Our Gracious and Merciful God

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Meditation on Jonah 3:10-4:11

Sept. 24, 2017

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said,  ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me,  for it is better for me to die than to live.’ 4And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said,  ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ 9 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

***

I was born in 1965.

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My country was deeply wounded, still recovering from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 2 years before.

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 My country was divided over civil rights issues, though it had been 9 years since the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that formed the basis for state-sanctioned discrimination.

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Two weeks after I came into the world, the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act, aimed at overcoming legal barriers states had set up to prevent African Americans from voting.

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When I was 3,

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, during the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The “landmark…legislation provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin.”

And for the first 10 years of my life, my country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Every night at 6 o’clock, shocking images and news of casualties were broadcast on our living room TV while my parents silently watched and chewed their food. I often had to look away.

The disturbing images stayed in my mind sometimes, returning in my childhood dreams. I don’t recall ever talking about the war with my family. If my parents, who were Navy veterans, discussed it in front of me, it went over my head. I kept playing with my Sunshine Family dolls with pop up camper and country craft shack; my older sister, her Barbies; my older brother, GI Joe.

Jim and I have been watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary, “The Vietnam War.”

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It is, at times, painful and upsetting to watch. But I am learning a lot– not just about the American history I never learned in school, but the first hand experiences of the Vietnamese people–soldiers and civilians, many of whom were children or teenagers at the time. Slide49

Watching the third episode of the documentary on Friday, I grieved with an American family who lost their son at barely 18 years old. Hearing his mother and sister tell his story,

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 I was angry at the enemy who stole this boy’s life! I was angry at the enemy, watching an American veterans’ eyes fill with tears as he recalled his buddies dying–and how he is still afraid of the dark and needs a night light because the enemy is still out there, waiting to ambush them –in the dark.

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We also heard stories from Vietnamese people who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, in the war. I couldn’t believe how many Vietnamese girls were being used for the war effort, some staying up all night, using shovels to fill in craters left by American bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route for the Viet Cong from the north to the south.

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I was angry at the enemy! But by the third episode, I wasn’t sure who the enemy was. I wanted someone to hate for the atrocities that were done. I needed someone to blame. But who?

Then I remembered Jonah. And God asking him–twice–“Is it right for you to be angry?”

The first time, Jonah falls silent and just pouts, sitting down under a booth he made for shade to watch what would happen to the great city he despised. Jonah callously replies the second time, when he cares more for a bush that provides shade then the lives of human beings and animals,“Yes,” he says defiantly to the Lord, “angry enough to die.”

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The story of Jonah is a parable for God’s people, Israel, who have been repeatedly conquered, killed or enslaved by enemies. Those who say the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath hasn’t read the little book of the minor prophet, tucked between Obadiah and Micah– or at least, they haven’t read all the way to the end, where our lectionary passage takes us today. Jonah, an 8th century BCE prophet or “anti-prophet” hates Ninevah;

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it is the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire; they are pagans whose brutality was renowned. They are responsible for the annihilation of the northern kingdom (Israel) in 722 BCE (2 Kings 18:9-11).

Jonah’s story begins with God’s call to “go at once to Ninevah (in modern day Northern Iraq) “that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

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Jonah runs from “the presence of the Lord”–or tries to. He boards a ship and goes the other way, heading to a place called Tarshish, which he never reaches. There’s a storm.

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Frightened sailors ask Jonah who he is and what he has done. Jonah admits that he is the cause of their trouble. “I am a Hebrew,” he says.  “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The sailors are even more frightened, then, knowing he is running from God. They toss Jonah into the sea, at his urging. A great fish swallows him; sailors and ship are spared as the sea immediately becomes calm. In the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights, Jonah prays to the Lord “his God.” “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

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So Jonah sets out for Ninevah, does according to God’s word, and the people believe God; they proclaim a holy fast and everyone great and small–even the animals– put on sackcloth. The king himself sits in ashes and commands that all cry out “mightily” to God. “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows?” the king wonders aloud. “God may relent and change his mind…”

He does.

And this is what makes Jonah mad. But this time, instead of running away, he trusts God with his innermost feelings. He prays. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning…” For I know how you are!!! You are “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Next time you hear someone say the God of the OT is a God of wrath and the God of the NT is a God of love, you can quote Jonah 4:2!

While Jonah’s example is not always one to emulate, we can learn from him. When we are mad at God, and let’s be honest, sometimes we are, we should not be afraid or hesitate to draw near to the Lord and pray.

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God wants us to trust him completely and share everything with him–our fears, sorrows, anxieties, and even our anger! But it isn’t enough to be obedient to the Lord–to go through the motions. Our hearts must be in the right place. One must love the Lord; one must love people, too.

And not just people who are like us and near us– our families, neighbors and friends. We are called to love people of other countries, cultures and religions. We are called to love those who declare themselves our enemies, threaten our way of life and our very lives. People like ancient Ninevah, whose wickedness and violence did not escape God’s notice–and was offensive to Him.

So how do we do this? How do we love our enemies, as Jesus commands us to do? And what does this mean for us today? It means we have to rely on God’s Word and Spirit to lead and teach us how to live.

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We have to trust the Lord for the transformation of our hearts that will come–as Paul assures in Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

But it means we will always struggle as the people of God, a light in this dark world,

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wrestling with difficult decisions, including decisions about going to war, all the while, pursuing Christ’s loving ways. As the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

These decisions will always be hard for us–and they should be–for we belong to God and we must trust Him for what we don’t understand, and humbly walk with Him, day by day. We trust God’s eyes of eternity for the future God has planned. As the prophet Jeremiah prays in 10:23, “LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.”

We will always strain our ears to hear God’s voice in the noise, busy-ness, chaos and temptations of this world, temptations such as the desire to be angry, hate, and blame. But with the Spirit’s help, we will become more like the God of the OT who is the same God of the New–Our Gracious and Merciful God that Jonah knew intimately. Our God who is slow to anger Slide06and abounding in steadfast love.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for your grace and mercy that you have made a way for sinful human beings to come to you–cleansed from sin–through belief in your Son, Jesus Christ, and his work on the cross. Thank you for your steadfast love –the way you delight in us and want us to come closer to you–to love and worship only you. Help us to put you first in our life, Lord, and to learn to love people — all cultures, religions, and nations– as your children, the world you so love, though they may consider us enemies and seek us harm. Give us wisdom to discern right from wrong and courage to always walk the right path, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In Him we pray. Amen.

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