Monday, July 26, 2010

"Who Knows?": A Sermon on Jonah and the Timely Compassion of God


O God,
we thank you for this day.

We thank you
for the life you have breathed into our bodies,
for the lives you have surrounded us with,
for the loves you have offered to us in others.

O God,
we thank you for the time we have tonight
to share in worship and conversation
which we know from you
can be one and the same thing.

O God,
tonight we lift you up
as a God gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in faithful love,
a God with time enough and grace enough
to listen to our hearts,
to give us all we need.

And now, God, to that end
I pray that you would pour through me
the gift of preaching,
that these old words would speak afresh to us tonight,

that the word of God
for the people of God
might call forth thanks to you, O God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Questions About God

To begin, I want to ask some questions for you to be reflecting on as we go through the text. The questions fall into two different sets.

Here is the first set of questions:
  • Do the decisions you make every day have meaning before God?
  • Do the decisions you make every day have an effect on God?
  • Does God listen to you when you pray?
  • Why does God listen to you when you pray?
  • Does it matter if God listens to you when you pray?
  • Is your future—later this evening, tomorrow, the next day, next month, next year—is your future closed, or open?
  • Has God already decided your future in advance?
(I will not be answering all of these for you tonight!) Here is the second set of questions:
  • How do you react when things don’t go the way you expected them to go?
  • How do you react when God blesses those you don’t think should be blessed?
  • What do you think God thinks of people you don’t prefer?
  • What do you think God thinks of people who aren’t just not your preference, but who are actually in the wrong—people or groups we might call “sinners”?
  • How do you think God relates to people “on the outside” of boundary lines—whether these boundaries are a social group, a religious community, or a nation?
  • How do you feel when you think about crossing some of those boundary lines?
  • How do you feel when you think about God crossing those same boundary lines?
Jonah: Memory and Reality

Tonight we’re going to be looking at the prophet Jonah. The book of Jonah belongs to a collection of books that ends the Old Testament, which is a series of twelve prophetic books that are relatively small in size. And Jonah’s short length relates to its purpose, because the book of Jonah is less about history—which you can find elsewhere in the Bible—than about telling a great story.

The book of Jonah spins a yarn—about a bumbling prophet who never gets it right, about a Gentile nation that gets it perfectly right, and about the God at the center of it all—and like a fable, there is a “moral to the story.” And just like any fable or tall tale or folklore, this is a kind of campfire story, meant for retelling aloud, with dramatic voices and laughter at the goofball prophet and his mistakes and having our assumptions turned over and even a surprise ending.

So if what comes to your mind when you hear “Jonah” is a great big whale swallowing a man—well that’s just part of the fun of the story; but we’re going to spend some time going a bit deeper and seeing what God might have to tell us from this wonderful tale.

Jonah 1 & 2: Call, Flee, Boat, Fish

We’re going to be focusing on chapters 3 and 4, but let’s walk through chapters 1 and 2 to set up the story so far. The book begins:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me."

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
We jump straight into the action—with no introduction about who this Jonah is, God calls on him to speak as a prophet—and with no explanation, Jonah literally “runs away from the Lord.” Already we can see this one isn’t too bright!

The story continues. Onboard, Jonah is of all things sleeping below deck—and after revealing that he’s on the lamb—from God—and not just any God, but the God who made the sea, he offers to be thrown overboard. But for Jonah, this isn’t noble—this is his best way to escape from God! (We haven’t seen the last of Jonah wishing for death in this story.) The sailors end up being more reverent than Jonah, but follow through and throw him overboard—at which moment the storm ceases.

As for Jonah, he thought he’d escaped—but God doesn’t let him off that easy, and the text says that God provides a “huge fish to swallow Jonah,” and “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

While in the fish, Jonah comes to his senses and realizes that the Lord just spared him from death—so “from inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” And what is God’s response to Jonah’s first faithful action? After a long prayer by Jonah, Chapter 2 concludes, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

Jonah 3: Proclamation and Repentance

Here is where the story picks up in chapter 3:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you."

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city, proclaiming, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:

"By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
God’s Timely Compassion

Let’s stop there, and find our bearings. Notice that when Jonah obeys and preaches the message God gives him, the story quickly becomes about something other than Jonah: it becomes about the city of Nineveh, on the one hand, and the living God, on the other.

Now at the time, Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the great empire to the northeast of Israel that invaded and conquered the northern half of Israel—which probably gives us an idea why Jonah wasn’t thrilled to go preach to them. So this isn’t just about the one true God and a random city—this is about the God of Israel and the capital city of Israel’s most hated enemy.

But this enemy doesn’t act like an enemy: When Jonah preaches, “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”—hear this with Israelite overtones: “...just like you overthrew us!” But what is the very next sentence? “The Ninevites believed God.” And the Ninevites don’t merely believe inwardly—they act on their belief, and from the least to the greatest, they declare a city-wide fast—all the way up to the King! By royal decree the entire city is not allowed to eat or drink anything at all, not even the animals, and everyone must wear clothes for mourning and repentance. And here is where I want to focus: “Let everyone calls urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Tonight what I want us to hear from the story of Jonah is that this short phrase—Who knows?—is one of the most profound statements in the entire Bible, and tells us something of monumental importance about the life of Christian faith. What it says is this: The future is not closed, but open—for the living God is a God of surprises, who will happily show grace to us even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

This question pops up elsewhere in the Old Testament. When David is asked about fasting and weeping when his child was sick, he answers:
While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ ”
When Queen Esther is faced with a difficult decision, her cousin Mordecai sends her a message:
If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
When the prophet Joel is calling Israel to repentance he says:
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.
This phrase, this question, arises when God’s people feel most threatened—and instead of resigning themselves to an already written future, they pose a question to the God of all grace, to the God who listens in love: Who knows? Who knows what will happen? Perhaps there is reason to hope...

And with that question lingering in the air, chapter 3 concludes: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Israel’s God listened to Israel’s most hated enemy and answered their collective prayer with unaccountable compassion. So this God of surprises is also a God of compassion, who listens to the prayers of all, and who responds faithfully to human decisions.

Before we move on, take a moment to reflect on how this God corresponds to some of the questions we posed earlier.

Jonah 4: Anger and a Lesson

As you’re reflecting, let’s pick up the story, now at the beginning of chapter 4:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

But the Lord replied, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a gourd and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the gourd.

But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the gourd so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."

But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?"

"It is," he said. "And I'm so angry I wish I were dead."

But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?"
Resentment in a Closed World

This scene is openly comical—Jonah just doesn’t get it, even after obeying God just before. But for a moment, step into Jonah’s shoes: not only is he upset that a city of people he understandably hates isn’t going to be destroyed—apparently because God’s got a bleeding heart—but by God choosing not to go through with the judgment Jonah proclaimed, Jonah is made out to be a false prophet! By the Bible’s own standards, if the words of a prophet don’t come true, that prophet is thereby deemed to have been a false prophet—and Jonah, with us, knows this fact. Therefore it seems as if God is less concerned with Jonah’s status on the international scene as a reliable prophet, and more concerned with the fate and well-being of confused human persons—and even animals!

Listen to God’s speech in this story—just five times does God say something. The first two times God speaks, it is simply a command to Jonah: “Go! Preach!” But the last three times are all in chapter 4, and they are all rhetorical questions—again, like a fable, leading us, the hearers and readers, to answer for ourselves.
  • First, about Nineveh not being destroyed: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
  • Second: “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
  • Third: “Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh...?”
The entire book ends with God's rhetorical questions, hanging in the air for us to consider for ourselves.

What does this tell us further about God? The God of surprises is a God who crosses the boundaries we fear to tread.

We are the builders of borders, we are the makers of boundaries, we are the authors of discord and gossip and division. But as God is no respecter of persons, God is no respecter or builder of borders—rather, God is the one who breaks our barriers and tears down our walls:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female—for all are one in Christ Jesus. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
God is the one who looks upon those we disapprove or dislike or disregard, not with agreement, but with compassion and love:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
What Jonah felt was resentment in a closed world: his people were the only people God should care about, but God had to go off and care for others. Are we any different? Am I? Are you? Speaking for myself, I do it all the time: I wall myself in from those I don’t like or prefer, and create my own special group or clique or whatever. But whether in a family, a home, a church, a retirement community, a nation, wherever—God is the great border-crosser: the One who transgresses the boundaries we set, the One who breaks down the walls and fences we erect, the One who has compassion on those on the inside and those on the outside.

Praying to a Surprising God, Sharing Compassion Across Borders

This all could sound like bad news, or at least discomforting news. The God of surprises is sure likely to mess up your perfectly planned tomorrow. The God of compassion is sure likely to let people off the hook who don’t deserve it. The God of border-crossing is sure likely to love on people outside of your little group.

But what if we turn this upside-down message into good news?

The God of surprises is bound to surprise you with his love at any moment. The God of compassion is bound to let you off the hook when you don’t deserve it. The God of a borderless kingdom is bound to offer you welcome when you feel left on the outside. Isn’t that good news?

But God’s good news is always challenge, too. So how might we be people of this God—right where we are, right at this moment?

Let us be people who surprise others with love, who open others’ futures to possibilities they never would imagined feasible. Let us be people who forgive others and let go of grudges, even and especially when we have good and plenty right to be angry. Let us be people who cross borders, who knock down boundaries, who welcome those on the outside to come in.

In other words, let us be people of happy grace, of gratuitous love, of unconditional and spontaneous hospitality. In doing so we will, on the one hand, be avoiding the way of Jonah; and, on the other hand, we will be following the way of Jesus.

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