Carter’s favorite candy is a Kit Kat. That’s important knowledge because the other day, on Valentine’s Day, his kindergarten teacher gave him a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Carter despises peanut butter and doesn’t like Reese’s. And if you know Carter, he’s not afraid to stand up for himself and what he wants.
So he came into my room one evening to let me know that he was quite proud of himself. When he got the Reese’s, and saw others getting a Kit Kat, he started to get angry. But then he told himself, “you get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit” and decided he would be content with the Reese’s and eat it anyway. And surprise, he actually liked it, kinda.
That’s a Kindergarten class at six years old, but I think we can all relate. We’ve had times where we haven’t gotten what we’ve wanted, perhaps even witnessed others getting what we wanted at the same time, and gotten angry or resentful or bitter. I remember the Christmas my parents bought a car when I was a teenager. It was for my brother and I to share. Neither one of us had a car at the time, so it was to be this big surprise. But, my parents told us that Chris, my brother, would get to drive the car to school every day. So, really, it was going to be his car that I got to borrow on occasion. I was quite mad and didn’t bother to hide it.
We’ve all been there. And Jonah’s there, too. He’s angry because he didn’t get what he wanted, and he’s not shy in letting God know about it. Let’s hear that story from near the end of Jonah, beginning with chapter three verse 10.
Jonah didn’t get what he wanted.
He wanted Nineveh destroyed. That was the whole point of God sending Jonah to Nineveh! You may recall that God had called Jonah to deliver such a message and, rather than do so, Jonah fled by ship away from God. A storm comes and the sailors toss Jonah overboard, realizing that he’s angered God and thinking the storm will abate if they do so. When they do, a whale comes and swallows Jonah, causing Jonah to repent and agree to deliver the message.
In retellings of this story, especially in children’s tales, that’s where the story ends. Jonah agrees to do what God wants, with the lesson being that we’re to obey God. Except in the book of Jonah, that’s only the middle of the story.
Jonah does go to Nineveh and delivers the message; a message that’s essential this: you’re all going to die because you’ve upset God very badly. In fact, it’s a message Jonah decides he’s a bit excited about delivering because Nineveh is the capital city of the hated Assyrians; the people who had destroyed the northern kingdom and were the big bullies on the block. So, it’s not so bad to have to deliver a message that your arch nemesis will be destroyed!
Jonah delivers the message but, surprise, God doesn’t destroy them! They repent, they apologize, they worship God, and God relents. God decides to save the people from the destruction he had planned to bring upon them.
Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. He tried to run away from God, not wanting to deliver this message. God terrifies him with a storm, swallows him up in a whale that spits him on dry ground (and imagine with me being covered in whatever goo exists on the inside of a whale!), and so he relents. He goes to deliver this message, one he actually decides he’s okay with because they’re his enemy. After all that, God decides not to destroy the city. After all that Jonah went through. After all that he did.
Not only that, but Jonah looks like a false prophet. His reputation is maligned, perhaps ruined. According to Deuteronomy 18:21-22, the way you know a false prophet of God from a true prophet of God is whether or not what the prophet says comes true. So Jonah looks like a false prophet.
Here we have Jonah, unbathed since being covered in whale goo, tired from traveling, looking like a false prophet. His enemies are not destroyed but, instead, saved. It’s easy to imagine that Jonah is not happy about this. In fact, the English translations of verse 1 of chapter 4 are a bit kinder than the Hebrew. Verse 1 in the Hebrew says that what God did was “evil to Jonah, a great evil…and it burned him.” And so he says to God, “you wasted my time, you wasted my efforts, I didn’t want to go here in the first place, and I knew, I just knew God, you’d do something like this!” Because Jonah knew, he just knew from the beginning, that God is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in unconditional love.
Jonah didn’t get what he wanted. And he’s angry about it. So angry, he just wants to die.
As we saw with Carter and his candy, and with me and the car that was supposedly for both me and my brother, it’s natural to get angry when we don’t get what we want. And beyond material things, there are times in life where we don’t get what we wanted, what we thought perhaps we even deserved, just like we see with Jonah.
There’s the job promotion that went to someone else or the raise we got passed over for.
There’s the financial opportunity that didn’t pan out and, perhaps, even cost us.
There are relationships that didn’t turn out well, or are even broken now where once they were close.
There are family relationships that are like that, too, but those always seem to hurt a bit more.
There’s the depression when life in general doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped. Dreams lost, or just the general malaise of finding ourselves bored by our current life and yet stuck where we are.
There’s all sorts of ways in this life that we find we don’t get what we wanted. And it’s not about material things that are here today and gone tomorrow. It’s about the deeper things of life: not getting affirmed by things at work, not getting the family and friends we desire, not getting the life we had imagined.
Consider that old Henry David Thoreau quote. Actually, Thoreau never said it, but it gets attributed to him anyway. The quote says, “Go boldly in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” Many of us have lived long enough to know that you can go boldly in the direction of your dreams only to find yourself majorly disappointed. We can imagine a particular life for ourselves but it’s rare that it actually happens. Life has too many twists and turns. Life has too many factors that are beyond our control.
And so it’s easy to find ourselves like Jonah, angry at the way things turned out, angry that we didn’t get what we wanted. What are we to do?
One of the great disappointments in my life was not passing my ordination interviews the first time. You may recall that experience. I sailed through the second interview, which gauged my understanding of theology and doctrine. I did okay in the third interview, named called and disciplined life where they check on my health and self-awareness. In fact, I discovered I passed both of those interviews. But it was the first interview, about my preaching, that I failed. They failed my sermon.
When the news was delivered to me, it didn’t make any sense to me. I argued with the two clergy who came to deliver the news and thought I was winning the argument but it came to no avail. The decision was made and that was it. I would have to come back next year, present a different sermon, and try again.
I was mad. It’s hard to recall a time I was more angry than I was on that day and for several days afterwards. I didn’t get what I wanted, what I thought I deserved, which was to be passed so that I could be ordained at Annual Conference in 2018. I thought their feedback was wrong and badly stated. I could not make sense of why they had failed me. I kept hearing from colleagues that it would make sense when I got written feedback in the mail. The feedback came and it was scant, hastily written, and only confused me more. So I got angry again.
I stayed hot through Annual Conference that year. I skipped the ordination service, where a dear friend of mine got ordained, which is still something I regret. I was just too mad to go. I was like Jonah, mad at how things had turned out, angry about how I’d been treated, throwing myself a pity party and inviting anyone who would come and join me.
Until one day someone, and I still can’t remember who, asked me to wonder to myself what God was doing. Maybe it wasn’t God’s will that I would be deferred, our nice term for failing the ordination interview. Maybe it was God’s will. Either way, there would be redemption if I would let it happen. If I would choose to leave my anger behind and look for what God was doing in my life.
That was sage advice. Upon leaving my anger behind and looking around me, I discovered God was doing two things. First, I’m a classic overachiever who passes everything the first time and gets great grades all the time. I’ve never made a C in my life. The last time I got a B in a course was 2005 when I was an undergraduate, four degrees ago. I worked hard in seminary and graduate school and always came out with at least an A- in my classes. That’s what I do. I’m that kind of student.
So failing anything wasn’t in my experience. But failing was a great dose of humility. I needed a dose of humility, especially about my overachieving top-notch student ways. It was helpful to fail; for I discovered not only humility but that I also had too much of my identity and self-worth wrapped up in how much I could achieve. That has proven especially helpful ever since, something I haven’t forgotten but applied to other areas of my life as well.
I also learned, through failure, that I am capable of rising to the challenge posed by the failure itself. That was the second lesson: I found a reservoir of character, an internal strength, I didn’t know I had. Once I had taken that person’s advice to see what God might do through my failure, I applied myself whole-heartedly to the task of improving my preaching. I read books, I went to a conference, I had many people review many sermons. I got great feedback. I’m a much better preacher today as a result.
The point being, God was doing something in my life through circumstances I didn’t want and failure I thought was undeserved. To move forward with my life, all I needed to do was look and see what God was doing around me.
And that’s just the point we’ve been talking about this whole sermon series on patience: looking to see what God is doing around us while we’re waiting.
Whether we’re waiting for some day to arrive when we expect something great will happen, whether we’re waiting for God to act in an area of our lives, whether we’re enduring hardship or suffering of some kind, whether we’re waiting to hear from God, or angry when we don’t get what we want, we are called to look and see what God is doing now, in our midst.
Patience is called for when we don’t get what we want; the patience of waiting to see what God is doing, because when things don’t turn out as expected, God is doing something else, something probably surprising, in our midst. In Nineveh, God was turning a people toward him, showing how his concern and mercy spread to all of his creation. That’s a powerful word for Jonah who thought that only the people of God, the Israelites, were blessed that way.
In my ordination, God was uncoupling my identity from achievement and making me a more effective preacher. I just needed patience, to step back and see what God was doing, patiently waiting for my next opportunity to interview for ordination. And the next time, I passed with flying colors.
Patience is called for when we don’t get what we want; the patience of waiting to see what God is doing.
When there’s the job promotion that went to someone else or the raise we got passed over for.
When there’s the financial opportunity that didn’t pan out and, perhaps, even cost us.
When there are relationships that didn’t turn out well, or are even broken now where once they were close.
When there are family relationships that are like that, too, but those always seem to hurt a bit more.
When there’s depression when life in general doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped; dreams lost, or just the general malaise of finding ourselves bored by our current life and yet stuck where we are,
In other words, when we don’t get what we want in life, the task is patience. The patience to take a step back from our disappointment, from our anger, and look and see where God is moving, what God is doing, in our midst. There’s something there. God is always moving and active. The question is whether or not we have eyes to see it.
So, here at the end of this patience sermon series, the question before us remains, and will remain after we’ve left this series behind, whether or not we have the eyes to see how God is moving and active around us, allowing what we see to inspire patience. God is doing something. We just have to be patient to see what it is.
That’s where we find hope in the waiting. It’s hard to find hope when we’re feeling impatient, wanting things to change, wanting things to be as we had expected them to be, wanting hardship to end, wanting to get what we wanted in the first place. It’s hard to wait! But we find hope in the waiting when we look and see where God is moving and active in our lives.
One of the best ways to discover this is that practice of examen that we’ve talked about in each of the previous four sermons. That practice has been transformative for my family. We’ve been doing it since late November. It was just supposed to be an additional practice during the season of Advent, but we have enjoyed it so much that we’ve continued to do it.
The trick with this practice, like many spiritual practices, is to practice it regularly. If practicing by yourself, write down your responses to those two questions so you can look back over time and see how God has been moving. If you’re practicing with a loved one or two, or with your nuclear family, remind each other where you see God moving and working as you share around the dinner table or over a cup of tea at the end of the day or over your morning coffee.
Asking ourselves those two questions, what we’re most grateful for today and what we’re least grateful for today, will call our attention to where God is moving in our lives. Pray Examen daily and become a patient disciple of Christ, one whose life is marked by peace. Then, we will be able to wait, endure, listen, be patient, in everything. Then, we will find hope. Then, we will be patient.
What are you waiting for?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.