God’s Transformative Grace
Bosqueville UMC |:| January 21, 2012
A little known fact about me is that I’m the youngest of 7. So when I say relationships are difficult I’m speaking from plenty of experience. Relationships require work and a desire to keep them healthy, that’s not always simple. And that’s the relationships with those we like, that’s not even touching on the complexity of relationships with those we don’t like or even to a greater distain, our enemies. Striving for unity between people is significant and needed but not simple and certainly has its moments where it is not enjoyable. The tricky thing is that as people we were made to be in relationship with people, so finding, creating, and maintaining unity with others is a key part of life.
Relationships can be tough and messy at times, it’s true. As much as that statement is true this next one is equally true. We worship a God of love and compassion! This God is a steadfast God whose grace surpasses human comprehension. We as people can ache for God’s mercy and love to be shown & given to us but at times may find it hard to see God’s compassion and love given to those we are not unified with. God’s love is simple and complex at the same time. It is joyous and painful, humbling to accept and difficult to embrace. As people we see this magnificent love story of God and humanity all throughout the biblical narrative. It is awe inspiring at how relentless our God is at loving us.
Today we look at how this beautiful story of God’s loving and compassionate relationship with humanity plays out in the story of Jonah. In this four-chapter book there is a copious amount of grace and mercy given to all characters involved.
The story of Jonah starts with Jonah being given a word from God to give to Nineveh, Jonah does not wish to give the word to Nineveh so he sets out to Tarshish, gets on a boat & a storm arises, the sailors learn that Jonah is fleeing from God so they listen to Jonah & throw him overboard & are saved, Jonah who’s overboard is saved by a big fish, he then offers a psalm to God from the belly of the fish and God returns him to where Jonah first fled God’s call, Jonah then goes to Nineveh and gives the word he was called to give, the people of Nineveh hear God’s word and begin to repent, God sees Nineveh repent and spares them, Jonah goes to a hill to see the fate on Nineveh and is met by God with questions about his anger. And that is where the book ends. That is a lot for a few chapters.
Today out of these four chapters we focus on the transformative grace between the city of Nineveh, God, and Jonah found in chapter 3. In this chapter Jonah sets out to Nineveh, which we are told is a 3 days travel and by day one of travel Jonah gives the word to Nineveh. The word he gives is “Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” This is the shortest prophesy in the Old Testament. It is also does not fit the Yahwistic oracle formula like other prophecies, meaning Jonah never says “this is an oracle of the Lord” or “thus says the Lord” or “this is the word of the Lord” in order to affirm that the word he had given was from God. Jonah also gives no reason for why God will destroy Nineveh, nor does he call for repentance. Jonah’s prophecy is more a declaration of his hopes for what is to come to Nineveh then the typical prophesies found in the Old Testament. We are not told why Jonah fled from giving God’s word until chapter 4, so by this point in the story the reader could assume Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because it was an enemy of Israel and he simply did not want to go to his enemies. It might also be assumed that Jonah did not follow the traditional prophetic formula because he did not want Nineveh to repent and if they did then he might be considered a false prophet, which was a terrible thing to be. How might one come to these assumptions? Well Nineveh was part of Assyria which had concurred the Northern Kingdom of Israel and parts of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The book of Jonah is thought to have been written in post-exilic times which means Jonah would have known Assyria, and thus Nineveh, as people responsible for Israel’s captivity.
Knowing that Nineveh was Jonah’s enemy makes it understandable to see why Jonah fled from God’s call, why he gave the word he gave, and why after giving the word one day into his travels he leaves the scene to go to a hill to see what happens to Nineveh. Jonah was angry with Nineveh, his people’s enemy, and was frustrated with God for sending him to them. Jonah obeyed God, to a point, and then left.
It is chapter 4 that Jonah gives a response about his actions. Jonah prayers to God at the beginning of 4 saying “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” The reason for Jonah not wanting to go to Nineveh & why he gave the word he gave was because he knew God would be merciful to his enemies if they repented. This was more than Jonah could handle. In fact Jonah identifies the reconciliation between Nineveh and God as displeasing. We have seen Jonah’s encounter with Nineveh and his response to God’s reaction, so let us now look at how Nineveh became reconciled with God in the book of Jonah.
We are told the people of Nineveh, both great and small, heard Jonah’s word and believed in God and began to put on sackcloth and fast. It was the ordinary people of Nineveh who set the agenda for how the city was to respond to this word Jonah gave. When what the people of Nineveh were doing reached the king he followed their lead & ordered an official decree. This decree wasn’t only for the people but the animals, too. The king proclaims that the Ninevites are to turn from evil and let go of the violence in their hands.
The part that really gets me is that the people begin to repent and the king orders this decree out of hope and trust in that God will respond but knowing full well they have no guarantee that they will be spared. This is remarkable! A foreign people who do not worship Yahweh hear God’s word and have an internal transformation and begin acting on that internal change and repent. They do this knowing they might still be destroyed. The Ninevites repent to be untied with God and to stop the violence they had been doing. They had been transformed by the grace of God that was given to them by the word Jonah spoke.
The loving God we worship saw the deeds and change in heart of the Ninevites and spared them the destruction Jonah proclaimed. This is beautiful! Do you see what happened? The Ninevites turned from their evil and by turning to God God responds by removing evil from coming to Nineveh. You see, the Ninevites were transformed by God’s grace and reconciled with God, which produced the removal of evil. Not just that Nineveh verbally offered a decree but that the injustice in their oppressing ways was eradicated. That’s big! … The removal of evil.
This part of the story in the book of Jonah is not easy but is an important one to read but what does it mean for those of us here today? Maybe the questions that need to be asked are how will we as the Body of Christ be transformed by God’s grace to work with God to eradicate evil? How will each of us as worshipers of a loving and compassionate God be transformed by God’s grace to respond in repentance and be freed to live into the reconciling mercy of God, so we can continually bring about the Kingdom of God, here on Earth?
How can each of us leave here today breathing in and living out soul changing peace, a love without expectation, and the removal of evil so that the future of tomorrow knows no hunger, no war, no issues of systemic wealth or poverty?
The charge for all of us as followers of this transformative God is to find tangible ways to live this out daily. Perhaps it is through the process of forgiving another, even an enemy; or taking time to meet the physical needs of another; or making the choice to tell the truth in an unbelievably difficult situation; or finding ways to be in reciprocal relationships with someone different than you; or maybe it is through the lived out realization that we serve a God who loves each of Its creations and does not desire punishment for people but unity with each of us.
No matter how you live out this transformative grace let us join the Ninevites in removing the injustice from our hands and finding ways to repent in hopes of reconciling with others and with God. But like the Ninevites we do not repent or remove injustice because we expect God to respond in a certain way but rather we do this in hopes of God joining us in the process and bringing about a greater existence than we could have ever fathomed. We as believers are called to act in trust, not expectation. We are to act as to allow an inward transformation to take place within us. Other times we act because it is the response of an inward transformation that has already taken place. How each of us will act will look different but as Christians we are called to act.
As we live into God’s transformative grace let us remember these words spoken by Theologian Miguel De La Torre, “We must recognize that reconciliation cannot be limited to the spiritual domain. Reconciliation is a physical process, a process of flesh and blood struggling for liberation from an oppressive status quo… Without justice, words such as forgiveness, love, and reconciliation are meaningless. The transformative thread running throughout scripture is humanity’s hope of reconciling with God and with each other – hence the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Shalom can bring about justice and justice can, in turn, secure Shalom.”
De La Torre’s words capture what we’ve seen in Jonah 3, I believe. The Ninevites who were the oppressors were liberated from their status quo of perpetuating violence to others, like Jonah’s people of Israel. They physically acted to be reconciled to others and in response to God’s word & in turn were reconciled to God. Together Nineveh worked with God to bring about justice and worked towards Shalom, which is the wholeness and unity of how God created us to be with God’s self and others.
I don’t know about you but I can struggle to embrace God’s call on my life and I am so thankful we serve a God of multiple chances. We see God’s chances in the book of Jonah, also. At the opening of Jonah 3 God does not bring up the fact that Jonah fled but gives the message to him again. As we see Jonah arguing with God in chapter 4 God allows Jonah the chance to work through his anger with Nineveh and with God. The book of Jonah ends with God’s question to Jonah about how he expected God to let Nineveh continue in their ignorance, as they did not know their right hand from their left. We see the sailors and Nineveh who worship a foreign God given the chance to turn towards Yahweh.
Isn’t it remarkable that God loves us where we are at, is patient with us as we work through our feelings in life, waits for us to join God in the journey and strengthens us to be reconciled to God and each other.
Relationships are difficult but they are a choice. Relationships with our enemies can be the most difficult. In those moments when encountered with our enemies, like Jonah was, recall the words of Henri Nouwen, “Every time we overcome impatience with our opponents and are willing to listen to the cry of those who persecute us, we will recognize them as brothers and sisters too. Praying for our enemies is therefore a real event, the event of reconciliation. It is impossible to lift our enemies up in the presence of God and at the same time continue to hate them…. Prayer converts the enemy into a friend and is thus the beginning of a new relationship.”
Even in the midst of the difficulty of relationships & the process of reconciliation find peace in knowing you serve a God that is with you always. Find peace in knowing that God is steadfast and slow to anger. Find peace in knowing that God brings about unity to all of Its creation. Find peace in knowing you are equipped by God’s transformative grace to live out a new existence. Thanks be to God that we worship the God of peace, reconciliation, and love. Amen.