Sermons from San Diego

Get a Grip, Jonah

January 21, 2024 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 2 Episode 5
Get a Grip, Jonah
Sermons from San Diego
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Sermons from San Diego
Get a Grip, Jonah
Jan 21, 2024 Season 2 Episode 5
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

The Book of Jonah is a hilarious and true story - if what you mean is that it is full of uncomfortable truths about human behavior.

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Show Notes Transcript

The Book of Jonah is a hilarious and true story - if what you mean is that it is full of uncomfortable truths about human behavior.

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California


Rev. Dr. David Bahr


January 21, 2024


 “Get a Grip, Jonah”



Jonah 3: 1-10 – Common English Bible

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)

4 Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

6 When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from wrath, so that we might not perish. 

10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and didn’t do it.


God had a job for Jonah to do.  Get up, go to Nineveh, and tell ‘em to shape up or ship out.  Tell them to change their ways or they’re going to face the music.  But Jonah was not happy about this assignment.  Nineveh?  Of all places!!  Those people??!  Jonah wanted them to face the music, to get what should be coming to them.  


He thought about it for a minute and then took a couple of steps forward… to make it look like he was going to do what God asked, but then he ducked around the corner and ran down to the docks to get on the next ship going anywhere in the opposite direction of Nineveh.  As though that would get him anywhere!!


God’s used to dealing with obstinate people, so God hurled a great wind upon the sea and immediately the ship slammed up and down on enormous waves so wildly that the sailors thought the ship was going to break apart in pieces.  They frantically threw all the cargo overboard to try to lighten the ship, but to no avail.  


Somehow Jonah slept through all this until someone finally woke him up and dragged him up on deck to join the rest of them in pleading to their god, any god, for mercy.  It had to be someone’s fault.  The sailors cast lots to see who would be holding the shortest stick.  “It’s you!” they screamed at Jonah.  “What have you done?!  Tell your God to stop!”  


Jonah admitted that he was trying to slip away from his responsibility and they looked at him in horror – why would you test your god like that?  To his credit, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard.  They did and the sea became as calm as glass.  And they all worshiped Jonah’s God, while he sank until he hit bottom.


But, God wasn’t going to just let Jonah drown, let him off the hook, so God sent a big fish to save Jonah; save him by swallowing him up!  Give him a time out and let him think about what he had done, to stew in his own juices, as my mother would say, or rather sit in the warm gooey juices of the insides of a fish.  At least, I would guess it would be warm and gooey and wet inside…  


He sat there for three days and three nights and finally prayed – who wouldn’t, right?  Jonah promised, pretty please, that he had learned his lesson and would turn his life around and never disrespect God ever again.  God accepted his word and as soon as Jonah finished saying “Amen,” the fish, according to the Common English Bible, “vomited Jonah onto the dry land.”


While lying there, wiping fish guts out of his hair and pulling goo out of his pockets, God repeated, “OK, Jonah.  Get up.  Go to Nineveh and tell them to shape up or ship out.  Tell them to change their ways or they’re going to face the music.”  This time, Jonah got up and went.  At least in the right direction.


Nineveh is several hundred miles east so he had many days to walk and think and plot… how to do a bad job.  To do what God asked, but just the bare minimum.  He rehearsed it all in his head.  Go to Nineveh, but not all the way in.  Speak in a quiet enough voice that maybe they won’t hear.  He practiced how to condense his message into as few words as possible – eight.  The shortest sermon ever.  “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  


But sadly, for him, it was the most effective sermon ever.  They believed him.  Like a wildfire out of control, within minutes, the entire city was convinced that their actions needed to change and all the people from the king on down to the youngest child and even the cattle fasted from eating and drinking, and covered themselves with sack cloth and ashes.  They went in all the way.  No requests for appeal, no ifs, ands, or buts.


God saw what they were doing and accepted that they were indeed sincere about changing their ways and called off any plans to destroy them.  Jonah, on the other hand, thought God’s change of mind was utter hogwash.  “Come on, God.  This is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place.  I knew you are a merciful and compassionate God and how very patient you are.  It’s terrible.  It’s dreadful that you’re so full of faithful love; it’s a travesty that you are willing not to destroy those who should be destroyed.  Since it’s your right to do what you want, go ahead.  But please, just let me die.  I can’t stand to see this…  It’s just not fair.”  


God let Jonah have his temper tantrum and when he had finished his rant, God calmly asked Jonah, “Is your anger a good thing?”  Isn’t that a great line?  Not judgmental.  God let him have his say, get it out of his system, and asked, OK, do you feel better now?


But, of course, he didn’t.  He stomped his way out of the city and sat sulking on a hillside across from Nineveh hoping to see fireworks, praying that God would get some sense and do what Jonah thought the Ninevites deserved – like sinners in the hand of an angry God dangling over a pit of burning coals of fire and brimstone.  


As he sat there watching, Jonah put up a little hut to shade himself from the hot sun.  God had compassion on the retribution-craving Jonah and grew a little bush next to him, big enough to provide some shade and save Jonah from his misery.  Jonah was very pleased about the shade from that bush.  


The next day, however, God sent a worm that attacked the bush and it died.  And then, like the violent winds on the sea, God sent a dry east wind and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head.  Once again, he begged to die.  “It’s better for me to die than to live.”  A second time, God calmly asked, “Is your anger a good thing?  Why get angry over a bush?”  But Jonah felt no remorse and replied, “Yes!  My anger is a good thing!”


The Book of Jonah ends with just two more verses.  God said, “You’re angry about a bush?  In one night, you went from feeling pleasure about a bush to anger about a bush that you didn’t plant, that you didn’t water.  It just grew up one night and died the next.  Now, if your feelings can change so quickly, why can’t mine?  Why can’t I change my mind about how I feel about Nineveh – a city of more than 120,000 people who don’t yet know right from wrong, plus all those innocent animals.  Why can’t I change my feelings from anger to pleasure about saving this great city?”  


That’s it, the end.  God asked Jonah, “Why can’t I have compassion?” and the story ends there because what else can Jonah say?  The story ends by requiring us to answer the question.


But first of all, let’s make it clear that this is an exaggerated tale.  I’m sure you already know that a man named Jonah didn’t literally sit in the belly of a fish that God had told to swallow and give the poor thing indigestion.  


I will say, however, that this is a true story, by which I mean – it tells something very true about human behavior.  And it’s a deliberately funny story because truth often makes us uncomfortable.  Oh, that Jonah, we may chuckle.  Until we recognize ourselves.  

  • Someone running in the opposite direction that God asks?  Been there done that!  
  • Thinking we can fool God.  Uh, yeah.  
  • Not necessarily wishing God rain down fire and brimstone, but I’ll admit I’d be pretty happy to see some folks suffer consequences for what I consider their evil ways.  
  • And my favorite, God patiently asks, “Is your anger a good thing?”  You see how this is a true story?


So, I’m curious, what made Jonah think Nineveh was so sinful?  Why was he so against helping them?  Nineveh is, or at least was, a real city, basically in the suburbs of the modern-day Mosul in Iraq.  For centuries, Nineveh was a major city of high culture and learning – about 700 years before the Common Era, around the time of Jonah, it was home to the largest library of inscribed clay tablets in the world.   A cosmopolitan, educated city of art and statuary and tremendous wealth from commerce, traders interacting with cultures and people from all over the world.  But between earthquakes and repeated destructive wars, the city rose and fell over and over until it was buried in the dust, only discovered again in the mid-1800s. Anthropologists now suggest Nineveh was home to the famous hanging gardens of Babylon.  But what was their great sin?  


Did you know that San Diego is the 41st most sinful place in the US?  At least according to a survey that purports to measure sin by categories of anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, vanity, and laziness.  Surprisingly, Denver is more sinful in 6th place – unexpectedly more sinful than New York - 14th.  Vegas of course is #1, but if you’re looking for a more wholesome place to live, no need to move to Boise. Chula Vista is 164th out of 180.  Measured (somehow!) by anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, vanity, and laziness.


What was the great sin of Nineveh?  Well, think about what some very religious people today think makes a city, for example like New York, “sinful.”  Imagine Jonah gasping at seeing inter-racial couples, or same-gender, or "inter-racial same-gender!" couples walking down the street holding hands.  Stopping at Starbucks and sputtering about gender inclusive bathrooms.  Shocked at books in the library.  Like some religious people, Jonah might have thought it’s sinful to see women working outside the home.  Or angry about people who are informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality.  Come to think of it, perhaps calling the people of Nineveh “sinful” might be a little like calling someone today “woke.”  Was Nineveh so sinful or did the Israelites have a very dim view of those they viewed as less religious – all that art, education, and openness poisoning people.  The kind of thing Jonah might think God should stop.  


Now, there was something about how the Ninevites were acting that God wanted to see changed.  Remember this started with “change your ways or face the music.”  That’s what Jonah was trying to avoid.  Might it have been the way they treated widows and orphans – the classic tale of biblical prophets?  Not welcoming strangers?  Had they been worshiping idols or disrespecting the Lord God of Israel?  But they weren’t Israelites.  Their form of worship wouldn’t have mattered to God.  In fact, why would the Lord God of Israel have even cared about what these foreign people hundreds of miles away were doing anyway?  


The king of Nineveh seemed to understand, though.  In announcing his decree to fast and put on sack cloth and ashes, he said:  “Let all persons stop the violence that’s under their control.”  Perhaps including the violence that comes from anger and a desire for people to suffer.  But this story isn’t actually about the Ninevites at all, is it?  It’s about what Jonah, or any one of us, wants to happen to whomever “they” may be.


And so, the bottom line question at the end of this true story:  Why can’t God have compassion and mercy on people we think don’t deserve compassion and mercy?  Jonah said it himself.  Because God is merciful and compassionate and very patient, full of faithful love; willing not to destroy.  Jonah thought that was terrible, dreadful.  But the moral of the story?  Let God love everyone God loves.  Which is everyone.  


Or maybe the moral is:  do what God asks in the first place.