God’s Mercy and Abundant Love
And the Lord said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Those of us who grew up in church or have studied the Bible as literature have heard the story of Jonah. It is one of the most famous Biblical narratives. God becomes aware of how wicked the people were in Ninevah, and God asks Jonah to go to Ninevah to tell them that they will be destroyed in 40 days. Well Jonah already knew how wicked the Ninevahites were. In fact he could not stand them. He thought they deserved to be punished. But Jonah also knew God and how very merciful God is and how God was not actually going to destroy them, so he tries to run away.
“God why are you going to make me go over to Ninevah and tell them that you are going to destroy them… you know you aren’t going to destroy them and then I am going to look like a complete idiot for wandering around telling these people you are going to destroy them and besides that, besides that, they deserve to be punished. Why should I give them a heads up? I don’t want you to have mercy on them. They should be punished. They have been so horrid.”
So Jonah tries to run away. He boards a ship headed to Tarshish.
I get the sense that God is so near, so close to Jonah. Many of you know we named our youngest son Jonah, and it was because of this way in which God is so so near to Jonah and Jonah hears so clearly from God. I get the sense that this is not the first time God has spoken to Jonah. Jonah interacts with God and responds to God as if he has been standing right there with Jonah and has been speaking to Jonah for his whole life.
Some people report to me these intense physical experiences of God and they describe it as a peaceful and powerful presence. Some have the experience for a moment; others have this experience for a period of time. One person told me it lasted for years. They physically feel this powerful, peaceful presence of God with them … so I have to wonder if Jonah physically felt the presence of the Lord all the time and he thinks, “well maybe if I am not at home God will not be so near and he will forget about me and ask someone else to go to Ninevah…”
So Jonah gets on a ship trying to avoid what God is asking him to do and as they are sailing out to sea a great storm erupts and Jonah immediately knows that the storm is from God. He doesn’t just get the sense that maybe God is sending the storm Jonah knows that the storm is from God… again as if God is standing with Jonah saying to him, “yeah I sent the storm because you disobeyed me. Go in the water to make the storm stop.” I wonder if Jonah immediately realizes as the ship departed from the shore that the presence of God did not leave him. God was still with him. He could not avoid God’s call on his life by running away.
So he urges his shipmates to throw him into the raging sea and as soon as they throw Jonah into the water, the storm stopsand the shipmates immediately believe. Meanwhile Jonah sinks to the bottom of the sea and it seems that all is lost, but God still does not leave Jonah. He sends a large fish to swallow him and save him from drowning.
In the fish Jonah repents and the fish spits him up onto the shore.
Then God asks Jonah again to go to Ninevah and tell these wicked people that God is going to send destruction in 40 days.
This time Jonah obeys.
Have you ever tried to wander away from God, run away from something God is asking you to do? You might try to avoid thinking about it or busy yourself with something else, but the thought keeps coming back.
We can’t run away from God. God won’t leave you even when you try to leave him. God won’t abandon you in the storm. And God won’t stop asking you.
After being spit out of a fish, Jonah decides he better go to Ninevah. He wanders around the city for three days telling the Ninevahites that God will destroy the city in 40 days and immediately everyone repents including the king and the animals.
As God sees the people of Nineveh repenting, turning from their evil ways and believing, God changes his mind. He does not destroy the city, but instead has mercy on them.
And this is what annoys Jonah the most. We hear in the text we read this morning, this very raw, honest prayer from Jonah. He says, “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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
I hear a little fear in Jonah’s words and so much anger. “God, I knew you wouldn’t destroy them. Why did you have me go and tell these people that you were going to destroy them??? What if they come after me to kill me? They were such wicked people. How sure are you that they will not try to make me their prisoner? What if they are just pretending to repent? Why did you make me do it?”
So many of us think the story of Jonah is a cautionary tale. Do not do what Jonah did. Or worse, some of us think, “I would never do what Jonah did.” I would never try to run away from God and I would never, never get angry at God.
For a moment I want you to think about a group that you cannot stand, a group that you think is wrong. I want you to think right now of some of the things that they do and say, the worst things. Now imagine God asking you to approach this group of people not on Instagram or Facebook or over Zoom, but in real life when they are all gathered at one of their meetings… to tell them that God will destroy them in 40 days.
Would you be afraid to tell them that? Would you fear for your life? Would you want to do that? Now imagine that you muster up the courage to tell them that God is going to destroy them in 40 days and then God does not destroy them in 40 days and after all you actually knew he wouldn’t destroy them in 40 days because God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
I don’t know about you, but I would be a little annoyed with God. “Why would you make me go tell these people that you were going to do something that you didn’t do? And furthermore, why didn’t you destroy them? Don’t you see God that these people deserve to be punished? This repentance is such an act. Really God. You are going to have mercy on those people?
God turns to Jonah and he turns to all of us and says,
“Is it right for you to be angry?”
“Is it right for you to be angry?”
“Is it right for you to be angry at my generosity?”
“Is it right for you to be angry that I love those people that you cannot stand?”
“Is it right for you to be angry that I have mercy on people you think deserve to be punished?”
“Is it right for you to be angry?”
When God blesses another person or another group, when God has abundant mercy another person or group who we do not agree with…. Oh boy does it make us angry.
None of us think we would do what Jonah did, but we really do have such a hard time celebrating when God blesses others especially when those others are people we think deserve punishment not mercy.
God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry at my mercy?”
Remember Jonah had just run away from God. God asked him to do something and Jonah had just disobeyed him and yet God had mercy on Jonah, but as Jonah watches God have mercy on those people… It makes him so angry…
We want to receive God’s mercy and we want to know that God will follow us even when we run away, even when we disobey, even in the storm, we want to receive God’s mercy, but we don’t want to watch him give it out… at least not to those people… but God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
As Jonah says…
God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing, ready to relent from punishing those people over there, ready to relent from punishing you.
God’s mercy and abundant love is not exclusively for you and all the people you agree with. God’s mercy and abundant love is especially for you and especially for all the people you don’t like.
As we hear in Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
His mercy is the same. His love is the same.
So however far you try to run and however far they try to run, however much you disobey and however much they disobey, whatever storms you face and whatever storms they face, however unlovable you feel and however unlovable they seem, God will never leave you or forsake you and God will never leave them or forsake them. God’s mercy endures forever … for you … and for them.