THE VISION THING

 

JONAH 4:1-22

 

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            I’m told it was once the fashion in sections of Eastern Europe to construct pulpits in the shape of an upright whale.  Such a pulpit required the proclaimer to enter the interior of the pulpit at the base, climb a ladder through the belly, and then come into the open mouth to deliver the sermon.

            What do you think?  If we ever get around to re-doing the chancel area of our sanctuary, what do you think of an upright whale for a pulpit?  Would you be in favor of such a thing?

            I wouldn’t, and it has nothing to do with architecture.  I wouldn’t like it because I wouldn’t want a pulpit that constantly reminds me of the prophet Jonah.  You might remember from our sermon series on the minor prophets that Jonah was prejudiced, bigoted, stubborn, self-centered, openly rebellious and spiritually insensitive.  He ran from God rather than to God.  Why even a whale could not stomach Jonah - he was that offensive - and we get a sense of that here.  In Jonah’s final appearance, we find him quarreling with God, rather than rejoicing with God over the repentance of the people of Nineveh, the capital city Assyria, Israel’s arch enemy.  Let’s take a closer look at the now.  Jonah 4:1 ...

 

            But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became very angry.  He 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.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Then 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.

            The 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.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  When 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.”

            But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”  Then 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.  And 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?”

 

            Quarreling with God is a time-honored biblical practice.  Moses, Job, David, and Peter were all masters at it.  We may even get into it from time to time in our own dealings with God.  God surprises us, doesn’t do what we want, doesn’t jump through our hoops, so we have a beef with God.  We quarrel with God.  Jonah, however, takes his quarrel to the nth degree.  Some have nicknamed him “The Pouting Prophet.”  As the prophets go, he might be the least endearing of any of them.  Up close and personal, he’s hard to take.

            I think of the time John Wesley was preaching.  As he preached he noticed a woman who was known for her critical attitudes, and all through the service she sat and stared at Wesley’s new tie.  When the service ended, she came up to him and said very sharply, “Mr. Wesley, the strings on your tie are much too long.  They offend me!”

            Wesley turned to the crowd around them, and asked if any of them happened to have a pair of scissors with them.  One woman had a pair in her purse and handed the scissors to Wesley.  He gave them to his critic and asked her to trim the streamers on his tie to her liking.  After she clipped them off near the collar, he asked her, “Are you sure, the streamers are to your liking now?”

            She said, “Yes, that’s much better.”

            “Now let me have those shears for a moment,” he said.  “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if I also gave you a bit of correction.  I must tell you, madam, that your tongue is an offense to me - it’s too long!  Please stick it out.  I’d like to take some off!”

            In a similar fashion, I would like to take out a pair of scissors and snip off some of Jonah’s tongue.  It’s difficult to stomach this guy.  Instead of rejoicing with God over the repentance of Nineveh, he gives God a piece of his mind.  He’s critical of God because God did not do what Jonah wanted him to do.  Instead of nuking the Ninevites, instead of charbroiling them, God let them off the hook.  So Jonah pouts.  He sulks.  And most of all, he seethes with anger.  In fact, did you count how many times the word anger appears in this final chapter of his prophecy?  Five times.  Five times in eleven verses, almost every other verse, with one reference to Jonah being “angry enough to die.”

            Jonah’s state of mind at the end of the book reminds me of the snail and the jellyfish that inhabit the Bay of Naples.  When the snail is small the jellyfish will sometimes swallow it and draw it into its digestive tract, but the snail is protected by it’s shell and cannot be digested.  The snail fastens itself to the inside of the jellyfish and slowly begins to eat it.  By the time the snail is completely grown, it has consumed the entire jellyfish.

            Jonah is like that jellyfish.  His snail of anger is consuming him.  And as the prophet pouts, I want us to note two things this morning.  First, I want us to note the limit of anger.

            On the positive side anger is a most useful diagnostic took.  When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that something is wrong, that something is not working properly.  Anger tips us off to the presence of evil or incompetence or insensitivity.  Anger can be a sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood.

            In that regard, anger is a good emotion, and the bible does not condemn anger.  God gets angry, Jesus gets angry, and we, created in the image of God, get angry.  Of course, the biblical writers do condemn the abuse of anger, and when we think about it anger is only one letter removed from “danger.”  And we can sympathize with the little boy whose angry outburst got him into trouble with his father.  The boy was later heard praying, “Dear God, please take away my temper, and while you’re at it, please take away daddy’s temper too.

            Aristotle put it well.  He said, “Anybody can become angry.  That is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way ... that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” 

            And it certainly was not within Jonah’s power, and that was God’s concern.  Note how God does not condemn Jonah’s anger.  Rather God questions Jonah’s right to be angry in this case.  God asks him straight out:  “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” and herein lies the major problem with anger, it’s major limitation.

            What anger fails to do is tell us whether the wrong is outside of us or inside of us.  When we become angry we usually assume the wrong, the cause of our anger, resides outside of us.  It’s our spouse, or our parents, or whoever it might be.  And that’s what Jonah did.  He blamed God.  God was the problem, not Jonah.  But when we track anger carefully we often find it leads to a flaw within ourselves.  We discover we are responding to wrong information or to inadequate understanding or to an underdeveloped heart.  In Jonah’s case the wrong was in his heart.  A spiritual poverty ignited his anger.

            That’s the limit of anger.  It doesn’t tell us whether the problem is inside us or outside of us and most times we assume it’s outside of us, but most often the opposite is true.  The problem is not “out there” it’s not “other people,” it’s us.  That’s what makes Jonah such a pitiful character.  He had no clue he was the problem.  And the book ends with us not knowing if Jonah ever looked inside to track his anger.  Instead, the book ends with a question, not an answer, “Jonah, should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city with more than a hundred and twenty thousand people?”

            For what it’s worth, Michelangelo thinks Jonah finally looked inside.  The next time you are in the Sistine Chapel, and Trudy and I have been there once, check out the ceiling.  Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel portrays the prophets, the apostles, and the patriarchs, and of all the faces he painted none is more radiant than Jonah’s.  Perhaps Jonah knew something that we do not know about Jonah or perhaps he merely hoped Jonah did accept God’s mercy and became a communicator of God’s grace. 

            So, there we have the limit of anger.  Next, let’s note the importance of vision.  Jonah for all his faults had vision.  He knew what God was up to in the world, he just didn’t want to join God in what God was doing.  Verse 2 ...

 

            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.

 

            Jonah had no problem with vision, of what God was up to in the world.  He knew God would let Jonah’s arch enemy off the hook, and that’s exactly what God did.  Jonah knew, he suspected, where God was going.  He just did not want to join God in the venture.

            How’s our vision when it comes to God?  Do we have a clear sense of what God is calling us as a church to do?  If so, are we willing to join God in what God is doing?  Or is our hypothesis for this morning accurate?  In case you did not get around to reading it, let’s look at it now.

 

            Our congregation lacks a compelling and widely shared vision of what God is calling us to be and do as it moves into the future.  Without a fresh discernment of God’s vision for us, we risk being irrelevant to God’s mission in our contemporary time and place.

           

            Let me close with a story.  Last week Trudy and I saw the new Three Musketeers movie which begins with a thrilling scene of the Musketeers breaking into a secret vault where Michelangelo hid his most prized inventions.  After breaking into the secret vault, they abscond with Michelangelo’s plans for a flying warship.

            That scene took me back to contemporary of Michelangelo, to Hans Babblinger of Ulm, Germany.  Hans wanted to fly.  He wanted to break the bonds of gravity.  He wanted to soar like a bird. He had one major problem.  He lived in the sixteenth century.  In the sixteenth century there were no planes, and no helicopters, and no flying machines.  What he wanted was impossible.

            Hans Bablinger, however, made a career out of helping people overcome the impossible.  He made artificial limbs.  In his day with amputation being a common cure for disease and injury, he kept quite busy.  His day to day job was to help the handicapped overcome their circumstance, and one day he decided to do the same for himself.

            He used his skills to construct a set of wings, and the day came to try them out over the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.  On a memorable day, with friends watching and the sun shining, Hans jumped off an embankment and soared safely down becoming the first hang glider, I suppose.

            His heart raced.  His friends cheered.  And God rejoiced.

            How do I know God rejoiced?  Because God always rejoices when we dare to dream.  After all, God wrote a book about people joining with Him to make the impossible, possible. 

            I mean, eighty year old shepherds don’t usually play chicken with Pharaohs ... but don’t tell that t0 Moses.

            And teenage shepherds don’t normally have showdowns with giants ... but don’t tell that to David.

            And night-shift shepherds don’t usually get to hear angels sing and see God in a stable ... but don’t tell that to the Bethlehem bunch.

            And little white frame Presbyterian churches don’t normally think they have something big to contribute to what God’s doing in the world ... but don’t tell that to the folk at Anderson Grove. 

            Amen.