Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pentecost 16A

Jonah 3:10–4:11

 

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 Egypt, Moses said to God, “Who am that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God responded, “I will be with you.” Later Moses expressed why he was so hesitant to take up this call: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But Moses pleaded, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” The Lord did not let Moses off the hook, but the Lord agreed to let Moses’ brother Aaron be his spokesperson.

 

Jezebel had killed all Israel’s prophets except Elijah. In response Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal. When Jezebel heard what Elijah had done, he sent a messenger to Elijah, vowing, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then Elijah fled for his life. After fleeing into the wilderness, Elijah sat down under a broom tree. Exhausted in mind and body and famished, Elijah asked God to take his life. God responded by providing him with food and water and preparing him to continue his prophetic journey.

 

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 Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time Jonah, however reluctant, set out and went to Nineveh.

 

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria at the height of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was known far and wide for its extreme wealth and power. It covered a vast area— a three days’ walk across according to Jonah 3:3. King Sennacherib triggered extensive construction in Nineveh. His palace was said to be without rival in the world. An elaborate water system of canals, levees, and dams was developed. Park areas were set apart within the city. The “hanging gardens of Babylon” may have been constructed under Sennacherib.

 

But Nineveh was also notorious for its violence, corruption, and wickedness. In Nahum 3:1 we read of Nineveh: “Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty— no end to the plunder!” Zephaniah condemned Nineveh for its arrogance. From a prophetic perspective, Nineveh was evil incarnate.

 

We can well understand, therefore, why the Lord’s anger would be kindled against Nineveh and why the Lord sent Jonah to prophecy against it. Jonah entered the city and cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It was a concise yet amazingly effective message. A prophetic miracle occurred. The people of Nineveh believed God. The king issued a decree: “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

 

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 Nineveh.

 

Instead 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 case of Nineveh, Jonah was disgusted by God’s grace and mercy. Jonah wanted Nineveh to get what they deserved. God’s mercy toward Nineveh violated Jonah’s confidence in God’s justice.

 

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 Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” God’s compassion for all creatures is contrasted with Jonah’s concern for himself.

 

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 Nineveh. God obviously had not. There are people and nations in our time for whom we have little hope. But in God’s eyes no one is beyond hope.

 

Fourth, God can change God’s mind. This may be unnerving to some who count on God being consistent. The people of Israel, however, had a very dynamic relationship with God. They expressed a full range of emotions to God: joy, anger, sorrow, bitterness, gratitude. Notice how God interacts with Jonah and other prophets who resisted God’s call. He took their complaints seriously and challenged them. We would do well to recover a dynamic relationship with God in our living and in our praying.

 

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 Nineveh. In Romans 5:8 Paul asserts: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Only God’s mercy can explain why Jesus would suffer and die for sinful human beings. The gospel of Jesus Christ affirms exactly what angered Jonah: God is and will always be a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.