Sermon for October 2, 2016

A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Sunday, October 2, 2016.

‘Grudging Obedience’ Text: Jonah 3,4

For these past two weeks, we have been reading the story of the prophet Jonah. The city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria is barbarian and evil in its ways. The Lord calls on Jonah to go to that city. Instead of responding, Jonah makes a run for it in the opposite direction. But Jonah quickly comes to understand that he has underestimated God in a big way. A violent storm at sea results in Jonah being thrown overboard to save the sailors and the ship. Jonah is drowning when suddenly the Lord commands a big fish to swallow him up. Saved from drowning, Jonah faces death yet again in the belly of the big fish for three days and three nights. Jonah prays to God and God speaks to the fish and it vomits up Jonah on the seashore.

So now, God speaks to Jonah, a second time, telling him to get up on his feet and get going to Nineveh. This time Jonah goes. He goes to Nineveh – which is a very big city taking three days to walk across – he walks for one day and he preaches – “in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed”.

He’s not even into the center of the city yet and the people listen to him and trusting God, they repent of their evil ways – and not just some of the people but all of the people – rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers – everyone repents, fasting and wearing burlap. They do not wait for a royal decree – in fact, we are told that the people repent before the message even reaches the king. The king observes what the will of the people is and issues a public proclamation for all to repent hoping that God will have mercy on them.

God sees that the people of Nineveh have turned away from their evil ways, and he changes his mind about them and he does not destroy them.

Well, this really ticks Jonah off! And now we learn the real reason that Jonah ran away from God’s call in the first place. He knew God’s heart would soften toward the people of Nineveh when he saw that they changed their ways. And Jonah cries, Foul! Like a petulant child, Jonah says – that’s not fair! I knew you would do this, I knew you were a God of mercy but these people don’t deserve your compassion – they don’t deserve your love!

Jonah is so mad at God, he demands that God kill him – he is better off dead! God tries to talk to Jonah, asking him what he has to be angry about. But Jonah goes off and pouts. God provides a shade tree for Jonah, which Jonah loves but then God sends a worm to wither the tree and Jonah once again is exposed to the blistering heat. So this just makes Jonah angrier yet and he reiterates his desire to die. God once again tries to discuss the situation with Jonah pointing out that Jonah did not plant or water the tree – did nothing to deserve the tree so why should he be angry at losing it? At Jonah’s apparent overreaction regarding the plant, God responds, so then why should I not care for the more than 120,000 people of Nineveh and all the animals?

And there our story ends with a question from God. We are left to ponder the question, Why should God not care about the people of Nineveh and all its animals? Is God’s mercy only meant for us? Or is God’s love so all encompassing that it covers even those who are evil in their ways?

A casual answer to that is, no God’s mercy is not just for us and yes, God’s love is big enough for all creation, but like Jonah, we don’t like it. We live a good life, following God’s commands, so why should people who don’t, get the same compassion that God doles out to us?

For some reason, it seems to be part of our human nature to want other people to get their ‘just desserts’. It’s like driving by all the rules of the road – obeying the speed limit, not cutting anyone off, – A few years back, on my twice daily 26 mile commute on a two lane road through several towns I always obeyed the up and down speed limit, 35 then 45 then 30, then back to 40. I remember numerous times when drivers tailgated then sped ahead at a light to pass and it always irritated me slightly…. And then one day, after one such driver had cut me off by passing in a no passing zone, I happened to see this same driver pulled over by a cruiser a mile down the road and I admit that I was not unhappy…

Many of you have read the best selling novel, The Shack, a story of one man’s encounter with God after his young daughter is murdered. In the story, God’s redemption is offered even to this murderer. This example may be closer to what Jonah experienced than my inconsiderate driver story. It makes the reader question the whole idea of forgiveness and who deserves it. These are tough questions, no doubt.

For most of us we will never be called on by God to forgive a murderer. But there are certainly people in each of our lives, whom we take issue with. Who would it be difficult for you to share God’s love with? For each of us, the answer will be different. A co-worker, a family member, someone at church, the bully at school, a teacher, a student, a neighbor, someone who has hurt you or someone you love, someone who has lost your trust, someone in business whose ethics are a little shaky? But how do you love that person? Certainly you need to remove yourself from any abusive situation and get help as necessary. But what do you do for those other times? For each person and situation, the answer may be different. Talk with the person to iron out differences; or even take someone with you as you try to do this. Don’t gossip about the person. When confronted, don’t respond in kind. Each situation is different and will require a different response on your part. Listen with an open heart; don’t close your mind before the other person has opened their mouth. Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you pray about it, asking God to help you.

The really amazing thing about the story of Jonah and God is that even after Jonah’s attempt to run away, his less than sincere prayer from the belly of the fish, his anger at God, his sulking and pouting and then anger again about the plant, even after all of that, God tries to reason with him. God didn’t have to explain anything to Jonah but he did – because he loved Jonah. God loved Jonah so much he didn’t want him to be eaten by anger and resentment so he tried to help him.

God knows how difficult it can be to enthusiastically answer his call and he loves us even when we don’t want to do his bidding. He’ll help us as he tried to help Jonah. His love is for everyone and he wants us to get that message to everyone.

God asks us to put aside our anger, our self-righteousness, our prejudices, our fears and reflect the same love to others that we ourselves receive from God. Can we do that? Can we change our hearts? We can with God’s help.

God has called us as a church and as individuals to carry the message. As individuals and as a church, how we will respond?

The story of Jonah leaves us hanging wondering what happens next.

So I ask you,
what happens next?

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