Sermons

Take Heed, Rev. Dee Ledger, January 21, 2018

Reader’s Digest recently published a list of warning labels that may seem more than a little obvious at first glance.  On a carpenter’s drill, there was the warning, “This product not intended to be used as a dental drill.”  For an iron-on shirt pattern, “Do not iron while wearing shirt.”  On a razor scooter, there was “Warning: This product moves when used.” And on a baby stroller, “Remove child before folding.”   [1]

These warning labels may seem funny, bizarre, redundant, or necessary to prevent lawsuits, but I have been known to be seemingly oblivious to certain warnings.  For example, “contents under pressure” didn’t really register when I once tried to remove a malfunctioning spray button after shaking the can, and “Handle carefully: Contents contain hot oil and steam” did not make its point when I eagerly ripped open the bag of microwaveable popcorn.  There is a certain kind of human impatience that overrules common sense, necessary caution, and restraint.  And likewise, I can think of a few warnings that had they been posted in ALL CAPS might have saved a whole lot of aches and pain.  For instance, “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LIFT THIS CRAZY HEAVY LAZY-BOY RECLINER DOWN STAIRS WITHOUT SUFFICIENT HELP” or “WHEN REMOVING THIS LIGHTBULB, PLEASE WAIT UNTIL IT ACTUALLY COOLS DOWN!”  Or like my husband too belatedly learned, “Do not store canned soft drink in a car in below-freezing temperatures” as the can will explode and you will wake up to a sticky, nasty mess and be very late to work.

God sent a reluctant Jonah to the busy metropolis of Nineveh with a warning that seemed oh-so-obvious to Jonah.  Nineveh was the enemy city.  Nineveh was full of problems and sinners.  Nineveh had conquered the Northern Kingdom and had basically done what it wanted, when it wanted.  Nineveh had, as we might say, issues, and Jonah wanted no truck with it.  Our passage picks up with the second time God sent Jonah to Nineveh—the first time, Jonah quite obstinately refuses God and takes a ship in the opposite direction than where God intended, and when we catch up to Jonah, he has already been thrown overboard the ship, swallowed by a fish, and barfed up onto land.  So during this second time of God’s calling, Jonah is a bit more ready to listen after residing in a fish for 3 days.  So, finally after smelling like fish, seaweed and whale puke, he goes to Nineveh as God instructed the first time, and duly warns the people there to get their act together by saying, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 

If God’s message of potential destruction came to us via a messenger, perhaps even a sworn-enemy, would we believe it?  Lucky for Jonah and lucky for the people of Nineveh, the king of Nineveh did not kill the messenger.  We tend to get consequences of our own free will mixed up with God’s judgment of our action.  Even so, many times we have been fore-warned to heed our predecessors, our ancestors, our collective history, or our more noble values before loathesome foursome of death, despair, degradation, and destruction come nipping at our heels, again.  Whether this is God’s judgment or the natural result of our human decisions, bad karma, the butterfly effect, or just a very visible testimony of our interconnectedness, you decide.

We may not subscribe to an overly judging God; yet I am not certain any one of us would want to live in a world where we could not learn from the consequences of our collective actions or in-action.  We often want someone to be in-charge and if it is God, then we often want God to take note and act.  If it is us, then we want someone to put warning labels on our actions or shout rather loudly and strongly to us so that we can hear and take heed, as we don’t want to walk willy-nilly into a smelly pit every time we make a decision, go for a walk, or roll out of bed in the morning.  Whether the responsibility of God or that of humans, we want to be forewarned and forearmed.  But regardless of warning, we want to survive and rise above our human mistakes, misdeeds, and misadventures.  At least, it would seem so.

But Jonah doesn’t want the Ninevites to survive—he’s actually pretty mad that God won’t give Nineveh what it deserved for past grievances.  Jonah says, “for I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.”  And then he says that he’d rather die than live, which is another way of saying that God’s mercy pains him so much that he’d rather be 6 ft. under than witness the success of his enemies in God’s eyes.  Is there anyone for whom you would cry bitter tears if they succeeded?  Is there anyone for whom you are more likely to root for their failure or misfortune because their enrichment or blessing feels oh-so-unfair?

Because you see, when Jonah comes shouting destruction in the city square one day: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the people of Nineveh actually respond to God, which, when you stop to think about it, is NOT what Jonah did at all when God came calling the first time.  The whole people of Nineveh, the powers that be and the peasants and everyone in-between, put on the sackcloth and got serious about changing their ways.  And what would you have done? Our text says that the people of Nineveh “believed” God which is another way of saying that they “trusted” God and acted as one people based on that trust.

We might consider how often we tend to disregard or downplay the message because we distrust the messenger or how often we fail to unite as a people to heed the warnings that come from our foreign and local neighbors, our global scientists and weather watchers about our environment, climate change, and living peaceably, sustainably, and holistically.  We might consider how we heed our former “enemies” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki about the precariousness of building, wielding, and maintaining a nuclear arsenal, or former German “enemies” about the dangers of nationalism.  We might ask the rioting people of our inner cities about why we need to invest in the residents, the forgotten people of Flint, Michigan about the necessity of monitoring potable water, or the rising cries of those who have been victimized by the very people who are entrusted to protect or uplift them.  We might consider how readily we listen to the prophets about the dangers of neglecting the vulnerable, the poor, the hurting, or the oppressed.

When Jonah sees that God intends mercy for the people of Nineveh because they have gotten honest with themselves and gotten their act together, he gets mad at God for changing his mind about continued consequences because Jonah *can’t* change his mind about Nineveh, God, or even himself.  He’d rather sit and stew.

Jonah should be a warning and lesson to all of us about how we desperately cling to our anger, or cling to our resentments, or cling to this idea of an unrelenting, destructive God, and not a merciful one. About our anger, Eugene Peterson writes, “What anger fails to do..is tell us whether the wrong is outside us or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us — our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry. That is what Jonah did, and he quarreled with God. But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us — wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart.”[2]

We might also take heed that our enemies might have lessons to teach us about the warnings and wonders that we daily see and we might, like the Ninevites, find places where we need to act as one people and revisit our own responsiveness or repentance before casting aspersions on the actions, inaction, or the prophetic witness of others.

Sisters and brothers, we worship a God of second chances.  Nineveh was given a second chance and turned around as a collective body after taking heed of a warning given by a political enemy.  Jonah was given a second chance to heed God’s command to go to Nineveh and proclaim a grace period of forty days.  What second chance do you need in your life?  Would a 40 day grace period make a significant difference to you in how you are currently living your life?

Rudy Francisco writes:

She asked me to kill the spider.

Instead, I get the most

peaceful weapons I can find.

 

I take a cup & a napkin,

I catch the spider, put it outside

and allow it to walk away.

 

If I am ever caught in the wrong place

at the wrong time, just being alive

and not bothering anyone

 

I hope I am greeted

with the same kind

of mercy.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Reader’s Digest Editors, “21 Stupid Warning Labels That Will Make You Feel Like a Genius Warning: Do not read this post while unconscious.” Reader’s Digest, https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/funny-warning-labels/ accessed Jan 19, 2018.

 

[2] Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992), 157.

 

[3] @rudyfrancisco