Faithful & Unfinished
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Throughout Lent we’ve been following Jonah through a rocky season of his faith and his ministry. He’s been frustrated and fed up with God’s mercy for a people he does not approve of. He’s wrestled with trusting in a merciful God. As I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks, this story has elements of absurdity and exaggeration. But if we’re honest, the absurdity of Jonah’s unfinished, unvarnished faith is not unlike some of our own experiences and wrestling. Perhaps more often we struggle to accept God’s mercy in our own lives, but in a divisive culture, increasingly there may be less understanding of mercy for those with whom we disagree too, like Jonah.
So often it is only the wonder of faith that opens our hearts and minds to the true fullness of God’s power and mercy.
The story of Jonah points to a God who stretches our unfinished faith and challenges our sensibilities. It is only God’s faithfulness both to Nineveh and to Jonah that seem to be finished. In the end, that is what we are called to put our trust in. It is where we find our power – not in our own ability to be faithful, but in God’s persistence to be good and faithful – even beyond what or who we can ask or imagine. We continue to see God’s faithfulness, and Jonah’s unfinished dispute with this God play out in the final chapter of Jonah’s story.
Think about the last time you bolted awake at 3am. Your mind racing with to do lists or replaying that argument you had with someone you care about, or you play through the potential outcomes of a conflict you have with someone at work. At that hour, it can feel impossible to get the right perspective. There’s something about ruminating in the dark that almost never leads to a good outcome. Potential outcomes lean toward the catastrophic as you toss and turn. It’s easy for things not to make sense in the middle of the night. And it’s almost never the right time to make a big decision.
As we wrap up the story of Jonah, it’s like we find Jonah ruminating in the dark; much like he was pleading with God in the darkness of the whale in Chapter 2. This time there’s no flowery prayer, and he’s not pleading with God to spare his life, but rather for God to end it. He’s upset that God chose to be merciful to Nineveh, and Jonah is so angry about it that he wants to be wiped off the face of the planet. Jonah’s reaction to Nineveh’s redemption is a little like trying to figure out why a two-year-old is throwing a tantrum. We don’t know if he’s jealous or tired, or hungry, or just doesn’t think it’s fair that God would do something he’s not willing to do.
His reaction doesn’t make any sense, unless you think about those all-too-real-times in our lives when our thoughts, and even our actions, don’t make sense either – when we stumble in the dark, and catastrophize the smallest of challenges, or are blinded by emotion so we can’t see the obvious answer right in front of us.
In times like these it helps to have an outside voice, someone to help us gain perspective or challenge us to think differently. When Jonah doubled down on his grievance with God, God was that voice. God didn’t tell Jonah it was going to be ok or acquiesce to his demand to kill him. God asked the right questions. God spoke from another perspective. God challenged all the irrational assumptions Jonah was stuck in.
We all have a bad day, or even a rough season in our lives from time to time. I want to believe that the story of Jonah both gives us company when life falls off the rails for us and gives us hope that God isn’t finished with us when we take that ruminating detour to irrational places. At the core of Jonah’s story is the message that to be “unfinished” is to be human. Whether you are young and have most of your life ahead of you, or have lived most of your life and the days ahead are waning; so long as we have breath in us, we’re not done. There is room to grow, room to adapt, room to repent – to change the ways we think and act that move away from fear and frustration toward acceptance and peace – with God, self, and others. This is the practice of Lent – to move ever closer to the One who calls us to life and leads us into whole relationship in all its various forms. Through this practice, we experience God’s grace and mercy afresh, and hear the ways God challenges and equips us to faithful living, even as we remain unfinished.
The book of Jonah is the only book in all of Scripture to end with a question. I actually like that, because it reminds us that faith is an ongoing conversation, an ongoing relationship with God. Not static or predictable, but dynamic. Even in our most irrational, catastrophic times, God meets us in the moment and does not succumb to our weary demands, but continues to shift our unfinished, unvarnished perspective toward faith that is big enough to hold all things, even our uncertainty and limited imagination for the power of God’s mercy. Amen.