Sunday, September 24, 2017

The God We Seek and Reject

The God We Seek and Reject
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman 
September 24, 2017 
Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 4:1–2  
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So 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. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

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.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘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.

I wish I could preach like Jonah! I wish I could preach like that!   His sermon was only 8 words long.  ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’  Only 8 words and the whole city of 120,000 repents!   The people heard those 8 words and they believed!  That’s preaching! 
They didn’t greet him at the gates to the city following his message saying, “Good Sermon! Jonah!”  
No one commented “We needed to hear that.”  No….  The whole city believed. Everyone… Great and small!  This was not a passive, “I believe….”  No  they repented and actually changed their ways.  A preacher’s dream!  Not 1, not 2 but 120,000!  In sack cloth and ashes! 
Lest we try and minimize this event, this was Ninevah: “the evil city of Ninevah”!  These were the sworn enemies of the Hebrew people.  These were the people who treated the Hebrews and everyone else harshly.  They were feared and hated. 
Eight words:  “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  I wish I could preach like that.   My stewardship sermon would be only 4 words: “God says ‘give more,’” and we would oversubscribe the budget!  
You would think that Jonah would be pleased.  You would think that Jonah would be ebullient.  But no.  He has a snit: a hissy fit.  We read, “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”  Why?  Why?  That is what my message is about.  You see, the book of Jonah is not merely about Jonah. It is not merely about the fish (or whale).  It is not merely about Nineveh. 
·      It is a story of God calling, and people resisting. 
·      It is a story of judgment and prophesy. 
·      It is a story of repentance and salvation. 
·      But most of all it is about God. 
·      It is all about the very nature of God: the God that Jonah welcomed and the God that Jonah rejected.  
·      It is about our God:  the God we welcome, and the God we reject.
We know that Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah.  Why?  Probably because Ninevah represented the enemy that Israel and Judah most feared, the Assyrians.  And so Jonah “high tailed it” in the other direction.  He ran away from his calling.  He ran away from God and he ended up in the belly of a great fish.  This is the lesson we learned in Sunday School.  If you run away from God… you are going to end up in a nasty place.  What did he do in the belly of the fish?  What do we do when we find ourselves in a mess.  We pray.  
Jonah prayed to the very God he was fleeing.  His prayer reads like a psalm. 
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
   and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
   and you heard my voice.

Jonah prayed to God in the midst of this crisis.  His prayer ended with the words, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”  
  • ·      God ultimately saves us from the messes that we create. 
  • ·      God reaches out to us even when we are disobedient. 
  • ·      God hears our cries for help.
  • ·      God loves us and cares for us.  
  • ·      God frees us from the bowels of hell.. from the belly of the beast.  
Jonah’s prayer indicated that he knew God, not merely as a God of judgment, but also as God of grace and forgiveness: a God who would change his mind out love and mercy. 
·      This is the God who is revealed to us in the life of Jesus Christ.  
·      This is God of whom we sing, “Amazing Grace… that saved a wretch like me.” 
·      This is the God we declare in the assurance of forgiveness… a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  
We welcome this God into our lives, knowing that we are sinners, knowing that we are disobedient, knowing that we, like Jonah, run away from our calling.   We welcome this God into our lives, because it is by the mercy and love of God we are saved 
The God we welcome is a God of “second chances.”  Jonah was given a second chance! We read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…..”   The story “reboots” after the fish incident and begins again.  
Jonah went to Nineveh and preached… 8 words and the entire city repented.  And Jonah?  He is upset. 
Why was he upset?  Because God had mercy on the people of Nineveh.  God changed his mind. Do you see the irony?  When Jonah was in the fish, he welcomed the grace and forgiveness of God into his life.  But he was angry with the same God because he wanted to see the city of Nineveh destroyed.  Jonah was hoping that God would destroy them because they were the brutal enemy of the Hebrew people.  Jonah welcomed this gracious forgiving love into his own life, but did not want God’s grace and forgiveness to extend to those he hated.  
Suddenly we understand Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh.  Jonah was afraid that the people might actually listen. And if they repented, God would spare them.  In the midst of his snit, Jonah cried out to God, “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”  
All of us experience shadenfreude.  It is that perverse joy we take in the misfortune of others.  It is that feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we are driving and a car speeds by us going 25 miles over the speed limit. Then a mile down the road we see it pulled over and the cop is writing a ticket.  Schadenfreude is especially prevealent when we have been wronged by others, and the Hebrew people were brutally victimized by the people of Nineveh.  
“God will get you.”  That is what we want to believe.  We want to believe that “What goes around, comes around.”  We have borrowed from the hindu religion the idea of retribution built into the order of things. 
“Karma, Baby”, we cry.  “You will get yours.”  
  • ·      Karma is the opposite of grace. 
  • ·      Christian faith, based upon the grace of God is the negation of Karma.  
  • ·      The love revealed in Jesus Christ has no room for any concept of Karma. 
  • ·      Karma is the opposite of the God revealed in the scriptures.    
“God will get you..”  I suspect that God does… but often God gets us and others,
  • ·      not with anger,
  • ·      but with grace.
  • ·      Not with judgment,
  • ·      But with love.
  • ·      Not with destruction,
  • ·      But with forgiveness and salvation
Though we may welcome this gracious and loving God into our lives… we often reject him for those we dislike… For them we want a God of judgment and wrath. 
Sermons need to be applied to our lives. This is the rub: I have been here a number of times, but I don’t know you well.  I don’t know your secret sins. But I know me, and if I may beg your indulgence, let me share my personal struggle with the story of Jonah.  Perhaps you have a similar struggle.  
Often when we want to avoid something important in our lives, our dreams will remind us that we need to deal with it.  I have two recurring dreams in my life.  If you are wondering what a pastor dreams, they are theological.  In both dreams I am standing before the “pearly gates”.  
The first is a dream of judgment.  I am in a room with a book keeper/ accountant type person.  There is a computer printout on the desk between us.  On that printout is a listing of all the sins that I have committed.  The book keeper is going through each of the sins that I have committed during my life time, asking me to account for them.  (it is a pretty thick printout).  Finally, after a period of time, I cry out… “Wait a minute… what about grace and forgiveness?”  The accountant looks up from his desk and states matter of factly, “We went off that system a while ago…. We are computerized now.”   
Whenever this dream occurs, I usually wake up in an anxious sweat.  I, like Jonah, like you and the rest of humanity am dependent upon the grace of God.  The God I have welcomed into my life, the God I know in Jesus Christ, is a God who does not list my sins… but in the words of Jonah, is“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  
In the second dream, I have made it past the divine judgment and am about to get my introductory tour of heaven.  But the one who greets me and shows me around paradise is an adolescent boy.  I recognize him right away.  He is the bully, John Simmons, who made my first year of Jr. High a living hell.  He is the one who was a symbol for the pain I have experienced.  He is my Nineveh, and darn it… he got their first!  Why? Because God is gracious and merciful… slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  God forgives the people of Nineveh… and he forgives John Simmons.  
This is the struggle of following Jesus Christ.  The God of Jesus is one of love, grace, and forgiveness.  Indeed a God of Second chances.  Following Jesus calls us to embrace the ethic he taught:
  • ·               if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
  • ·               if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
  • ·      if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
  • ·      ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies (the people of Nineveh) and pray for those who persecute you.

The story of Jonah challenges us to look at our lives, and name our Ninevehs.  It challenges us with the declaration that the mercy, love, grace and forgiveness of God extends to them also…  It challenges us to embody this same mercy, love, grace and forgiveness in our lives.    
The story of Jonah is a “whale of a tale”… and if you can forgive the pun… hard to swallow…. But it is good news… not only for us… but for all the Ninevehs in God’s creation.  Amen. 

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