lovingly cares for his or her own child, God cares for all that has been made.
Sure, Jonah recognized that he was loved by God when a great fish was created to sustain his life. For three days he sang out in the fish’s belly: “Salvation comes from the Lord!” We remember that his fish-borne prayer consisted mostly of “I, I, I’s” and “me, me, me’s”, but at least he recognized that it was God who provided life and cared enough about Jonah’s to save him, even in his rebellious flight away from God.
And Jonah was quick to recognize the blessing of God’s provision of a little shade on a hot Assyrian afternoon. Ancient Nineveh is on the outskirts of modern Mosul, which has an average daily high temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Jonah certainly would have appreciated the little bit of shady comfort as he sat upon a hill outside of that great city, while eagerly hoping and praying for its destruction. Once more, God comforted Jonah even while he was once again running away—this time, running from the truth—that God is forgiving and compassionate and does not want to bring destruction upon people. Well, God created a vine to grow up and over Jonah, to protect him from the blistering sun; then God created some fast-acting vine-chewing critter to take it away—and we went from vine to whine in one day. “I want to die!” Jonah whined. But did Jonah really have anything to complain about?
What if God chooses to bless the land with a vine, or to take it away? What if God chooses to bless a wayward people? Or a wayward prophet? One of the main lessons that we’ve learned throughout our Lenten exploration of the Book of Jonah is that God is unfair.
Children have great “justice-sensors”, or I should say “injustice-sensors”. If a sibling receives something and the other doesn’t, cries of “unfair!”will pierce the air, usually with great volume.
I have an old dog at home, Roger, who doesn’t like to get off the couch and go to his crate when it’s bedtime. The phrase,“it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie” certainly applies to Roger, who is very cranky and does not like getting touched when he’s comfortably curled up in his favorite spot. Rather than just flinging him off the couch, I set a little doggie treat, just out of his reach on the couch, which forces him to actually stand up to be able to enjoy it. Once he’s up, it’s a lot easier to get him to move to where I want him to go without him getting all crazy on me—he has been called the Devildog on more than one occasion!
Our other dog, a puppy named Opal, is absolutely angelic, happy, and compliant. She doesn’t need a treat to move, and so she doesn’t get the tasty morsel that Roger does at that moment. I do give her one moments later when she takes care of her business outside, but I’ve been told by the other human living in our house that my treatment of the two dogs at bedtime is very unfair. The undeserving one gets the treat, while the good one goes without! Unfair!
Life is filled with acts of injustice, and fortunately for us, God is one of the main culprits! God will pardon the undeserving Ninevites. God will provide life and comfort to a grumpy, wayward prophet, even as he runs away. Jonah recognizes just how unfair God is in his beautiful complaint saying,“I knew you a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Jonah is a very human prophet. He forgets to see the unfair blessing of God giving him mercy, but he is quick to point out the injustice of God giving mercy to his enemies. We are Jonah: wanting God’s blessing on us, but not so eager to see God bless others, especially those we don’t like or who are different from us in some way. Do you celebrate when that co-worker just got the promotion that YOU deserve? What about someone who is wealthier than you who just won the lottery?
God’s blessing comes to all, because all are God’s children: Jonah, ancient Ninevites, modern Iraqis, Muslims, people who are gay, Conservatives, Liberals. And if we are all God’s children, we are, then, all brothers and sisters. As God’s children and followers of God, we are called to be ambassadors of God in this world, bringing God’s grace and compassion to all of our spiritual siblings.

The world is filled with uncertainty, but this is true now and always: “God is gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah knew that it was mercy was to be the fortune of Nineveh. Let us embrace this truth as a certainty in our own lives, and let it live through you, so that you can be God’s agent of compassion, love, and mercy in an unpredictable, wacky, and needy world.


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