Sunday, September 24, 2017
What makes you angry? Is it big stuff, like hearing about injustices on the news, seeing innocent people suffer, or perhaps closer to home, wanting to protect your kids or grandkids from something that isn’t right, like a bully or an unfair situation? There are things worth getting angry about – Jesus gets angry with the moneychangers in the temple, with the Pharisees and other religious and political authority. God gets angry with the people of Israel over and over again throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes we ought to get angry. God created anger as a perfectly acceptable emotion for the right situation.
But if we sit with the passage from Jonah for awhile and are honest with ourselves, we get angry about a lot of things that aren’t really worth getting angry about, don’t we? God says to Jonah…”Is it right for you to be angry?” And we could ask ourselves that same question – is it right to be angry about spilled milk in the kitchen, something a friend said casually that hurt our feelings, a situation that we have little to no control over? Many times, we get angry, and God tries to show us a different way, being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
In our first reading for today, Jonah is so angry about a bush withering that he says he’s angry enough to die. God points out that’s kind of ridiculous. Jonah is actually angry about a whole lot more than a bush, if you remember the whole story of Jonah. He’s a reluctant prophet. When God asks him to go to Ninevah, he runs the other way to Tarshish. After three days in the belly of a fish, he grudgingly goes to Ninevah, but even then, he doesn’t fully do what God asks him to do. The Bible says that he walks for one day into a city that it takes three days’ walking to get across. He doesn’t share the full message that God asks him to. He simply says, “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” That’s it! No message that if they repent, they would be saved. No message of a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. Jonah’s been angry from the get-go. He doesn’t like Ninevah, hates them, in fact, and looks forward to seeing how God will mercilessly punish them in forty days.
Here’s the amazing thing – God works through a reluctant anti-prophet like Jonah to save the people of Ninevah. Even though Jonah is half-hearted at his best at calling the city to repent, God’s message is heard so clearly that even the animals put on sackcloth and turn from their evil ways. This is arguably one of the biggest, most impressive conversion stories of the whole Bible, 120,000 people plus animals turning from their evil ways to serve the Lord. Yet Jonah can’t see it like that – he only sees that God fails to take revenge on a people he hates. He says with his lips that he knows that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but in actuality he worships a God of his own making who is ruthless and unforgiving in punishment for the Ninevehites. Then he gets angry when the one true God doesn’t behave as the God he’s created in his mind should.
In Sunday school we learn the first part of Jonah’s story well – and we learn the important lesson that when God asks us to do something, it’s important to listen and follow the first time. The other important lesson at the end of this story about Jonah, though, is that we like Jonah should know that God’s love is for us, but it isn’t just for us. Jonah is frankly just not that great of a person. He stinks at his job as a prophet. From the beginning to the end, Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do. Yet, Jonah trusts that God loves him and forgives him. Jonah has a personal relationship with God – praying and talking to God throughout the book. The hard lesson Jonah learns is that the same love that he experiences from God despite his failures and inadequacies is for other inadequate, sinful people, too, people like the Ninenehvites. God’s love is bigger than the narrow love we have for ourselves and others. This should be good news for us, that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. But sometimes like Jonah, we’re resentful that God isn’t like we want God to be and instead is more loving, merciful, and slow to anger than we are! Remember when your parents used to tell you when you whined, “It’s not fair” that “life’s not fair?” We should be GLAD that God’s not fair! If God were fair and meted out the punishment we were due, we’d all be in trouble, Jonah and Nineveh alike! But thanks be to God, we have a God who isn’t fair, but gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
This happened to me just a few weeks ago, when I was facilitating a conversation with two congregations in my role with the Nebraska Synod. Some of you probably know by now that I’m a planner and I like to be prepared. I had a hands-on activity which involved post-it notes and markers, some handouts, and talking points. We took a few minutes for everyone to introduce themselves, and then I steamrolled ahead with my presentation. About half an hour into what was supposed to be an hour and a half meeting, I noticed people giving each other funny looks and whispering to each other. I knew I had to correct-course. Something was wrong. We took a coffee break, and during the break, one of the council members said to me, “We appreciate what you’re trying to do here, pastor, but this isn’t why we asked you to come.” I had completely misunderstood the purpose of the meeting, and had plowed ahead with what I assumed would be a valuable process for everyone around the table. I had to take a step back, listen to the group, and redirect the process. Mostly that meant everything I had prepared went out the window so that the two congregations could actually just talk to one another! And you know what, instead of going with the flow, my first reaction was anger! I wanted to do things my way! I wanted everything to go the way I had planned in my head – and it didn’t! At least I had the sense of mind at the time to let people talk and do the work they actually needed to do with each other. But it took me a few days before I realized what a dummy I had been in assuming that I needed to be the one in control of that conversation. I was Jonah – thinking it was about me, when it really was all about God and what God had intended for those two congregations in the first place.
Today, we ALL can confess that we are guilty of holding grudges, being envious of others, relishing in others’ suffering and misfortunes. Too many times in a situation, we are Jonah, and we just don’t get it. Often, we are the opposite of who God is: quick to be angry, stingy with conditional love, unforgiving and ungrateful. Thanks be to God, God loves us anyway. That’s what God sent his son Jesus after all, to show gracious, merciful, abundant love beyond anything we can possibly deserve, not just for us, but for all. Amen.