My first pastor looked ancient; his body was exhausted from battling illness. Once, he lost consciousness during his sermon, something I only realized when I heard the feet of would-be rescuers pounding the floor. He was not so old, someone said.
He was the oldest person, ever, and I barely spoke with him. I never looked him in the eye. He was different from me, he belonged to another world, he made me nervous.
Sunday mornings in church I was huddled in a pew towards the back. I was small, I was bored, and I was reading a book. The book was not the Bible.
We didn’t talk about minor prophets much. When I heard my pastor reading from one, he got my attention. He was talking about Jonah; not obedient, clammy, red-raw Jonah fresh from a fish’s belly. This Sunday’s prophet was the hot, vengeful, wind-battered Jonah, skin desiccated by the sun, Jonah who crouched for shelter under a booth and a plant and shouted his curses to the sky, a man shamelessly, unrepentantly angry. Jonah at the end of the book.
The pastor talked about cattle, the ones God spoke of in Jonah chapter 4, verse 11: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
He spoke about God’s care for his creation. He warned us to take it seriously, God’s care for even His animals, and our responsibility to treat them as God’s own. He pointed out what it meant to our hearts to be cruel or to be gentle, and what it meant to those around us.
I had no pets. I was surrounded by concrete and brick. This sermon felt strange and irrelevant. It didn’t feel like church. Church was supposed to be about God, not animals.
Being an adult is so different. I think often of this message. It’s the sermon I most remember, his ministry to me, a seed that grew, unnoticed, until I needed the fruit and found it’s there.
Do you know that in Jonah chapter 3, verses 7 and 8, we are told even the animals were meant to wear sackcloth and participate in the fast of repentance? “7. 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.” And, they did.
Jonah went outside Nineveh’s walls. He could still see the city from this view. Hidden from sun and hot wind, he waited to see if Nineveh would be destroyed by the Almighty, but his little shelter was not enough. The heat came for him. Mercifully, a plant grew up. It helped.
The next day brought no fire and no brimstone to Nineveh. The plant withered away. Jonah seethed.
“I knew you would do this. That’s why I didn’t want to come here.”
God asked Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the plant?”
“Yes, and I want to die.” (see chapter 4, verse 9)
Jonah longed for the destruction of Nineveh’s king, and populace, and animals, too. Everything inside Jonah shouted they were wicked, so they should die. Barring that, he wished for his own death; it was better than living in a world in which God Himself would not bring justice.
God answered Jonah’s rage with an expression of tenderness for Nineveh, and for Jonah too. God reasoned with him, offering a chance to know something new.
“You’ve been concerned about this plant. Shouldn’t I pity Nineveh? All these people? All these animals?” (a paraphrase of chapter 4, verse 11)
Justice. What is God’s justice? Jonah knew, he was sure of it.
Our motives feel fair: safety, shelter, security, provision. Justice. It is fair for us to ensure we have what we need; it is just for us to defend our interests. We deserve this.
At the end of his life, weakened and sick, my pastor wanted us to consider something else: How do we treat the vulnerable? Will our hands and voices communicate reconciliation, bring the hope of Jesus?
Bring it to whom? To the child, neighbor, stranger among us, to the habitat we share and leave behind, to the people whose voices go unheard, the ones who are mocked, trodden on, and abused, to the one who stands condemned, to each and every one: God’s precious creation, the object of His concern.
The plant has gone now, and, with it, the shade. It was never ours. It’s time leave off despairing and look around. We have hope to share, and we’re surrounded by people who are of infinite value to God. He loves them. Let’s do the same.