A Lesson in Love
18th Sunday after Pentecost
A Lesson in Love
Text: Jonah 4:5-11
“Go and make disciples of all nations.” We call that the Great Commission. Jesus has commissioned us, sent us, to share his Word with all people. The Great Commission makes us kind of warm and fuzzy inside. What a neat thing that God wants us to share his Word! How wonderful that God loves all people! What a loving and gracious God!
God certainly called his Old Testament people to preach his Word, too. Moses told the Israelites to talk about God’s Word when they got up in the morning and went to bed at night, to talk about it when they walk down the streets, to teach it to their children, to put it on their doorposts and bind it on their foreheads if they had to. Surely the Israelites felt warm and fuzzy inside when they heard the Lord tell them that he is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love. How wonderful that God loves all people! What a loving and gracious God they had!
But talking about God’s love and actually sharing God’s love with others are two completely different things. Just ask Jonah. The Great Commission became real for him when God told him to preach his Word. “Great! Where should I go, Lord? Jerusalem? Jericho? Little Bethlehem?” Oh, no. This was not a home-mission call. This was a foreign mission call. The first verse of the book of Jonah says this: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
“Umm, say what, God? You want me to go where, God? To them? Are you sure, God? No way, God!”
Nineveh was about 600 miles away to the northeast in the present day country of Iraq. But instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah went down to the coast and set sail for Tarshish—2,000 miles in the opposite direction way over by Portugal. That would be like God telling us to go and preach in New Orleans, but instead we hop in a boat at the ocean and set sail all the way for Nova Scotia, Canada.
Why would Jonah do that? Well for Israel, Nineveh was the epitome of evil. Say the name Nineveh, and they might cringe as we would when we hear the names Baghdad of Fallujah. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, a world superpower and enemies to Israel. The Assyrians were atrociously wicked people. They were notorious for their ruthless treatment of their enemies. Some they captured in war they would flay, or skin alive. Others they would behead, and then the king would either stick them on poles or just make a big pile of heads outside the city.
This wasn’t God asking Jonah to invite a friend or two to church or to pass out a flier in his neighborhood. Jonah was supposed to do hard, grueling, challenging mission work in the most wicked and ruthless city around. And Jonah said, “No way!”
You probably know what happened next. Jonah had a lesson to learn from the Lord and it took becoming fish food to find out. So there was Jonah stuck in the belly of a massive fish—stinking and thinking. Jonah chapter two records a prayer of Jonah from the belly of the fish, a beautiful prayer of repentance and of expressed hope and trust in the Lord. By the end of the chapter Jonah had clearly learned his lesson and the fish vomited him back onto dry ground.
Chapter three. God came to Jonah again and said, “Jonah, go and preach to the city of Nineveh.” Instead of, “No way!” Jonah said, “Ok.” And one of the most amazing things in world history happened. The entire city of Nineveh—some 500,000 wicked and heathen people—every last one of them believed Jonah’s preaching and repented of their sin. God saw their repentance, had mercy, and spared the city from the destruction he warned them about.
Incredible! You would think Jonah would be jumping for joy and doing victory laps for the Lord that not some or a few but all of the Ninevites believed.
But that’s not what happened. This is where we jump into the story today in chapter 4. Jonah was sitting outside the city, probably on some hill. He was pouting. Jonah was actually angry that God had mercy on those evil enemies! He was sitting there hoping that God might yet blast them off the face of the earth like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Now before you shake your head at Jonah’s poor attitude, let’s think about his situation one more time. Hmmm. People living in the Middle East, around the area of Iraq. Ruthlessly wicked heathen people that loved torturing or even beheading enemies. Sounds like the Ninevites were a lot like Isis terrorists today. (Actually ancient Nineveh was just a few miles away from modern day Baghdad.)
So think about this again. How eager would you be to go to Iraq and preach to Isis because they need to hear God’s Word too? Would you be excited and enthusiastic at the opportunity, or might you head on that boat going 2,000 miles in the opposite direction? Or maybe you would just sit outside the city pouting and waiting for God to rain nuclear warheads from the sky?
Maybe we aren’t so gracious and forgiving all the time either. But that’s an extreme case, right? That’s different. They are terrorists. Yes, it’s hard to love them, but that’s an extreme example, right?
But how eager are you to make disciples of all the other nations? Ask the old, white, German-Lutheran churches in Milwaukee how they feel about reaching out to their neighborhoods that have become all-black project neighborhoods. Are you going to rush out these doors to find some illegal immigrants that don’t speak a word of English and try and tell them about Jesus? How often do you pray for the mass-murderers, the Jeffrey Dahmers or Charles Mansons of the world, that they hear about Jesus and his forgiveness so they can go to heaven? Have you ever thought about reaching out to the meth-addicts or prostitutes? How about pedophiles or rapists? Even on a lesser level, what about atheists or satanists? How about people that live off the government and haven’t worked a hard day in their lives? What about cyber crooks and embezzling, fraudulent government workers? Are you chomping at the bit to share God’s Word them?
Suddenly we find ourselves sitting next to Jonah on the side of a hill. We’re pouting. We’re angry. We’re like the workers in the vineyard in the gospel today who worked all day long and thought they deserved more than the others. “That’s not fair, God! How could you do that, God? Why would you have mercy on them, God? They don’t deserve your grace, God!”
And right there we find the answer to the problem. “They don’t deserve God’s grace,” we say. The terrorists, the murderers, the pedophiles—the real bad guys and lowlifes of this world—they don’t deserve it. But that’s the problem. We think they don’t deserve God’s grace because deep down inside we think we do.
Don’t you think that Jonah had those exact thoughts? “I don’t want the Ninevites to be saved. They’re not Jews. They’re not God’s chosen people. They’re not like me. They aren’t good people.” It doesn’t take much introspection to find those thoughts rattling around in my brain either. “I’m going to go and make disciples of all nations—well, at least all nations that are just like me, the people who look like me and act like me.”
Yes, that is a serious problem to have these thoughts in our hearts. Here’s why—I don’t deserve God’s grace either. Just because someone else’s sins might be more violent or make bigger headlines, that doesn’t mean I sin any less. My life is filled with evil from top to bottom, including a heart that makes me think I’m better than others and I deserve God’s grace more than they do. The truth is that every person in the world is a sinner and no one deserves God’s grace.
Jonah needed to learn this lesson yet. So as he sat on the hill pouting over Nineveh, God caused a plant to grow. The plant grew up quickly and gave Jonah shade from the scorching sun. Jonah was happy. But the next day God sent a worm to chew the vine so that it withered and died. When the sun rose and started beating on his head, Jonah was angry and pouted again. “It would be better for me to die than to live,” he said. All this drama over a dumb little plant!
That was God’s point. Jonah was angry about that plant dying, so angry that he wanted to die. That’s how bad the death of the plant hurt him and his feelings. So look at God’s response in verse 10: “But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty-thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah cared about a stupid, nothing, soul-less plant dying. So shouldn’t God care about a city with 120,000 people (probably children) that didn’t know there right from their left? Shouldn’t God be concerned about a city with a total population of about 500,000 people with actual souls that could end up in heaven or hell? Shouldn’t God love them too?
The interesting thing about the book of Jonah is that’s it. That’s the last verse. The book ends there. We don’t know how Jonah responded. We don’t know what he did next. But we do know the obvious answer to the closing question. Yes, God had every right to be concerned about that city of Nineveh because he loved those people too.
It’s good for us to review this lesson in love for Jonah because we need many of the same reminders as Jonah. God doesn’t love me because I’m white or because I’m Lutheran or because I’m American. God doesn’t love me because I’m a pretty good person or because at least I’m not a murderer. God doesn’t love me because I try hard or I’m here every Sunday.
The one and only reason that God loves me is through his Son Jesus Christ. There is absolutely nothing in the Ninevites and there is absolutely nothing in murderers or pedophiles that would make God love them. But I’m a sinner too, and that means there is nothing I have done to earn his love either. My sins also separate me from God. I need a Savior just as much as the next person.
That’s the beautiful thing about God’s grace. It’s for all people. Maybe you’re part of a ruthless group of people like the Assyrians or the Isis terrorists. Maybe you’ve murdered someone. Maybe you’ve committed adultery. Maybe curse up and down left and right all day every day. Maybe you just waver in your faith and doubt God all the time.
But here’s the beautiful thing about our loving God. Whether you are white or black or anything in between, whether you are an American or not, whether you’ve sinned really big or really small all the time—God still loves you. Cut any of us open and we bleed the same color blood, the same color blood that our Savior Jesus shed on the cross for all of our sins.
In Jesus’ story we heard today, I suppose you could say the workers were right. It was unfair for those who worked only a few hours to get paid a day’s wage. But they didn’t understand that it was also unfair for those who worked the whole day to get anything. And I suppose Jonah was right, it was unfair for God to have mercy on Nineveh. But it was also unfair for God to have mercy on the Israelites and Jonah!
So today we might wonder how God could possibly want us to share the good news of Jesus with the scoundrels, criminals, or terrorists of the world. That’s unfair. But it is also unfair for a sinner like me to receive even one ounce of God’s grace. Yet in love he gives it to me anyways.
That’s the Lesson in Love that Jonah learned the hard way from God. Everyone is on an equal playing field. Every last person on the planet is a sinner that deserves God’s wrath and punishment. And yet every last person in this world is offered forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Much like we heard last week then, if God can love me that much, certainly I can love others too. If Jesus could forgive the things that I’ve done, then Jesus’ death was enough to pay for what even the worst have done.
One of my favorite things about being a pastor is learning more about all of you. Many of you have been trusting enough to share a lot of life stories with me. If only you knew. If only you knew some of the other things that people sitting around you have done. If only you knew the kinds of sins that have been committed by people in this room. If only you knew what kind of people go to this church.
If only you knew . . . Oh you wouldn’t brag or boast or think you’re better than anyone else here. If only you knew what the sins the rest of us have committed, you would take comfort that you’re not alone. You’re not the only sinner. We all are. You aren’t the only one who has done some “really bad stuff” in your life. We all have.
We don’t know all the sins the people sitting around us have done (thankfully!). But we all do know what our Savior has done. We know that he lived and died to win forgiveness and eternal life for all people—for Ninevite and terrorist; for idolater and adulterer; for murderer and molester; for the liar, the cheat, the foul mouthed or those with a foul mood; and for anyone and everyone in between. Should not the Lord be concerned about all these people? Well he is. He cares about every last one.
Learn the Lesson in Love today. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. That includes you and all people. Learn of God’s love and then share God’s love—with everyone.
Posted on October 12, 2014, in Church, Sermons and tagged Assyria, Church, Fair, Fairness, Forgiveness, Isis, Jonah, Jonah 4, Nineveh, Repent, Repentance, Sermons, Terrorism, Terrorists, Workers in the Vineyard. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.