Read Today’s Reading »
There’s a part of us that can’t stand God’s steadfast love and mercy. You’re probably too self-righteous to admit that.
But take our reading from Jonah. There’s a part of us that just like Jonah can’t stand it. The Lord sent Jonah to Nineveh to tell the city to repent of its evil and violence or else. And that’s what Jonah did. Jonah called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And what happened? The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes, from the greatest of them to the least. And before long, word came to the king. And the king himself rose from his throne, removed his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he issues a proclamation that everyone, man and beast should fast and repent and turn from his evil way and from his violence. “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
And what happened? “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”
Oh, come on! You’ve got to be kidding, right? They spend years in wickedness and violence, and when they repent one day God simply forgives them, changes his mind and lets them off the hook! I mean, really, what kind of pushover is God that someone can spend their whole lives in sin and then one day repent, and God doesn’t give them what they deserve!
There’s a part of us that can’t stand God’s steadfast love and mercy. It’s the same part of us that relishes in the “culture of blame.” I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it’s become a virtue anymore to point out other people’s faults. Anytime something goes wrong or doesn’t go our way, we don’t mourn it; we don’t sing the blues. No, we go on the attack. We get angry and point fingers.
The slow roll-out of the vaccine isn’t just an enormous logistical challenge that people are doing their best to manage. It’s that someone somewhere isn’t doing their job. Someone out there is dumb and evil and it’s all their fault. If it isn’t the slow roll-out of the vaccine, it’s the election, or the road construction, or the problems with my car, or the schools, or the weather. It’s always someone’s fault. And it’s become a virtue to place blame, as if you’re righteous because you don’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. Of course, we never point out our own faults and have the humility to recognize that if we were in their shoes, we might not do a whole lot better. That would defeat the purpose of assigning blame, which is to put yourself in the right—to pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself that you’re not like “those people.”
It’s that self-righteous part of us that can’t stand God’s steadfast love and mercy. We think we’re smart, mostly good, belong to the right political party, raise our kids the right way, go to church, and have something to stand on. And if God just up and forgives, if God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, well then, all of that counts for nothing. All of my back patting and self-congratulations is meaningless.
Jonah would agree. When Jonah realized that the Lord relented of the disaster that he said he would do and did not do it, he threw a little fit. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’” You see, the first time the Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah got on a boat and went in the opposite direction as far away as he could go, because he knew how all of this would turn out. He knew that the Lord wouldn’t give them what they deserve. He knew that the Lord would let them off the hook and forgive them. And Jonah didn’t want to be a part of that.
How quickly Jonah forgets! How quickly he forgets that his own life depends on God’s steadfast love and mercy. After all, it’s Jonah who disobeyed God. When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, it’s Jonah who thumbed his nose at God and got on a boat headed in the opposite direction. And more than that, when the Lord sent a great windstorm on the boat, Jonah knew the Lord was chasing him down. But he refused to admit it. All the other sailors were doing whatever they could to save the ship and make it safely to land, but Jonah was down in the hull, fast asleep. He put all those other people in danger without one bit of remorse. It’s Jonah who’s the evil doer. And when the men threw him overboard in order to stop the storm and save the ship, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. He was buried alive in the belly of a fish, and all he could do, then, was cry out to the Lord and beg for his steadfast love and mercy. The only hope he had was that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And the Lord was, even for Jonah. Not only did the Lord preserve Jonah in the belly of the fish, but after three days and three nights the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy prevailed, and the fish vomited Johan onto dry land.
How quickly Jonah forgets that he is the one who doesn’t get what he deserves. How quickly Jonah forgets that he is the one whose whole life depends on the fact that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy.
In our gospel reading, Jesus preaches a simple sermon to us: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Repent! We may think that we have something to stand on: our church attendance, our smarts, our kindness or service. We may think we have something that makes us okay, so that we don’t have to depend on God’s steadfast love and mercy. And to us, Jesus says, “Repent!” Turn from your pride and admit that despite your good works, you are, like everyone else, by nature sinful and unclean. Admit that you, like everyone else, have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and by what you have left undone. In fact, we’re probably worse off than everyone else, because instead of using our abilities and gifts for the good of others, we use the gifts God has given us as an excuse to look down our noses at other people and withhold our love and care from them.
Repent, and believe the gospel. The gospel, the good news is that God’s steadfast love and mercy will not quit. That’s why Jesus has come. Jesus is God’s steadfast love and mercy walking around on two legs. Jesus is God’s determination not to let sin and evil ruin his creation, but to let his steadfast love and mercy have its way with the world. In Jesus, God shows forth his mercy and compassion, and he loves the world to death, even death on a cross. And even then, God’s steadfast love and mercy prevails, and walks out of the tomb on the third day.
At the end of the book of Jonah, God tries to teach Jonah a lesson. As Jonah is pouting outside the city in the hot sun, the Lord makes a plant grow up and come up over Jonah so that Jonah could have some shade. And the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant so that it withered and died. And Jonah was bitter and angry that the plant died. And the Lord confronted Jonah. “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Look, you’re so concerned about the plant, why shouldn’t I be concerned about all these people I created, who don’t know their right hand from their left.
What’s even more important to God than making sure people get what they deserve is that the lost are found and the wayward restored. So repent and believe in the gospel. Stop congratulating yourself for being right and good and blaming everyone around you. Instead, close your mouth and let your ears receive the good news of God’s steadfast love and mercy come in Jesus Christ. Quit patting yourself on the back and looking down your nose at other people. Instead, open your hands to receive God’s steadfast love and mercy in the body and blood of Jesus—because God’s mercy, God’s love, isn’t just for those people out there. It’s for you! Jesus’ death on the cross, his body and blood, his words of forgiveness are for you! And that steadfast love and mercy will never quit. It will prevail for you and for God’s creation.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,[a] three days’ journey in breadth.[b] 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.