God’s Persistent Mercy

An Epiphany Sermon

Jonah didn’t want to do it.

Photo Credit: betadecay2000 Flickr via Compfight cc

The word of the Lord came to him saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah turned tail and ran the other way, trying to outrun God. He went to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, paid his fair and smugly thought he had outwitted the Almighty.

But then God kicked up a mighty storm so powerful the ship threatened to break up. The crew began tossing cargo overboard and crying out to their different gods. Nothing doing. But Jonah had gone below deck, found a hammock to his liking, and was fast asleep. Soon Mr. Sleepypants woke to the shaking of the captain, “How can you sleep? Get up and pray to see if your god can do something to stop this raging storm.” He got up and went on deck.

A Sermon based on the book of Jonah.

With no end in sight, the sailors drew straws to see if that could tell them who had messed up, and Jonah selected the short one. Their eyes all turned on him, the questions coming fast and furious. “Who are you? What do you do? Where do you come from?” He spilled the beans that he worshipped the Lord, God of heaven who made the earth and the seas, but that he was currently running away from God.  “What have you done,” they exclaimed.

In the midst of this, the storm grew even more tempestuous.  Jonah figured the only way to save them would be by sacrificing his life, so he told them to toss him into the water. They wouldn’t have anything to do with that, so they kept rowing hard against the water to get back to land. But they couldn’t do it. The sea grew more and more stormy against them.  Finally they prayed to God, the Lord Almighty, asking for forgiveness for taking Jonah’s life, and then they summarily picked him up throwing him overboard.

And at that exact moment a large fish came by—sent by God—and saw Jonah sinking in the deep, and swallowed him whole. And, scripture tells us, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days.”  In that time good old Jonah came to his senses.  He prayed.

“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of the Pit I cried, and you heard my voice.” He laments what has happened, and that he has wasted his chance in life and wishing he could try again.  He concludes, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”

And with that, the giant fish feels a bit of indigestion and burps Jonah up onto land. Which brings us up to where our reading began. “The then word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,” and he went to Nineveh. When he gets there, he sees it’s a large city taking three days to walk across , but he begins. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” he shouts.

Perhaps it may have been his ghastly appearance with those half digested clothes he wore, but I bet it was God’s Spirit that moved in their hearts. Immediately they believed his one sentence sermon warning them of their doom, and responded. They proclaimed a fast and exchanged their comfortable clothes for the itchiness of burlap sackcloth to show their humility.  Soon the king of that great city heard what had been happening, and he did the same.  He removed his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in a big pile of ashes.  He then sent out a proclamation, that no living thing would eat or drink anything, and that the people should cry out to God the Creator of heaven and earth, turning from their evil ways and the violence in the hearts.

And then the king delivers the line of the story—the one unfortunately left out from our reading this morning in verse 9.  The king says, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

And that’s exactly what God did.  God changed his mind, and God did not bring about calamity.

Now you’d think that this would make Jonah exceedingly joyful. He preached a one line sermon, the entire town repented, and God didn’t destroy them after all.  But, scripture tells us, “This was very displeasing to Jonah.”  He was ticked.  He says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  This is why I fled 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

And God rolled his eyes.

O Jonah.  Are you kidding me? Really, that’s where you go in this? In that self-absorbed place, “Well God, you didn’t kill off the people we Hebrews consider enemies, so I might as well die.” You saw the gracious, awe-inspiring love of God played out in front of you, and you’ve literally got nothing but “Take my life”?

And what is this thing you’ve got with death anyway?  This is now the second time you’ve thought the best way to respond to God was to give up your life, as if that would somehow appease God.  You spoke eloquently both in the belly of that fish and here when God relented from punishing that God is gracious and slow to anger and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, but you do not believe it.  You think God wants death, when God would much rather have you experiencing a fullness of life.

One of my favorite hymns was written by Frederick Faber.  Fred grew up in England as a very protestant Anglican who, over the course of his life, fell in love with sacredness of liturgy and mystery of worship that hadn’t been a part of his religious experience. He ultimately became a Roman Catholic priest.  He wanted the Catholics he led in worship to sing more—he found them a bit stodgy when compared to the Anglicans of his youth, so he wrote hymns. The hymn I love is titled “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” It opens,

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

like the wideness of the sea;

there’s a kindness in his justice,

which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,

and more graces for the good;

there is mercy with the Savior;

there is healing in His blood.

It’s a lovely, lovely hymn. But I learned there were a few verses we don’t have in our hymnal. Fred was a bit verbose, and so the compilers of the hymnal thought it would be better to skip a verse or two thinking of those future churchgoers and the heat of summer.

And yet, listen to these words which we do not sing:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?

Jonah made that love of God too narrow.  He wanted to magnify God’s harshness, something God would not own.  What God wanted for the Ninevites was redemption.  It’s the same thing God wanted for Jonah, he who had once been in the belly of a whale.  And it’s the same thing God wants for us too.

Where we go off the rails in our lives is in thinking that somehow we fully comprehend the mercy and grace of God, that we understand the mind of God. We think we know who God’s enemies are, or what people can or cannot do in order to find themselves within in the sphere of God’s care or not. We do not know the mind of God.  We cannot know the depth of the mystery of God’s great devotion to us as human beings.

Friends, do not think the mercy, love and grace of God are only for a chosen few. Do not imagine that God only watches down on us in order to bring us to punishment when we mess up. Rather believe the truth that we are the ones who make God’s love way too narrow.  Open yourself up and allow that love to shower down on your life.  Don’t be like Jonah who knows all about God’s grace and mercy empirically but doesn’t believe it for himself; he doesn’t know it in his heart.  Turn from those things that keep you far from God, and relish in God’s unbelievable love for you, knowing there is no place you—or anyone else—can ever go outside of God’s loving embrace, not even the belly of a whale.  You are fully, unbelievably, and exquisitely loved by the Almighty One and you always will be. Live as if you truly believe that. Amen.