Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 6/26/2016
Well we’ve come to the end, the last week, of our series on Jonah. Can you believe June’s almost gone? For the whole month of June, we’ve been focused on the story of Jonah. I was wondering – would anyone be willing to recap Jonah’s story so far? [Online-only readers: a couple people responded with their summaries of Jonah’s story.]
Great! To recap, here’s where we are: God called Jonah the prophet to Nineveh. Jonah runs away. Jonah gets swallowed by a giant fish. God gives Jonah a second chance. Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims God’s message to them. Everyone in Nineveh repents, turns to God, and are saved. Sound about right?
I don’t know about you, but when I learned this story as a kid, I don’t think we covered the fourth chapter, which is what we’re talking about today. I always thought the story ended with all of the Ninevites repenting, turning to the Lord and being saved, and everyone lives happily ever after, right? That’s the end of the story, right? Well, no, because there’s chapter 4.
This is the part of the story where everything gets complex and confusing – everything just gets messed up, which is probably why we don’t talk about it very much. We don’t tend to like this part of the story. But this is my favorite part – because this is where we find the deepest messages of this story. So let’s dive in here.
But Jonah thought this [God’s mercy toward the Ninevites] was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
1But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night.Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4, CEB)
Isn’t that crazy? God is merciful to the Ninevites, relents from destroying them, and Jonah sulks away, like a disappointed child. “Darn it God, I knew you would love them, I knew you would be merciful, I knew you wouldn’t destroy them! That’s why I ran away in the first place!”
God is merciful, but Jonah sulks away. He feels more compassion toward that shrub than he does toward the people of Nineveh! This looks awful, especially coming from a prophet of God. But honestly, Jonah has some good reasons to feel this way.
I think I’ve mentioned this every week, but it’s worth repeating again – Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians were the archenemies of the Jewish people. They were violent, cruel, sadistic. Everybody hated the Assyrians, and for good reason. So of course Jonah wants to see them destroyed – so did most of the people in the ancient Near East, I’m sure.
Now, if we really read our Bibles, it might actually seem like there’s almost a precedence for God destroying our enemies. There’s a whole genre of Psalms called “imprecatory psalms,” which refers to psalms that call for God to destroy one’s enemies. And they get pretty graphic.
For example, let me read you a few verses from Psalm 109. The writer of the psalm is talking about their enemy, and they say “Let his [the psalmist’s enemy’s] children become orphans; let his wife turn into a widow. Let his children wander aimlessly, begging, driven out of their ruined homes. Let a creditor seize everything he owns; let strangers plunder his wealth. Let no one extend faithful love to him; let no one have mercy on his orphans. Let his descendants be eliminated; let their names be wiped out in just one generation!” And it goes on from there. Anyone have that as their favorite psalm?
Like I said, Assyria was the archenemy of the Jewish people, and therefore Jonah’s archenemy. I could see him remembering the curses called for in this psalm and others like it, and praying the same kind of graphic prayer for punishment against Nineveh.
Now that probably sounds excessive and graphic and you might be thinking “Well I would never wish that on my enemies, there must be something wrong with Jonah.” But think of remarkably evil people in modern history – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, ISIS. Those people or groups and others seem to personify evil and wickedness in our own time. What would be your reaction if God promised to destroy Hitler or ISIS…but then they repented, and God relented and didn’t destroy them? What would be your reaction? You wouldn’t be too happy, right? They’re evil, God! Destroy them!
In the face of evil, we cry out for God’s justice – that is our inescapably human reaction. We pray for God to destroy evil and save the righteous! But then we get bent out of shape when God is merciful instead.
So we say “What in the world is God doing here? Why doesn’t God just destroy the evil people, those who personify wickedness, and save the righteous?” The tension we feel here is an old tension that the church has struggled with for ages. We believe that God is a God of mercy AND a God of justice. And this belief creates some pretty serious tension.
We believe that God is a God of justice. We believe that God made laws and rules that were meant to shape the lives of God’s people. In short, we believe that God rewards goodness and punishes evil. The people in Nineveh were evil, therefore Jonah believed they should be punished, because God is a God of justice.
But God is also a God of mercy. One definition of mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within your power to punish or harm.” It’s looking at someone who you have every right to punish and harm, but relenting and showing them love instead.
Do you see the tension here? God’s justice says that evil must be punished. But God’s mercy calls for lovingkindness to be shown instead of punishment. There’s a tension here – does one side win?
There’s not any easy resolution to that tension in the Bible, and there are many Biblical answers to the question of which side wins – justice or mercy? We worship a God who is beyond our comprehension, so it makes sense that we’re stuck with this annoying tension that we can’t seem to resolve. But this story offers one resolution. It should actually be printed in your bulletins as the Core Message. Could we read that together? [Online-only readers: We read together the Core Message that was printed in the bulletins. It said “God’s mercy consistently trumps God’s impulse to justice] God’s mercy consistently overrules God’s impulse to punish those who deserve it. The Assyrians deserved punishment – destruction – but God relented and had mercy when they turned to God and repented.
Now this idea is central to our Christian faith. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That means that we are saved not because of how well we obey and behave, but because God loves us and showers us with mercy. In other words, God’s grace.
And aren’t we glad about this? Without God’s mercy and grace, we’d be confined to a life lived on the basis of obedience, good works, and salvation coming from how well we behaved. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be very good at that. But because God is a God of mercy, his grace is offered to us before we can make any effort to improve ourselves.
Now, all that’s very well and good, but… … in this case, we might question God’s mercy like Jonah did. Because doesn’t God’s mercy have to draw a line somewhere? Nineveh, Assyria, was the Hitler, bin Laden, ISIS of the ancient Near East. Even if Hitler, ISIS, all of them sincerely repented like Nineveh did, would you want to let them off the hook? There’s probably a pious voice within you that says “Why yes, of course,” but would you really be ok with God letting them off the hook, no matter how sincere their repentance? We preach a religion of love, but if we’re honest, we like eye-for-an-eye justice as much as the next person. What in the world is God doing, letting evil personified off the hook? Why not return hate for hate? Why not return injury for injury?
Perhaps…God is showing us a better way. We read in the Gospels Jesus’ outrageous teachings. “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” Crazy stuff like that. Why in the world would we do that?!
Martin Luther King, Jr. actually had a lot to say about that. I’d like to read a great quote from one of Dr. King’s sermons entitled “Loving Your Enemies.”
King said “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” (Strength to Love, 47)
If God had listened to the desire of Jonah and probably the desires of all of Judah and the Hebrew people and destroyed Assyria, then God would have been merely adding to the “chain reaction of evil.” Instead, God returned love for hate, and disrupted that cycle. God effectively shoved a stick into the gears of the vicious cycle of hate by loving the Ninevites instead of destroying them. This image of God might challenge some of us – especially when we apply it to contemporary people who personify evil for us today. But this is the God who we worship.
What I like about the story of Jonah most is that it’s left open-ended, allowing us to finish it with our own stories. We remember that God caused the shrub to grow and shade Jonah from the sun. Then God killed that shrub and allowed Jonah to wilt in the hot sun, wishing that he was dead rather than alive because he didn’t have the shrub anymore. In doing that, God questioned Jonah. In effect, God asked Jonah “You had more compassion for that plant then you do for the 120,000 human beings in Nineveh. If you had compassion for the shrub, can’t I have compassion for the people of Nineveh?” And the story ends there, with that question.
So the same question is before each one of us today. How will you finish this story? Will your mercy trump your impulse to justice?
We have all been wronged. We have all been hurt by others. We have all been lied to, talked about behind our backs, made fun of, offended, betrayed. Sometimes the harm even came from people very close to us. The world is a hurtful place, and each of us carry our own fair share of wounds. To deny that you are wounded is to deny reality.
Now, when you are wounded, your human tendency is to punish the person for hurting you. Like I said, in our heart of hearts, we all like eye-for-an-eye justice just as much as anyone, me included. So you might lash out and try to hurt the person who hurt you. Or you might withdraw and break off the relationship, giving them the silent treatment, maybe talk about them behind their backs, see how they like it. Maybe you’ll hold onto this pain for years and years, not wanting to give it up because retribution and revenge, even imaginary, feels so good.
But Jesus calls us to a better way. The chain reaction of evil and hatred must be broken if we are ever to live the life God intends. When you are hurt, and we all are, will your mercy trump your impulse to justice? Will you love instead of take revenge?
A little over 1 year ago, 21-year old Dylann Roof entered Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC for a Bible study, and he shot and killed 9 people. A horrendous crime on so many levels. At Roof’s first court appearance, the family of the slain had the opportunity to address him via webcam. They had every right to condemn him, scream and curse at him, spit in his proverbial face – he had torn apart their family that day. But instead of that, something amazing happened.
Nadine Collier – her mother, Ethel Lance, was shot by Roof – had a message for Roof that summed up what the rest of the families said. She said to Roof “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…you hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. [But] if God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Will you choose mercy instead of justice? Will you choose love instead of revenge?