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- Jonah 4
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Amen.
If you’ve been journeying with us through lent, you know that we are entering into the last chapter of Jonah today. We’ve been hearing together this miraculous tale of one person who is called to a life of faith, but who like us, is often reluctant to walk in the ways that God has called. Nevertheless, last week we saw that God gave Jonah a second chance to follow in God’s purpose and do you remember what happened when that second chance came?
Right. Jonah took it. He decides to obey. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims the words that God gives him. And then what happens?
Jonah has the most successful missionary journey of any prophet. He shows up, says one sentence, and the entire city, from the least to the greatest, all repent. They put on sack cloth and sit in ashes. Even the animals fast. If you’ve ever tried to get a cat to go a couple of hours without eating, you know they will try to bite your toes off; this is a miracle!
We expect Jonah to be jumping for joy that the people have been saved. That God has relented from punishment. That Jonah’s mission is successful. Well, let’s turn today one last time to this unusual book of Scripture, given to us a symbol of faith and repentance, and see how Jonah responds.
It is said of a person that if you want to know what they believe, you should follow them for a day.
- What do they spend money on? That will tell you what they value.
- What are they reading or listening to? That will tell you what topics they think about.
- Who do they spend time with? That will tell you who they love.
Jonah, however, is the book of great reversals. Every time we open a new chapter of Jonah, it surprises us. A prophet who won’t speak. A place of misery as a place of salvation. A person who has demonstrated his lack of responsibility being given a second chance.
By this time, we know to expect the unexpected.
So what it is that Jonah believes?
Tucked into Jonah 4 is one of the greatest affirmations of faith given in Scripture. “God, I know that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
This is what Jonah believes. “God is gracious and compassionate. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Jonah, of course, is not the first person in Scripture to know this about God. He is repeating words which are given to us over and over again throughout the Bible.
Moses said it this way (Exodus 34 says): the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Solomon said it like this: “God, you have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David” (one whom we all know needed a lot of forgiveness). 1 Kings 3
Nehemiah said: “you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” Nem 9:17
And over and over the Psalmists proclaim “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
And all of these are before we get to the New Testament.
This is who God is. And Jonah knows it. He knows the deep love of God. Or at least he says he does.
The pastor I grew up with had a great saying that suck with me through the years. He said: The farthest distance is the 8 inches from your head to your heart. The farthest distance is the 8 inches from your head to your heart.
Sometimes we believe things in our mind, we know them to be true up here, but do we know them to be true in here (in our hearts)? Would other people be able to look at how we spend our day, look at our actions and know what it is that we believe?
Jonah believes that God is merciful and compassionate. Jonah expects God to have compassion on him. He is thankful for the little bush that comes out of the ground and shades him. That’s the way that he wants God to act—to give unmerited blessings to him.
And when a worm comes and eats the little plant, Jonah is angry. That is not how the world is supposed to work! Little plants are not supposed to be eaten. Our joy is not supposed to be stripped by the creatures of this world. Why oh why, God?
Just like us, Jonah gets angry with the sin and suffering and death of this world.
And notice God’s response. Does God say that Jonah shouldn’t be angry? That Jonah shouldn’t be upset over the death of a plant, even one so fragile it only lasted a morning. No! Instead God uses it as an object lesson. Of course we should be angry about the sin and death in this world. God is too. And that’s why we are called to love.
It’s not an easy lesson though. Not for Jonah. Not for me. Not for us.
Pause for a moment and consider: who is your enemy?
Your nemesis? The one who keeps coming at you, getting under your skin?
I’ve watched enough movies to know that we all have one.
Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen has President Snow. Seinfeld has Newman.
You know that someone. That person who keeps getting in your way. In the way of everything you try to do.
Perhaps it’s your neighbor. You know, the one who leaves their trash can out and it just keeps blowing into your yard, squishing your tulips trying to come up. Or the other neighbor who walks their dog and refuses to clean up after the stinky messes it makes. Or maybe your enemy is not one of small offences but of large.
Did you ever consider why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh?
To understand Jonah’s motivation, we have to look back in history a little ways: Because we tell so many stories about Ancient Israel, we start to think that Ancient Israel was a big and strong nation. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
We are told in the book of Deuteronomy that God did not choose the people of Israel because they were strong and large, but because they were small and weak. Throughout the Bible, this principle is seen. God says: My strength is made perfect in weakness. We can see the work of the Lord within us not because of the strength we have but because of the gifts God gives to us.
Ancient Israel wasn’t the powerhouse of Jonah’s day. Guess who was.
Yeah, Ninevah. The Assyrians.
Now I know I have some history buffs in the room so you all can tell more stories after church, but it is clear to say that the Assyrians were the Superpower in the time of the historical Jonah and Nineveh was their capital.
They were an extremely violent and domineering nation. Think Darth Vader’s army of Storm Troopers coming against the Resistance. Or Great Britain four-hundred years ago colonizing other sovereign nations on nearly every continent. Or drug lords in Latin America buying off local elected leaders and forcing families to do their bidding under the threat of violence. Or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Assyrians were the aggressors. They had a multitude of ways of dominance. One way was to create vassals. In other words, they forced other people groups to give them their goods at low cost. The Northern Tribes of the Israelites were forced to do this in Jonah’s time. They were forced to give them trees and oil as tribute in exchange for “their protection”–in other words in exchange for the Assyrians themselves not coming in and demolishing them.
And when the Assyrians did choose to totally overtake another city or a people group, they were brutal about it. They would force people out of their homes, burning them to the ground and make them walk hundreds of miles to a new place where they would become the cheap labor for the ruling empire. Nineveh came to symbolize of violence and cruelty.
One book I was reading this week said it this way: It was as if Jonah, a Jew, was being asked to walk right into Nazi Germany at the height of Hitler and call them to repent. Or in our modern day, we might think of a prophet from Ukraine being called to walk into Russia and call them to repent.
Jonah was being sent to his enemies.
And these were not just nuisance enemies, he was being sent to ones who were truly violent and evil in every sense of the word. No wonder Jonah didn’t argue with God when he received his call. Jonah just got on a boat and high-tailed it out of there. No way, God, I’m not going to save my enemy.
Jonah wanted to see his enemy punished. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Jonah. I look at the evil in the world and I want it to stop. Violence. Anger. Hate. Children being abused. Terrorists at work. My neighbor and his dog: I mean, really.
Sometimes it seems like those who do bad things get everything good. Those who cheat and lie and steal are the ones who prosper. And God doesn’t do anything about it.
One Psalmist says it this way: I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity. (Psalm 73)
Jonah is angry. Of course Jonah is angry. How can God be so forgiving? How can God be so merciful. They don’t deserve mercy.
Perhaps you have felt that way, too. Sometimes we listen to the news and are bombarded by stories of enemies. By those who seem to prosper from wrong doing. Perhaps you have known true enemies. Ones who have forced you to leave your homeland or have caused you to feel unsafe. If that describes you, I stand with you in your anger. I’m so sorry that you have suffered in the ways that you have. And if you have begun to think that God does not see, that God does not hear, that God does not know, the Book of Jonah is here to remind us that God does see. God does hear the cry of the oppressed. God does care that people are suffering.
In this season of Lent is that we are called in this season to fast and pray. It is so easy to shut our eyes to the hurts of the world. To ignore the famines of the world. To forget about people in Yemen and South Sudan who worry day by day that they cannot feed their children. To turn off the news when we hear about persecution in Myanmar or gun violence here in Chicagoland.
But, we, like Jonah, are called to open our eyes to the places of hurt in the world. To be willing to see those who would be our enemies as one whom God wants to redeem and change.
And, we are called to examine ourselves and the ways in which we sin. The ways in which we hurt others. The ways in which we run from the Lord.
The more I prayed this week, the more I realized that I have a lot more in common with the average Nivevite than I do with Jonah. We as a nation have a lot more in common with Assyria than we do with Ancient Israel.
For instance, do you know that as Americans, we only make up 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 25% of the world’s fossil fuels. Wars have been fought over the control of this natural resource and through its usage we contribute to the warming of the planet arguably more than any other nation.
Or coffee. Coffee is a big one for me, personally. I drink a lot of coffee. And I’m not alone apparently. American’s are 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 45% of the world’s coffee. Now, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I mean, who cares if we need a little coffee to start our day—that doesn’t hurt anyone.
But actually, it can. We can’t grow coffee here in the states. We have to import it from places like South America and Southeast Asia. And for decades American companies have been forcing small farmers to produce more and more coffee for smaller and smaller wages. We force them into positions where they have to burn their rainforest—destroy their land–to produce a product they don’t consume. It’s us who are the coffee drinkers. We in the United States have vassals all around the world—people who we force to give us goods at low cost to their own determent.
It’s a difficult thing to own our own sin. To look at our own lives and to see the big and small ways we cause others to suffer. To name the ways that we, like the people of Nineveh, are violent. That we perpetuate violence with our purchasing, in our words spoken and unspoken. In our actions and in our lack of action.
So, what do we do? Honestly, sometimes when I start to think about these things, I just want to shut down. I want to do what Jonah did. I want to say: no way God. The problems of the world are too big. The violence of the world is too great. The sin of my own heart is too strong. I want to get on a ship to Tarshish.
But something keeps drawing me back. It’s the words that are repeated over and over again in Scripture.
Words, not about me or my circumstances. But words about God. “God is gracious and compassionate. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”