Sermon :: Sept. 24, 2017

Jonah 3:10–4:11

10When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He 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. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And 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?”

—–

I really like Jonah. The book of Jonah has so many twists and turns, so many jokes and odd interactions, that this odd little prophet has wormed his way into my heart. He is a combination of indignation and cluelessness. And I find him to be one of the more relatable characters in the Bible. Don’t ever think that the Bible is full of saints.

To give a quick recap of Jonah at this point, we see that he was called by God to go to Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire (modern day Mosul, Iraq) to give a message. That message is to repent from their ways or be destroyed. So, instead of going to Ninevah, he flees by boat to Tarshish, the exact opposite direction on the western coast of modern day Spain. To make a long story short, there’s a storm, the sailors reluctantly throw him in because he has confessed to disobeying Yahweh, a fish or whale swallows him and spits him out on shore, and Jonah begrudgingly follows the call of God. He walks about one third of the way into the city, delivers his lines (“40 days more and Ninevah will be overthrown!” – not exactly specific or encouraging) and it actually works! Ninevah repents and God spares them.

First off, if I could deliver a message like that and effectively change an entire city for the better, I’d be amazed. But Jonah is not as excited about the result. He wants to see Ninevah burn like the legends of Sodom and Gomorrah. The practices of Ninevah were brutal – the Assyrian Empire, like many other empires, relied on violence and extortion to ensure their power and “peace” would last. Jonah didn’t want them to be spared, he wanted them to suffer like his people had suffered. And his complaint against God is this: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” What a weird complaint – “God, you know what your problem is? You’re too nice.”

While Jonah is sitting under his shriveling shrub, seeing if maybe they would be destroyed anyway, we have this almost comedic scene and temper tantrum. It’s supposed to make us laugh. It’s supposed to be ridiculous. But it’s also supposed to tell us something about ourselves.

We, like Jonah, like all humanity, really like grace, mercy, and love when it’s given to us. But not so much when it’s given to others; those that we would deem unworthy of it. Whether the “other” is someone who has harmed you, someone who hasn’t been here as long as you, or someone who done something you believe to be irreparably wrong, we can usually find a reason to not wish the best for others if we are looking for it. We were in line first, we can reason, but Jesus blows that argument out of the water.

“The last will be first and the first will be last.” Those are the words that Jesus ends his parable today with. These words are revolutionary words, because they critique the way the world works and point to how God works. These words and the grace they describe are a direct challenge to the norms of social status, political power, and any culture that would dictate that some are more worthy than others. These words challenge us and make us uncomfortable, but they are also such good news. Because Jesus is making a statement about the nature of God, the same nature that Jonah got so angry at God for. Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is not based on merit or wages, but on generosity. We are only ever a part of this Kingdom, this creative work of God, through the generosity of God.

There are certainly times when we will feel like the first laborers or Jonah, expecting more of God based on our perceived work. There are times when we will feel like we are owed more, like we deserve it, like it’s only fair that we be given a little extra. But the reality is that we are more like the last laborers and the Ninevites, new to this Kingdom and the receivers of unearned love, mercy, and grace. We want things to be fair, but grace isn’t fair. By its very nature, it can’t be fair. Grace, by its very definition, is a gift and that’s why we’re so grateful for it.

We gather, each and every week, remembering this grace. We gather to celebrate and recognize that we have everything we need already. You are already in God’s grace and you are already given the mercy and love of God freely. Instead of limiting the Kingdom to those who have earned or deserved it, God seems to have taken the gates off their hinges and people are finding themselves in the midst of this new Kingdom.

One of the things I like best of about Jonah (and Jesus’ parable today) is the very end. Jonah is the only book that ends in a question (“1And 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?”). Jesus’ parable, too, asks a question at the end – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Are you envious because I’m generous?”

I like this so much because they are inviting us, as the listener, to reflect a bit. They invite us to consider ourselves, the world, and God’s generosity. So, in that vein, I want to leave you with some questions.

Is there a place or people God cannot love? Is there a gift you have, a skill, talent, or passion you have earned? Is there any way to repay God’s immeasurable grace and love? How does this change things?

God loves you and has called and equipped you with grace. God has given you gifts and resources, talents and passions, and that is how God is ushering in the kingdom. Christ’s resurrection is enough for you, it is a gift for the world, and this world is being redeemed, even when we don’t understand or appreciate how God does it. That is the beautiful, unearned, unfair grace of God. Amen.

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