Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 2, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Listen (5-10mb) Download (35-70mb) Reflections
Text: Jonah 3
Apparently, I had abnormally long eyelashes for an eighth-grade boy. I suppose I should be grateful, because of all the things that I have and could have gotten made fun of for, eyelashes isn't that bad. The girls in my eighth-grade class pointed it out one day; they said that I had "Maybelline eyelashes." As they were walking past me in the hall in a group, as eighth-grade girls do, they would giggle and point, and one of them would call out, "Maybe he's born with it." And another would answer, "Maybe it's Maybelline." Hysterical. I know. But nobody likes to be laughed at when you're not trying to be funny. They make horror movies about this stuff, you know. It's the cycle of mockery and ridicule which leads to resentment and hatred, which leads to destruction and death.
There was that horror movie from the 1970s, when the mother is hysterical, pleading with her daughter not to go to the prom. "They're all going to laugh at you," she says, as the high-pitched horror movie soundtrack is building in the background. "They're all going to laugh at you." They make horror movies out of this stuff.
Obviously, mine wasn't that bad. They made fun of my eyelashes. Why should I care? My mom says my eyelashes are just fine, by the way. But I let it get to me. Somehow, even something that ridiculous can be enough to induce an identity crisis. And so I locked myself in the bathroom that night and got out my mom's little beauty scissors and trimmed my ridiculously long eyelashes. It was ridiculous that I would let it get to me like that, but I know what it's like to be laughed at. You know what it's like. It's the stuff of horror movies.
The Old Testament book of Jonah starts like a horror movie. The Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Israel, tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was the queen of the mean girls of the ancient world. She was a metropolitan beauty, promenading through the halls of the ancient Assyrian Empire, towering over and terrorizing the awkward, underdeveloped school boys and girls around her, cherishing the opportunity to crucify any underling that stepped out of line. And the Lord said to Jonah, "Go to Nineveh and call out against her because their evil has come up to Me." And you can almost hear the horror movie playing in Jonah's head. Because he runs away, charters a ship and sails to Tarshish, about as far away from Nineveh as you can get. And we are right there with him, because we all know what it's like to be laughed at.
But the Lord his God would have Jonah face this horror head-on. So the Lord sends a storm to chase Jonah down. And the sailors are so frightened that they throw him overboard. Jonas sinks, the storm stops, and the Lord sends a great fish to save Jonah—swims him back to land. Three days later, it belches him out, back on the road to Nineveh.
And this time, Jonah goes to Nineveh, expecting the worst. And to everyone's surprise, the people of Nineveh listened; they believed God. The mean girl had a change of heart. But it wasn't quite happily ever after. The conversion didn't last long. Yes, the generation of the Ninevites who heard Jonah's message that day, they believed, they changed their ways and by the grace of God they were saved. But the generations that followed turned back to the status quo. Nineveh went back to her old ways, tormenting and terrorizing the people around her, and one day God stepped in to put an end to it. God had given another prophet, the prophet Nahum, a message for Nineveh. He called Nineveh the city of bloodshed, full of lies, unceasing evil, preying on victims without end. God stepped in and stopped it, because God has a way of dealing with bullies in His own time.
Roughly a century after, Jonah, in the year 612 B.C., God's justice would be served. Nineveh would be destroyed, laid low by the Lord, never to be rebuilt. And its ruins are still there, just on the other side of the Tigris River in modern day Iraq. Modern archeological digs have uncovered some interesting details about Nineveh. For thousands of years Nineveh had been a diva in the ancient Near East. But around 750 B.C., just before Jonah visited, Nineveh was enduring some unstable economic and political conditions—conditions that would have been harsh enough to push her to the brink of an identity crisis. And so, historically speaking, by the grace of God, Nineveh was at a particularly vulnerable moment when Jonah rolled in that day. After his month-long desert caravan, covered in dust and the stench of fish guts, with a deranged Revenge of the Nerds look in his eyes, not even caring if they laughed at him.
Here's how it happened. And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah out onto dry land. And the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out to her the message that I am going to speak to you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the Word of the Lord.
Now Nineveh was a great city, belonging to God. A walk of three days. And on the first day Jonah entered in and he called out, "Yet in 40 days, Nineveh is about to be overturned!" And the people of Nineveh believed God. They trusted God. And they declared a fast and they put on sack cloth, all of them, from the greatest to the least. When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, and covered himself with sack cloth and sat down in ashes. And he issued a proclamation in Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles, people and animals, both herds and flocks, no one is to taste anything, neither be given anything to eat or water to drink! But let man and beast both be covered in sackcloth, and let everyone urgently call on God! And let them turn, each of them, from their evil ways and from the violence of their hands. Who knows? God may yet turn and change His verdict, turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish."
And God saw what they did: how they turned from their evil way. And God changed His verdict about the evil that He had threatened to do to them and He did not do it. But this was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and he burned with anger. And he prayed to the Lord, his God, "Lord, this is the reason why I fled to Tarshish! I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and changing Your verdict about evil. Now, O Lord, take my life from me, because it's better for me to die than to live." And the Lord said to Jonah, "Is it good for you to be angry?"
The summer after my eighth-grade year, the mean girls, the ones who ridiculed my ridiculously long eyelashes, they invited me to a party. Now don't worry. It wasn't a prank. They weren't trying to trick me. They were actually being nice. They invited me and some other not-so-cool guys from our class to hang out. And I don't know what it was. Maybe just a vulnerable moment, a low point of summer boredom, but they were being nice for a change. But it didn't last.
As soon as we all got into high school that fall, the status quo returned. They went with the cool kids, and I reverted to my old self-assigned, resentful victim status. And in my lesser moments, I hated them for it. And if you've ever been there in your head or in your heart, then you can understand Jonah. You can understand his psychological state, his hatred for those who bullied him. Wherever you go in the world, it's the same. Bullies are cruel, and those who are bullied want revenge. It's the status quo. You think about the most divisive issues that we face today, at home, abroad, locally, globally, how much of it is just the same old ridiculousness that we dealt with in high school?
And even though he's a grown man, that ridiculous resentment is tearing Jonah apart. He's sitting there on the outskirts of Nineveh, waiting for the fire of the Lord to rain down on them because that's what they deserve, isn't it? This is Jonah's mental state. And we've all been there. It's like being caught in a dangerous undertow. You're trying to swim to the surface, but dark currents keep pulling you down. Being laughed at causes us to hate those who ridicule us, which in turn causes more ridicule and more hatred. It's a destructive cycle that dehumanizes everyone involved. But the one who returns ridicule with undeserved love can break the cycle.
The book of Jonah is leading us there, but doesn't quite get us there. When God asks Jonah those rhetorical questions at the end, deep down, I think Jonah already knows that he's being ridiculous. God asks him, "Is it good for you to be angry? Is it right for you to be so full of hate? You, a mere human, have pity on the things and the people that you love, and so I, being God, should do likewise, shouldn't I? Shouldn't I step in and break the world out of this cycle?"
And God had sent Jonah to Nineveh for that very purpose, to return the bullies' ridicule with God's undeserved love. But God knew that Jonah wouldn't be enough to break the cycle. And the book ends with Jonah still caught in the undercurrent of his own resentment. The world needed one greater than Jonah. And so the Word of the Lord who sent Jonah, the Word of God stepped in, and Jesus—that Word made flesh—stepped in to overturn the world. He called everyone one to turn from their evil ways and from the violence of their hands, and at every stop on every occasion, in each situation, Jesus responded to ridicule, not with retaliation, not with resentment, but with love, undeserved love.
When He sat with sinners and the religious leaders ridiculed Him, He returned with love. When He said that He is One with God and they ridiculed Him, He returned with love. And when He was being crucified and hung on the cross and they ridiculed Him, He returned with love. And on the third day when He rose from the dead, Jesus broke the cycle. And one day He will return. And today He is offering you the way out. Turn from Him and you will sink into the horror. Turn to Him and His people, and His love will set us free—set us free to love even those who ridicule us, set us free to love people who don't deserve it, and set us free to learn to laugh at ourselves, especially when we're being ridiculous.
My friend Laura tells a story about her son, Luca, when he was about five years old. One night, Laura wakes up in the middle of the night and she hears this crying, this screaming coming from Luca's bedroom. So she rushes in to his bedside and Luca is hysterical. She calms him down and she holds him and she asked, "Did you have a bad dream, buddy?" And he says, "No!" So she asked him, "Well, what's wrong then?" And Luca just keeps crying. He's beside himself. He can't answer. So she holds him and she rubs his back and snuggles him. And after a while she asks him again, "Do you want to tell me what's wrong, honey?" And Luca shouts, "Nobody appreciates me!" The next morning, he gets up and he comes into the kitchen, and Laura asks him, "Hey, Bubba, you okay after last night?" Luca says, "Yeah, I'm good, Mom. How are you?" —like he didn't even remember what had happened. And so she asked him, "Do you remember what happened last night?" And he said, "No. What happened last night?" So she told him what happened and what he had said. Luca thought about it for a minute and then he laughed, and he said, "What does 'appreciate' mean?"
Luca gave me his permission to share that story. He's getting ready to graduate from the eighth grade, and I appreciate him, not just for his handsome eyelashes. I appreciate him because he knows who he is. He's a baptized, beloved child of God. He's a part of Jesus' family. And together we're learning just a little bit more, how to laugh at ourselves when we're being ridiculous.
And if you're with us, pray with me: Dear Father in heaven, by the resurrection of Your Son, Jesus, You overturned death, that last and greatest bully that would ridicule us. And so set us free from these ridiculous fears so that we might love others as You first love us. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
Reflections for May 2, 2021
Title: Laughed At
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with my teacher, Dr. Bob Kolb. Welcome back, Bob.
Robert Kolb: It's been real fun the last couple of weeks. Thanks for having me again.
Mike Zeigler: Dr. Kolb has been teaching the Christian faith in universities around the world for longer than I've been alive.
Robert Kolb: That's true.
Mike Zeigler: He specializes in the teachings of the reformations, especially Martin Luther, the most prominent figure of that Christian reformation that started a little over 500 years ago. Dr. Kolb, we've been listening to the book of Jonah, and Martin Luther wrote a commentary on the book of Jonah based on his lectures that he gave. Why was the book of Jonah important for Martin Luther?
Robert Kolb: I think perhaps because he saw a kind of image of himself. Luther had experienced a kind of arrogant going to God, wanting to go to God on his own terms and prove himself with his own works, and that failed miserably. He was super-scrupulous, I think.
Mike Zeigler: Well, he even says he had hatred for God in his heart, right?
Robert Kolb: Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: It wasn't just, he was afraid of God, he hated God.
Robert Kolb: Yes. Yeah. In the Scriptures, he heard the voice of an angry God, as you say, feared Him and then was really angry with Him because he couldn't please Him. In that crisis, then he comes to this whole new picture of what it means to be Christian.
Mike Zeigler: In his commentary, Luther devotes many words to discussing that relationship between God and Jonah. Sometimes he describes it like a friendship, that he talks to Jonah like a man would talk to a fellow man. But most often, Luther sees God as a loving Father, relating to Jonah as His beloved child. Even at the beginning of the book, when God sends a hurricane after Jonah and then appoints a giant fish to swallow him whole, Luther still sees that this is a loving Father. So, how can Luther believe that God is a kind, gentle, forgiving Father when He is treating Jonah so harshly?
Robert Kolb: In part, he's willing to admit that he doesn't have answers to that question. He distinguished the hidden God from the revealed God. Later, when he was lecturing on Genesis, he did say that the revealed God is the only God we can know, and this revealed God is not a different God than the hidden God. It's just that the hidden God appears to us as this angry, wrathful Father or enemy. In that situation, we should recognize that the One behind the mask of wrath is the One who loved us by coming to the cross for us, by sending His Son to come to the cross for us.
So, Luther has a number of answers to that question, but he always knows that the kind, gentle, forgiving God is the real God, though the One who has brought us into His fellowship and who will see us through everything and see us at the end.
Mike Zeigler: So, even if we can't see that in what's happening to us in our lives at the moment, we trust it anyway because of His promise in Jesus.
Robert Kolb: So, Luther's faith is really aimed at the person. It's a personal relationship, and we know that from all our personal relationships. Sometimes we are baffled at what a friend will say. We are hurt by what our parents say to us. We are tempted to become alienated from people for a number of reasons. But because we know that person, we can continue the relationship and trust that person, despite what we think we've just experienced from him or her.
Mike Zeigler: That's a helpful analogy. I think we can all relate to that. I know them, that's not what this is really about.
Robert Kolb: That was Luther's attitude.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. I know what this is about. I have a loving Father, even though I'm in the belly of a fish right now.
Robert Kolb: Yeah. Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: So, in Jonah's case, Luther comments how God permits His children to blunder, greatly sometimes, yet still deals with them very kindly, paternally, in a friendly way. From Jonah's side of things, Luther sees him as an excellent example of great faith. Even though he talks about this battle that must have been happening inside of Jonah, Luther writes that Jonah is God's dear child, and he chats so uninhibitedly with God as though he were not afraid of Him, in the least. He confides in Him as a Father, referring to his conversations with Him in chapter four of the book. Why does Luther believe that this should be comforting for us today to see that example in Jonah?
Robert Kolb: I think it shows the kind of relationship that finally has gotten beyond the politeness that is born of trying to please, and just has that absolute confidence. "I can say anything. I can say it hurts. Stop pressing me, God. I can say, I really fouled up again, and You've got to be mad at me this time, I'm sure." We can say anything to God.
Mike Zeigler: And the relationship is secure, still.
Robert Kolb: Yes. God will not say, "That was the last time, buddy." He will embrace us again with His love in Jesus Christ.
Mike Zeigler: For someone who's listening, who wants that relationship with God, what would you want to say to them?
Robert Kolb: Learn to listen to what God is saying in Scripture and know that He's talking to you—that this is a book that becomes the means for God's conversation with every reader. And the conversation may baffle some readers; it may offend some readers. But it's the openness of God there that helps us loosen up and open up with Him.
A few weeks ago in our Bible class, we were reading Ezekiel. There is some just awful stuff, awful words of judgment in the early parts of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is the book also that knows that Israel is going to be like a valley of dry bones that's put back together and made to dance again.
So, the experience of biblical figures like Jonah or Ezekiel, in this case, the God who wants to rescue us from our running away from Him is a God who will sound harsh and who will be wrathful, but who will pursue us and open up our lives to trusting in Him, and trusting so much that we can lay every concern and every complaint before Him.
Mike Zeigler: So, start reading the book of Jonah. If you haven't ever read through the whole book of Jonah, you could do it in maybe 15, 20 minutes. It's that short, and see yourself there. God is also pursuing you.
Robert Kolb: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for joining us.
Robert Kolb: Thank you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"At the Lamb's High Feast" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)