Jonah Transformed by Grace
The Withering Bush
August 7, 2022
St. Stephen’s UMC, Burke, VA
Jonah 3:10–4:11 (NRSV)
When you hear the name Jonah, you probably think of the big fish story first. To provide a quick recap: God had called Jonah to do something, but Jonah decided to run away from God’s call. So, he hopped on a ship to move away from God, mistakenly believing that such a thing was even possible.
And when the ship faced a great, mighty storm, Jonah thought it was due to him angering God, so he decided to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the people on that ship.
When he was thrown into the sea, a large fish came to swallow Jonah up. And inside the fish, Jonah spent three days and three nights, and there Jonah offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
When the fish spewed Jonah out to the dry land, God spoke to him once again, calling Jonah to do the very thing he tried to run away from.
You are wondering by now, what did God exactly call Jonah to do?
God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and proclaim God’s message to the Ninevites. And this city is significant for two reasons. First, the Ninevites are Gentiles, non-Jewish people, meaning they were not God’s “chosen people.” Second, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire which had conquered and oppressed the people of Israel and Judah on many occasions in the Old Testament days. So, to put it short, God called a Jewish prophet named Jonah to go and prophesy to the Ninevites who were not only just strangers to Jonah but also his enemies.
So, after being called by God the second time, Jonah reluctantly went into Nineveh and cried out to its people: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:3). It was pretty much a word of destruction. And the Ninevites took this prophecy seriously and started to repent, which means “to turn [around] from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:9). And this is where today’s scripture begins:
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
You see, the reason why Jonah tried to run away from God’s call was that he did not want to see God deliver the Ninevites. Even as he was proclaiming the message of destruction, he knew deep down in his heart that God was “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Jonah knew God’s plan was to save the Ninevites all along and he did not want to be part of it.
Here is an interesting thing about being a prophet. To be a prophet is not to be right, but to be faithful. Jonah ended up being a prophet who got it wrong because his prophecy did not come true.
In fact, upon hearing God’s call, Jonah was conflicted between his desire to be right and his devotion to be faithful. In the end, his selfless devotion outweighed his selfish desire. And we have got to give Jonah credit — he has shown acts of selflessness before. After all, he even sacrificed his life for others while running away from God’s call.
Nevertheless, when God did not punish the Ninevites, Jonah became angry. Not only did he look foolish for being the prophet who got it wrong, but the people he absolutely had no care for were also saved. So, Jonah prayed to God, “Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). And God responded with a question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v. 4).
Let’s continue with the story:
6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, 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?”
This is how the book of Jonah ends, with God’s open-ended question to Jonah and also to us.
Many of us have likely had a similar experience as Jonah had with his bush. Perhaps it is a certain ministry, program, building, community, tradition, person, or something else. See, these bushes symbolize the things that provided us with fond memories, the things that gave us a sense of comfort, belonging, and identity, and the things that helped us grow closer to God. And truly, these bushes were God’s gifts to us to live out our journeys. And, yes, we may have poured a lot of time, resources, blood, and sweat into caring for these bushes. But in the end, we confess that these are simply God’s gifts, gifts given freely to us.
And perhaps some of us feel sad, angry, and discouraged about the loss of our bushes similar to how Jonah was angry enough to die. It is a painfully honest response.
In fact, in today’s scripture, God did not try to reason with Jonah about how his anger was unwarranted. Rather, God pushed Jonah so that he might empathize with God in his anger. And I want to believe that this is also the case for us. Perhaps God is pushing us at this moment so that we may empathize with God by asking ourselves the question:
“If we are this much heartbroken by the things freely given to us, then how much would God be heartbroken by the loud groanings of God’s own creations?”
And Jonah’s story goes deeper, reminding all of us of the uncomfortable truth, that God’s creations encompass so much more than our own people. God’s grace and mercy extend to strangers, enemies, and animals… to all creations. In fact, if we believe God is the creator of everything, then we should also recognize that God’s grace and mercy extend and surround all cosmos.
God often calls us to participate in God’s grand plan of caring for all God’s creations, especially caring for the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the weak (cf. Ezekiel 34:16). But like Jonah, it is our self-entitlement and our desire to be right that often get in the way of following God’s call. God’s unconditional love for others often threatens us.
There is a similar story in the New Testament, a parable told by Jesus (Luke 15:11–32).
There was a father with two sons. The younger son left the house to live on his own and eventually lost all his property. After struggling for a while, he finally decided to return to his father to work for him. So, the younger son turned around, went back to his father’s house, and apologized. Instead of saying, ‘I told you so,’ the father was “filled with compassion” and showed his utmost mercy and grace for his lost son had finally returned. But the elder son could not understand and became very angry.
God is like the loving parent, Nineveh is like the younger child, and Jonah is like the elder child. Countless people have voiced that the better title for this story is the parable of the prodigal father, instead of the prodigal son, for the word prodigal means “having or giving something on a lavish scale.” And the story’s emphasis is on the parent who shared their love lavishly, which was beyond the elder child’s comprehension, just as the love God showed to Nineveh was beyond Jonah’s comprehension.
Some of us here are like the younger child, who found the courage to come back to the parent’s house. If this is you today, I pray that you experience God’s lavish love for you here at this church.
But most of us here today are like the elder child and like Jonah from today’s passage. Even if we all started as a younger child at some point — for we are all Gentiles invited into God’s family — it is inevitable for us to end up becoming like the elder child and Jonah if we have been faithful for quite some time. This means we have a hard time comprehending God’s lavish love for all God’s creations other than our own.
To the angry elder son, the prodigal father responded in a similar way as God did to Jonah. Rather than scolding, the father pushed the elder son to empathize with him (Luke 15:31–32):
“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.”
And, church, hear the good news. Today’s message on God’s lavish love does not mean either-or, but both-and: both the deliverance of Nineveh and the redemption of Jonah, both the welcoming of the younger child with love and the reassuring of the elder child with love. God’s lavish love, which is abundant, only means the upbuilding of God’s kingdom. And despite our reluctance and our incomprehension, God still calls each one of us to be part of God’s grand plan of caring for all God’s creations, especially for the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the weak.
As we continue with our series exploring different biblical figures and their call stories, I pray that you wrestle with these two questions,
- How is God calling me despite my reluctance, shortcoming, anger, and doubt?
- How is God calling St. Stephens’s UMC despite its challenges and what is my part in this call?
May God’s lavish love transform us and transform our church as we follow God’s call to care for all God’s creations. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Minoo Kim is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the Virginia Annual Conference. He will very much appreciate it if you like and follow his Medium profile. Peace!
 Phyllis Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” NIB Vol. V, 682