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3rd Sunday in Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-10 (English Standard Version)

1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Schadenfreude, Jonah 3: 1-10, January 22, 2012

Ann Landers once commented that “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” --Ann Landers, The Washington Post, May 19, 1998.

Jonah is more of a parable than a prophetic book. Instead of being mostly prophetic like the other books of prophets in the Old Testament, it is more of a parable in four chapters in our English Bible.  Notice that today’s reading begins with, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh . . . .”

You know what happened before. God says go right and Jonah goes left. Opposite direction. He didn’t even want to be anywhere near where God might be able to redirect his path toward Nineveh. He intended to outsmart God, as it were. Maybe if I run all the way over here, God won’t notice. He’ll be busy with some other prophet, and maybe he’ll forget he called me. Or maybe if I ignore the call it will go away.

Now we might chuckle knowing what comes next in the story. While he’s trying to make his escape, a violent storm comes up, everyone fears for their life and Jonah’s hiding on lower deck.

By process of elimination, Jonah was found by the rest of the crew and confronted with his situation. “Somebody’s God is mad at us and we know it’s not us, so it must be you, Jonah. This storm is not normal. Who angered their God?”

One thing I can say for Jonah, he wasn’t a liar. “Throw me overboard and your troubles will be over” (and mine, too, he probably thought!). But even then, God does not let him take the easy way out: Jonah does not drown.

Regardless of what you think of this fish story, the crystal clear point is that we can’t hide from God. (To some people, that may not be a good thing. If you’re hiding from God, you hope God doesn’t find you! )

But think of the wonder of knowing that God sees you even when you think he doesn’t. He never slumbers or sleeps. On those days you feel forgotten or overlooked by God; you can rest assured He’s on your side. (Refer to Psalm 139)

Jonah, the reluctant prophet reminds us that hate can take hold in anyone’s soul, even one that should be focused on the growth of the kingdom. Souls like Jonah, and maybe souls like ours.

To any lover of language, words can be fascinating. Here are four tongue-twisting German words that have found their way into the English language in academic writings and intellectual conversation.

One of the intriguing things about German is that a single word can capture what it takes four or five words to express in English.

Weltanschauung. One's view of the world. The way one looks at life.
Heilsgeschichte. The history of salvation.
Kulturwissenschaft. The study of culture.

The last word, Schadenfreude, brings us to Jonah. Jonah was an individual painfully stuck in Schadenfreude. He reeks of it. His whole demeanor is dripping with it. Translation? It means "malicious joy at another person's misfortune." Schadenfreude.

Jonah would have been perfectly happy to preach hellfire and damnation to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, because frankly, they deserved it. Horrible people. Nasty habits.

They were Israel's longtime enemy, and therefore God's longtime enemy ... right?

Wrong. God gave Jonah the task of preaching prophetically to those abominable heathens in the wicked city of Nineveh. These people were outside of the Covenant that gave Israel its special status. This bothered Johan, a self-righteous, religious man.

And what exactly did God mean by calling Nineveh "that great city" not once, but twice? This really piqued Jonah's suspicions. Yes, Nineveh was wicked, but "great"? It almost sounded like God had a soft spot for those evil Ninevites!

Jonah bolted. But after escaping on a ship, almost capsizing in a storm, being swallowed by a great fish and then finding himself thrown back up on the sand, Jonah finally accepted God's assignment. Even so, Jonah consented with all the enthusiasm of a sullen adolescent.

Finally, he gave a half-hearted sermon. Jonah spent minimal time on his conversion sermon. In fact, the message was a mere eight words in English: "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown." In Hebrew, it took only four words.

And can you picture the delivery? Minimal expression and all the enthusiasm of a Ben Stein lecture. Forty days more ... and Nineveh ... shall be ... overthrown. He wanted to tell them with a minimum of personal exertion. (OK, God, I’ve done my part, now can I leave?)   

Who is this Jonah? He is the patron saint of anyone who secretly smiles when the high school prom queen shows up at the 25th reunion with 50 extra pounds and her third husband. Shadenfreude. He is the employee who feels delicious pleasure when the boss is suddenly sacked leaving room on the top. Or, those who enjoy hearing about a "family values" politician who winds up photographed in a hot tub with a woman clearly not his wife. Again, Schadenfreude.

Jonah reminds us that even in the community of faith -- and perhaps especially in the community of faith -- we confuse what we hate with what God hates. Do we, like Jonah, find pleasure in hating? Joy in our enemy's misfortune? Do we find ourselves working for our own self-interests rather than God's glory and the growth of the kingdom?

Are we also stuck in Schadenfreude? While "hate" increasingly becomes news breaking -- stories of hate crimes, hate groups, hate Web sites permeate the media -- we see ourselves as innocent in the presence of such malevolence. Those people are sick! And they certainly are not Christian, even if they call themselves some sort of religious group!

But Jonah provides a mirror for us to examine ourselves with a painfully clear reflection. While terrorists, war criminals and deranged individuals are almost universally despised, Jonah reminds us that hate also takes shape in souls that appear to be respectable and faithful. Maybe souls like us.

Is Schadenfreude pervasive in our soul? Do we experience a touch of joy when others falter? Do we rejoice when those we despise (or merely find annoying) suffer? Do we grouse when those same souls find themselves touched by grace?

Or have we become so intimate with the God of love that we routinely shower our enemies, our rivals, our vexing acquaintances with Christ like compassion?

No matter how we examine our culture, our understanding of the history of salvation teaches us how to look at the world. According to Jonah's story, God saves even our enemies if they turn from faithlessness to holiness. This is excruciating for those of us who delight in the notion that God detests all the people, all the ideas, and all the organizations that we detest.

Jonah reminds us that "wickedness" springs not from the fact that you are not like me, or "they" are not like "us." Wickedness ensues when people are not like God, whether those people in question happen to be Ninevites, Serbs, Iraqis, Democrats, Republicans, Baptists, Catholics, or any one of us.

 God's point is that the kingdom must grow, and everybody is invited. Even the obnoxious neighbor who yells at our dog and let's his trash blow in our yard. Even the coworker who stabs people in the back or the church leader whose attitude is so self-righteous.

God's plan is that everyone will be saved by turning away from wickedness and toward the only God who can free a guy from the belly of a fish, the only God who can transform an entire city of heathens, the only God who can melt hateful hearts.

God persists as the only one who can change us. [ Incorporate Thursday's clergy meeting notes]

--racial division—not B & W (Jonah’s view), but right & wrong (God’s view)

--don’t buy into the world’s prejudices—extend God’s grace

--people will say what they say—but, we don’t have to buy into it; take offense at it; we don’t have to take it personal

--often it’s not about B & W, but about right & wrong

Jonah's story ends with a question. God asks Jonah, "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city (one more time), 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?" (4:11) We never hear the answer.

It is reminiscent of the loving father's words to the prodigal's son’s older brother: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (Luke 15:31-32).

In both stories we are left without a tidy ending. The ball is in Jonah's court. Whether he sulks through the remainder of Nineveh's penance or comes around to see things God's way, we do not know -- just as we do not know whether the prodigal's brother ever comes inside to join the welcome home party.

And there is no tidy ending for us, either. We can spend the rest of our lives stuck in Schadenfreude, or grow toward grace.

Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, is quoted by Philip Yancey in "The Last Deist."  He said, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart. ... The only backbone to our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my firm, my country, my success -- responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged.”

Sooren Kierkegaard writes: "We need to put away our fears and stop living a life shielded against responsibility before the truth .... We must enter into a fullness of life where everything we do is done in relation to the eternal."

Grandiose as this sounds, it is really very simple. When our eyes are on the eternal, we will be motivated by love -- love for our neighbor, spouse, enemy and friend -- and we will seek to live in harmony with all people and all living things.

"For if you do not love your brother, whom you can see, how can you love God, whom you cannot see?" Amen. Let us pray . . .






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