Mercy for Community
Midweek Lenten Service
March 16, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The story of Jonah is a familiar one. What Sunday School child hasn’t heard of Jonah, the prophet of the Lord, and his captivating tale of action and suspense, his foolishly trying to overcome impossible odds and actually hide from God. There’s a terrifying storm and the inside of a great fish. But there’s also redemption, first for the prophet who sees the error of his ways and delivers God’s message to Nineveh, but also for the Ninevites who hear the word of warning and repent. Yes, the story is well known and well loved, yet there’s one detail we tend to ignore, a nugget hidden in the last chapter of the book. We often act as if the story ends when Nineveh is spared, but there is more to the story. In fact, if we skip the conclusion we miss the main point we’re meant to take away from the book, for the conclusion reveals Jonah’s reason for fleeing in the first place. Have you ever considered why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh? What in the world would inspire him to try to hide from the all seeing eye of God himself? I think most people assume Jonah was acting from fear. And that seems logical, for the Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a notorious empire whose name in the pages of history is forever linked with brutality and arrogance. Quite simply put, they had a reputation for being inhospitable to visitors. They considered themselves better than others, and treated their supposed inferiors accordingly. Given the reputation of Assyrians, it seems reasonable that Jonah was simply afraid to go to Nineveh.
However, the words of Jonah himself betray a different motivation for running from God. You could say it was fear of sorts that sent him in the opposite direction, but it wasn’t fear for his own safety or fear of what the Ninevites might do to him, it was fear of what God might do for them. Too often we treat the story of Jonah as if it ends when the people of Nineveh repent. Jonah preaches, the people repent, God withholds disaster, and they all live happily ever after. Except, that’s not what happened. Instead, when the people of Nineveh repented and God withheld disaster, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The only fear that Jonah felt was fear that the wicked Ninevites might be spared. He would have gladly have travelled to Nineveh to witness its destruction. It probably would have filled him with great joy to see those smug you-know-what’s burn for what they had done. If God promised to reenact Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah probably would have paid his own way to get a front row seat. But forgiveness? Jonah couldn’t bear the thought of that. And he knew God was merciful, and he knew God would forgive them if they repented, he just knew it. And that was simply a risk he wasn’t willing to take. So he ran.
What risks are we unwilling to take with the mercy of God? What chances with his compassion? We know Jesus’s words all too well. “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger you welcomed me, when I was sick you visited me, when I was in prison you came to me.” We know Jesus’ words and we try to fulfill them. We organize water drives for the people of Flint, we host MCREST each fall, we provide a small food pantry on site and support larger organizations who do much more to feed and clothe the homeless. We do all these things from a kind and generous heart, putting into action the gift of faith which our Lord has provided. But such efforts offer us the convenience of separation, of not having to actually interact with the people we assist. And such distance often blind us to the toxic attitudes we tend to cling to, most times without us even realizing we are doing it.
So ask yourself: what about forgiveness? What about repentance? What is our attitude toward the people in the world around us, the people we work with, the people in our neighborhoods? What is our attitude toward the people on the opposite side of the political aisle? What is our attitude toward those who support Trump or Clinton or Sanders or Cruz? What is our attitude toward those bleeding heart liberals or those cold-hearted conservatives? Do we want to see the mercy and grace of God freely given to all people? Or, like Jonah, do we harbor a secret desire that some people would be left out, that some people would be given only the wrath of God, that some people would be deemed goats on the last day. Who would we like to see sent into eternal punishment?
This is where the story of Jonah hits us right between the eyes, and why I think that the first three chapters that we are so familiar with, the stuff about the Ninevites and the great fish and Jonah’s change of heart, are actually nothing more than the set up. I think the main point we are supposed to take from the story of Jonah is found in the conclusion. For I doubt that any of us will receive a vision from God sending us to preach repentance in the headquarters of ISIS, but I bet all of us can see our own guilt in Jonah’s attitude. When Jonah becomes angry at God for sparing the wicked city, he takes himself out to a high hill overlooking Nineveh. There, he builds a small shelter to protect himself from the sun’s scorching rays, and the Lord even gives him a vine to provide extra shade and protection. The next day, the Lord destroys the vine and Jonah is left to endure the sun and wind unguarded. When Jonah questions God for this, God’ response is as poignant as it is simple. “Why, Jonah, are you upset that I would destroy a plant when you are lusting over the destruction of a city filled with life, human and animal alike? Should I not be merciful instead of vengeful?”
And the book ends there, leaving that question hanging in the air, and leaving us to squirm in our seats. We never get Jonah’s response, for this question is not merely asked to Jonah, it is asked to us, and it is the crux of the entire book. Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. How far are we willing to run in the opposite direction to ensure that the message of repentance is not preached to certain people, to homosexuals or Muslims or some other group? How thirsty are we for their destruction? Do we have an attitude of mercy for our community, even for the community of this the 21st Century, a community filled with gender confusion and narcissism and entitlement and moral chaos? Or would we rather see the fires of heaven consume the wicked? Do we truly hope that the suicide bomber repented of his choice in the split second between when he pushed the button and when the explosion went off? Or do we find secret solace in the hope that at least he’s burning in the fires of eternal torment for what he did?
The fact of the matter is, we are more like Jonah than we care to admit. And yet our Lord remains merciful. He had mercy on the people of Nineveh. He has mercy on us too. And his mercy makes all the difference in the world. He has mercy for our lust. Sure, we may not have actually raped anyone like the Assyrians so commonly did, but we have raped with our eyes and our minds. He has mercy for our greed. Sure, we may not be guilty of sacking and plundering cities throughout the region like the Assyrians were notorious for, yet we certainly think twice before throwing a dollar into the cup of the homeless guy we pass on our way to Comerica Park. The Lord has mercy for our bitterness and hatred and condescending arrogance, for the self-righteous thoughts that cross our mind when we see that cross dresser or that lesbian couple.
Quite simply, the Lord has mercy for our sin. While we deserve only punishment and wrath, our Lord provides the sun and rain to water the earth and make it grow, he provides food and clothing and shelter, he provides family and friendships and all the blessings of this life. Even more, he provides his Word that calls us to repentance and promises us forgiveness. We didn’t deserve to have that Word preached to us any more than the people of Nineveh did, yet there it was. And now here we are, because that Word did it’s work, because it accomplished the purpose for which it was sent.
Just like the Word made flesh accomplished the purpose for which he was sent. It was our lack of mercy, it was our lust for vengeance that nailed Jesus to the cross, just as much as anything the people of Nineveh were guilty of. It was the sin in our lives that filled the cup of judgment that Jesus had to drink in our place. But drink it he did. With agonizing drops of sweaty blood he prayed for that cup to be taken from him, yet when the moment came, he drank it. He consumed it for you. He took the judgment Nineveh deserved. He took the judgment Jonah deserved. He took the judgement each person in this room today deserves. He took it all. He drank the cup.
When we see ourselves for the Jonahs we are, and when we see the mercy we have each been given from the gracious hand of a loving God, only then can we truly live in mercy toward our community. Perhaps you’ve seen the video (warning: some explicit language) floating around online of the young men who went around asking people for a slice of pizza. Each time they were met with confused looks. Sometimes they were politely turned away, other times they were called names. But never did they get any food. Then, one of the young men bought a pizza and gave it to a homeless man, no strings attached. He simply gave it to the man and walked away. They secretly videoed the man eating his pizza, and a few minutes later one of the other young men asked the homeless man for a piece. He gave it without a moment’s hesitation. What he had received purely from the mercy of another, he shared with the same mercy.
The mercy of God works the same way. What we have graciously received from the hand of God as pure gift we now share with others. The eyes of faith reveal to us that everything in this life is a blessing from God, for without his mercy I would have nothing. It is by his mercy that I have the ability to work and earn a paycheck. Yes, I still do the work, but it’s by the grace of God that I have the ability to work at all, for he is the one who makes my body work, he is the one who sustains my life. Everything we have we owe to his undeserved mercy. So we share what we have been given.
Except the mercy of God extends beyond providing food and clothing and shelter – even the unbelieving world can do that. The mercy of God comes when we preach the God of forgiveness, when we live lives of self-sacrifice, even toward those who we think don’t deserve it. It is only through the mercy of God that anyone in this room today has the gift of faith. It is not our doing. We certainly don’t deserve it. So why would we seek the judgment of those who do not possess this great gift? It is through the mercy of God that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. It is through the mercy of God that we turn the other cheek after being struck by the insults of this world, allowing them to strike at us again. It is through the mercy of God that we withhold eternal judgment about who is or isn’t worthy of God’s mercy. For such judgment is not ours to make, and if we judge with the harshness of Jonah, such harshness will be used against us.
Rather, we humbly rejoice in the gift of faith that our Lord has worked in us and we live in mercy toward our community, beginning with the attitude found in our hearts, an attitude shaped by a humble and honest confession of our own worthiness. An attitude shaped by the gracious love and undeserved mercy shown to us while we were yet sinners. And Christ who is alive in us shapes us into people who have the same mercy and concern for others who are yet without faith, that we would look upon them in mercy, not judgment. For that is who we are in Christ. That is who we are through baptism. We are people of mercy: mercy for the church; mercy for the sick and ill; mercy for the family; mercy for life; mercy for our community.
That’s who we are as the people of God.