September 20, 2020 – Unfair Grace
Jonah 1: 17 – 3: 10, Matthew 20: 1-16
Friends, today I would like to invite us to spend the morning together in the book of Jonah and to explore God’s lesson in the time of the hard-luck prophet and our own.
A moment ago, I read a section of the book of Jonah, beginning with Jonah being swallowed up by the “great fish” and ending at the moment God decides to spare Nineveh, the city that he had tasked Jonah to prophecy against.
As we will be spending our morning in this story together, I would actually like to invite you to hit “pause” and read now the whole 4 chapters of Jonah, just as you are – either alone or with your family.
So as you have just read, the story of Jonah is the story of a prophet who finds his relationship with God an unfair one.
The story starts out straight away with Jonah receiving his call from the Lord:
“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me”
Now Nineveh (located in modern-day Iraq) was the last capital of the Assyrian Empire, the greatest empire of its day. It is the greatest and most powerful city in all the land, and Jonah has just been commanded to go and to tell them how bad they are, how wicked they are, and how God is going to punish them for their ways.
To put this into the context of our own time, this would be like going to Washington DC, or Moscow, or Beijing and crying woe on the people there: “your regime is wicked! Your nation is corrupt! God is going to punish you for what you are doing!” In a couple of those places, anyway, you would be lucky to get out of there alive; and truly, the Assyria of Jonah’s day was not any more welcoming of criticism.
So what does Jonah do? What does he do with this dangerous call that he has been given by God? He runs away.
The text tells us that straight away Jonah tried to run away to Tarshish (a city in modern day Spain), as far away from Nineveh as was humanly possible for Jonah.
Now, even though Jonah tried to get away from God’s call he could not get away from God, nor from the responsibility and guilt that he felt in abandoning God’s call, and while Jonah is making his escape to Tarshish he ends up learning that God will not give up as easy as he will.
As he is on a sea voyage toward Tarshish a terrible storm comes up and the sailors become afraid of Jonah, that he must have done something to anger God, and, “yes” Jonah says ‘I have abandoned my calling…’
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
So, the men do this, hurling Jonah into the sea, but rather than let Jonah drown, rather than let Jonah endure the punishment that he knew he brought on himself by disobeying God, God practices some strange and unfair grace, sending a “great fish” (perhaps a whale, perhaps something even more strange) God has the fish swallow Jonah to save him from drowning.
And to his credit, Jonah makes the most out of his time in the great fish. He writes a beautiful prayer, a poem to God, in which he expresses his desire to follow God’s call, even if it will cost him his life:
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
And my prayers came to you, in to your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!
…a beautiful and touching proclamation of faith, even when God’s call seems unfair to the one following it.
In response to this, God told the fish to let Jonah go on dry land, and then he once again came to Jonah and instructed him to go to Nineveh.
“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you”
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And that is exactly what Jonah cried out, after three days of walking to the great city, he told the prophecy to all who would hear, so that they would know God’s judgement was upon them.
So, friends, at this point, in this strange story, we must ask: where are we in it?
Where are we in a story about a man who heard God, abandoned God’s call, became swallowed by a great fish, finally accepted God’s call, and went to cry woe to the great city of the empire, even at the cost of his life?
Well, I would like to suggest that at this point in history, with all that is going on in the world around us, we are much closer to this story and to Jonah than we think.
You see, when Jonah was sitting in the belly of the great fish, he decided that, given a second chance, he would no longer hesitate to call out the things God hated, no matter what might happen to him.
And maybe there is something about our Covid bubble, about our own figurative “belly of isolation” that has had a similar affect on our own minds.
As he sat, and as he prayed, and as he thought, Jonah thought to himself, “if I ever get out of here, I will be not just a prophet, but a fearless prophet! I will go into Nineveh! I will call out idolatry and injustice wherever I see it! I will cry woe to the great city! I will tell everyone the things they have done that are damning them in God’s site!”
This kind of fearlessness, this kind of judgement, whether in service to God, to a political party, or to an ideology, is actually all around us at this time.
Anytime we watch the news or look at social media, we see a hundred wannabe Jonahs all decrying their enemies, with the same zeal, and confidence, and judgement:
Pro-Trump / Anti-Trump
Pro-Gun / Anti-Gun
Pro-Black lives matter / Anti-Black lives matter
Pro-Mask / Anti-Mask
Pro-Trans / Anti-Trans
A hundred voices, on each side, crying woe on their opponents with a zeal and judgement and a hatred not equal to, but far greater than Jonah’s. Each yelling and tweeting and screaming in ALL CAPS, as if they themselves had been tasked by God to cry woe to the wicked city.
Friends, you have heard me mention this movement before: The polarization of politics and of history, the bifurcation of culture into warring left-right camps.
This week, as I read and re-read Jonah, as I watched over and over how reluctant he was to cry woe and yet how eager so many of us are I could not help but be bothered by it all again.
Jonah was a real and true prophet of God. One who was instructed by the One True God to carry a difficult message to a people who needed to hear it, and even he did not hate Nineveh.
Throughout the story you have just read, I do not see a single verse that tells of Jonah’s hatred for the Assyrians, even though they were the enemies of Israel, even though God Himself told Jonah of their wickedness.
If one (such as Jonah) instructed and equipped by God to be a prophet, did not hate the receivers of his message, why do we today tend to revel in it? And how can we ask God to remove this hatred from our hearts and minds? As you may have noticed, the examples I have given of hatred and counter-hatred, have more to do with the American context than our own Canadian one.
Truly, there is more drama, more polarization, more hatred there than here, but that does not mean that we ourselves are not also reflected in Jonah’s story.
You see, as Jonah went around Nineveh, crying woe and judgement and the punishment of God that was surely coming, an unexpected thing happened.
The people listened.
At Chapter 3, verse 4 we hear Jonah’s prophecy and the immediate action of the Assyrians:
And oddly, strangely, in a truly God-shaped way: this ended up being Jonah’s greatest disappointment in the whole story! A story that included him being swallowed whole by a large fish. Nineveh believed his prophecy, they turned from their ways, they repented, and so, the judgement, the anger, the prophetic truth bombs that Jonah was all set to hurl, became completely unnecessary.
It would be like one of us sitting down to Thanksgiving Dinner with that uncle (or if you are that uncle, that nephew) with whom you disagree about politics. The whole car ride over, you’ve been practicing your talking points, knowing just how you are going to respond to each challenge, and then when you get there, all full of vim and vinegar, he says to you:
“You know what? I’m going to do things your way now. Who knows? Maybe you’ve been right this whole time”
How utterly disappointing for Jonah, who had steeled himself in the belly of the fish to stop at nothing in delivering his message of woe to Nineveh.
The city repented, and
When God saw what they 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.
At this, Jonah has had just about as much as he can stand, and he cries out to God in anger:
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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live.
In other words, “God, you had better just kill me, because after everything I’ve been through, in hearing and fleeing, being swallowed, coming to terms with it, and going and doing the thing you told me to do, you can’t just change your mind!”
At this God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
And Jonah went off pouting, and went and built himself a little booth outside of the city, and he waited to see what would become of the city.
Whatever we may think of Jonah at this moment;
Whether we think he is right to be upset with a God who changed his mind at the last minute.
Whether we think he is reacting childishly at not being able to see the city burn, as he was promised.
I think this is the point at which we, as Canadians, as onlookers of the calamity happening around us in the world, come into the story.
The point at which we, like Jonah, might complain about God’s unfair grace.
Whether we like to think so or not, each of has at some point in the last six or seven months, watched the situation in the United States as one watches the proverbial “train wreck”: with fear, with shock, but with the sinful pleasure that wants to see things get even worse.
Jonah went up to the hill outside Nineveh, to his booth, in-part because he wanted to see if God change his mind again and punish the Assyrians after all.
How many times have we turned on the news in these past months, sinfully seeking what new horrible thing has happened?
One commentator on Jonah, Alan Brehm , calls this phenomenon “the love of hatred.”
In the moment that Jonah stormed off to build his booth, his heart was too wrapped up in an idolatry of hatred to accept the grace that God had decided to give Nineveh.
And as we, as Canadians, have also found out these past months, we do not have to be “participants” or “combatants” in a story of competing hatreds in order to be drawn to it.
This week, I was catching up with a friend of mine, who asked me how I thought everything would “turn out” in the United States. Would they figure out their Covid strategy? How would the election go? Would people accept the results? Could they maintain peace in such a difficult time?
Before I could stop myself, I found myself answering out of my worldly mind and not my heart which trusts in a gracious God.
“It would be nice, but I doubt it” I found myself saying out loud.
Why had I spoken so faithlessly?
Why did I not learn from the text I had been reading all week?
Why did I not trust in a God who is gracious, even to the point of being unfairly gracious?
Truly, our neighbours to the South are in a difficult place, truly there has been too much blood shed in the streets and lives lost to Covid already, but how, as a Christian, could I not have more faith in a God who has shown us over and again His ability to intervene in history for the sake of grace and mercy?
I must confess, in that moment, though I hated to be, I found myself in Jonah’s booth, watching and waiting for things to get worse for Nineveh.
Back in the story, as Jonah continued to watch and to pout, God did not stop pursuing relationship with him. In first growing for Jonah a bush to block the powerful sun, and then destroying this same bush, God asked Jonah again about his anger:
Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?
And Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die”
Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow, and should I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city…?”
Friends, as Christians, as followers of the one who Scripture tells us was even “greater than Jonah” we would be wrong to think that we will not fall into the same traps of idolatry and of hatred that God’s prophet to Nineveh did.
Each of us is capable of walking in the ways of this angry world:
Seeking judgement on our enemies
Crying woe to sinners
Being sure that once God has judged one thing to be wicked, that he will never change his mind and offer them grace
Like Jonah, we will from time to time find ourselves in the booth: seeking our human hatred and not God’s divine grace.
But even so, God will not stop seeking us, nor those we seek judgement for.
That though God’s grace may be unfair (in the same way that paying all labourers a day’s wage no matter the hours is unfair). We have been and will be again receivers of this same unfair grace.
That no matter our fear, or our anger, or our loss of hope for ourselves or others, God will not stop seeking relationship with all of us in the name of Jesus Christ.
Fair or not, God’s grace will be known in this world and the next.