Introduction

You can click here to read the passage, which is Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-10; 4:1-5.

Well, Jonah was extremely happy preaching sermons to the wonderful congregation at The First Reformed Church of At Least We Are Not Like the Ninevites, and then God said, “Hey, I’ve noticed you are drawing a line in the sand, and I want you to bend that line and make a circle so that they are included in my kingdom family as well.” 

The Prophet Jonah
The Prophet Jonah by Herrad Landseberg

Them? 

Jonah Runs Away

As you can see, Jonah is not very happy. He is living in Joppa and is told to go to Nineveh, which is on the east side of the Tigris River in Mosul in modern-day Iraq. He is about 700 miles away from Nineveh.  

Jonah is so bent out of shape about God including the Ninevites do you know where he goes? He goes to Tarshish. Do you know where Tarshish is? You know where Iraq is, right—to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Jonah gets in a boat and sails for Spain—he is headed to the Atlantic Ocean. He is getting as far away as possible.

You can’t run from God and the church cannot run away from God’s mission to include all people and all kinds of people. 

All his life it never bothered Jonah that when he drew a line it meant that other people were on the other side. He was comfortable with the fact that in his mind (whether it is true or not) God would blow people to smithereens in fiery judgment. It didn’t bother him. Jonah was on the safe side of the line.

Shoot, God, you called me to be a man of truth and people of truth draw lines in the sand and now you are saying, “Make a circle.”

That’s how the city is measured, a three-day journey around it—60 miles. That’s a lot of space, a lot of people, and a lot of souls, Jonah, and that’s a lot of hate and baggage you are carrying with you. As a matter of fact, that’s so much baggage it just might sink a ship.

Jonah puts his money down, “One ticket to the Spanish Riviera, please,” and off he goes, and then a storm comes upon them and the ship is about to sink. The men on board are superstitious and they believe someone onboard has caused this to happen. Jonah’s conscience is rattled and he says, “It’s me. I disobeyed God. If you throw me overboard, God will spare you.”

Something is interesting here. For years and years, Jonah was okay with others being under the judgment of God. Now, in his mind he faces judgment—, the dark clouds surround him, YET he never cries for mercy. He never cries for grace.

I don’t know why some people are like that.

But, the men on the ship who don’t worship the God that Jonah worships, ask Jonah’s God for mercy! They toss Jonah overboard, the wind dies down, and a big fish swallows him.

But even the fish didn’t know what to do with such a prophet with such a toxic view of God, so it yucked it up on the beach exactly where God wanted him and that’s where our passage picks up.

Jonah Gets a Second Chance and Preaches, but Barely

Jonah gets the second chance he never asked for. Whether Jonah realizes it or not, he gets grace. That’s something Jesus picks up on in the gospels: God gives grace to the grateful and the ungrateful. 

Now the message came to Jonah a second time, “Go to that great city, Nineveh, and preach.” 

I’ve added some color to Jonah, so let me ask you a question. What do you expect of him at this point? What kind of sermon is he going to preach? After all those experiences and having his life spared and all of that, you’d think his sermon bucket would be full, right?

“Do you know what I’ve gone through to be here with you today? I disobeyed God and judgment came and swallowed me, but in the darkness, I called out to God, and not even my guilt could hold me down, but in the abyss of my sins the hand of God delivered me and put me on the solid ground of forgiveness. Nineveh, you have sinned, but you don’t have to continue. God loves you and wants to prevent you from calamity. Please learn from me. Repent this very day and live in the joy of God’s love. Welcome to the circle!”

See, a sermon in 102 words right there! Something you’ll never get from me! 

Jonah does it in 7 words: “In 40 days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 

You’ve seen these preachers before, haven’t you? All fire, all smoke, all cross, and no resurrection. They buy up all the poster boards at Staples and clog up the crosswalks in busy cities with their mean declarations.

Does he talk about mercy? Grace? Forgiveness? Reconciliation? Hope? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

Nope! Jonah just says, “At the end of Lent, 40 days, bye Felicia. Good luck. I’ll be in the office if you need anything.” He just couldn’t help but draw the line—40 days. That’s the line he draws—there’s a limit as to how God loves you and for how long God will love you. 40 days and then no more! 

Mercy Wins the Day

And despite his best efforts, the people respond. Wait, so you, a prophet from an enemy country came to tell us this? Jonah, you must really love us.

Jonah mutters.

This must be true. The God you are telling us about must really love us and must be concerned about us to send such a humble prophet like you.

Jonah mutters louder.

I mean, look at you, Jonah. You look torn to pieces over us like you’ve been to hell and back and could use a sabbatical in the Spanish Riviera, but instead, you are here with us, preaching the good news of God’s grace. God must be a God of mercy and second chances.  

And if God sent you and if you were so willing to come and give us this warning, then we should respond with repentance, and then maybe, just maybe, God will show mercy.

Did you see! Jonah didn’t even tell them about forgiveness, only judgment! The human conscience itself usually does the heavy lifting. Our consciences usually know right and wrong and that we stray from the path and our hearts desire grace. So, the people respond with, “I hope God is merciful to me and will include me!” 

Jonah draws a line and these people want a circle. Maybe God will have us too.”

And the inclusion drives Jonah crazy. It drives everyone crazy. I’ve spent my whole life defining myself by who is in and who is out and judging my worth by their unworthiness and now who am I if God says we are equals? (Repeat this) Yo, America, wake up to this. America, wake up to this. 

This is an affront to most people.

In our text, Jonah walks out of the city and throws a fit. “You see, God, this is exactly why I didn’t want to go. I knew you would do something as crazy as make my sermon go viral.”

I don’t like them. I don’t want to think about them. It would just be easier if I could just ignore them altogether or cut them out—and that’s what drawing the line really is. We are trying to cut people out so we can imagine life without them.

So Jonah went to a hill outside the city and built a little tent, folded his arms across his belly, and sat there and waited to see what would become of the city.

What a hornet’s nest scandalous grace is.

The Hard Message of a Love with No Boundaries

This is our hornet’s nest and God is kicking at it today so don’t be surprised if you feel stung by what I say next: we are all Jonah. We all have a set of people we want to cut out. We’d rather drop off the edge of the world than be in a relationship with them.

You can’t run from God’s call to love.

IIn the Jewish writing, Midrash Rabba, Bereshit 10:6 (with teaching material from Rabbis written around 500 A D), Bar Sira said that above every blade of grass is an angel telling it, “Grow, grow!” I wonder if God is whacking Jonah and saying, “Grow, grow!” Is God whacking the church right now and saying, “Grow, grow! Bend toward the light! Bend toward the love!” Now is the time for us to grow in who and how we are willing to love!

I used to be embarrassed that it took me so long to fully embrace that change, but that’s life, that’s me, and that’s God’s work in me.  This is actually the life of the Church and you cannot argue any other way from history.

The church (not them, not they, WE) has always drawn a line to exclude. It may take decades, centuries, or millenniums, but the line always gets bent by God and becomes a circle of fellowship.

The church does this, but every human does this, and it becomes a question of whether or not we are going to do it willingly and join God and bend toward the openness and the light.

All of us are like Jonah. There are people or kinds of people that you struggle to love and you have judgments and biases against. You look at them and you’d prefer to live without them. Who is that group for you? 

How is God calling you to love them? Don’t let your hate and your bias swallow you and steal the love and opportunity you have to share God’s goodness and love to them.

When We Feel Like Nineties

Some of you may feel like the Ninevites. You have been treated poorly before. At one point, long ago or even more recently, you had the line drawn and you were told heinous things about God. You were told you were on the wrong side of the line. Yet your heart longed for mercy, grace, and belonging that saw you for you.

Someone set the time clock for you—40 days and then judgment! God hates you. I’ve been told that I was going to hell before because of who I loved and who I thought God would love. 

What do we do in that situation? You have to tell them where to go–tell ’em to go to Spain! You have to give them up to the caring and loving hands of God because only God can change a human heart.

You are here now in this great city, the Queen City of Poughkeepsie, the city God loves. And to you the good and faithful prophet Jesus has come and he has preached to you and has called you to repent and believe the goodnews that God is at peace with you. Enjoy the love of God folks!

Friends, God himself, in Jesus Christ, did not draw a line, but stepped into the circle of this globe and joined us. He stepped into our situation and joined our struggle and our suffering and our pain. He did not look away, but came and offered us mercy.

Whether you are Jonah or a person from Nineveh, believe the good news! Welcome to the circle.

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