Central Idea: The book of Jonah reminds us that God does not have to play by our simplistic and even hateful rules.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed”

As a teacher, there was nothing more frustrating than an administrator who would not follow through on discipline.  There was a rule at Borgia that if a student had two failure notices, they were suspended from extra-curricular activity for three weeks, presumably to bring up their grades. The could still practice, just not play.  The rule was not punitive, it was remedial, designed to inspire the student to hopefully achieve.

The problem with the rule, of course, was if the student was the star running back (quarterbacks rarely were on the list), or if the student was the lead in the musical (which happened more times than I care to remember), the whole team, the whole cast, in a sense, suffered. Cue the student’s parents, who had been noticeably nonexistent and uninvolved up to this point, as they swoop in to advocate for their child.  And so, there’s the administrator with coaches, fans and family breathing down his or her neck, nullifing the rule, and, voila, like magic the day is saved. It was utterly exasperating, and it was even worse when that weak-willed, lily-livered administrator was me.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed”

Take a wild guess what doesn’t happen in our first reading today.

My favorite book of the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of the prophet Jonah. Sadly it often gets caught up in a lot of nonsense.  Fundamentalists will try to prove how a human being could live within a stomach of a great fish, where as skeptics will show that it is totally impossible thereby proving… absolutely nothing.

One of my favorite teachers in the seminary put it best: the book of Jonah is the Bible laughing at itself.  That does not mean it is frivolous or inconsequential.  Oh, no.  The book of Jonah teaches us some crucial and essential lessons about life, about our faith and about who God is.

At first glance as we read this passage, it seems (and Jonah would agree with us) that God does not follow through, does not make good on his promise to destroy the evil Ninevites.  When you think of Nineveh think about the Nazi’s of the ancient world.  Jonah goes to prophesy to the city, reluctantly I may add (remember that great fish!).  And lo and behold, the whole city, king, subjects, and even the cattle, dive into sackcloth and ashes.  Thereupon, the divine administrator, God, relents and does not destroy the city.  He is like the principal who gives the kid one more chance, doesn’t follow through with his discipline. So very frustrating. He SAID he would destroy Nineveh, but then he doesn’t do it. Nineveh is not destroyed.

And good old Jonah, is totally ticked off.  I feel your pain Jonah.

But let’s stop for a moment and examine Jonah.  Why is he griping? He is the most successful prophet of all time.  He half-heartedly wanders around Nineveh telling them that God will destroy them.  And what happens?  Every single person in the town converts, complete with sackcloth and ashes. Even the cattle! (do you see how this is funny?)  And Jonah’s reaction to this marvel, to his unprecedented success?  He is ticked.  He is angry. He even pouts.  You see Jonah would have like to have seen some Ninevite booty getting kicked.  He would have reveled in the fire and brimstone. He would have taken fiendish joy in seeing those awful residents of Nineveh, his sworn blood enemies, get theirs. He even tells God – in a rant for the ages – that this was the reason he was reluctant to go to Nineveh, because he knew that God was so forgiving, he knew that God was going to relent, he knew that God was that school administrator who would swoop down and save the day.  And that made Jonah furious.

The big picture lesson of the Book of Jonah is a simple, yet incredibly disturbing one: YOU ARE NOT GOD. (So annoying, I know!)  God does not have to play by our rules, especially when our rules see things too simply, especially when our rules have their basis in hatred and antipathy.  Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh, because Jonah hated Nineveh.  But our God sees more, sees deeper, sees beyond our petty prejudices and bigotry.  God’s compassion and care go far beyond what we can even imagine.  Jonah hated him for it.  That’s why he ran 8n the first place.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed”

Poor old, greatest prophet ever, Jonah, wanted to gloat and revel in the destruction of his enemies, and he is mighty upset that it didn’t happen.  But here is the trick ending: it only appears as if God, the wishy-washy administrator that He is, relented on his promise to destroy old Nineveh. What Jonah failed to understand, and maybe all of us as well, is that it did happen. Nineveh was destroyed. When the people repented, when they turned from their evil ways, the OLD Nineveh was destroyed, so that a new one could take its place.

And the good news this morning, is that we have a God that desires the same wondrous fate for all of us.

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