Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 6, 2014 Jonah: Letting God Be God

July 6, 2014
Jonah 4:1-11

For many years I thought of myself as being fairly literate when it comes to technology.  I’ve realized in more recent years that if I ever was, I am no longer.  Part of it may be my impatience at learning new things.  I don’t like to read manuals and I don’t like to spend time learning how to operate a new device.  I learn a few basics and that’s about it. 

So I’m often surprised when I learn something new.  Nick and Tyler recently showed me a feature about my phone that I did not know existed.  If you push the home button twice it shows all the apps that are running in the background.  I checked it the other day and there were 33 different apps running, using power and memory.

I had no idea.

I think there is a mental and spiritual parallel to those apps running in the background.  I believe there are, for lack of a better word, “apps” that run in the back of our minds, operating like a software program telling us how to act and think.  They determine how we see people, how we see the world, and how we think about things in general. What this means is that you and I may not be the independent thinkers that we believe we are.  We have been conditioned to see ourselves, others, and even God in particular ways and we may not even be aware that it’s because those “apps” are running in the background of our minds. Those apps – or influences – are tremendously powerful.  Not all of them are negative; but not all of them are positive either.

As we conclude our series of the book of Jonah this morning, I think it’s fair to say that Jonah had some very faulty “apps” at work in his heart and mind.  They were “apps” that caused him to look upon the Ninevites in a very tragic manner.  But it wasn’t just the Ninevites; it was also God.  Jonah wanted God to deal with the Ninevites in a way that suited not God, but Jonah.  Jonah was not at all pleased with the way God dealt with the people of Nineveh.  What Jonah needed to learn was to Let God Be God.

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 
He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”  “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
11 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?”

Chapter four begins by telling us that Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  With whom was Jonah angry?  God.  Now, I can understand when people become angry at, or disappointed in, God after the very difficult loss of a loved one.  Anger at loss is understandable in some circumstances.  But why was Jonah angry?

Jonah was angry for a really, really bad reason.  Here’s what he says in verse 2, and you can almost see him stamping his feet and throwing a fit as he says it – is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Jonah is angry about God being a God of love.

Jonah did not flee to Tarshish because of fear or anxiety about the task God gave to him.  It was not the thought of personal hardship that caused Jonah to flee.  It was not because he felt ill-equipped for his task.  Jonah fled because he did not want to see God demonstrate love and compassion.  Think about that for a moment.  Jonah wanted, not compassion, but a ring-side seat to a Sodom and Gomorrah style destruction of a people he detested.  I have to admit that I’ve not always had the most positive attitude about some people, but I try to keep that to myself, because I recognize it’s wrong to feel such a way.  But poor Jonah didn’t even have the good sense to keep quiet about how he felt.  He blurted out his feelings to God with no hesitation and he lacked the good sense to be embarrrassed about it.

Jonah’s complaint is especially tragic because he’s doing more than simply objecting to God’s actions.  The folly of Jonah’s complaint is that he is objecting to the very nature of God.  It is God’s nature to be compassionate and loving, and Jonah knew this, and because God was prone to compassion and love, Jonah wanted nothing to do with the mission he was given.  Sadly, it wasn’t that Jonah did not understand the nature of God; he understood it very well – he just rejected it.

I have stated a couple of times during this series that Jonah is not a very sympathetic character, and we become painfully aware of what a tragic figure Jonah is as we read chapter four.  This chapter gives a very stark comparison between God and Jonah.  God is loving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, while Jonah gleefully anticipates the destruction of the large city of Nineveh. 
So, as we wrap up our brief study of the book of Jonah, here are a couple of thoughts to remember –

We don’t get to determine who is worthy of love and compassion; God does.

If you’re a parent, at some point you’ve dealt with an angry, petulant child.  Perhaps it was in a check-out line or other public place, where the child decides to have a fit that comes complete with the stamping of feet, crossed arms, pouting lips, and an angry outburst.

Maybe one of the reasons why humans have such a proclivity to separating ourselves from others is because when we get to know people we find they aren’t always that scary, or that different.

No one is outside the circle of God’s love.
However much we want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.  In Christ there is no east or west.  I think we can extrapolate that out and say there is no black, white, Hispanic, right, left, American, Russian, Iranian, South African, gay, straight; pick a category of people who make you uncomfortable and know that God loves them as much as he does you or me.

Jonah did not approve of the manner in which God loves.  He wanted judgment and punishment, not grace and mercy.  Jonah wanted to shrink the circle of God’s love, allowing in only those of whom he approved.  There are still too many people who want to shrink the circle of God’s love, but however much they might want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.

Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all on in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  Those were the divisions of Paul’s day, and they were very deep divisions between people.

If love is foundational to the nature of God, so it should be for us.
Jonah has been gone for many centuries, but in some ways he is still with us.  Jonah’s closed mind still occupies the heads of many people who cannot open themselves to God’s inclusion of all people as his children.  His cold heart continues to beat in the chests of far too many who cannot – or will not – love other people, especially people who are different.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
Albert Schweitzer

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
Thomas Merton

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