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January 24, 2021

“God’s Annoying Grace” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, January 24, 2021, Year B / Epiphany 3 –  Jonah 3:1-5, 10  •  Psalm 62:5-12  •  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  •  Mark 1:14-20

The big idea:  God is gracious, merciful and loving toward outsiders, as well as insiders.

Application:  Follow God’s call to be as gracious, merciful and loving to all others as he is.

We don’t know who wrote the book of Jonah, but whoever it was had a wonderful sense of humor.  If you haven’t done this before, I urge you to pull out your Bible at the end of this service and read this book in its entirety.  It’s not long – just 4 chapters.

The first thing you’ll read is that Jonah’s name translates to something like “son of faithfulness.”  It’s the kind of name that an optimistic parent gives a child in the hope that the child will grow into it. 

Clearly Jonah’s parents hoped he would become a model of religious integrity, obedient to God in all things.  But it quickly becomes clear that Jonah has a long way to go.

God calls him to go to the great city of Nineveh in modern day Iraq.  Nineveh was the largest, most important city in the powerful Assyrian Empire.  It was the seat of the government whose fierce warriors crushed the Northern Kingdom of Samaria.  As a Hebrew, Jonah would have felt anything but welcome in Nineveh.  It was the last place he wanted to go.

And yet that is where God calls him to go.  And with a message that he has every reason to believe may not be received very well.  God wants him to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their wickedness.

So, what does Jonah do?  He runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction.  God said to go East; Jonah heads west.  He makes his way down to the port city of Joppa – modern day Tel Aviv.  There he hops the first ship for Tarshish, which is at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Spain. 

Tarshish was the end of the known world.  Clearly, Jonah is hoping to put as much distance between himself and God as he possibly can.

But Jonah soon learns that trying to run away from God is futile.  In the midst of a violent storm, whipped up by God’s displeasure, the sailors realize that Jonah’s unfaithfulness is the cause of their distress.  Even though they are not Jews, they cry out to Jonah’s God with more faithfulness than Jonah has! 

Like any parent dealing with a rebellious child, God gives Jonah a time out to think things over:  3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a whale.  Finally, back on dry land, Jonah hears God once again calling him to go to Nineveh.  This time, Jonah actually goes.  But the effort he makes when he gets there is half-hearted at best.

In a city that takes three days to cross, Jonah goes just one day.  He utters just 5 words in Hebrew:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  It is the shortest sermon in the entire Old Testament.

It’s also the most successful. Jonah’s feeble prophetic proclamation triggers the repentance of the entire city.  The people believe God’s warning.  From the least to the greatest, they repent.  They put on sack cloth and declare a fast.  They even cover their animals with sack cloth.  Can’t you just picture them bellowing their repentance?

The king himself joins in.  He makes a declaration: all the people should put an end to their violent ways and cry out mightily to Yahweh, the God of the Jews, in the hope that Yahweh might relent. 

And that is exactly what God does.  Which is not at all what Jonah wants.

Jonah complains bitterly to God, “See!  I knew you would be gracious, merciful and full of loving kindness.” 

Jonah really wants God to reserve his grace and mercy for him and other Jews like him who already know Yahweh, and not to give it to gentiles who don’t. 

In response, God asks Jonah a question. “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,” not to mention all those animals? 

These are the very last words of the book.  The writer of Jonah evidently wants us to answer that question for ourselves. 

How do we understand God’s nature?  Do we think God’s grace, love and mercy are only intended for us? 

Before we answer, there are a few things the writer of Jonah wants us to consider. 

One of the many ironies in this story is the fact that the outsiders, the gentiles – the non-Jews – all act with more faithfulness than the insider, Jonah.

 As the ship is tossed in the storm, the crew are busy praying while Jonah sleeps.  The ship captain has to wake him up and tell him to pray to his own God!

When it becomes clear that Jonah is the reason for their danger, Jonah’s immediate suggestion is that the crew throw him overboard.  But the crew are reluctant to take an innocent life.  They show Jonah more grace than Jonah himself does.

Something similar happened in Nineveh.  The people and their king show more faith in Yahweh by their genuine repentance than Jonah shows in his half-hearted effort to call them to it.

These outsiders all put their hope in God’s grace.  And their actions reflect that grace. 

Jonah, on the other hand, is annoyed at God for being so gracious. He would rather limit God’s grace to insiders like himself.  His actions reflect that limited grace.

What about you and me?  How do we understand God’s grace?  And how is that reflected in our actions toward others?

  These are the two great themes of this season of Epiphany.  Over the last few weeks since Christmas, we have heard scripture passages that affirm the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, and God with us.

We began with the magi who sought out Jesus at his birth.  Even though they were gentiles, they recognized him for who and what he was:  the new king of the Jews.

We continued with Jesus’ baptism where he was revealed to be God’s son.  Last week, we explored the revelation of the resurrected Jesus, as he walked along the Emmaus Road and sat down to eat with his disciples.

This morning the question is no longer do we understand who Jesus is.  Because we do.  We know he is God’s son and the instrument of God’s grace for our salvation.

The question is what do we do about it?  As his followers, how should we live and act?

It’s tempting to think that Jesus’ original disciples set the bar for the faithfulness of our actions.  Afterall, when Jesus invites Peter, Andrew, James and John to “come and follow me”, they drop everything and follow him. 

But let’s remember that they, like Jonah, were deeply flawed.  Along with all the rest of his followers, they deserted Jesus when he needed them most.  

Even after Pentecost, when the church was born, they argued among themselves – and especially with the apostle Paul – about whether gentiles should be included in the church.  Many of them continued to insist that God’s grace is only for insiders – for the Jewish Christians and not for the gentile converts.  

Paul reminds them that they, too, are in need of God’s grace.  Only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, are they saved.

That’s true for us, as well.  We are all flawed disciples.  We all stand in need of God’s grace, mercy and love. 

The proof that we understand the magnitude of this gift of God’s grace is in the way we share it with others, no matter who they are, or what they’ve done. 

That means we act, first and foremost, with empathy, putting ourselves in the shoes of others, including outsiders.  And that requires humility.

It means that judging others is no longer an option for us.  This is one of the top things that young adults dislike about the church today:  the tendency we sometimes have to judge others who are different from us.

When we do that, what others see is hypocrisy, the failure to appreciate our own flawed discipleship.  That becomes glaringly obvious when we do not share with others the same generous grace God shows us.

That is the caution that the book of Jonah gives us.  If we fail to extend God’s grace to others, including those who are different from us, we are just like Jonah:  insiders, whose actions suggest we are really outsiders when it comes to understanding God’s gracious, merciful and loving nature.

That’s what the great Christian author, Philip Yancey meant when he said, “Grace is annoying.  It’s easy to show grace to people who think just like you do, and much harder to show grace to those who offend you or with whom you disagree.”   I think we’ve all experienced that lately, especially in the last 3 months.

And this is exactly why living with God’s grace is so powerful. It’s powerful because it’s so difficult and so rare.  We do not often see this gracious combination of generosity and magnanimity, of kindness and forgiveness bestowed without having ever been earned.  And yet it is the defining characteristic of a faithful Christian disciple. 

One year ago, our Session adopted a vision statement that took up this challenge.  Our new vision statement calls us all to become a “grace-filled family of faith sharing Christ’s love with all.”  For us to truly live into this vision statement, we all have to do it.

How are you doing with that?  Who are the outsiders in your life?  What might happen if we focused on sharing God’s grace with them as freely and generously as God shares it with us?

It’s worth remembering that only when the early church intentionally reached out with God’s grace to the outsiders, the gentiles, did the church experience real growth.

Friends, that can happen here, too.

May it be so.

Last Published: January 25, 2021 11:19 AM
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