Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20


Jonah 3:10-4:1
God saw that the people of Nineveh had given up their wicked behaviour. So he changed his mind and did not punish them as he had said he would.
Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry.

God’s love changes us

What makes you angry? 
What gets under your skin, annoys you and gets you mad?
I would say that all of us have different things that make us angry and a variety of ways of expressing that anger? 
Maybe it’s the tail-gater or the driver that cuts you off
or the person who only has something critical to say?
Maybe it’s the person who grabs the parking spot that you have been clearly indicating to turn into
or the person found guilty of a crime but gets off with a suspended sentence?
One subject that does get people stirred up is the topic of what is fair and just.  How many times do we get steamed up because we feel that someone has dealt with us unfairly?  We have done the right thing but others haven’t and that really gets our dander up. 

What’s wrong with Jonah?  He’s angry, really angry.  He was called by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the people should turn away from their wicked ways.  Jonah doesn’t want any part of this.  These people are heathens of the worst kind.  They have been so cruel to the people of God.  He believed these people were beyond any kind of mercy.  Jonah tried to run away from having anything to do with giving the Ninevites the chance to repent.  In the middle of a big storm God sent a big fish that swallowed him in one gulp.  Inside the fish, Jonah prays and finally agrees to go to Nineveh. 

He walks across the city and preaches the shortest sermon in history, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed”. I wonder how much gusto he put into that sermon.  Did he shout it out because he was so sure that this is what Nineveh deserved?  Maybe he said it like this, “I know something that you don’t know.  Nineveh is about to meet God’s judgement. Ha! How do you like that?”

Or did he quietly and unenthusiastically walk through the city mumbling those words not trying to attract too much attention so that people didn’t take him seriously because he really didn’t believe that the people of Nineveh deserved a second chance.  Regardless of the way Jonah spoke those words, the Ninevites heard God’s message even though they came from a bitter messenger who had the worst attitude, God changed their hearts.

Jonah’s reaction to the repentance of the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy toward them is filled with so much bitterness and anger that it almost blows us away to hear it coming from a called servant of God.  He says (in my own words), “Lord, I knew that’s what you would do right from the start.  That’s why I tried to avoid this whole ridiculous business by going to Spain.  You are loving and kind, patient and merciful, always ready to forgive – these are your enemies and the age-old enemies of your people – these people don’t deserve another chance.  They deserve the full force of your judgement and anger and it’s not going to happen.  That really gets up my nose, Lord!” 

Jonah is having a temper tantrum and sits down on a hill where he can look over the city.  He’s hoping that God will come to his senses and see things the way he does.  It’s not fair that such evil people should get off so lightly.  Jonah thinks he’s got a better grip on reality than God has. As you read through this little story, you begin to see that this is not just a story about God’s mission to the Ninevites, but this is God’s mission to the angry hard-hearted Jonah who really doesn’t understand God at all.    

The kind of anger Jonah displays is repeated in the parable that Jesus told in the Gospel reading.  A landowner goes out at various times of the day to hire workers and at the end of the day pays them a day’s wages regardless of whether they worked all day and for just a few hours. 

Of course, those who worked all day were angry.  They had been out in the sun and worked their guts out and got the same as those who had lazed around the town square for most of the day and worked only a few hours.

What’s wrong with this landowner and his sense of fairness?  This story is offensive to our sense of what is right and fair.  In our way of thinking people should get what they deserve. 

Listening to the anger expressed in both the story about Jonah and then Jesus’ parable tells us that God’s idea of what is fair is not all that popular.  We have our idea of what is just and fair, but when it comes to God, he has a completely different set of rules.  In fact, God doesn’t operate at all with the concept that people only get what is fair.  He does what is completely out of step with everyone else’s idea of fairness.  God is God.  What is fair and not fair doesn’t come into his thinking.  That’s the point of the parable when the landowner unexpectedly gave a day’s wage to even those who had worked the least.  God’s love can be seen as offensive.  That’s the way Jonah saw it.

Jonah had learnt from the Scriptures that God is “a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish” (Jonah 4:2) but he couldn’t bring himself to believe that God’s love could extend all the way to the Ninevites – no way!

Don’t we find Jesus coming up against that problem all the time during his ministry?  People gasped in horror
he touched lepers and cured the possessed – no way,
he forgave those shunned by the community as sinners beyond all hope – no way,
he sat down to dinner with tax collectors and even let a woman of ill-repute wash his feet with expensive perfume – that just not on;
he promised the thief on the cross next to him that he would be in paradise in spite of his life of crime – no way;
advised his listeners to go beyond what the law requires and to forgive one another endlessly – not possible;
people gasped in horror and seethed with anger that Jesus would dare to extend such love and grace to the least deserving.

This is a golden thread that runs through everything that we know about Jesus and thus about God.  This thread runs through the story about Jonah.  God could have destroyed Jonah for his defiant anger and persistent rebellion and hard headedness, but he shows Jonah that just as he is patient with the perverse and brutal Ninevites, he is also patient with his slow-to-learn, cranky and self-righteous prophet.

Like Jonah we are on a lifelong journey of learning what it means to be generous with love and then applying that to what happens in our lives.  Jonah knew that God was gracious and kind, merciful and patient. He knew that he and the rest of Israel were truly blessed to experience this generous love of God but when it came to extending that same love to people considered unworthy, Jonah baulked at the idea.  He had the notion that God’s love was not for the unlovely and unlovable. 

So what does this story of Jonah and the parable of the landowner say to us today in 2017?  The message hasn’t changed.  It’s the same message that comes through the Book of Jonah. 
The love of God changes even the most stubborn and coldest hearts, Jonah’s heart proved to be more stubborn than the heathen Ninevites.
The love of God is ever so patient.  Look how he came back to Jonah to show him again that he doesn’t give up even though Jonah is being totally unreasonable.
The love of God reaches out to the unlikeable.  The Ninevites were the most hated people in the world at the time.  Jonah in the end is just plain pig-headed and self-focussed.  He thinks he is right and God has got it all wrong. And yet God still loved them all.
God’s love persistently tells Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to turn away from their sinful ways even though Jonah thought it a total waste of time. 
God’s love is persistent toward Jonah.  He won’t leave him alone.  
God’s love keeps on patiently trying to understand Jonah’s dilemma and help him to see that there is another way to view the people of Nineveh other than his bigoted, selfish, one-eyed point of view.  They are people God has created and loves, even the animals get a mention.

Jonah thought he had God all worked out and knew exactly what God ought to be doing but he didn’t count on the power of God’s love to work in people’s hearts including his own.

The story about Jonah finishes with a question from God.   Remember Jonah is seething that God had shown mercy on the people of Nineveh.  This is the last sentence of the Jonah story.  God says, “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (NLT Jonah 4:11). 

We don’t know Jonah’s answer.  Did Jonah finally understand the real extent of God’s love and did that love affect Jonah himself?  We will never know. 

Don’t you hate unfinished stories?  You want to know how the main character is finally affected by everything that has happened. But this is good storytelling because instead of ending with “and he lived happily ever after” we are left to ponder the question, “How did the love of God affect Jonah?”  And then ask, “How has the love of God affected us and the way we live today?”

Do we show the same love to others that God has shown to us?
When others offend us are we cranky and self-righteous or do we respond with the love of God? 
Do we reflect the love of God toward those who are not very likeable,
don’t even try to understand what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes; wipe certain people off as hopeless and beyond help? 
Do we reflect the love of God as we deal with difficult people – those who are argumentative, opinionated, self-focussed or do we find it easier to brush them aside and declare that they require too much effort and emotional energy?
Do we reflect the love of God when people we know make bad lifestyle choices?  Do we offer them our love, our help and support?
Are we like Jonah – ready to accept God's grace and to be cared for, comforted and helped by a loving God but refuse to pass on this same care, comfort and love to others?

We all struggle to reflect the love of God in our lives and we often fail. 
We can be terribly cranky and self-righteous and we could easily be written off as hopeless and horrible, but God’s generosity doesn’t do that.  He sent his only Son into the world to give his life for us totally and completely.  He loves us that much. 

The love of Christ is always ready to forgive, restore, renew and make a real difference in our lives every day.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
24th September 2017

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