Is It Right For You To Be Angry?


A Sermon on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Philippians 1:21-30

For my sermon today, I want to focus on the reading from Jonah, because it has powerful truth to offer us, but in order to do that, I need to address the elephant in the room… or maybe I should say the whale.

The book of Jonah tells an unbelievable story. As in we are not actually supposed to believe it, at least not as an historical account of factual events. What Jonah offers us is truth, but not history.

For any of you who might not have grown up on Sunday School stories about Jonah and the Whale, these are the fantastical events of the first three chapters of the book of Jonah:

  • God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah (which is the capital of Assyria, Israel’s big, and very bad neighbor). God tells Jonah to go and preach for 40 days that God is about to destroy Ninevah for its wickedness.

  • Jonah decides that he can get out of this assignment by running away, so he hops on a ship, and tells the crew, “by the way, I’m running away from God.”

  • The crew don’t seem to object until God sends a massive storm to assault the boat. The storm is so powerful that the sailors are convinced that the ship is going to be destroyed, and yet Jonah manages to sleep through it.

  • Finally, the captain of the ship wakes him up to tell him to pray for their deliverance, and the sailors ask Jonah what to do to stop the storm…

  • At which point Jonah suggests that they should throw him into the sea – apparently, even though he ran away, he’s NOT a coward.

  • The sailors don’t want to murder him, but the storm doesn’t stop, so they chuck Jonah overboard… which works! The storm stops.

  • But then Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish.

  • Surprisingly, this does NOT kill him, so he hangs out inside the fish for 3 days, composing a poetic prayer, which God likes, so God speaks to the fish and it vomits Jonah onto the beach.

  • Jonah then decides he will go to Ninevah after all, and there he preaches the Bible’s worst sermon ever!

  • All he says is “Just forty days more and Ninevah will be overthrown!”… at which point everyone in this incredibly wicked city, from the king down to (literally!) the animals, believed, repented, went into mourning, and began fasting and praying for God’s mercy.

  • In response, God decided not to destroy the city, and that’s where our reading starts… with Jonah throwing a hissy fit and asking God to kill him because God decided to spare Ninevah…

This story is so clearly written as an absurd comedy. The fish thing offers some nice picturesque drama, but even more bizarre are the people and their behavior. They are all over-the-top, unbelievable caricatures that make us laugh incredulously… but they also make us cringe a bit, because they show us our own absurdity.

Especially Jonah.

Jonah is so incredibly human. If we don’t let ourselves get distracted by the big fish story, and just look at the character of this reluctant prophet, he is painfully familiar:

The rebellion against the idea that God might ask us to do something we don’t want to do, and NOT give us a choice in the matter…

The willingness to beg for God’s mercy for ourselves, although we want God’s righteous judgment on our enemies…

The self-destructive anger at the possibility that the evil we see so clearly might go unpunished.

It’s Jonah’s anger that I have been grappling with all week. I have never thought of myself as an angry person, but as I read and re-read this story this week, that is where my attention kept focusing… especially on God’s repeated question to Jonah:

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

God only has three lines in this reading, and two of them are that question.

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

That repetition struck me as really important, and as I meditated on this story, I realized that when I am angry, I am always COMPLETELY sure that I AM right. Whether it is an argument with a loved one, or the latest political development that I am certain will hurt vulnerable people… when I get triggered, and my shoulders tense up, any my jaw clenches, and I feel that anger boiling in my belly… I am always 100% sure that my “enemy” is in the wrong, and the world will not be right until there is JUSTICE.

I recognize this in myself, and I recognize this in the patterns of argument that are taking over our culture – patterns of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree, and seeing them only as opponents and not as people in need of grace just like us.

And in those moments of dehumanizing anger, we are right there with Jonah wanting God to be the one who smites our enemies – not the God who shows mercy,

The thing is, we have self-protective reasons to do just that. It’s safer for us. Our longing for justice is a longing for a safe world – a law and order system where things are predictable, and evil is held at bay by consequences.

In the case of Jonah and Ninevah, the Assyrian King in Ninevah might have torn his clothes and begged God for mercy in that moment, but his penitence did not last. The violence and oppression was renewed, and Assyria ended up utterly destroying Jonah’s country, the kingdom of Israel.

History vindicates Jonah! And even more shocking is that the story of Jonah was written from the vantage point of history, knowing how things were going to end, knowing that God’s mercy on Ninevah left them strong enough to destroy the larger part of God’s people.

Which blows my mind, because it seems like the obvious answer to God’s question for Jonah is “YES! He is right to be angry. Some wrongs require justice, God, what are you doing? Don’t you know the damage your mercy will cause?”

But the book of Jonah was written knowing that damage – and it challenged Jonah’s anger anyway. Which means it challenges our self-righteous assumptions that our opponents are unworthy of mercy. It rejects our desire for retribution, and it condemns our apathy toward the suffering of those we think “deserve it.”

After all, it was while we were still God’s enemies that Jesus died on the cross. God knows the cost of mercy from the inside. God has born the cost of God’s mercy in the body of God’s own Son.

That is the center of the gospel, and we are called to place our faith in gospel, not, ultimately, in law.

That gospel faith is why Paul is able to offer us a very different response to enemies than Jonah does. In today’s reading from Philippians, we hear Paul’s take on suffering persecution at the hands of opponents, and Paul calls it a privilege!

Paul is writing from prison, unsure whether or not he is going to be killed for his faith, and yet he writes with JOY about being a resource for the faith of the Philippian community. And he exhorts these believers to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ… in no way intimidated by your opponents.”

Paul knew about opponents. He experienced real persecution, as did the church in Philippi… but he understood that gospel supercedes law. He was filled with JOY about the chance to suffer in order to proclaim God’s mercy.

Because MERCY is THAT POWERFUL. Powerful enough to turn anger into joy. Powerful enough to pull us out of the self-absorption of tallying wrongs, and seeking retribution, to instead live a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

And if that sounds completely unrealistic and unattainable, I have good news for you. The completely unrealistic Book of Jonah was written as a parable for God’s people… a reminder that we don’t have to be trapped, as Jonah was, by anger. We have the same mission: “to preach to all the nations the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness,”[1] and our story can end differently.

The book of Jonah describes us in the person of the Bible’s worst prophet, who somehow manages to preach the Bible’s most effective sermon. It describes our rebellion, and our selfishness, and our desperate need for a mercy that we want to deny to our opponents. It describes the truth of how anger traps us in a world of animosity, and it asks us a question:

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

According to the rules of self-preservation and me-and-mine-first the answer might be “yes.” But in God we experience a mercy that changes the rules… a mercy that makes JOY possible, regardless of circumstances, because our calling is to witness to the God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.

Now, that calling does not mean a passive avoidance of all conflict – Jonah’s mission in Ninevah was to proclaim God’s justice and to call for an end to evil, violence, and oppression, and that is still the Church’s call today …

But “just retribution” is not the goal of that witness… mercy is.

As Jonah complained, “God IS gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment.” And we are called, like Jonah, to call others – even our opponents – into that mercy.

Sometimes that will mean pointing out evil and calling for Justice, but the goal is always mercy. Mercy for us, and for those who might still hurt us. That is the freedom of the cross.

Most of the time we are probably more like Jonah than Paul (I know I am). Anger comes more easily than rejoicing in response to suffering. But the great thing about the Jonah story is that God gives second, and third chances. To our enemies, but also to us.

Mercy is like that. Thanks be to God

[1] Introduction to the Book of Jonah, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, The New Revised Standard Version, College Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p.1186 OT.

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