Surprised by Grace

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Jonah wants God to hate his enemy as much as he does; but God doesn’t play favorites.

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Jonah 3:1-5

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

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In Joann’s sermon, followed by the Adult Mission Team presentation last Sunday, among the moving stories I heard, one of the stories was summed up by the question: “What would you take if you had to travel lightly”? The immigrants arriving at our border carried in their back pack basic necessities for survival like food and water and baby bottles. There was one unexpected item, however, that touched everyone on the mission team. It was a well-cared for Bible, underlined with notes written all along the edges. If all you could carry with you on a dangerous journey for survival had to fit into a backpack, would you include the Bible? If you wanted a library of all sorts of literature—history, poetry, myth, stories, narratives, theology, letters and parables—contained in a single bound volume, I would recommend the Bible. The Bible reminds me of my place in the universe by constantly keeping me on my toes. God is forever surprising me in the Bible. As a lifelong student of the scriptures, I have learned that the moment I settle in too comfortably to a particular sense of what I am called to do or to a particular reading and interpretation of the scriptures, God will change course on me. We might think, for example, that when women reach old age, and are barren that they will never have children. And yet Sarah laughed so hard that she fell on the floor when she overheard some strangers tell her husband, Abraham, that she was going to have a baby long after she had given up on the idea. And she named the child Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. Or who would have thought that the messianic savior, God’s beloved Son would be born in a barn and executed like a common criminal.

I. Todays’ Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah, is another case in point of how God keeps us on our toes with unexpected developments and surprises. The entire story takes only 48 verses; and since our worship services the past two Sundays have gone well beyond an hour, I read only 5 verses of the story this morning. The 5 verses are but a snippet of a story that is full of wonderfully humorous details. Here are some highlights. Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, is commissioned to warn an axis of evil nation of its impending destruction. Picture the President of the United States with his finger on the nuclear button, with missiles aimed at North Korea. And what does this prophet of the Lord do in response to this call from God? Jonah flees by boat in the opposite direction. He doesn’t want to warn the evil nation, he wants the nation to be destroyed! God stirs up the seas and when the sailors on board the boat that Jonah is escaping on realizes that it is Jonah’s fault that all of them might drown in the stormy sea, they toss Jonah overboard. Jonah is promptly swallowed by a large whale. Hearing Jonah’s prayer for help, God speaks to the whale who then spits Jonah onto the beach. Today’s reading picks up at this point. Jonah is called a second time and is re-commissioned to do what he should have done the first time. This time, though reluctantly, Jonah goes to that great axis of evil empire and preaches the word of the Lord. He keeps his message short and simple and to the point: “40 days more…and you’re toast!” My guess is that Jonah didn’t put in much time on his sermon. And yet, the late Billy Graham could not have been as effective as Jonah was that day. The citizens of the evil empire—from the tyrant at the top to every single living being—REPENT! And to show how sincere they are, they all put on sackcloth and begin immediately a fast! God calls off the judgment (telling the President of the United States to remove his finger from the nuclear button); and the evil empire is saved. But Jonah is not pleased.  Jonah never wanted that empire to be saved; he wanted it to be destroyed. His hatred is greater than God’s mercy. Jonah wants a God of his own making, a God who simply smites the bad people and blesses the good people, namely his own country folk. Jonah wants God to hate his enemy as much as he does. And when the real God shows up, Jonah is continually thrown into fury or despair. Jonah is angry that God is compassionate and merciful to these undeserving people whom Jonah doesn’t like.

I know that many of us today can barely disguise how we feel about the state of our country and our world. We are angry at the leadership of our country. Policies that endanger the most vulnerable and isolate the already-marginalized infuriate us. I believe my grandchildren are less safe today than they were 2 years ago. On this Christ the King Sunday, I am trying to be careful not to be political, to try to convince you of anything. I am simply sharing with you how I can identify with Jonah. I don’t want to demonize anyone; but sometimes the belly of whale sounds good compared to sitting at the banquet table of God and sharing the bread of life and cup of salvation with folks I feel are inflicting evil upon innocent people and don’t seem to care. Thinking about Jonah has challenged me to examine myself and what I am willing to be faithful to. I am confronted by God’s faithfulness and mercy, and how I love these truths about God when they are in my favor. But God doesn’t play favorites. This is becoming increasingly difficult to take in our current climate of political polarization, where people are speaking past one another, drawing totally different conclusions from the same event. We are all guilty of sticking with our political party of choice no matter what.

II. Tim Keller’s newest book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy, helped me see something I had not seen in all the times I’ve read Jonah. Realizing that Jonah is responsible for their ship threatened with breaking up by the mighty storm that had come up suddenly, the sailors confront Jonah with 3 questions: What is your mission? What is your country? Who are your people? To the 3 questions, Jonah responds to the 3rd question first, before anything else: I am a Hebrew. In a text that is so sparing with words, it is significant that he reverses the order and puts his race out front as the most significant part of his identity—Jonah’s relationship with God was not as basic to his significance as his race. That is why, when loyalty to his people and loyalty to the Word of God seemed to be in conflict, he chose to support his nation over taking God’s love and message to a new society. When we are unable to see everyone as God’s children, we can more conveniently objectify and demonize those different, those we disagree with and those we dislike. So we gloat when we see people of the other political party defeated. This is a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from them partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. Real compassion means the sadness of their condition makes us sad; it affects us. Charles de Gaulle said: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first.” David Brooks writes: “Love for nation is an expanding love because it is love for the whole people in all their diversity. It’s an ennobling love because it comes with the urge to hospitality—to share what you love and to want to make more love by extending it to others.” As long as serving God fit into Jonah’s goals for Israel, he was fine with God. As soon as he had to choose between the true God and the god he actually worshiped, he turned on God in anger. Jonah’s particular national identity was more foundational to his self-worth than his role as a servant of the God of all nations. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.

III. After 11 congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg were killed in a horrific spray of bullets, Muslims raised more than $300,000 in support of their Jewish brethren. I remember Andrew Young telling the story of a student from Zimbabwe who had come to the United States to study. The student completed his studies at Harvard Law School and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, clearly a talented and gifted student. But when he returned to his native country of Zimbabwe, he could not even vote. And so he joined the Patriotic Liberation Front, a guerrilla movement. Upon hearing what her son had decided to do, the student’s mother said to him: “Don’t hurt Ian Smith and his wife (Ian Smith being the Prime Minister of the apartheid government at the time). And her explanation to her guerrilla son was this: When you were an infant and became deathly ill, it was Mrs. Smith who rushed you to the Emergency Room and saved your life.” The way of God is mercy and grace.

We have all just celebrated Thanksgiving. One of the enduring images of American self-understanding is that of a Thanksgiving table, where people celebrate abundance, serve one another and make sure all are fed. People give with no expectation of return and joy replaces obligation. This vision of gratitude is truly virtuous, sustains the common good, ensures a circle of equality, and strengthens community.

Throughout the Bible, we find ordinary people who, unlike Jonah, answer God’s call. We find Samaritans who can be good neighbors; stutterers who can be lawgivers; God’s voice being encountered in the still, small voice; and not even Nineveh is beyond God’s compassion. God calls the shots.  Like in Jonah, God is forever surprising us with whom God handpicks to serve Him, calling even you and me. In the end, God gets what God wants. “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.”  As we pray, so shall we follow.

So may our response to God’s call, unlike Jonah’s hatred for the enemy, be along the lines of what Rabbi Michael Adam Latz wrote: “First they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—because I am my sisters’ and brothers’ keeper. And then they came for the women and I spoke up—because women hold up half the sky. And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—because I remember the ideals of our democracy. And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—because they are my cousins and we are one human family. And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep. They keep coming. We keep rising up. Because we Jews know the cost of silence. We remember where we came from. And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—and THAT just won’t stand.”



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