This sermon was preached at Kerr Presbyterian Church as part of a Lenten Sermon Series on Jonah, March 31, 2019. The following manuscript is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Who is your enemy? Who is your enemy? Your nemesis? The one who keep coming at you, getting under your skin?
I’ve watched enough movies to know that we all have one.
Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen has President Snow. Seinfeld has Newman.
You know that someone. That person who keeps getting in your way. In the way of everything you try to do.
Perhaps it’s your neighbor. They just keep parking in your parking spot. You’ve asked them nicely, not just once but twice if not a million times. And yet, there is that car again. Perhaps it’s that person on the playground. You like the red swing. Everyone knows that’s your favorite. When it is recess, you run to the red swing. But someone tries to get there before you every day. Perhaps it’s not one person but a group of people. They. Those ones. They are trying to take your job and your hard-fought tax-payer money. Life would be better if it wasn’t for them.
Who is your enemy?
Over the last three weeks we have been following God as God interacts with Jonah. And not just Jonah. As we have seen, God is really the main character of this Biblical book that bares the name Jonah. We’ve seen how God interacts not just with humanity but with all of creation. We’ve seen God bring even the most wayward among us back into his loving arms. We’ve noticed that God’s plans cannot be thwarted, despite all the things that seem to get in God’s way. We know what motivates God: a deep love for all the earth.
But I realized that along the way we’ve never really paused to think about Jonah’s motivation. Did you ever wonder why Jonah runs away from God’s plan? Why does Jonah get on that ship in the first place?
Today our Scripture again teaches us about the very nature of God but it also gives us a little insight into Jonah and his motivations.
Now remember where we left off from last week. Jonah has just had the most successful missionary journey of any prophet. He shows up, says one sentence, and the entire city, from the least to the greatest, all repent. They put on sack cloth and sit in ashes. Heck, even the animals fast. When I try to get my cat to go a couple of hours without eating he almost bites my toes off; trust me this is a miracle.
We expect Jonah to be jumping for joy that the people have been saved. That God has relented from punishment. That Jonah’s mission was successful. Let’s see if our expectations are correct:
Read Jonah 4.
So, first, is Jonah happy that the people of Ninevah have been saved?
NO! He’s really angry.
He’s pouting and kicking up the dust, whining to God. (re-read 2).
Why did Jonah not want to come to Ninevah? He didn’t want to come because he knew that if he went to Ninevah, God would forgive the people and not destroy them. And Jonah really, really wanted the people of Ninevah to be destroyed.
So…to understand Jonah’s motivation, we have to look back in history a little ways. Because we tell so many stories about Ancient Israel, we start to think that Ancient Israel was a big and strong nation. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
We are told in the book of Deuteronomy that God did not choose the people of Israel because they were strong and large, but because they were small and weak. Throughout the Bible, this principle is seen. God says: My strength is made perfect in weakness. We can see the work of the Lord within us not because of the strength we have but because of the gifts God gives to us.
Ancient Israel wasn’t the powerhouse of Jonah’s day. Guess who was.
Yeah, Ninevah. The Assyrians.
Now I know I have some history buffs in the room so you all can tell more stories after church, but I’ll simply say that the Assyrians were the Superpower in the time of Jonah and Ninevah was their capital.
They were an extremely violent and domineering nation. Think Darth Vader’s army of Storm Troopers coming against the Resistance. Or Great Britain four-hundred years ago colonizing other sovereign nations on nearly every continent. Or the Soviet Union pushing out during the Cold-War, forcing many independent people groups under their control.
The Assyrians were the aggressors. They had different ways of dominance. One way was to create vassals. In other words, they forced other people groups to give them their goods at low cost. The Northern Tribes of the Israelites were forced to do this in Jonah’s time. They were forced to give them trees and oil as tribute in exchange for “their protection”–in other words in exchange for the Assyrians not coming in and demolishing them.
And when the Assyrians did choose to totally overtake another city or a people group, they were brutal about it. They would force people out of their homes, burning them to the ground and make them walk hundred’s of miles to a new place where they would become the cheap labor for the ruling empire. They were known to flay people who would resist and cut of the heads of nobles and make others carry them on poles all the way through the terrible march to a new land. Ninevah came to symbolize of violence and cruelty.
One book I was reading this week said it this way: It was as if Jonah, a Jew, was being asked to walk right into Nazi Germany at the height of Hitler and call them to repent.
Jonah was being sent to his enemies.
And these were not just nuisance enemies, he was being sent to ones who were truly violent and evil in every sense of the word. I mean, no wonder Jonah didn’t argue with God about it. He just got on a boat and high-tailed it out of there. No way, God, I’m not going to save my enemy.
Jonah wanted to see his enemy punished. The people of Ninevah deserved punishment. They were brutal.
And here is God, refusing to punish them. I mean, really, what’s up with that? Is God not just? Surely God saw their wickedness. Surely God knew their violence. God says it right in the beginning. Why is God not punishing them?
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Jonah. I look at the evil in the world and I want it to stop. Violence. Anger. Hate. Children being abused. Terrorists at work. My neighbor constantly blocking my own driveway. I mean, if there is a god, surely he sees this and is going to punish them, right?
Do you have someone in your life like that? Someone who has wronged you? Perhaps it was by their action. They did something truly evil. Perhaps it was by their inaction, they didn’t do what you needed them to do. Maybe it was a family member or friend or coworker. You think. I’ll just bide my time. They will get what’s coming to them.
But they never seem to get it. You wait for all their bad karma to catch up with them but they seem to always get ahead.
One Psalmist says it this way: I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity…(Psalm 73)
Sometimes it seems like the bad people get everything good. Those who cheat and lie and steal are the ones who prosper. And God doesn’t do anything about it.
Jonah is angry. Of course Jonah is angry. How can God be so forgiving? How can God be so merciful. They don’t deserve mercy.
I’ve been angry this week. Thinking about the many ways in which it seems like the wicked prosper. Perhaps you have, too. If you listen to the news, we are bombarded by stories of enemies. If only that group would get out of the way. You know the ones. The ones who are blocking us from making progress as a nation.
But the thing about the season of Lent is that we are called in this season to fast and pray. We are called to examine ourselves and the ways in which we sin. The ways in which we hurt others. The ways in which we run from the Lord.
The more I prayed this week, the more I realized that I have a lot more in common with the average Nivevite than I do with Jonah. That we as a nation have a lot more in common with Assyria than we do with Ancient Israel.
For instance, do you know that as Americans, we only make up 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 25% of the world’s fossil fuels.
Or coffee. Coffee is a big one for me, personally. I drink a lot of coffee, basically a pot a day. And I’m not alone apparently. American’s are 5% of the world’s population, but we consume 45% of the world’s coffee. Now, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I mean, who cares if I need a little coffee to start my day—that doesn’t hurt anyone.
But actually, it does. We can’t grow coffee here in the states. We have to import it from places like South America and Southeast Asia. And for decades American companies have been forcing small farmers to produce more and more coffee for smaller and smaller wages. We force them into positions where they have to burn their rainforest—destroy their land–to produce a product they don’t consume. It’s us who are the coffee drinkers. We in the United States have vassals all around the world—people who we force to give us goods at low cost to their own determent.
Now, I know what you are thinking: Pastor KJ, you can’t be so hard on yourself: you’ve never gone to South America and demanded people give you coffee while you put a gun to their head. True. I haven’t. But my coffee consumption, and my demand that coffee prices stay cheap has contributed to global suffering.
Or another one. I’ve been an Iphone user for a decade. I’m very loyal to the company. Well, last year I watched a documentary about an Iphone factory in China. People in this particular town have little opportunity for work so they were thrilled when Apple put a plant there. People flocked to the company and signed up to work, even though their contract said they had to live in the Apple housing—they made sense, right, Apple was going to give them a place to live! How great!. And they needed to buy from the Apple grocery store. Great, Apple was bringing in a grocery! No more small family farms and barter system—they would have real money now! And even when they said they would work 12 hour shift. I mean, hard work is better than no work, right?
But in reality, people were signing up for a life of indentured servanthood. The money they make from the company barely pays for their rent and their food. They have no time for their families or to get an education or find other work. The suicide rate in this company is astronomical. In fact, so many people were jumping out of windows of the highrise Apple gave them to live in that they had to put a net around the bottom of the building to stop jumpers.
Our desire for cheap products causes massive suffering around the world. We are the new Ninevah.
Not to mention violence. According to FBI statistics, in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 962 wives, ex-wives or girlfriends were murdered by their partners. That’s more than 2 women every day. Or another way to look at it is: every 10 hours a women is murdered by her own life-partner in the United States.
Schools, Synagogues, Black Churches have all been victimized by violence.
And we think of slavery as a thing of the past, but as George can tell you from a local group in our area getting involved in this issue, that slavery is alive and well in the united states. It’s hard to count how many women and girls are forcibly a part of the sex-trade in the US, but most say it is around 100,000 people.
My friends, we have to look at ourselves. We have to open up our eyes to the things we would rather keep hidden. We have to look at the ways we are violent. The ways we allow and enable injustice. The ways we oppress.
I know we like to think of ourselves as Jonah, the ones who are good and righteous and who don’t always follow the path of God, at least not the first time, but who know God and are right and just sometimes need a little push. But in this season of Lent, we have to face the truth. We have more in common with Ninevah than with Jonah.
So… what do we do with that?
Well, first, we can listen to Jonah calling to us. Sure, he’s a terrible missionary, but we can be like the Ninevites and listen to him anyway. We can repent. We can see the ways we do harm to others.
We can realize that we, too, are somebodies enemy. That perhaps today when I asked who is your enemy, maybe someone thought of us and the big ways and small ways we have hurt them.
It’s not easy to look inside and see the ways we intentionally or unintentionally hurt others, but it’s important. It reminds us to not think of others as better than ourselves but to look at our actions with humility.
And when we are prone to be like Jonah in not wanting others to be forgiven, in having anger that God allows others to go unpunished, maybe we can look at ourselves and realize we, too, deserve punishment.
But God is as Jonah knows God to be. (READ Jonah 4:2).
I’m thankful that the mercy of God is great. For me and my enemy.