Sermon for Sunday September 24th, 2017, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 145:1-10; Jonah 3:10 – 4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
The Text: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Topic: Love for people of all nations as God taught it to the prophet Jonah
Hoping to help his church save money, Pastor Jones decided to paint the exterior himself, but all he had on hand was one bucket of paint. So he collected a bunch of empty buckets and some water, which he used to thin the paint enough to cover the building. Then he spent the whole day painting.
That night it rained and washed off all the paint. The pastor was so discouraged and asked God, “Why…why Lord did you let it rain and wash away all my hard work?” To which God replied, “Repaint and thin no more!”
(From World’s Greatest Collection of Church Jokes, published by Barbour Publishing, Inc. Used by Permission.)
God sent the prophet Jonah on a mission to preach repentance to the inhabitants of the great Assyrian capital, Nineveh. It was a vast city in ancient times, and it took Jonah three days to travel through it, telling the people to repent, or in forty days the city would be destroyed by God. Jonah had at first refused to go, but a stormy sea and a hungry whale helped change his mind, so that he prayed to God for deliverance (Jonah 2), and the whale vomited Jonah out on dry land (Jonah 2:10). Being told a second time to preach to Nineveh, this time he obeys. Surprisingly, these Ninevites, who were renowned for their cruelty to anyone they captured or imprisoned, turned from their evil way, and God decided not to destroy the city of Nineveh. This should have brought joy to the prophet and to anyone who prays for the repentance of particularly cruel people. But Jonah is upset, and complains to God that God’s kindness, mercy, and patience were the reason that he, Jonah, did not want to preach to Nineveh in the first place, but tried to sail to Tarshish instead.
What was Jonah really thinking? Was it the kindness of God to which he really objected, the kindness and goodness of God that are meant to lead us all to repentance (Romans 2:4)? Or was it that Jonah believed these Assyrians, because they were such cruel Gentiles, should have been destroyed without being given a chance to repent? Somehow they should have been outside the grace of God, and Nineveh should have been destroyed. Such is the depth of his disappointment at the success of his mission that he asked God to take his life. The Lord does not grant his request at that time, but instead poses a searching question to him, “Doest thou well to be angry?”
THE LESSON OF THE CLIMBING GOURD
Not believing that God was really going to spare Nineveh, Jonah sits on the east side of the city, to observe what would happen to the city, but the scorching heat of the day led him to make a little shelter to protect himself a little from the heat. God assists in giving him protection by causing a gourd to grow up over his shelter and give more shade with its leaves. But the next day, a worm eats through the roots of this leafy creeper, and it withers. As the sun rises, God also prepares a strong east wind. The combination of the hot east wind, and the scorching sun causes Jonah to faint and again wish to die. The question from God comes again, “Doest thou well to be angry…” (Jonah 4:9). The Lord then uses Jonah’s anger over a gourd that he didn’t work to plant or water or make grow to teach him a lesson about God’s kindness to a city of one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know how to discern right from wrong and their many cattle.
JONAH’S ANGER AT NINEVEH’S REPENTANCE IS UNJUSTIFIED
This lesson about God’s kindness even to an exceptionally cruel nation was meant to align Jonah’s attitude to foreigners more closely with God’s love for people of all nations who turn away from evil and obey Him. Many times we read of God’s anger at the sin of Israel in Biblical times, and his anger at the sins of other nations, but nowhere are aliens who turn to Him ever rejected. Jonah’s anger at the repentance of Nineveh was unjustified. God’s question “Doest thou well to be angry?” exposes Jonah’s wrong motives, and it exposes ours as well.
Xenophobia is a phrase that is often used in political circles. Jonah’s initial attitude to the inhabitants of Nineveh appears to be xenophobic. It can be argued that these people were savage and cruel, and deserved to be hated for this reason alone, not just because they were not Jews. But the Book of the prophet Jonah reminds us of God’s love for people of all nations, especially for those who obey the call to turn from evil and follow the right way. The Old Testament is full of reminders of God’s love for the alien, the orphan and the widow (Lev. 19:10; Deut. 10:18; Zech. 7:10, for example). All Gentiles were once alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, but now in Christ have received a share of that commonwealth (Ephesians 2:12-13). Christians are commanded to show hospitality, the Greek word for which means “love of the stranger.” For Christians, xenophobia is the very opposite of the kindness we are called upon to show to strangers and aliens.
THE SIN OF PRIDE IN JUDGING OTHERS
Jonah’s anger at God’s pardon of the Ninevites did not just spring from xenophobia, though. The sin of pride lay deep in him and he felt he was in a superior position because of being a Jew and could expect God to visit judgment on godless sinners of other nations, even when they showed signs of repentance. The Pharisees had the same problem with respect to Jesus Christ welcoming sinners and eating with them.
In the Church today, we must be careful not to judge and resent any of our fellow-believers, nor must we think that God cannot bring them to turn from any wrong behavior we see in their lives. Let us not think, as Jonah thought, that people who habitually disappoint our sense of good behavior can never show genuine repentance and really turn their lives around. With God’s help, they both can and will turn their lives around, and do the right thing. The prophet Zechariah rightly declared:
Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother:
And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.
(Zechariah 7:9-10, KJV)
God calls us to lay aside pride, resentment and anger and to share in his compassion for the many in this world that have no discernment of right and wrong, nor of the truths that he has set forth in the Bible. How will doing this change your attitude to fellow-Christians, colleagues, family members, and aliens?