A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 24, 2017
Jonah 3:1-4:2, 11 ESV
Is there a connection between God and natural disasters? Is the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures responsible for such catastrophic events? Or to look at it from another angle, are such natural disasters that take innocent human life, destroy thousands of homes and businesses, costing billions of dollars in property loss – are they punishment from God for human sin or the result of human folly? For some, such questions may be totally off base, absurd even. But for others, the questions may be quite real. In two different conversations this past week, two different people connected God with the recent hurricanes in one way or another.
And in the wake of the recent hurricanes, we have been hearing all kinds of explanations as people try to come to grips with and understand why such things happen. Someone blamed the hurricanes on lesbians or support of the LGBT community. Such is not the first time they have been scapegoats for the world’s troubles. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, prominent television evangelists were quick to blame it on various American sins. One prominent, conservative television evangelist linked Hurricane Katrina to “legalized abortion” and the selection of Ellen Degeneres to host the Emmy Awards. Another one attributed Hurricane Katrina to a New Orleans Gay Pride Parade.
Regarding the recent hurricanes, a famous television and movie actress blamed the disasters on the election of Donald Trump; punishment upon America for a bad choice in a president. Disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker declared of Hurricane Harvey, “this flood is from God,” punishment for the former mayor of Houston attempting to subpoena ministers’ sermons. And I am sure that some of you have heard other explanations regarding the cause of the recent weather disasters, or maybe have even entertained other possible reasons of your own.
Sometimes the Bible isn’t very helpful when it comes to explaining catastrophic natural events. Or to phrase it another way, the way the Bible is interpreted often isn’t very helpful in trying to understand things that happen in the world.
Today we know why such things as hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning and thunder, massive floods, and other such phenomena happen. There is a science to the natural conditions that go into the formation of a hurricane or tornado, and meteorologists can predict far in advance when conditions are right for hurricanes or tornadoes to develop.
In July, our grandson, Josiah, and I visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. One of the biggest sections is the weather exhibit. They have hands-on machines where you can manipulate conditions in a controlled environment so as to change the weather patterns in order to manufacture a tornado or a tidal wave. It is pretty amazing stuff!
But in biblical days, when most of the books of the Bible were written, they had no such knowledge. The ancients often attributed natural events such as windstorms, lightning and thunder, floods and other things to the direct will and action of God; often the will and action of an angry God. We see this from the first book of the Bible. And so, the great flood in Noah’s day (and I believe there was some kind of great flood in the ancient Mediterranean world, as it is mentioned in other ancient religious texts as well), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a number of the Psalms that speak of the destructive forces of nature, and so on were attributed to the direct will and action of God. That is how they explained the unexplainable back then – the actions of an angry God.
I believe that early religious impulses were influenced by the sense of awe and mystery evoked by natural phenomena and the attempts of humans to gain protection from natural dangers by seeking to appease the God or gods responsible for them.
And so, for the writer of the little book of Jonah to speak of God threatening to bring disaster upon the great city of Nineveh unless they repented is totally understandable. Such was the way that the people thought of God. As the story of Jonah goes, the wickedness of Nineveh was so great that God called Jonah to sail there to preach repentance. An interesting thing is in the beginning of the story it is not specifically stated that God himself threatens to send disaster upon Nineveh.
As we read this delightful little story, we need to remember that the story of Jonah is not a historical recounting of a conversation that actually occurred between the prophet and God. Had such a conversation actually occurred, who would have been there, like a court stenographer, to write everything down? And who would have been there with Jonah in the fish’s belly to record Jonah’s beautiful, poetic prayer to God, which is actually in the form of a psalm? No, we must remember that the Jonah story is merely the vehicle or framework the writer used in order to make the theological points he wanted to make. So as we read this story, we must remember that the truth and the meaning of Jonah go much deeper than the surface story which involves the prophet being swallowed by a great fish and the threat of disaster if the people of Nineveh didn’t repent. The overarching point of the story is not God’s threat of sending disaster upon Nineveh.
Rather, the primary point of the entire story of Jonah is the prophet’s words extolling God’s goodness, grace, and steadfast love. The key theological verse of the entire book is Jonah’s prayer directed to God when he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). That is the one verse we should focus on from the four chapters of the book. The fact that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and not a God who takes pleasure in sending disaster is precisely the point we are to take away from this story!
So rather than support the point that God is the sender of disasters, which was the ancient view and serves as the springboard of the story, the real point of Jonah (as I interpret it, anyway) is that God is not one who sends disaster and misery upon the world. The God of the writer of the book of Jonah is a gracious and merciful God, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting of disaster.
And most of us in the United Church, I think, believe that, and in our sane, rational moments realize that there is no connection between hurricanes and an angry God or human failure. Unless, of course, we consider the increase in the number and severity of hurricanes due to man-made global warming. But that is a different topic altogether and a different sermon for another day.
But the point for the original hearers of Jonah’s story goes even further. The Ninevehites were the enemies of Israel. By stressing God’s love and mercy to the people of Nineveh, the author was trying to expand the conception of God, not only as a gracious and merciful God, but as the God of all the nations – including Israel’s hated enemies! The thought of the book of Jonah was a step forward in Hebrew theology toward recognizing the universal love of God that extends, not just to Israel, but to the whole world!
Jonah is a post-exilic work; that is, one of the books that was written after the Jewish Exile in the sixth century BCE. The Exile – when Israel was overrun, the beloved Temple was destroyed, and many of the Jews were carried off into Babylon – was an earth-shattering, watershed event for the Jewish people. It brought into question everything they had believed about God, their sacred Temple, their religion, their favored and special status in the world, and so on. It was during and after the Exile that Jewish worship and practice were transformed, giving birth to a different form of Judaism.
Accompanying these changes was a change in worldview and conception of God who was no longer seen to be the peculiar God of the Jews, but the Creator God of the entire world. The storyteller theologians of Jonah and the little book of Ruth as well were leaders in this progressive movement that understood and portrayed the God of the Hebrews to be a gracious and merciful God, abounding in steadfast love, and open and inclusive to all peoples of the world, Jews and Gentiles alike.
And so, when disaster strikes, it is human nature to seek a cause or to place blame as a means to making sense of things and gaining a sense of security that things happen for a reason or that God is in control. And often catastrophic events are termed “acts of God,” and may or may not be covered under some insurance policies. Such is a good “catch-all” phrase when folks don’t have an explanation for things or need somewhere to place blame. It’s an “act of God.”
But the God that the author of Jonah reveals to us – and the God that Jesus would affirm some 500 years or so later – is not a God who sends hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or any other natural disaster. In the words of the prophet, we know that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and takes no pleasure in disaster and human suffering. Thanks to the writer of Jonah. And thanks be God! Amen.