Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20th, 2020
Today’s Readings are:
The story of Jonah is like a really good kids’ book: you can get a lot out of it when you’re young, but it only gets better and better as you grow up. You probably know the kind of books that I’m talking about. There are some books that we’re reading the girls even now that, really, they’re great for being five or two years old. There’s one called “Where’s my nose” that’s literally about figuring out where your nose is. There’s books about simple friendship, basic books about nature or space or animals: dogs go bark bark and cows go moo. They’re important for founding how a kid thinks about the world, how a child interacts with others and with God and God’s Creation, but when kids get older, they move on to other books with more difficult themes. They age up.
But there are other books that only get better as you age. They teach you so much when you’re young, just like these other books, but you never seem to put them away. You turn to them when you’ve grown up a little, thinking, yeah, this book is old hat now. I’ve learned this lesson. I’ve gained that wisdom. But then you dive deep into the world of the book and you find that it’s far richer than you had ever imagined. You’re a beginner again, ready and willing to drink from these deep waters you thought you knew.
I think Jonah is just this sort of book. Thinking back to Sunday School as a kid, this is the story I remember best. It’s the Jonah and the whale story. And I think one of the reasons we all probably remember it is because it allows Sunday school teachers countless crafts to drive the story home. It’s a great visual story with a pretty steady lesson: that we often try to get so far away from God that we do silly things like throw ourselves into the ocean. We might not know where Tarshish is, but we know that the inside of a whale is dark and dreadful. And yet God finds us anyway, rescues us, brings us back to the light and love of his presence, sets us back on our feet, dusts us off, and keeps on walking with us. For kids of any age, be they five or eighteen, this is an important lesson. It’s not only adults who face dark times. It’s not only adults who feel distanced from God. Stories like Jonah’s give us a chance to remind children that God’s love, to quote a children’s Bible, is a never failing, never giving up, always and everywhere kind of love.
And the story of Jonah keeps on teaching this lesson to us even as we get older. And God knows that we need to hear this lesson again and again. Becoming a Christian, becoming an adult and mature member of the faith, whether if it’s when we’re baptized as adults or make a public affirmation of our faith in Confirmation, or whatever, becoming a Christian doesn’t mean that we’re free from doubt or grief or sorrow, or that our lives are suddenly peachy keen hunky dory. More often the Christian life challenges us, challenges us to the foundation of our being. It’s often said among the saints of the Church that the further one gets down the path of a godly life, grace might be more powerful and apparent, but the path only gets harder. More is asked of us the deeper we go.
But we know that, right? We know that the beginning levels of anything are only the beginning levels. If I have a really great round of mini-golf and start gloating that my skills at golf are unmatched, you might look at me askance. Or if I plink out Mary had a Little Lamb on four of the black keys on a piano, then swivel around and, with a proud smile, ask for your applause and praise, I would probably receive silence. We show our skills at anything we do, whether it’s golf or playing an instrument or living a Christian life, when we are challenged.
And that challenge of the Christian life might not be (and I hope for all of us it isn’t, but who knows) the kind of life that many saints had to live, where they ended up not just saints but martyrs. But a challenging Christian life is not only one where our physical life is on the line. The Christian life is a challenge because what we try to do is, as the collect this morning says, we try to not be anxious about earthly things but to love heavenly things. The martyrs loved their heavenly, holy faith, given to them by God in the Holy Spirit more than their earthly bodies. But I’ve known a number of people who have sacrificed their careers because their mother or father needed to be cared for in the last months of their lives. I’ve known many, many teachers who have said yeah the money’s not good and the hours are hard and some people revile us but you know what, those kids need someone in their lives who takes them seriously beyond all costs. And I’ve seen kids turn their backs on the mocking of their peers to sit with that one belittled student, and not because there’s some hidden benefit but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
When Jonah’s talking to God here, and God’s trying to teach Jonah a lesson, Jonah says something that at first surprises us but then looks just too familiar: “Is it right to be angry”? God asks. “Yes,” says Jonah, “angry enough to die.”
I don’t want to know what he’s talking about. I want to come to Jonah’s response and say, “What in the world do you mean, man? What do you mean that you’re angry enough to die? How could you be angry enough to die? I’ve never felt that before.” But I’d be lying. I know that depth of anger. I know that depth of sorrow and loneliness and concern. I’ve seen it in family members, in friends, in those I minister to, and, yes, even in myself. I see that anger in our nation right now, where we are so angry, so deeply, deeply angry, angry enough to die. I wish I didn’t know what he’s talking about, but I do.
And this is a hard lesson God is teaching Jonah, one that I never thought of as a kid, but that the stories and crafts in Sunday school about being in the bottom of a whale, those prepared me for this really hard lesson. Because what God’s doing isn’t just nagging poor Jonah or belittling him, but showing him that the answer to the great mysteries of life, of living in a world wracked with frustration and despair, the answer isn’t to get angry enough to die but to love enough to die.
We talk about Jonah as a sort of Jesus: he was three days in the belly of a whale and then came out again, just like Jesus was dead three days, then was raised. But it was Jesus Christ, God himself, who went down into that whale and got Jonah out. It’s Jesus Christ who is sitting near this angry, resentful man, so angry that the salvation of an entire city doesn’t move him; it’s Jesus Christ who’s sitting there trying to save that person out such utter hatred. It’s Jesus Christ who kicked Saul off a horse, Saul, who would one day become St. Paul, but who was Saul, and who was going around persecuting followers of Jesus even to the death, it was Jesus himself who kicked that Saul off his horse with a beam of light and turned him into the apostle to the gentiles. Jesus doesn’t bat an eye when he sees darkness. He’s already faced death on a cross to save us, to save you, from an eternity of death. Jesus loved us enough to die for us, because he knew that dying was the only way to live.
We find life only in Jesus, not in us. For Jesus is life, and death. But it is death to our anger, our sorrow, our despair, those great gaping whales, whose mouths are utterly shrouded in the blackest night, to which Jesus brings death. He brings to our souls, our hopes, our joys, and all that is good that we have ever glimpsed, to these Jesus brings life, and life eternally, one magnificent day after the next. So what else is there to do but turn, yet again, to Jesus.