On A Hill Far Away
This sermon was preached on January 24, 2019 at Washington DC Christian Reformed Church.
Theme: God sends unwilling prophets and a willing Savior for love of the whole world … yes, even “those people”.
Doctrine: “For God so loved the world.”
Image: “Those people”
Need: To repent of being unwilling prophets
Mission: To question the (spiritual, geographical, political, racial) walls we build.
Friends, would you repeat after me?
The Lord is compassionate and gracious.
Slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse
Nor will He harbor his anger forever.
…As high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is his love for those who fear him.
Friends in Christ, the LORD be with you (and also with you.)
Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.
As God has greeted us in this place, would you turn and greet God’s people — they are all around you.
Prayer of Illumination
We are hungry, Lord, for truth, for justice, for love. Nourish us this day with better food than we could ever purchase, engineer or manufacture. Feed us with Your Word.
In the name of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
Trouble in the Text
Previously, in Jonah…
Jonah wasn’t so great as a missionary. God tells him to go to Nineveh and, instead (as The Jesus’ Storybook Bible puts it) he buys “one ticket to not-Ninevah please!” He sleeps on the boat while the pagan sailors call a prayer meeting and have to be the ones to tell Jonah God isn’t on board with his not-Ninevah plan. And Jonah isn’t on board much longer after that.
He wasn’t an eager evangelist, either. Nineveh is a three days walk in circumference. Jonah walks part-way into the city on day one and makes a revival speech of just 8 words: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed,” as though not expecting anyone to do much about it. Perhaps hoping they wouldn’t. But they do and the pagan king of Nineveh has more to say to his subjects about the nature of their repentance and the possibility of God’s mercy than Jonah does. When God has compassion and relents from destruction, Jonah is so angry he tries to condemn God with God’s own gracious character.
Like if you were to light into a roommate, “You always pay your rent on time. I never have to remind you about dishes in the sink. You’re never too loud when you get home late and never too cheerful in the morning. You ask before you have parties and you always ask about people’s days and then really listen to their answers. GAH! I’M SO MAD AT YOU!!!”
“‘Slow to anger, abounding in love, gracious and compassionate, relenting from sending calamity.’ GAH! HOW COULD YOU?!? This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!!”
And God’s like, “You floated around in a fish’s digestive juices for 3 days and THIS is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? THIS is what you’re mad about?”
Without saying a word (and it says a lot when a prophet doesn’t have anything left to say) Jonah sweeps out of the city in an indignant huff.
Meanwhile, back in the city of Nineveh, the people are starting to wonder … well, now what? We did our sackcloth and ashes — even the livestock. I mean, no one told us how to do the thing so we just figured better more than less. But doesn’t it feel like there’s more to it? Like what if we got together once a week or something to talk about God? And maybe we could write some songs about God? Maybe, I don’t know if this is how it works, but we could we, like, talk to God? Does anyone know what happened to that guy who told us about the repenting? He probably knows this stuff. Anyone seen hims around recently?
Jonah’s a terrible missionary, a half-hearted, successful-despite- himself evangelist and now, as a church planter, he’s literally missing in action. So if Jonah kind of seems like a joke to you … well, now you’re reading him like a proper Hebrew scholar should.
Jonah complaining to God: “I told ‘those people’ you would destroy the city and now you’re not destroying the city. And I’m just saying, it doesn’t make me look very good.”
Jonah kicking the dirt as he makes he winds his way out of the city. “Well, I hope ‘those people’ appreciate what you’ve done for them … not that they deserve it.’
Jonah, muttering to himself while he’s putting up his shelter to the east of the city. “That slow to anger, abounding in love thing? That was supposed to be for US. Not for THEM. We’re ‘God’s people.’ They’re just ‘those people.’”
A proper Hebrew scholar reads Jonah with humor and a proper Hebrew scholar also reads Jonah as a truthful representation of God’s people. For all the times they forgot the second part of God’s covenant promise to Abraham that “All peoples of earth will be blessed through you.” Jonah is the embodiment of God’s people and all the times we’ve forgotten what Jesus says in John 3 “For God so loves THE WORLD that … whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” And you know what? That’s going to include some of ‘those people.’
Trouble in the World
We prove Jonah is our truthful representative:
With that twinge of jealousy when that church in the next town over — the one with the loosey-goosey theology — is building an extension while we’re roping off the back pews to gather the few saints together in the front.
With that irritation when the church next door — the one with the rainbow flag — is pulling in a dozen volunteers and helping a hundred people with their food pantry each week and you can’t get anyone to sign-up to lead VBS this year.
With that suspicion about that storefront ministry downtown — the one where ICE hangs out in the parking lot — that’s training lay pastors who are already started multi-lingual, multi-cultural churches all over the city while we don’t even have viable interest in our evening services anymore.
With that indignation when that radically conservative, politically vocal pastor in the city — the one who says hateful things about “those people” and is, therefore, on our list of “those people” — is also doing this amazing partnership with local agencies to train and license foster parents so that no child in the county will ever lack for a safe place to go, while we barely have energy to plan worship or write a sermon again this week.
It’s the kind of stuff that sends us out east of the city, kicking dirt while we go. Sends us, muttering to ourselves, building a shelter well away from “those people” to pout for awhile.
Grace in the Text
But, here’s the thing, because God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, God looks at us fuming about “those people” (however we might define the term) just the same as God looks at Jonah pouting in his shelter and thinks, “Wait. I can work with this.”
A plant springs up overnight to throw Jonah some shade. Retired from prophetic ministry, living a blissful distance away from “those people”, Jonah wakes up and is immediately grateful for his plant-friend. “Good morning, plant! Let’s watch and see if brimstone is in the forecast for Nineveh today.” Jonah waits all day, chatting with the plant, rehearsing his long list of grievances. Honestly, no other creature would want to listen but talking is supposed to be good for plant growth so it’s a win-win. As the sun sets, Jonah curls up under a leaf. And as he’s drifting off to sleep he says, “Goodnight plant-friend. I love you! Maybe tomorrow Nineveh will be destroyed! Boy, wouldn’t that be great?!”
When he wakes up in the morning, his plant friend is gone, his comfort is impinged by a cruel east wind and Jonah is again angry enough to die.
But then God, with such tenderness, such gentleness settles in next to Jonah. Patient beyond all reason. Gracious again. Abundantly compassionate. Abounding in love. And asks, “Oh Jonah, I know you loved your plant. It was my gift to you. But now, Jonah, don’t you think I should get to love those people too? They *literally* dressed their animals in sackcloth for heaven’s sake. Like, literally. And, more importantly, they’re made in my image. Remember the promise: “all people on earth shall be blessed through you.” Jonah, don’t I get to love ‘those people’ too?
The story of Jonah remains unfinished. The question is left unanswered. “Don’t I get to love ‘those people’ too? Will you help?”
It reminds me of another unfinished story, another unanswered question. This story is about a Father who loved his sons, probably loved his younger son against better judgment. After all, the son wished his Father dead, ran away from home, squandered the money and still his Father waited for him. Maybe he hoped someone would go to the boy and tell him how much his Father loved him, waiting every day, hoping he would come home. One day the boy did come home and his Father was wild with the joy of it.
But someone else was there too. He stomped out of the party, kicking up dust and muttering something about “that son of yours”. The Father leaves the party to find his older son, settling in beside him with such tenderness, such gentleness. Patient beyond all reason. Abundant compassion. Abounding in love. “Dear child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But don’t I get to love your brother too? And won’t you join the party?”
Grace in the World
We are still living an unfinished story today. Another unanswered question left for us. It begins with a God who creates and loves the world, every human made in God’s image, every creature endeared to its Creator. Even when God’s people run in the opposite direction, God loves them and chases them with the relentless tenderness of a parent (with giant fish when needed.) God sends them prophets — even silly prophets like Jonah — to show them just how seriously God means it when “God so loves the world.”
Until, at last, while we were still “those people” Christ died for us. God loved us and sent an atoning sacrifice for our sin. So that, in Christ’s incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension, our salvation is begun.
And, in Christ, the dividing lines of hostility is broken, every barrier is torn down. In Christ, “those people” become “our people.” In Christ, we are the people of God. We know the end of the story, that one day, in Christ’s Kingdom, we will be one people together. “A great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,” worshipping together.
But, until that day, this is the story that Christ, through His Spirit, continues to tell. A story of God who loves beyond the walls we establish between people. God who loves beyonds the steel slat fences we put up between churches. While we’re busy building barriers, God is busy loving those on the other side of them. Because God will always love beyond the borders we create.
God, with such tenderness, such gentleness settles in beside us again. Patient beyond all reason. Gracious again. Offering abundant compassion. Abounding in love. Asking us, “Dear child, all that you have is my gift to you. And Jesus told you, ‘For God so loves the world that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life.’ The list of whosoevers may be longer than you’d like but that’s simply what it looks like when God so loves the world. Ask the older son. Ask Jonah. The mercy will be greater than you might like. But God offers it:
Dear child, it is for you … and don’t I get to love ‘those people’ too?
Would you pray with me?
Lord, you are compassionate and gracious.
Slow to anger, abounding in love.
You will not always accuse,
Nor will You harbor your anger forever;
…For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is Your love for those who fear You;
Thanks and Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.
And can it be that God loves us with such tender, patient, pursuing love?
And can it be that God loves “those people” too?
“For God so loves the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life.”
The blessing of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is with you now and forever more. Amen.
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