A Terrible Prophet

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints. And even pastors like me struggle to love as we ought to.

If you’ve listened to my sermons, you know that I have some issues with how our country has been treating people who come to this country seeking asylum. And you can probably guess that I have some issues with how our country treats immigrants—especially immigrants from the south—in general.

Well… earlier this week, while I was working on this sermon, there was a news story.

There was a group on Facebook made up of about ninety-five hundred current and former Customs and Boarder Control agents. Now, that is not every CBP agent in the country, but it’s a lot of them. And not everyone in the group was doing something wrong, but a lot of them were. 

People in the group were posting things about immigrants… and about congresspeople… and, I imagine, about people like me… that were so vile that I cannot describe them in a sermon.

And people in the group were liking those posts and commenting approvingly on those posts.

And when I saw the posts… I felt my tense muscles, and my quickening pulse, and my clenched jaw. I was angry. I was more than angry, I was mad. I was more than mad, I wanted those people—who posted, who liked the posts, who commented approvingly on them—to suffer.

That was not the first time I’ve felt that way. That won’t be the last time I feel that way. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like it when people commit acts of violence. I don’t like it when people celebrate acts of violence. And there are times—and I realize that this is a glaring moment of hypocrisy—there are times when I want to see the full wrath of God brought down on those people.

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints. And even pastors like me struggle to love as we ought to.

Today is our second Sunday in our sermon series on prayer. And, God knows, I need prayer. In those moments when I want to see the wrath of God, I need a very simple prayer. I need a prayer to turn me away from the violence of anger and turn me towards the grace of God. I need a prayer that will equip me to call others to do the same.

And that prayer is simple: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Today’s reading is from the book of the prophet Jonah. And Jonah is a terrible prophet.

You see, there is this city in the Assyrian Empire called Nineveh. It is a big city for the time: a hundred and twenty-thousand people. And Jonah does not like it. And Jonah does not like the Assyrian Empire. As far as Jonah is concerned, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. And Jonah would very much like to see the full wrath of God brought down on the people of Nineveh.

But God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

And Jonah knows that if he goes to Nineveh, and if he cries out against it, they might repent. And if they repent, then God will forgive them. And if God forgives them, then Nineveh will… still be there.

But if he doesn’t go to Nineveh, well…

Jonah knows that God saves the righteous and destroyed the wicked. And if Jonah can just make sure that the people of Nineveh stay wicked for a little while longer…

So Jonah gets on a boat that’s going to Tarshish, which is not near Nineveh.

God could find another prophet. God could find someone who lives near Nineveh. God could find someone who doesn’t hate the people of Nineveh and the Assyrians. But this isn’t just about Nineveh, anymore. God has a point to make to Jonah. So a terrible storm comes up, and the sailors on the boat that Jonah is on are afraid. And they find out that they are in danger because of Jonah.

So Jonah tells them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Drowning may be worse than going to Tarshish, but it’s better than telling the people of Nineveh to repent.

So the sailors throw Jonah into the sea, and the storm stops. And the sailors realize just how powerful the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who Jonah was running from, is. And they give sacrifices and make vows to the Lord.

Jonah is a terrible prophet. But even when he is running away from God, he is winning converts.

But God still wants Jonah to go to Nineveh. So God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah and keep him in its belly.

And that’s when Jonah—who didn’t want God to show mercy to Nineveh, who ran away from God—prays to God for help:

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me…

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord…

With the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Where we are when we pray, matters.

If you just heard the words of Jonah’s prayer, you would think it was a prayer of thanksgiving. It sounds like the kind of prayer that someone would pray after he’s been rescued from distress, after she’s been lifted up from the ash heap, after they’ve escaped from the pit.

“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”

But Jonah isn’t praying on the ship. And he isn’t praying on dry land. He is praying from the belly of a fish. He is praying from inside Sheol. He is praying from the depths of the pit. Where we are when we pray, matters.

“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.” This is not a prayer of thanksgiving. It is a cry for help.

And in that moment when he cries for help—in that moment when he shouts “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”—he knows the truth. If Jonah, who disobeyed God and tried to run away from Tarshish, can rely on God’s steadfast love… then so can the people Nineveh.

Jonah is a terrible prophet. But even when he’s in the belly of a fish, he is winning converts.

And when the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, he goes to Nineveh and he calls for the people to repent. He calls for the people to rely on the same steadfast love that he relied on when he was in the belly of that fish.

And the king of Nineveh hears that call. And the king of Nineveh calls for all of the people and all of the animals to fast from food and drink. The king of Nineveh calls for all of the people and all of the animals to put on sackcloth. The king of Nineveh calls for everyone to turn away from evil and violence.

And God sees this. And God changes his mind. It’s right there in the Bible. God changes his mind and does not destroy them.

Jonah isn’t happy about it. Jonah doesn’t like it. But Jonah saves Nineveh. 

When Jonah is the belly of that fish, he is praying for grace. When I am in the belly of even righteous anger, I am praying for mercy. And the thing about God’s grace—the thing about God’s mercy—is that it isn’t something that we can hold onto. It isn’t something that we can contain. When Jonah prays for God’s deliverance, he has no choice but to go deliver Nineveh. When I pray for mercy, I have no choice but to be merciful towards others.

Grace is like glitter: it gets everywhere, there is always more of it, and it always shows up where you are not expecting it.

In a little while, we’re going to end this worship service with a patriotic hymn. It is, after all, the Sunday after the fourth of July. And one of the lines in that song calls for God to shed his grace on our country.

And in these days, when agents of our government joke in Facebook about the deaths of immigrants, maybe we need this reminder. That if God gives us grace, we must give it to others. If God shows us mercy, we must show it to others. If God delivers us from evil, we must deliver others.

Let us pray:

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’

The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. 

Deliverance belongs to the Lord! Amen.

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