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The God of Second Chances #3 (Jonah Sermon #3)

The God of Second Chances: Jonah Sermon #3
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 15, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor

Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!  We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored 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 for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!

This morning we are continuing in our four-part sermon on our series on Jonah. As we continue to spend time in Jonah, we are hoping to highlight and expose the story of the God of Second Chances.

Jonah, a successful and well-liked prophet in Israel during the reign of the evil King Jeroboam II. He was a political insider, having successfully prophesied that God would grant Israel military power, expansion, and growth — all of this favor from God in spite of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the Law and to trust God.

Having received a prophetic message to preach against the wickedness and sinfulness of the Assyrian Empire, Jonah decides instead to flee from God by hopping a ship to Tarshish, clear on the other side of the world. God sends a storm to disrupt Jonah’s plan to thwart God’s mercy and compassion. The sailors trapped on that ship with him, under distress and out of options, realized that Jonah was the cause of the storm. After many failed attempts to reverse their fortunes, they resign themselves to toss Jonah overboard. God,acting in his mercy and compassion, sends a large fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah spends three days and three nights trapped in this whale before offering a prayer of thanksgiving. His expression of gratitude for life and connection to God, (not to be mistaken for repentance or some kind of key to unlock his time-out), was a counter response to the bitterness that Jonah wrestled with. After all of this, Jonah is vomited on dry land. That’s where we will pick up the story.

The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah a Second Time
Jonah is finished with his time-out, he’s been vomited on dry land. And the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time. Is this what the God of second chances does? He draws, calls, and invites us again, and again.

Remember what the New Testament writer Saint Paul says in Romans 2:4,

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

Is this the picture of God that you have? A God who give second chances? A God who invites us over and over hoping that his kindness, forbearance, and patience will lead us to repentance, or have you inherited another picture of God?

God is merciful to Jonah.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:1-3)

Jonah obediently arrives in Nineveh. He delivers the message. But Jonah is still conflicted. He’s still wrestling. The book of Jonah is the story of a person at the margins of Empire calling those in power over him to reconciliation. God was trying to do something in Jonah by commanding him to preach to the Assyrians. He was reminding the Ninevites of their humanity, even though they were guilty of inhuman acts. It may be obvious that oppression robs the oppressed of their dignity and humanity when they are subjugated, enslaved, and killed.  However, don't miss that the oppressor is also robbed of their humanity by participating in the oppression. God wants to break our participation in the rebellion. He wants to redeem us, and transform us to live out the Royal Law, learning how to love our neighbor as ourselves.

There is this temptation to enter into the thinking of Jonah as he arrives in Nineveh, the “us versus them” mentality. It seems to me that God is pushing Jonah, and ultimately us, to see that it’s only “us”. Given what happened Friday night across the world, bad actors inflicting terror, mayhem, and death on the innocent whether in the capital city of Beirut, Lebanon or Paris, France, (or in all of the other places around the world that didn’t rate enough to get covered) There is this theme, this temptation, to distinguish ourselves into different strata. “Us vs. Them” is our favorite one. Certainly, evil exists and is at work in God’s good creation. We must remind ourselves that God does not cause suffering, evil. He does not justify it  or even explain it . On the cross, God in Jesus suffers with us and for us, which ultimately defeats evil with self-sacrificing love.

Often those who are under the oppression of empire know first-hand that empires are evil, demonic even. But that’s where we have to stop because scripture reminds that “we do not wrestle with fresh and blood, but with powers, the principalities, and spiritual forces of evil.” When we fail to realize that we all bear the image of the divine, we can easily convince ourselves that we are better than our enemies. Jonah believed this. He wanted retribution. He wanted divine retribution. We can convince ourselves of our place and position by saying, “we deserve this,” and “they deserve that.” Jonah is sent to Nineveh not to condemn it, but to remind Nineveh that they share in the image of the God too. Jonah was sent to remind Nineveh of their humanity.

Jesus cautions about our belief in our ability to distinguish “us” from “them,” when he tells his disciples this parable about the kingdom of God,

24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28“ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29“ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ”

Jesus instructs us to leave both the weeds and the wheat and to trust God to sort it out, lest we will uproot the wheat when we attempt to dislodge the weeds. There is an implicit call to trust God here. There will be a judgement, justice indeed will be served. We may even participate in it, but not as we currently are. There’s the rub; we want judgement for our enemies, and mercy for ourselves. In the book of Jonah, we see that God’s mercy and compassion is available to us and to our enemies.

The Message was Accepted in spite of the Messenger.

It’s really remarkable that the Ninevites believe the message that Jonah proclaims. It’s striking that they internalized the message and reasoned among themselves that a fast would stay the wrath of God from destroying them and their empire.

5The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

The fasting in the city starts, not at the top with the king, it actually starts with the people of the city, who hear the message for themselves.

6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:5-9)

The Assyrians didn’t know, follow, or fear YHWH, the One True God (OTG), they had their own stories, gods, and customs. They weren’t under military attack, so a message from a divine being from another nation wouldn’t have tipped them over. What prompts the entire city to repent?

Trying to answer that very question, scholars, commentators, seminarians, and pastors claim that that the Ninevites were quick to repent because the sailors who endured the storm with Jonah went ahead of Jonah to Nineveh and told the story of how they had cast him into the sea only to see him miraculously rescued by a whale. The Ninevites, may have reasoned  that if that’s how God treats his own prophets, then they could trust the word of Jonah, because they would surely be destroyed! It’s a convenient explanation, isn’t it? Others posit that maybe they were willing to repent because the people had been primed by the severe earthquakes that occurred during the reign of Jeroboam II or because of the full solar eclipse that occurred before Jonah arrived. Scholars use these events as evidence that would reinforce and prompt people to believe Jonah’s warning.

Yet there was no outward sign that the city would be destroyed in forty days. What army was marching towards the capital? There wasn’t one. As Jonah makes his way through the city, day by day, nothing really changed, there weren’t thunderclouds or thunderclaps, the sky didn’t break apart, life for the average Ninevite was the same as it was before Jonah arrived. Yet the city hears only the solitary voice of a Jewish prophet who proclaims “40 more days the Nineveh will be overthrown.” And they repent.

Cultures like Nineveh in the ancient near east (ANE) had a religious community that believed in the communication between the people and their gods. A prophet class was already operating within the courts of the king when Jonah arrives in Nineveh. As Jonah traverses the city proclaiming his message, those who hear, they start to respond. They shed their clothes of comfort and they transform themselves. They repent. They put on sackcloth and hope.

10When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Jonah Waits for Justice, But Receives Mercy Instead
Jonah’s done his job. He’s delivered the message, now he climbs a hill that overlooks the city hoping that they completely ignore him.

Day after day, Jonah waits for the destruction of the city and nothing happens.

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

If Nineveh deserves to be punished and God refuses, what kind of world is this? Who can live in a world where those who commit evil go unpunished. How is that just? As Jonah says in his own words, “This is why I tried to prevent your mercy and compassion.” It’s not fair and this isn’t the cry of petulant child. This is the cry of justice. Jonah has no interest in living in a world without retribution. So, he cries out,

3Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3)

What Jonah fails to realize is what most of us also ignore that in calling for judgement on our enemies we are really calling for judgement on ourselves. Jonah becomes an oppressor when he runs away to withhold mercy from Assyria. He becomes their oppressor. It’s God’s mercy and compassion that gives not only Assyria a second chance, but Jonah as well.

And it’s here that God tries to explain this to Jonah,

4But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6Then the Lord God provided a gourd and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the gourd.

7But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the gourd so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:4-10)

Mercy triumphs over judgement God declares in forgiving Nineveh. Jonah rejects this idea for his enemies, but he wants it for himself that’s clear. God, the God of second chances is trying to nudge Jonah towards the Royal Law, inviting Jonah in spite of his hardship, his suffering, his pain, to love his neighbor as himself. Remember Jesus defines our neighbors as our enemies. He wants to push us to see that there is no “Us vs Them.” There’s only “Us.” Like Jonah some of us are stuck, we can’t see past our suffering, pain, and hurt, so we beg God to destroy those who have hurt and harmed us. God replies, mercy over judgement. Next week, Nigel will tease this out fully and all of this sets us up for Advent where our theme will be forgiveness.

Jesus says that unless you forgive your brother or sister, you are at risk of the judgement. We don’t know what happens to Jonah. We don’t get closure on his story, but we understand it. God calls us to trust him as he leads us through the narrow gate into life. It requires that we let go of everything we are holding onto.

Practical Tip
Obedience really sucks. We all experience this Jonah-like tension sometimes between how we feel about obeying in a situation and the decision to obey itself. What if we identified a small act of obedience that’s really annoying – the speed limit, the annoying way your partner/spouse/roommate/sibling prefers for you to wash the dishes, etc. Take a moment to recognize the feelings that arise around this act of obedience. Take a moment to pause and identify them. Then obey anyway, regardless of whether your feelings of anger, frustration, or rebellion have dissipated. Then ask God to enter into this tension and instruct us, whether that means softening our hearts toward the situation, or admitting that there may be a point to it, or if we cannot do that, just inviting God to dwell in that tension with us.

An Interlude: Baptism is Coming
In three weeks on December 6th, we are going to have opportunities to get baptized here at the Vineyard. Baptism is a public declaration, much like the replacing your clothes of comfort with sackcloth was for the Ninevites. It was a declaration that something had shifted, something had changed. As if you were saying, “No longer will I enjoy comfort, I’m trading in my clothes of comfort for the discomfort of goat’s hair.” The sackcloth was rough and coarse, a physical, tangible sign that something has changed. When we enter the baptismal water, we are saying to God just like the Ninevites did, in their sackcloth, this is my act of surrender, my repentance. I trust that the life you have for me is better than the one I’m currently living. As I enter the baptismal waters, I repent. I die to living life on my terms. I accept your terms. I accept your life.

Paul describes baptism as more than the outward symbol of our loyalty to Jesus, it’s the place where we break the solidarity that we have to sin, it’s place where we change our status, we leave the dominion of sin and death, and enter the domain of life, eternal. We enter the kingdom of God where we are no longer subject to the rule and reign of sin and death. We are no longer sinners, but in Christ we become saints. God didn’t just reconcile us to himself, he also wants to transform us. Transformation takes time. It starts with our willingness to believe something about ourselves, that we aren’t who we think we are.

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