FIRST-WORLD PROBLEMS

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

September 24, 2017; 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

 

“And the Lord said,

‘Is it right for you to be angry?’”

Jonah 4:4

 

Ask people what they remember about Jonah in the Bible, and I’m 100% certain what answer you’ll get: Jonah was swallowed by a whale — right?

Well, actually not a whale — a “great fish” is what the Bible really says — but it’s still the one thing folks remember about the mishaps of  this minor prophet.

Jonah made the mistake of running away from God’s call. God says, “Jonah, go preach to the people of Ninevah.” Jonah whispers “as if” under his breath, buys passage on a ship and sails off in the opposite direction.

He figures if he can just go far enough, he can outrun God.

Not a good plan.

The Lord sends a terrifying storm. The sailors figure it’s all Jonah’s fault. So, they throw him overboard, to save themselves. That great fish — sent by God — gobbles him right up.

Now, don’t get hung up on the practical detail of how a person could survive in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights. The story of Jonah is a fable, not history. (I seriously doubt if its original readers took it literally.) The point is that, in sending the fish, God is both protecting his prophet from drowning and giving him some rather firm guidance that saying “no” to God’s call is not a very wise thing to do.

In a scene beloved of Sunday School kids everywhere for its sheer gross-out factor, the fish vomits Jonah up on dry land. His first action is undoubtedly to jump back into the water — to wash off the slime that covers him from head to toe — but when he comes back onto the beach, God has a message for him.

No surprise. It’s “Go preach to the people of Ninevah.”

They’re pretty awful people, those Ninevites. They’re so evil, so depraved, so utterly sinful that Jonah has zero confidence they’ll give him the time of day.

And that is surely the reason Jonah earns an “F” for effort as a preacher. He walks through the streets of Ninevah with the utmost reluctance: and, as he goes, he preaches the very worst sermon in history.

Take my word for it. It’s the worst. I know. I’ve taken graduate-level courses in preaching.

There’s no fun fact to get their attention. No whiz-bang exegesis of the biblical text. No heart-warming stories. No illustrations. No jokes. No practical application.

Jonah’s sermon is a single sentence: “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown!”

He’s got about as much chance of getting his point across as the guy in Times Square wearing the sandwich board that announces “The end is near!”

But the everlasting wonder of this story is that Jonah does get his point across. The Ninevites repent! Every last one of them, from the king on down to the common folk. All of them tear their clothing, put on sackcloth, thump their chests and say, “Woe is me!” The repentance is so universal that even the animals are wearing sackcloth! (See, I told you this is a fable.)

Jonah shoulders his bat, steps into the batter’s box, closes his eyes — and figures he’ll just strike out and get it over with. Instead, he ends up hitting a grand slam homer.

God makes that lousy, half-baked sermon so impressive that God’s own mind is changed! That’s what it says, at the end of chapter 3: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.”

It’s as though God is some kind of magician, practicing spells in front of a mirror. A wave of the wand, a flash of eery blue light, and the spell bounces back and zaps the magician. The Ninevites aren’t the only people who repent. Even God repents, in this story! God decides not to turn the city into a blackened wasteland after all.

*****

          Which is where this morning’s scripture passage begins. Jonah — Mr. Fish Vomit himself — decides he doesn’t much like that outcome. The least the Almighty could do is loose a few thunderbolts. You know: shake things up a little. OK, maybe total death and destruction is a bit much, but the least God can do is give the Ninevites a bad case of hemorrhoids.

“Come on, Lord, it’s not fair. After everything you’ve put me through — the storm, the fish, the slime, everything — you made a liar out of me!”

Jonah stomps off, then, in a world-class huff. He marches off into the desert, builds himself a little lean-to, plops down under it and scans the Ninevah skyline for mushroom clouds.

The problem is, there are no mushroom clouds. No weeping and wailing. Just a forgiven city going about its business.

You get the sense, from what comes next, that God is teasing Jonah, just a little. God causes a bush to spring up, spreading its huge leaves over the prophet’s head, to shade him from the sun. Jonah relaxes in the shade. He puts his feet up.

The next day, God sends a worm to devour the plant. The sun beats down on the reluctant prophet once again. Then, the Lord sends “a sultry east wind,” to make Jonah that much more miserable.

“OK, Lord,” says the ever-cranky Jonah. “That’s enough. Just kill me. Get it over with.”

That’s when God utters the line that is our principal focus today: “Jonah: is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

“Yes,” says Jonah. “Angry enough to die!”

“OK, Jonah. I get it. You’re concerned about losing your precious shade — which is something I sent you in the first place. Haven’t you ever heard the saying, ‘The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away?’ But let me tell you now what I am concerned about. I’m concerned about 120,000 Ninevites. You think your lousy bush is more important than their survival?”

Game over. And the score is, God, at least 5. (That’s the storm, the fish, the sermon makeover, the worm and “the sultry east wind,” in case you’re counting.) Jonah, zero.

*****

          Let’s focus in, now, on the outrage Jonah feels: and the way the Lord asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

It’s a question I think God’s in a position to ask us — on more occasions than we’d care to admit.

Complaining is so easy to do. There’s even a perverse kind of pleasure in it. OK, it may be a misery-loves-company kind of pleasure, but we’ll take what pleasure we can get — won’t we?

You’ve heard the expression, “First-world problem,” I’m sure. I’ve been hearing it a lot, lately.

Generally, it’s what people say when they realize the thing they’ve been complaining about really isn’t such a big deal, compared with what others are going through.

Having trouble getting more than a couple bars on your Wi-Fi connection? That’s a first-world problem, my friend. There are people in this world who’d be happy just to have electricity in their homes (like the people in Puerto Rico this week).

Did the server in the restaurant come back and tell you they’re all out of the flounder? First-World problem. Be glad you’ve got something to eat at all.

Have you been stuck in an airport lounge for an hour, your flight delayed due to an equipment problem? I’ve got two things to say to that. First, compared to most of the human race, you’re incredibly privileged to have access to airline travel at all. And second, why are you complaining about them trying to fix the metal tube in which you’re about to sit, 36,000 feet in the air? “Take all the time you need to make those repairs,” I always say.

The problem with complaining is that it’s always a sliding scale. At every stage of life — no matter the current state of our health or wealth or privilege — it’s absurdly easy to find something to complain about. That thing we yearned to possess, back in the past, we now have. Now that we have it, it seems perfectly intolerable that we don’t own the latest model. And so on, and so on.

There’s a hole inside us that needs to be filled. We throw shovelful after shovelful of stuff into it, hoping to fill the void of anxious yearning, but it’s a bottomless pit. Rarely do we allow ourselves to experience true contentment. To do so seems just a little dangerous.

The only thing that will fill that empty place, of course, is the love of God in Jesus Christ.

*****

          There was a military chaplain named Robert Flaherty. He told a story about how he was once out on a field exercise with his unit, part of the Army Signal Corps.

Part of those soldiers’ job was to keep the communication lines open. Today the Army often uses satellites for this, but back then, the Signal Corps soldiers would set up little communications nodes on hillsides. One or two soldiers lived at each site, working and sleeping in the truck that held the electronic equipment, until it was time to pull up stakes and move it all to a new location. Mostly these highly-trained specialists just sat around, waiting. It could get very boring at times.

Chaplain Flaherty would visit each of these isolated sites in turn. Upon arriving at one of the sites, the Chaplain knocked on the back door of the truck. Once the soldier inside determined who he was, he opened the door.

“How’s it going for you today?”  Flaherty asked.

“Chaplain, it’s a pretty bad day,” the man answered.  They talked, then, about all the bad things that were going on in this young man’s life.

The Chaplain said his farewells and moved on. The next day he knocked on the back door of a similar-looking communications truck, and to his surprise, it was the same soldier from the day before. He’d moved his truck during the night.

Once again, the Chaplain asked, “How’s it going today?”

“Chaplain, it’s a pretty bad day,” the man began. Whereupon he launched into a similar litany of complaint.

Well, you can guess what happened next. Overnight, the soldier’s appointed post moved yet again. The Chaplain came upon him, asked the same question about how he was doing. “It’s a pretty bad day…” the soldier began.

Chaplain Flaherty had had just about enough of this. He let all his non-directive listening skills go right out the window.

“You know,” he said to the soldier, “I met you yesterday and that was a pretty bad day.  I met you two days ago and you told me that was a pretty bad day. The day before that? Same response. It seems to me that if this continues, someday you’re going to stand before your Maker who’s going to ask you, ‘How was your life?’ and the only answer you’ll be able to give is, ‘It was a pretty bad life…’”

At last, that brought a sheepish grin to the young man’s face. He got it.

“I knew, said the Chaplain later, “he had turned to face the light — at least for that single moment.”

*****

          That story illustrates how easily complaining can become a habit. For a lot of major-league complainers, it’s a sort of defensive strategy. If you spend all your time saying “Ain’t it awful,” then, when the truly awful comes upon you, it may not seem quite so bad. It’s like a vaccination: you’ve inoculated yourself with a micro-dose of the “ain’t it awful” pathogen. The problem is, though, that while you’re waiting for catastrophe to arrive, complaining can sure poison a whole lot of perfectly ordinary days!

There are other people who complain all the time because they mistakenly see it as an effective way to make contact with others. The complaint isn’t so much a complaint at all, as a conversation gambit. It’s a plea for community. These people generally have a low self-image. They believe, deep inside, there’s not a lot about them that’s truly likable. Were they to walk up to someone they don’t know so well and start talking about something positive they’ve experienced, they have a deep-seated fear that the other person won’t be much interested. They may even get brushed off. Far better to begin with a complaint: because complaints often do get attention. They bring people together — for better or for worse — in search of a solution to the problem.

*****

          Who knows what Jonah’s motivation was — why he found it so difficult to be grateful for his miraculous rescue, and filled with wonder at the remarkable success of his half-hearted sermon? The image of him sulking there, under the wilted leaves of the bush, sweltering in in the hot desert wind, is the very picture of toxic complaining.

The Bible never tells us whether Jonah gets the message. His story ends rather abruptly, with the Lord asking, “Should I not be concerned with Ninevah, with its 120,000 souls, as well as many animals?”

Lord save us from our first-world problems!

*****

          For a closing prayer, I’m going to share with you the words of a well-known prayer that’s often attributed to Sir Francis Drake, the great English naval captain of the Elizabethan Era. The historians see no way these words could have originated with Drake — the language is just too modern — but it’s a great testament to the value of contentment, from the perspective of a man who traveled to the ends of the earth looking for it.

Let us pray:

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true

Because we dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely,

Because we sailed too close to the shore.

 

Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst

For the waters of life!

 

Having fallen in love with life,

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.

 

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wilder seas

Where storm will show Your mastery;

Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.

 

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push us in the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our

Captain, who is Jesus Christ.

 

 

Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.