I personally have never had much time for worms. One of the reasons I never really wanted to learn more about fishing as a kid is because I knew that in order to fish you had to touch worms, and touching those squishy, creepy worms before having to touch those slippery, slimy fish was not something that sounded like fun to me… But what a difference a worm makes to those who really enjoy fishing, because those worms are the way many people put food on the table and the way some people make a living.
What a difference a worm made for the prophet named Jonah in our verses for today. But to see why this worm that chewed up the vine that was providing him shade on such a hot day was such a big deal spiritually to have us talk about in church and to learn a lesson for our everyday life with God, we have to back up in the life of Jonah a bit. These words are the last words of Jonah’s book, but wouldn’t you agree that what happened earlier in his life could lead us to consider Jonah to be a worm himself? Not a little worm in the earth, but a big worm on a ship who got thrown into the sea because he was trying to run away from God – a worm that a fish which God provided miraculously swallowed and kept in his belly for three days.
Do you remember what Jonah was running away from? He was running away from the very city that he was now sitting outside of, waiting to see what God would do to it and angry at God for not destroying it – made all the worse because he was so hot and crabby because God had sent a real worm to destroy the shade tree that was giving him some comfort. God had wanted Jonah to talk about God’s forgiving love to a bunch of really “bad” people in his eyes – people who lived far away from him, people who lived different than him, people who looked different than him – people who lived in the large city of Nineveh, which was the capital city of the country which at that time was called Assyria – and today which is a city named Mosul that is still there in the country called Iraq.
What would be your reaction if God appeared to you this afternoon and told you to go and preach the gospel to the people of Iraq today, with all you know about the Middle East? Or seventy-five years ago if he told you to go and preach the gospel in Nazi Germany? Or fifty years ago if he told you to preach the gospel in North Viet Nam? Or twenty-five years ago if he told you to preach the gospel in Soviet Russia or Communist China? Or right now if he told you to preach the gospel in the capital city of North Korea? I hope and pray that we would all say, “Here am I, Lord. Send me, send me. I want to tell those bad people about our great God,” but would there possibly be even the least bit of hesitation to tell people whom you know very well might want to hurt you about how they can live in heaven with you someday, let alone the possibility that you and I would join Jonah of old and get into a boat like he did or get on a plane like we could – and try to get to the farthest away part of the world, and hope that God would not be able to find us and hopefully forget about us?
Unfortunately, Jonah looked at those people God said to preach to in the very same we would be tempted to look at those people today. These were the people who had kings and armies which did things to people that were simply unspeakable, people who bragged in their art about how sadistic they were, people whom, in fact, God had said were going to be the people who would someday destroy the land of Israel and take many people away as prisoners. Another prophet at about this same time named Hosea had said, “Israel will be carried to Assyria as tribute for the great king. (The nation) will be disgraced” (Hosea 10:6). No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go and tried to hide.
You may or may not remember this, but after getting spit out of the great fish, Jonah did go. He did obey the Lord and preached to that great city — and the people of the city actually repented and were spared from the destruction God had promised would happen if they did not change their ways and turn to the Lord. Later on, sadly, the people reverted back, but for what may have been some fifty or sixty years there was a window of opportunity to get the gospel to the people who needed it in the very same way you and I do.
But here’s what all this is all about. Seeing the great work of the gospel is why Jonah was so angry, because he also reverted back – back to his original way of running away from God’s will. Jonah had just said to God, “That’s why I didn’t want to go there. I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…” – leading him to say after the worm added to his self-pity and his self-righteousness, “God, it would be better for me to die than to live,” if these people are not going to get what they deserve.
We assume that Jonah came back to his spiritual senses, but what are some things you and I can try to remember with God’s help every day so that we can have every desire to have more people hear about Jesus? I am going to mention three things based on God’s word to us. One thing is to remember that we ourselves are worms. What a difference a worm makes when we realize that we are the worms. There is an old hymn that says it this way, “Alas and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sov’reign die? Would he devote that sacred head For such a worm as I?” (TLH 154:1) I am no different from anyone else in the world. There is no reason God should love me more than anyone else in the world. It is so important to keep remembering that everyone else in the world needs to know that there is help for worms such as them, too.
And that help – that help which makes all the difference in all the world – comes from knowing that someone else was a worm. A second thing to remember is what a difference a worm makes when we realize that the holy Son of God came to be worm to take the place of worms. Do you remember the Psalm written about one thousand years before Jesus lived, in which Jesus speaks in prophecy and says the very words he said one thousand years later on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that same Psalm the Lord says this about his coming suffering for the sins of the world, “But I am a worm and not man, scorned by men and despised by the people” (Psalm 22). Those very sad-sounding words are the entire reason for us being able to shout and sing for joy every single day of our lives. The one who shouldn’t have been a worm became one so that you and I who should remain worms are instead the children of God.
And we are then the ones whom God uses – through the witness we say and the words we pray and the offerings we pay – we are the ones whom God uses in so many different ways to be fishers of men. A third thing to remember is this: What a difference a worm makes when we realize that we are the worms God uses to catch fish – the fish of this world’s people, whether they live in our own family home or this well-to-do suburb or the central city of Milwaukee or the borough of Manhattan or the barrios of Mexico or the precincts of Manilla. We have the same message which Jonah had – the message which we can speak ourselves and the message which we can support by having other people speak it in our name in places we cannot go, “Change your ways and repent, since you, like us, are sinful worms before the God who placed us on this earth,” and “Rejoice, every day of your lives, because, you like us, are ones for whom the Son of God became a worm to forgive you of all you have ever done. The God who placed you on this earth wants to live in your heart every day you live on this earth so that don’t have to be one bit afraid of what is going to happen once you leave this earth, because you will live in the new heavens and the new earth, where stories about hurricanes and earthquakes and deranged gunmen and tragedies of every stripe will never be told again.”
One last thought… Please look at the word which the Bible repeats in verse 6, verse 7, and verse 8 to describe how the Lord worked in Jonah’s life to wake him up and to get him thinking the right way about wanting to get God’s love to others. Verse 6: “Then the Lordprovided a vine” – the vine that gave Jonah some relief with its shade. Verse 7: “At dawn the next day God provided a worm” – the worm that took Jonah’s shade away. Verse 8: “When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind” – the wind that made things so miserable that Jonah wanted to die rather than wait there and see the city of Nineveh be saved from destruction. That word “provide”refers to God picking out something specific to carry out a specific purpose for a specific person at a specific time. It’s the exact same word that was used earlier when we are told that “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.”
Every day the Lord provides things in your life and mine to humble us so we will keep our eyes on him and his love, and in his love the Lord has provided us a Savior from all the things he needs to humble us for – deeds of divine providing chosen specifically for us in our day by day lives to help us keep remembering how gracious and compassionate our Lord truly has been to us — and to help all of us want other people nearby and faraway to know that, too. What a difference a worm makes, when the worm is someone empowered and enabled by God to be the one doing the fishing. What a difference a worm makes, when you know with joy in your heart that that worm is you! Amen.