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Monday, November 14, 2016

The God Jonah Thought he Knew (Jonah 3:1-10)

This morning, we look at God – God’s character. 
Our presidential election ended in a result that shocked a lot of people.  Donald Trump had less total votes than Hillary Clinton, but he got the needed number of electoral votes.  By the standards of our system, he is our next president.  Some voters are very happy, others are quite upset.  Many didn’t like either candidate, would have been unsatisfied either way, and are kind of glad the whole thing is over.
All three types of voters are among us.   If you find yourself elated because your candidate won, please be humble, and sensitive with your brothers and sisters in Christ who feel differently than you.  They are hurting and this is church.  Here, our unity is in our identity in Christ.  We build one another up and bear with one another in love.  If your candidate lost and you feel angry, express it, but with dignity.  Respect those voted against your candidate because they are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Again, we are the church, the body of Christ.  There is a place for thoughtful criticism and for expressing frustration.  We do all of it in love and work through our feelings in prayer, together.
As a church body and as individual Christ followers, we turn to 1 Timothy 2:1 which says,
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

            The word of God insists that we pray for “all in high positons.”  We will pray for the well-being and effective governance of President-Elect Donald Trump.  We will, out of our reverence for Christ, respect the office.  I have been voting in presidential elections since 1988.  In my voting life, I have voted Democrat, Republican, third party, and write-in.  At times I have deeply admired the occupant of the oval office.  At other times, I have harbored disdain for the person with the title President of the United States.  As Christians, we will respect the office.  As a people obedient to the dictates of scripture, we will pray for President Trump.  As followers of Jesus who turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us – we are called to love all people. 
It is our responsibility as citizens in a democracy to use our voice to advocate for justice, equal opportunity, and compassion for the least of these.  We can, and at time must, oppose the very government we respect and uphold in prayer.  But our opposition is to be peaceful, modeled after the example of our Master, Jesus.  We speak truth to power and we know our purpose is to be witnesses who point the world to the salvation we have in Jesus. 
Note that at the end of the 1 Timothy reading it says, “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  See the relevance of this idea – that God wants everyone to know the truth – to Jonah’s experience in Nineveh in Jonah chapter 3.  I pray that we can take this verse, 1 Timothy 2:4 (God’s desire for all to be saved), and we can hold that up to Jonah and God in Nineveh, and in doing this we will see God’s character.   We see who God is. I pray that focusing on God’s character will relieve us of any painful post-election hangover.  Keeping our minds on God’s identity and God’s character, we remember who we are in Christ.  The Kingdom of God is bigger than the United States, and the advance of the Kingdom of God is unthreatened by American presidential elections.

            Jonah chapter 3 begins the same way chapter 1 began.  God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh with a prophecy of doom.  We remember that Jonah at first ran away, was swallowed by a whale, prayed from the whale’s belly, and was then upchucked up onto the shore by the whale.  We previously mentioned that it is not completely clear why Jonah fled God at first.  Jeremiah also prophesied God’s wrath and hated doing so and suffered for it.  No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.
            When the call comes in chapter 3, Jonah goes as God instructs him.  He thinks he is going to see the city destroyed.  He will later claim that he knew all along that God would spare Nineveh, but I don’t buy it.  In chapter 4:5, we find Jonah sitting and waiting to see what will happen.    He said, “40 days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’  Jonah sits on the outskirts of the city, watching, waiting for the violent overthrow he’s predicted based on what God told him.
            Jonah believes he is like the prophet Nahum.  Listen to what God had Nahum say when he was called to prophesy against Nineveh.
“An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. 
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies” (1:1b-2).
“Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away.  ‘Halt!  Halt! But no one turns back’” (2:8).
“I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame” (3:5).

            Nahum didn’t just preach wrath.  He preached humiliation.  On another Sunday, we might even call into question’s God’s ethics – at the least the ethics of the God we meet in Nahum.  Today Jonah is our focus.  He thought he was like Nahum, a preacher of a wrath that was inevitable.   He told Nineveh she was going to burn, and then sat on a hill to watch it happen. 
We can’t see what all of Jonah’s thoughts were, but he was unhappy with God’s show of compassion.  He wanted the prophecy he delivered to come true.  He had benefited from God’s compassion and forgiveness when he was rescued from the stomach of the whale.  He did not think that compassion would extend to the Ninevites. 
            As I imagined Jonah and God in Nineveh and things not going as Jonah thought they would, the story of Abraham and Sodom and Gomorra came to mind.  That is found in Genesis 18.
            There God, appearing as three men, promises Abraham and barren, post-menopausal Sarah they would have a son.  Sarah laughs off such a promise but God is committed to it and acknowledges but does not punish her laughter.   After Sarah laughs, God appears to have an interior conversation.  It is clear there is one God, but somehow this one God, appearing as trinity, is able to converse within God’s own self.  Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  No, for I have chosen him” (18:18-19a).
            That thing that God is about to do is inspect two cities – Sodom and Gomorrah.  God will assess just how wicked those cities are.  Abraham already knows it is not good.  Destruction is inevitable, as Jonah said it would be centuries later for another wicked city, Nineveh.  So Abraham does what the great people of faith have done from time immemorial.  He challenges God.
            He asks God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked” (Genesis 18:23)?  Abraham suggests that if 50 righteous people were found in the wicked cities, God’s own character would not allow such a thing. It is a stroke of boldness, to tell God almighty that He is bound by his own character.  “Far be that from you!”  Declares Abraham (18:25).  God does not chide his chosen one.  Rather, he agrees to Abraham’s terms.  If 50 righteous people are found, God will not overturn Sodom and Gomorrah. 
            Abraham is just getting started.  He asks, would God spare the city if 45 righteous are found?  Yes, for 45 righteous people, Sodom and Gomorrah will stand.  Abraham continues, whittling away at God’s resolve.  Forty, O Lordy, would you spare it for 40?  It reads like a Dr. Suess book.  For 30?  Yes, for 30, the cities will be spared.  Abraham take the number all the way down to 10.  God meets Abraham right where he is in his anxiety over the annihilation of two cities.  God accepts Abraham’s logic, tenacity, and confrontation. 
            The stories are eerily similar.  A man of God stands outside a city about to be razed to the ground by divine fire.  Abraham begs for the city to be spared if there is any way to spare.  God agrees.  But there is no way, and Sodom and Gomorrah are not spared.  They are eliminated by fire and sulfur that rain from heaven. 
            Jonah, like Abraham, stands outside a city.  Unlike Abraham, Jonah does not ask for mercy for the Ninevites.  Maybe he remembered the Sodom and Gomorrah story and thought he was going to see a repeat performance.  Instead the opposite happens.  God had promised Abraham he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if even 10 righteous people were found there.  No righteous people are found in Nineveh.  But the wicked hear the message of the prophet and repent.
            First, the people hear Jonah, and they believe that he does represent God and is speaking truth.  God is going to destroy them (Jonah 3:4).  Upon hearing this, the people lead the way by putting on sackcloth.  The businessmen and shop owners going into a time of mourning and grief – grief over their own wickedness.  The farmers and the peasants and the homemakers.  Everyone all over Nineveh.  It is a movement – a movement of shame and sorrow. 
            Next, word of what’s happening makes its way to the palace.  The King gets off his throne and acknowledge that while he may indeed be king of Nineveh, he is not the all-powerful one.  He removes his royal robes and follows the lead of his subjects.  He repents of his sins.  He puts on sack cloth and pours ashes on his head. 
            Finally, that king makes a proclamation.  The nation will add fasting to their mourning in ashes.  He even takes the risky move of imposing the fast upon the livestock and children.  Everyone is to go without eating in a period of fasting.  Everyone is acknowledge and to grieve sin.  Everyone is to pray.  In a time of national crisis when the survival of the kingdom is at stake, the Ninevites believe the reluctant Jewish prophet Jonah and beg for mercy from God.  They accept that they are deserving of death.  They never doubt the authority or truth of Jonah.  They simply say, “Who knows?  God may relent and change his mind” (3:9).
            In that most curious of verses, Jonah 3:10, we see the character of God.  “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
            The book of Jonah is in our Bible to show us a different side of the God Jonah thought he knew.  A lot of people felt as Jonah did that a prophecy of doom would be followed by a fulfillment – Sodom and Gomorrah style.  Many ancient readers of Jonah who anticipated wrath forgot something God said to Abraham so many years earlier.  God told Abraham his descendants would “become a great and mighty nation, and all nations of the earth would be blessed by him” (Genesis 18:18).  Here Nineveh, deserving of wrath, is blessed by that God of Abraham.  Instead of wrath, Nineveh gets mercy and a second chance to live faithful, decent lives of justice and compassion. 
            Instead of seeing the God he expected, Jonah found a very different God.  First, he was rescued from a death in the seas; rescued in spite of his disobedience.  Then, Nineveh received mercy instead of punishment.  What will our country see in the God we actually meet in Jonah?
            If we are scared or at least unsteady based on what happened this week, we see that God is the one with the power to destroy nations, but also the one with the heart to forgive repentant sinners.  We can as a body and as individuals repent of sin.  Knowing God through the crucified, resurrected Christ, we know we will be forgiven.  We know we have new life and hope – hope for today.
            If we are confident in our own identity in Christ, then we are the messengers of today who, like Abraham, can appeal to God on behalf of others, and like Jesus can invite people to repentance and to the heart of the God who will welcome them into His Kingdom.   Abraham was the patriarch and Jonah was a prophet.  We are witness who inherit the testimonies of both men and the Gospel from Jesus.  We share that Gospel by creating space in which we welcome, shelter, and encourage scared people. 
            Either scared or confident, you can put your trust in God this morning.  Things may seem chaotic, but he is with us, always.  He is with us, we are his, and we can be agents of positive change.  Giving mercy, speaking real hope, and helping people meet Jesus is a good place to start.


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