Sunday, September 24, 2017
OUR GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL GOD
The book of Jonah is only 48 verses long. Nonetheless, it is a whale of a tale. Never has a prophet said so little, been so reluctant to answer God’s call, and yet been so wildly successful.
Jonah was not the
first biblical figure to resist God’s call. When God called Moses to bring the
Israelites out of slavery in
Jezebel had killed
Jeremiah resisted God’s call to be a “prophet to the nations,” because he thought he was too young and inexperienced: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to him, “Do not say, `I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
Jonah exceeded them all in his level of resistance— he was outright defiant. The word of the Lord came to Jonah, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” Jonah responded by boarding a ship and fleeing in the opposite direction toward Tarshish. A great storm came up; and when it became clear that Jonah was the reason for it, the sailors, with Jonah’s prompting, hurled him into the sea, immediately calming the storm. As the story goes, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. Jonah prayed for rescue, and his prayer was answered. After three days and three nights inside the belly of the fish, he was spewed up on dry land.
Then the word of
the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Get up, go to
We can well
understand, therefore, why the Lord’s anger would be kindled against
In Jonah 3:10 we are told: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said that he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Now Jonah could
have rejoiced that his prophetic message had been successful. Biblical prophets were used to their
message being ignored, dismissed, and challenged. Being a prophet often was a
death sentence. Jonah’s prophetic message had been taken to heart and led to the
repentance in dust and ashes of an entire city, and not just any city, but the
great and evil city of
rejoicing, however, Jonah became exceedingly angry. He prayed to the Lord and
said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said
while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the
beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O
Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
During this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are
celebrating Martin Luther’s discovery of a gracious and merciful God. In the
Jonah’s attitude may remind us of the elder brother’s attitude in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder brother gets miffed when his father welcomes home his wayward brother with open arms. His younger brother has squandered his inheritance, engaged in loose living, and tarnished the family name. And what does his father do when the younger brother comes home? Throw him a party. “Give me a break,” the elder brother says in effect.
Jonah wanted no
part of celebrating God’s mercy and grace with the Ninevites. He went outside
the city, built himself a booth, and pouted— awash in self-righteousness and
self-pity. God’s final question to Jonah is: “And should I not be concerned about
When my dad was an intern pastor in Ohio in the early 1960’s, he preached a sermon in which he mentioned that some scholars considered Jonah a parable or a story, not a literal account of Jonah being swallowed by a whale. The Senior Pastor was not pleased. He preached for six weeks in a row on Jonah.
We do not have to resolve this issue to gain profound insight from the book of Jonah on who God is and what God is about and who we are and what we are to be about. Let me conclude by highlighting some key insights. First of all, when God calls us to a specific task, it is an exercise in futility to resist. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray: “Your will be done.” We can either work with God or against God.
Second, God can work through reluctant and unexpected people to accomplish miracles of mercy. God works through many flawed people in the Bible. Be assured that God continues to work through flawed people in our own time.
Third, God does
not give up on any one or any group of people. Jonah’s mistake was giving up on
Fourth, God can
change God’s mind. This may be unnerving to some who count on God being
consistent. The people of
Fifth, God defines greatness in terms of mercy, humility, and justice, not in terms of wealth, power, and fame. As the people of God are exhorted in Micah 6:8, “he has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” A number of leaders and nations in our world today, including our own, would do well to take God’s definition of greatness to heart.
Sixth, we do not and cannot fully comprehend God’s ways. As fallible, limited human beings, we need to live by faith—by trust in God.
Finally, God is
first and foremost a God of mercy. That does not mean mercy is God’s only
priority. For example, God is a God of justice. Jonah was right about that. But
only God’s commitment to mercy can explain why God changed God’s mind about
In Jesus’ name, AMEN.