The God of Second Chances (Jonah Sermon #1)
The God of Second Chances: Jonah Sermon #1
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 1, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome! I’m so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your 100th time or your first time, we are glad that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful that you are here. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience welcome, that you would experience acceptance, and that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
This morning, I’m launching our four-part sermon series on Jonah, the story of the God of Second Chances. Jonah is the fifth in the collection of the minor prophets. Yet Jonah stands as one of the most familiar and popular books of the Bible–often finding its way into most children’s bibles. Any familiarity with Jonah shouldn’t cause us to quickly dismiss Jonah assuming its just a kid’s story ignoring the rich complexity this story offers with notes of compassion, mercy, and second chances, all of which together nudge us towards reconciliation with ourselves, each other, and God.
The Royal Law
Jonah’s story is unique in that it offers us a look into the issues of oppression and reconciliation all from the view of the oppressed, Jonah is the voice of marginalized, the victim. In the last sermon series, Kingdom Living, I suggested that God is calling us to be a people who try to live reconciled lives. There is a theme that flows throughout scripture that points to this, it’s what James, the brother of Jesus, calls the Royal Law. The idea that we should “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Or as Jesus says in Luke 6:31:
Do unto to other as you will have then do until you. (Luke 6:31)
Often, in response to these commands, we reply with, “Well, exactly who is my neighbor then?” In this reply, we are asking, “What are the limits of love?” “What are the limits of leaning towards the other?” If we have any hope of trying to live as Kingdom people, we have to learn to trust God and accept his invitation to try to live as reconciled people.
An Interlude: A Little Bit of History
One of my sermon readers asked why should we should care about Jonah, why is he important to us as a community and to me that I am taking us through a four week sermon series on Jonah’s story? It’s a good and reasonable question and a great reminder that there’s power when the story of the community is reflected and found in the sermon. Jonah lives in a world that isn’t the way he wants it to be. Jonah was a member of and a prophet to the people of Israel. The Israelites called out from among the nations, no longer were forced to live in tents as nomads, they finally had settled with their God in the land promised to their ancestors. Initially, they were 12 tribes united as one nation ruled by God and his prophets, then by a monarchy, first by King Saul, who lost his way and was eventually replaced by King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” the scripture says. After a failed uprising, King David was succeeded by his son, King Solomon. Solomon was noted for being wise and well-dressed. King David and his Solomon presided over the longest period of growth, peace, and prosperity in the nation’s history. After Solomon’s death, Solomon’s son Rehoboam ignoring the political dynamics at work within his kingdom, the people seeking relief from taxes and labor petitioned King Rehoboam to reduce the burden, instead, King Rehoboam chose to be a “hard king” and increased both. This resulted in another revolt with two different nations emerging. Judah (and Benjamin) to the south, and the ten other tribes to the north. The northern tribes would later called themselves Israel. The story over the next 75 years is a mixed bag of kings, a few of them were devoted to YHWH, followed his ways and lead the people well, and many, if not most who don’t.
Arise and Go, But Wait, Why There?
Jonah, a disciple of the prophet Elijah or Elisha – scholars can’t really agree – emerges during the reign of the evil king Jeroboam II. It’s nearing the close of 8th century BC during the second Iron age. Nineveh, Jonah knows, is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Israel having already been subjugated, decimated, and occupied by Empires had no interest in being occupied again by the growing threat from the northeast, the Assyrians. The nations Judah and Israel will eventually fall to the Assyrians in 721 BC, they are completely exiled, their temple is destroyed, and they will never really return to the promise land.
So, when we encounter Jonah, he’s on the run,
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)
Jonah attempts to flee from God and God’s call to “arise and go” to Nineveh. Why? We don’t really know. We don’t get an immediate answer, if any answer at all. Certainly, any of us can understand being asked to do something we’re not interested in and responding with either reluctance or outright refusal to the request, but Jonah was a well-known, well-liked, successful prophet who had the ear of the king in Israel. It was Jonah who, according to 2 Kings 14, prophesied that northern kingdoms of Israel would prosper, be successful in battle, expand their borders, and experience a period of relative peace and economic prosperity.
So, why would Jonah need to run away from God?
Because Jonah intuits that Nineveh will heed God’s message and repent. And Jonah fears that instead of being destroyed, Nineveh will be forgiven.
Jonah wants retribution.
After receiving this call to arise and go to Nineveh, Jonah doesn’t want to find out how God is going to treat the Assyrians. He doesn’t even want to risk discovering if God will follow through and destroy the nation of Assyria. It doesn’t matter, Jonah hops a ship, paying for his fair in advance of his arrival, and flees to Tarshish, located in modern day Spain. His planned journey to Tarshish will take him at least a year to get there and as my sermon reader noted, it’s a great plan because if Jonah changes his mind, it will take a year to return.
In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson helps us understand the importance of Tarshish in the Hebrew imagination. It’s this romantic place of escape, sorta like Tahiti is for me. It’s an idealized destination point that was exotic beyond comparison. It serves as an emotional and spiritual escape. It’s the places we go in our mind’s eye when life seems too tough to bear. It’s the place of everything we imagine and hope this world would become, comfortable, exotic, unspoiled. It’s a place free from worry, free from anxiety, free from fear. It’s like someone has sprinkled us with fairly dust and wiped away all of our troubles. Instead of fulfilling his vocation, Jonah imagines the ultimate vacation.
But the Lord interrupts Jonah’s planned vacation:
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:4-6)
Jonah is the voice of the marginalized, the victimized, who wants “the other” punished. We call this justice. Let me correct that, this is what ethicists call retributive justice, you know, “an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Jonah and his people have been victimized by Empire, Jonah reflects the voice of the marginalized who seeks a God of justice to act justly. Yet Jonah and most of us miss that God really is the God of justice and as the trite saying, “His ways aren’t our ways.”
We want those who take advantage of us, punished.
We want those who abuse us, punished.
We want those who misuse us, punished.
Yet, we and Jonah serve a God who is described as being
“the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
The God of Second Chances
We all want God to be the God of second chances when it comes to us, but do we want the same thing for our enemies?
This is why Jonah matters.
This is why we are spending four weeks in Jonah.
We are wrestling with big theological issues here.
Jonah knew Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire which was an enemy and existential threat to the kingdom of Israel. Jonah, close to the inner politics of the kingdom of Israel, knew very well that if God destroyed Nineveh, it would be a tremendous benefit to the kingdom of Israel militarily, economically, and politically. It would prolong the power and strength of the kingdom of Israel. Indeed, it could even restore the kingdom to greatest, something not seen since David and Solomon ruled. And at the same time, Jonah also knew that Jeroboam was an evil king, he didn’t trust God and was leading the people away from God. Yet God had been merciful to the kingdom of Israel in spite of its sins, so Jonah realized that God could conceivably be as merciful to Nineveh as he was being to Israel.
What a dilemma!
Jonah understands something that Jesus will say later in the Sermon on the Mount:
He [God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)
Any of us who have been victimized by violence, betrayed by a loved-one, falsely accused, taken advantage of, or otherwise harmed by an other, can begin to enter into the potential fear, reluctance, and uncertainty that accompanied Jonah’s call to go the Ninevites. It’s like Nelson Mandela having to speak to the white national government about its oppressive, destructive system of apartheid. It’s like meeting with the spouse who cheated on you. It’s coffee with your betrayer. It’s the employer meeting with the employee who embezzled money and destroyed their business. It’s like the child in first grade having to confront their teacher.
The message, “You’re a sinner, you’ve hurt and wounded me,” may be easy to deliver, it’s what happens after the message is delivered that scares us.
Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:7–12)
Jonah sleeps soundly because he would rather die than face what comes after delivering the message to repent or perish. Jonah wants justice and nothing else.
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”
Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:13–17)
Follow Me Through the Narrow Gate
Those of us who dare follow Jesus through the narrow gate into life have a high calling, to try to live as reconciled people–this is the Royal Law. This call as we discovered in the Sermon on the Mount was always a part of God’s plan for his good creation.
Remember how Jesus answered the expert in the law, who was hoping to trap Jesus by asking, “What is the greatest commandment?”
Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
You cannot love God, while hating your neighbor. Leviticus 19:9-18 clearly laid this out in the Law. When Jesus responds to the experts in the Law, he quotes the Law back to them. Jonah would have known this passage, probably had it memorized. And here’s the rub, what do we do?
Do try to live as the people of God and trust that the life that God has for us is better than the one we are living? Or do we join Jonah in direct conflict to God’s express command?
I wish I could turn to Jonah for an answer, but we can’t. Jonah is written as a narrative, it tells a story, it’s not prescriptive, do this and this will happen. If Jonah says anything to us, it’s that God seems to be a God of second chances.
Are you here this morning and need to know that God is the God of second chances? Good, let’s pray together!
As we spend time in Jonah over the next four week’s we will try a spiritual discipline called Lectio Divina. It’s a way of reading and studying scripture. If you have been doing the practicals tips recently, you’ve already practiced it. This week, I want us to place ourselves in the story as Jonah. What would you do? How would you respond to God’s command? Or is there someone you know who is in Jonah's situation? How have they processed their situation? Let’s take some time this week to sit with this in prayer and reflection and see what the Lord says to us.