Monday, January 26, 2015

“When Grace Stinks” (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

The story of Jonah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament . . . is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against  them . . . basically to “shape up and be saved.”  This is really not something Jonah wants to do.  First of all, the people of Nineveh are foreigners and really not a part of the region he is responsible for . . . and, he really, really does not like them . . . despises them . . . hates them . . . and, he wants nothing to do with them.  Yet, that is what God commands him to do: go to Nineveh, preaches repentance for salvation, and save the people.

Despite the fact that the order comes straight from God, Jonah doesn’t want to answer the call.  So, he makes himself unavailable . . . he runs away.  He takes for the hills in the opposite direction of God and God’s demands upon him . . . he first goes to Jaffa where he boards a boat that is heading for Tarshish—at that time it was known as the end of the world . . . as far away from God and Nineveh as he could get.

Of course, we know that this was no cruise that Jonah embarked on . . . the trip becomes a mess.  You can ignore God, but you cannot escape God.  The boat is hit with a terrible storm that tosses and turns the vessel threatening to sink it and drown everyone on it.  Jonah confesses that it is his fault and that if they would just throw him overboard the storm would stopped . . . but, these are good people and instead they begin to unload cargo to save the boat and themselves from sinking.  It doesn’t help . . . and, finally they toss Jonah over the side of the boat.  The storm stops, but Jonah gets swallowed by a huge fish.  For three days and nights Jonah sits in the belly of that fish.

Sometimes in the darkest hours of our lives we see the light . . . Jonah saw the light there in the darkness of the belly of the fish.  Jonah agrees to go and do what God wants him to do . . . and, the fish spits him out.  Thus Jonah embarks on the mission from God . . . he goes to Nineveh to save the people.

Well, that is what God wants, but not what Jonah wants.  Remember, he can’t stand the people of Nineveh . . . despises and hates them.  Jonah is going to go, but he is not going to give God much more than a cursory effort.  His heart is really not in it.  The city of Nineveh is huge . . . it would take three days to walk completely from one end to the other.  Jonah gives God one day.  Basically he walks half a day into the city, turns around and walks out . . . all the while telling the people to shape up or else.

As far as Jonah is concerned he did what God wanted him to do.  And, so he sets up camp on a hillside to wait and watch God wipe the people out.   Imagine his surprise when the people actually started to repent and shape up . . . from the lowest of the people all the way up to the king, the people did what God wanted them to do . . . so, God spares them.  There would be no wiping out of the people that day or any day soon.  Surely this is not the result that result Jonah expected.  He begins to moan and groan and complain . . . it ticked him off . . . and, he sat there seething with anger and animosity towards the people of Nineveh and God.

Pouting and pity parties do not make God happy.

When Jonah had gone up to that hill to observe what he thought was going to be the destruction of Nineveh, God caused a plant to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the day.  The plant sprang up in the night and then it died the next night putting Jonah back into the heat of the day.  What did Jonah do . . . he complained and lamented the demise to the plant.  This was the opening God needed, and with a wry bit of humor, God tells Jonah: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of 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?”

How silly of Jonah to complain over a plant’s death than the possibility of a hundred and twenty thousand people that he could have cared less about.  In the eyes of God, Jonah’s priorities and heart were not in the right place.  And, who among us would not agree?

Silly Jonah . . . and, silly us.

For a minute I want to stop and think of a person or group of people that you find difficult to love.  Think about who that person or group of people might be.  Once you have that image in your mind, I want you to understand this: God loves that individual or group of people . . . they are all God’s children.  This is something important to consider as individuals and as a congregation as we have proclaimed ourselves to be a church where “all are welcome” to take their place at the table.  Each and every Sunday morning the elders of this congregation state, “All are welcome—all.” 

In that light, we all probably need to step back and consider Jonah . . . maybe he wasn’t so silly after all.

Would you, with open arms, invite a Muslim to the table—just as that person is?

Would you invite an illegal immigrant to the table?

Would you welcome a person of LBGQT community to the table?

If you were a Democrat or Republican would you invite a person of the other party to join you at the table?

If you were a Grizzly fan would you invite a Bobcat fan to the table?

When you stop and really think about it, is there anyone who you would not welcome to the table?

Well . . . God wouldn’t.  God would welcome them all to the table.  God is a God of second chance . . . actually multiple chances.  God is a God of grace who allows all of us the opportunity to keep retrying as many times as it takes for us to get it right . . . and, I do not think that God really cares too much about what our opinions are about other people or groups when it comes to who God wants a relationship with.  God desires to be connected to all of God’s children . . . all of them.

If God had chosen us to go out and address a person or group of people that we despised or hated—just as God did with Jonah . . . to tell them to shape up or else . . . would we jump up willingly and go do it, or would be hem haw around, drag our feet, and give a minimal effort knowing that at least we gave it a try . . . besides, if God wipes out the individual or group we don’t have to worry about them anymore. 

Sometimes grace stinks. 

Jonah would say that it does . . . especially when it goes against what we want or expect.  But isn’t that the root of grace . . . the unexpected . . . the undeserved?  God’s ways are not our ways, and for that we should be thankful.  Whenever we exclude, deny, and reject others from life . . . we become Jonah.  As Christians, whenever we use the Bible to exclude, deny, and reject others as the children or God . . . we become Jonah.  In our hearts none of us wants to be like Jonah.  But, we have to be honest with ourselves . . . the DNA of Jonah runs through all of us.  And, for that, God gives us a second chance.

That is the “good news” for today . . . despite ourselves, God gives us a second chance.  As we approach the table and offer the invitation to come and share in the meal of grace . . . do we really mean that “all are invited” or are we pulling a Jonah?  Amen.

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