Sermon January 17 2021 ~ Jonah Mercy Rev. Betsy Hogan
So, last week I preached about the difference between FACTS and TRUTH.
How the ancient tradition of Biblical storytelling, which existed alongside other ancient traditions of storytelling for literally thousands of years prior to the radical shift of the Enlightenment, is not and never was about the conveying of FACTS – but is instead about the communicating of TRUTH.
How in Bible stories the question of "is this fact" isn't just not useful, but it's also quite emphatically not the point. The point, for example, of the virgin birth story ISN'T to force into our understanding of reproductive biology an alternate path we need to accept as having factually occurred....
The point of the virgin birth is to convey to us HOW POWERFULLY Jesus was experienced by those around him as being the embodiment of Godness, and not just an ordinary person.
It's the communicating of things experienced as TRUE, real, meaningful. Not FACTS. Which last week proved a deeply relevant point in relation to the Creation Story in Genesis, and THIS week –
Yes, the prophet Jonah. Who is called by God to prophesy to the people of Ninevah and he doesn't want to. So he tries to escape on a ship. There's a storm, he's thrown into the sea, and gets swallowed by a big fish. Where he spends three days and three nights. Before getting spit back up, perfectly fine, and apparently suffering no ill effects.
And are there people who've spilled gallons of ink on some very convoluted explanations of how exactly this could technically have happened? From insisting it wasn't a fish but a whale, and so regularly surfaced so Jonah could breathe... Or declaring the presence of air pockets in the fish... or even that it was obviously just a fish-shaped bunch of weeds? Yes. A great deal of ink has been spilled, trying to account for this as FACT.
Which is entirely not the point. Because the point, as always, is conveying what's been experienced as TRUE. And what's TRUE in the story of Jonah is that when it comes to Jonah doing what God has asked Jonah to do – resistance is futile.
Resistance is futile. To a ridiculous and hilarious extent so over-exaggerated that it's "clearly Jonah needs a time out in the belly of a fish" futile. To remember how to behave, and go do what God wanted him to do.
And of course it works! Jonah contemplates how much he wishes to remain stuck in the belly of a fish, and promises to behave, and presto he gets spit up. Good as new, and yes: he immediately takes himself off to the faraway city of Ninevah.
To do what God has directed him to do. To preach to the people of Ninevah that their widespread wrong-doing has aroused God's wrath, and they need to shape up or they'll be destroyed.
There's been a lot of commentary and speculation as to WHY Jonah was so stubborn --until the fish episode -- about bringing this message to the people of Ninevah.
It's almost always assumed, because Ninevah was the capital of ancient Assyria – the terrible enemy of Israel who'd in fact gotten pretty close to destroying Israel, taking many of its people into exile –
It's almost always assumed that Jonah didn't want to go warn Ninevah they'd better shape up because he was actually quite happy for them NOT to shape up. And then to be destroyed as God was suggesting would happen.
But that's not in fact the reason Jonah eventually gives. Admittedly after the whole series of events is over, and maybe he IS sort of trying to explain his motivations in ways that will make him look "good" and not "petty" –
But what Jonah eventually says, after the whole series of events is over – after he finally goes to Ninevah, and he warns them to shape up, and they actually DO shape up, and God actually DOESN'T destroy them –
What Jonah eventually says, after that whole series of events is over, is that he didn't want to do it because he knew it was a waste of time. Because he knew God would never have destroyed them anyway. Because God is only ever always merciful.
And he's right. In that last conversation he has with God at the end of the story, God never actually disputes what he says. Because he's right. He says to God "I know you. You would never have done it. So when you said to me 'Oh you have to go to Ninevah and warn them' all I'm thinking of is 'what a waste of time'.
"Because you would never have actually destroyed them. You're always merciful. So why even go through the pantomime of it? It wasn't necessary. It was just a waste of time."
But no: it WASN'T a waste of time, is what God replies to Jonah. God doesn't dispute that Jonah is in fact absolutely right – God IS in fact always merciful and God WOULDN'T in fact ever have actually destroyed Ninevah –
But it wasn't a waste of time for Jonah to go there and warn them, is what God says to Jonah. Because even if the whole "you're going to be destroyed" thing was ultimately an empty threat because God wouldn't ever actually go through with it --
Just being taken to task by Jonah, being scolded by Jonah, okay being THREATENED by Jonah, made the Ninevites think about the wrong they'd done, think about how they were behaving, repent about how they'd been behaving, and start doing better.
They changed, the people of Ninevah. They became better.
Were they then more "loved" by God, having become better? No! Because they were already completely "loved" by God who's so merciful that God would never have destroyed them anyway. They couldn't GET "more loved".
But they could live better. Just for the sake of living better. Because living better is better. For them with each other, and with others. And whatever's better for God's people is always going to be what God wants. More kindness, more compassion, more justice, more peace, more care for each other.
These were the result for the people of Ninevah of Jonah going there and preaching at them at a warning. It might not seem like the "best" way to inspire people to make their living better but it worked.
And that was God's goal. God says to Jonah, Don't you understand how I'd be concerned for the people of Ninevah? Wanting them to learn to live better with each other? More compassionately with each other? More peacefully and justly with each other? Well, this is how we made it happen. So no. It wasn't a waste of time.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about something he called Cheap Grace. The notion that because God is always merciful and we are always beloved, it's essentially a 'waste of time' to hold ourselves or anyone else accountable for what they get up to.
Bonhoeffer identified Cheap Grace as an incredibly easy pitfall for Christians. Easy to fall into and even easier to be shamed into. Because Cheap Grace places ALL the emphasis on God is always merciful and we are always beloved. Jesus is always merciful and we are always beloved.
And if that sounds lovely, it is – until we realize that it neither expects nor demands ANYTHING. Of us or anyone else. It essentially construes the love of God and Jesus as being materially irrelevant to our actual lives – like a parent who says they love us but won't demand that our siblings stop hitting us.
Bonhoeffer rightly noted that Cheap Grace isn't just empty, but it can also be weaponized. It can also be abuse. And he knew that, and he wrote about that, because he was watching it in action in the 1930s. As German Christians shamed each other with admonishments about the need for love and unity in the name of Christ, because "surely what God wants is for us to put aside our differences" – when those differences were Support Hitler or Not.
Bonhoeffer wrote forcefully that the God of Jesus is NOT a God of Cheap Grace. A God of unconditional love and mercy – absolutely. But a God who doesn't get concerned, who has no expectations, who registers no demands? No way.
Jesus NEVER papered over differences regarding the values of compassion and inclusion and justice, in service of the illusion of "unity". He specifically tells his disciples that if they meet people along the way who aren't open to the values manifest in his teachings, they get to just move on. Shake the dust from their feet. Don't cease being loving, being kind, but there are standards.
The faithfulness Jesus teaches doesn't sacralize, lift up as holy, pretending that anything goes and nothing matters, because "love". There's nothing sacred about "love one another" unity that involves or even requires pretending anything goes and nothing matters.
Why does God bother sending Jonah to Ninevah? When God's going to be merciful anyway? Because how the Ninevites are behaving matters to God. How they're behaving concerns God. God wants them to be better. God wants them to change. God wants more for them than just Cheap Grace. They deserve better. They deserve better treatment from each other. And other people deserve better treatment from them.
The whole prophetic tradition, right through to the appearance of Jesus, all of it – why does God bother? When God's going to be merciful anyway? Because how we are and how we behave with one another, it matters to God. It concerns God. God wants the human family to be better. There's nothing sacred about a "love one another" unity that requires pretending anything goes and nothing matters.
And Christian, indeed ALL good people, are easily shamed into thinking that there is. Don't be judgmental, the past is the past, set this aside, it's time to move on – I've listened for the last ten days as good people in the fraught United States have been getting systematically shamed into "what's important now is unity".
Because it's not. Not when values have been scorned and standards have been trampled on. If papering over those were enough, if Cheap Grace were enough, God wouldn't have bothered sending Jonah to Ninevah. Jonah says to God: You were always going to be merciful anyway. And it's true.
But that didn't mean that what the Ninevites were getting up to didn't need to be addressed. That the hurt and harm their behaviour was causing didn't need to be named and changed. For their own sake and for the sake of those they were hurting and harming.
God's love is deep and wide, but it's real. It doesn't paper over harm – it can't, because we matter. It doesn't expect nothing – it can't, it upholds a set of values: compassion, justice, peace, inclusion. It's not cheap grace. We're worth more than that. Amen.