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Sermons

The Wideness of God’s Mercy

9/21/2014 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost   The text for today’s sermon is Jonah 3:10-4:11

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“It’s not fair.  It’s just not fair at all!”  That’s what children say whenever they don’t get their own way – whether it’s by not having as much as someone else (like as many toys, or friends, or talents) – or by not being allowed to do what they want – like watching a TV show, or staying up late, or going someplace.  They see everything that doesn’t meet their desires as being unfair, without ever understanding that life is never fair from a human perspective – but it is exceedingly fair from the perspective of a gracious God.

We see good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people – we proclaim, “It isn’t fair!”  We see some people labor for hours in order to eke out a meager living, while others make hundreds of thousands of dollars with a simple phone call – and it doesn’t seem fair.  We see some who are physically fit and look after themselves die suddenly, while others who abuse themselves live to a ripe old age – and we shake our heads in awe at the inequity of it all.  So many things in life just aren’t fair – for we look at them with human eyes, with the expectation of human justice in human time.

It was this human perspective that colored Jonah’s relationship with God. So when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to deliver a message so that people would repent from their sinful ways and be saved, Jonah was reluctant to go because the people of Nineveh were bad people who deserved bad things.  They were bullies who had harassed and hurt Jonah’s people, the Jews, and they didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness, at least from Jonah’s perspective.  Jonah wanted them destroyed, not saved – for that was what he believed they deserved and with this justice would be served.

After all, we only feel it’s right that bullies, people who get their kicks from hurting others, get put in their place.  Harry knew this and he was only a kid.  Richard and Keith picked on Harry everyday at school.  They teased, pushed, mocked him constantly. They just wouldn’t leave him alone. Until one day, they got caught and Richard and Keith got in big trouble.  “Leave Harry alone” was the principal’s command.  Harry could hardly believe his ears! So Harry was quite unprepared when, the next day, his math teacher took him aside. “Richard and Keith are failing in math,” she said. “They need a tutor.  I’d like you to help them.”  Harry responded by laughing.  And we can imagine how he laughed for now he was in the driver’s seat and they were going to suffer, either at the hands of the school system or through is inadequate tutoring.

Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to suffer too.  He wanted them to suffer through the hands of God.  He wanted to watch them get their just deserts from a distance.  But God was not about to give up on the people of Nineveh so rather than destroying them, God was going to give them a second chance by sending Jonah to preach to the people.  Now Jonah couldn’t just laugh in the face of God when God told him to go.  So, he nodded politely and yessed God, and then he got in a boat going in the opposite direction.  For Jonah knew God would forgive these miserable people if they repented and turned to God.  And that was not what Jonah wanted to happen.  He hated the people and nothing would have pleased him more than seeing them all destroyed by God.  He wanted his prophecy about the destruction of the city to come true and he was unwilling to get involved in sharing God’s mercy – all because he didn’t understand that the Lord doesn’t give up on people.  God doesn’t want to punish the wicked.  He would rather have them change.  If God were Dirty Harry, he would say, “Change – Go ahead and make my day!”  That’s what God wanted for the people of Nineveh.  That’s what God wants for everybody.  We are to be less about revenge and more about transforming, changing lives, and being willing to reach out and help people we don’t like.

Jonah thought that the people of Nineveh were the only ones who needed God’s transforming work.  But Jonah had his own sin package that needed transforming in God.  Jonah had things like prejudice and hatred; self-will and self-centeredness.  He had a need for God’s perspective on people if he was going to grow up in God.  So God would not let Jonah off the hook.

When Jonah walked into Nineveh with a simple eight word message from the Lord, God used the words to prick the hearts of the Ninevites and repentance followed.  The whole town turned to God!  And when the people of Nineveh repented of their sins and turned to the Lord, God reacted to their faith in grace and saved them.  Their conversion was part of God’s perfect plan!  But the salvation of the people of Nineveh was not in Jonah’s plan so he “burned with anger”. He was hopping mad at God because God was merciful rather than vengeful, acting with forgiveness rather than wrath.

To him, it just wasn’t fair.  So Jonah threw a first-class pity party in the same way children throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way.  His hurt and anger was so deep that he wanted God to kill him!  All because he didn’t get his way and because he had to endure embarrassment, he wanted to give up on life itself.  What a sad commentary that is on all of us who expect God to give us what we want and not what God wants for all people, even those we consider to be enemies!

Jonah had given up on God, but the Lord was not about to give up on Jonah, any more than the Lord gave up on the people of Nineveh or is willing to give up on any of us.  The Lord extended his grace to Jonah, even when Jonah’s heart was obviously not right with God. The Lord graciously allowed a vine to grow over the prophet’s hut to give him shelter and comfort.  But just as Jonah was beginning to enjoy the vine, God sent a worm to destroy the vine.  And with this, Jonah got even angrier!

But the Lord was not about to give up on Jonah.  This time, God set the record straight! He reminded Jonah that Jonah cared more about a vine than he did about the souls of the people of Nineveh.  He cared more about his own comfort and reputation, his own hatred and prejudice, than he did about people made in the image of God, a people who would have perished had God not intervened!

As pointed out by Cathy Ventkatesh, “God is not just by our human ways of accounting.  Undeserving people receive blessings, often ahead of deserving ones.  If we consider ourselves deserving, this is bad news.  But if we recognize our own failings and the amazing graciousness of God, this is wonderful news indeed.  In God’s economy there is enough for everyone, and those who need grace the most are most likely to receive it first…”

God wants us to seek and receive mercy and forgiveness from his perspective, not from the perspective of our limited point of view.  God wants us to trust him to do the right thing.  For, we have a God who promises to right wrongs, and even up the scales – if not now- then a bit later.  We have a God who doesn’t give up on us even when we try our best to run away from him. We have a God who listens to us and who will set us straight if we allow him to show us the way.  We have a God of mercy and grace, a God who could have destroyed the people of Nineveh and a defiant prophet, but instead of destroying chose to save.

May we trust in this God who finds fairness in forgiveness, and justice in mercy and grace.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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