Inconceivable Grace

The text of my sermon preached at Puyallup First Christian Church on Sunday, January 21, 2018. You may listen to the Scripture readings and the sermon on iTunes or on the church website.

The cover of our bulletin this morning perplexes me. It’s an etching of an early Christian funeral oil lamp found in the catacombs under Rome, and it dates from some time in the third century CE.


3rd C. Christian Roman Funeral Oil Lamp

Now the middle figure is the Good Shepherd, which makes sense for a funeral lamp. But to the left of the Good Shepherd there is a giant fish with Jonah, either in the middle of being swallowed or vomited out by a big fish, you pick. And on the other side, another image of Jonah reclining beneath a gourd vine.

Good Shepherd, I understand. Images of the prophet Jonah on a funeral oil lamp from the third century in Christian Roman catacombs causes me to scratch my head a bit.

We do know Jesus spoke about the sign of Jonah in his preaching. Scholars debate what that might have meant for those early followers of Jesus. But I’m still not quite sure what it’s doing on a funeral lamp.

Jonah. At best we might call him a reluctant prophet of God, which makes it all the bit more peculiar he is memorialized on an oil lamp in Roman catacombs.

Jonah receives call to go to the great city of Nineveh. And what does he do? As fast as he can he jumps on a ship heading in the opposite direction to Tarshish in the mistaken belief he can hide from God. And I think most of us know how that works out.

There is a great storm on the sea that cannot be stilled.  The crew and passengers are frightened for their lives.
Jonah finally comes to them and says, “It’s all my fault. Throw me overboard.”

At first they think that’s an awful idea, but eventually they are persuaded that maybe they should toss him over the side

And I wonder why he didn’t just volunteer to jump himself rather than put it all on them?

Nevertheless the desperate crew throws him overboard. And immediately the storm is stilled.

And he has his first conversion. Because as soon as he hits the water, the storm is quieted and the water is as calm as glass. The crew is amazed and they sacrifice to the God of Jonah.

Way to go, Jonah! Nice work!

Unfortunately for Jonah he can’t see the fruit of his labor, because he’s now in the belly of a giant fish sent by God to swallow him up.

And he spends his weekend there, which gives him time to reflect on his life and his choices. He has a bit of a change of heart and he proceeds to repent of a few things. And he begins to pray.

The God hears Jonah’s prayers. And the God who sent the storm, who sent the giant fish, now gives the fish indigestion so that the great fish vomits him up onto the shore.

Chastened by his days in the belly of a fish, Jonah heads to Nineveh, which is where our reading begins this morning. God calls him a second time to go and preach in Nineveh.

Which this time, Jonah does.

I heard that a seminary professor would often say that Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish is the most believable part of this story. (1)

The storyteller says the city of Nineveh was three days walk across. That’s a pretty big city. Now I’ve been to some big cities, but three days to walk across an ancient one? One might estimate, at 20 miles per day–perhaps 60 miles across.

Now ancient Nineveh as an impressive city, no doubt. But we’ve dug up Nineveh, and it wasn’t that big at all. It sat up on a hill near the Tigris River, opposite the modern city of Mosul. We’ve found ancient carvings of the city, which show a walled fortress structure.

The city had a stone paved ramp at its east gate entrance, with two giant bulls flanking the gatehouse.
The city had wide boulevards, some stone paved. It boasted parks, canals, palaces and temples. In the Annals of Sennacherib, who ruled in the early 7th C. BCE, the circumference of the wall he built around the city and some of its agricultural fields was about 7 1/2 miles.

Nineveh wasn’t even the biggest city of its time. Its rival Babylon was larger. And it would be the Babylonians, aided by the Medes, who would sack the city in 612 BCE.

Impressive–yes. But three days walk across, it was not.

Jonah finds himself in this great city, which he detests with every fiber of his being, but God has sent him there. And he has to preach

Now remember he’s had days to prepare this sermon which God has directed him to give.

And his sermon is this: “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.”

That’s all he could put into it. Not the most masterful oratory; nor the kindest. a bit hateful one might even say.

Nineveh, you must remember, was capital of the the enemy of Israel, Assyria. It signified for Jonah everything that was wrong in the world. It was the big, bad bully enemy and he couldn’t wait to see its destruction. They conquered everything and everyone they could. Ninevites were elite and formidable. The city was an educational and arts center, a hub of energy and power. It was empire both terrifying and tremendous. And Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

So the people heard Jonah’s amazing preaching, this farm boy with his foreign accent, walking through their streets predicting their demise.

And the storyteller says they trusted in God.

Jonah did it again!

Everyone in the city, all of them, from the king of the city down to their livestock, if you noticed. They all don sackcloth and fast as a sign of their repentance.

Yeah, you heard me right. The cattle and the sheep–they’re not eating, they’re not drinking, they’ve pulled their sackcloth out of the barn.

Told you the giant fish part of the story was the most believable!

Jonah has done his job. He has preached the word of God, and every living creature within the walls of the city has responded in faith.

Job well done.

But Jonah is furious at the sight of all those people trusting in God. Chapter four begins, “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.”

You see Jonah was a prophet, yes. But Jonah saw himself as a prophet of Israel. His focus was on his people alone, and any enemy of his people, he felt, was and should always be an enemy of his God.

Jonah was a nationalist at heart, loving only his own people and despising those whom he sees and defines as other and unworthy. Jonah sees the people of Nineveh, the enemies of Israel, and he knows in his bones that they are no good.

Then all of a sudden they turn from evil and trust in God. It turns his own world upside down, and Jonah cannot take it.

He begins to pray again.

Well, actually he prays an angry rant, which is a bit like a prayer. He shakes his fist at God, saying, “This is why I ran away in the first place! I know you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil…So kill me now, I don’t want to see this!”

God responds in a way I can only described as miffed, saying, “Are you good and angry?”

Jonah, turns on his heel, and stomps out of the city. He plops down on a hill to watch and wait, hoping against hope there may still be divine fireworks and he can watch as the city he hates goes down in flames.

What a prophet, eh?

One wonders if Jonah were called to preach today, who might be the targets of his wrath? For he cannot bring himself to love those different from himself, who think differently, worship differently, work differently.

Who might be Nineveh today?

Would it be the undocumented workers who harvest his food? Would it be the Dreamers who hope to stay in the only country they know?
Because if God can love the Ninevites, God can surely love those on our unworthy lists. God may even love the Dallas Cowboys, and the Forty-Niners, and the Seahawks, too.
God may love the undocumented and the white supremacists;
God may love Antifa members, and Tea Party folk, and the Resistance; and the 1%; and those on death row.
God may love Republicans and Democrats and Independents; the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Freedom Caucus; NRA members and the Moms Against Violence activists.

I suspect if we were to look closely at the list of people we deem undesirable, we would see a list of people God has great compassion for.

Deep in his heart, Jonah knows this and it ticks him off. Because his hatred has made him stubborn, so he waits and he waits.

And miracle of miracles overnight a gourd vine grows up around and above him, shading him as he sat. The storyteller says the vine was from God. Now if you’re keeping track, God has given a storm, a great fish, and a vine.

The vine makes Jonah’s day, and he’s grateful for its shade. But what he doesn’t know is that God is going to give him another gift, which is a worm that likes to eat vines.

And that little worm does what good worms do, it chews away at the vine. And the shady vine withers away.

Meanwhile God, rather than destroying the city of Nineveh, calls out a blistering hot wind from the East to blow over the hillside. The sun blazes in all of its heat and glory.

And there’s Jonah, still sitting there, with the sun beating down on him, and a dead vine at his feet.

And God says, “Are you good and angry over the vine?”

And Jonah snaps back, “I am good and angry…to the point of death!”

He is a stubborn one, that Jonah.

But in Jonah’s story, it’s not Jonah who gets the last word. God speaks last.

Jonah doesn’t get the last word about Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t get the last word about Jonah.

The God who has spoken to the prophet through a storm, through a giant fish, through a gourd vine, and through a worm will now speak one more word to Jonah. A word of accusation and a word of grace.

You have pity on a gourd vine, God says.

Which we might add is a generous interpretation of Jonah’s state of mind, because he’s furious about the vine’s demise, just as he’s furious about the lack of demise for the people of Nineveh.

“You have pity on a gourd vine, which you did not toil and which you did not grow…

“Shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city–with more than 120,000 human beings who do not know between their right and left hands…and many beasts?” (God doesn’t forget the beasts!)

And there in one question from God is the gospel in a nutshell.

The God whom we follow is a God of compassion.
The God we follow is a God of relationship–with us, and with our enemies, and with all creation.

The God of the gospel is a god of the winners and the losers, of the oppressed and the oppressors, of the insiders and the neglected; the God of the elites and the common; the God of those who look all put together, and of those who have nothing to their names; whether they be from Norway or from Haiti; from the U.S. or from El Salvador.

It’s right there in our reading this morning, “Nineveh was a great city of God’s” it says. A great city of God’s.

God has compassion on us all, even when we we’ve made a mess of everything, when we don’t know our right hand from our left.

God loves each and every one of us,
no matter how much we’ve screwed up our lives,
no matter how certain that we are that those folks are undeserving…
Whether we’re the dreaded Ninevites or we’re the resentful Jonahs, God sees only human beings, who are created in God’s own image, who are worthy of compassion and grace.

That’s it. Maybe that’s why Jonah’s carved onto a funeral oil lamp–For God is indeed the good shepherd of us all.




(1) “Sermon Brainwave,” Working Preacher,




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s