One of the things that troubles me greatly about our society these days is how we seemingly have no qualms about drawing a sharp division between us and them. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s draw from the experience of the State of the Union Address the other night. These addresses have essentially become pep rallies for the President–a time to have supporters cheer raucously and for detractors to sit and scowl. And, here is the kicker, it doesn’t matter if the President offers up an idea that is supported by the majority of people; it doesn’t matter if the President offers up an idea that both parties support; because it is the President, and at this time a Democrat, detractors, the opposite Party, Republicans will generally still sit and scowl.
Why? Why scowl if it is a suggestion everyone can get behind? Generally it’s because we don’t want anyone else to get credit for something we like. We don’t want anyone else to steal our thunder. We want all the credit for things that go well, and we don’t want the other guy or gal, to receive anything we thing should be ours. I mean, it would be like me standing up here and saying, “We can’t help St. John Lutheran Church of Bellville with their Chicken Fried Steak Fundraiser today because we didn’t come up with the idea. It doesn’t matter what they are trying to do with the money; it wasn’t our idea, so we should not support it.” Do you see how childish that comes across? I hope you do, and yet, yet, in our society today such an attitude is rampant!
For some reason or another, it has become very, very permissible to draw an almost permanent line between myself and anyone who disagrees with my perspective. It has become acceptable to demean and almost demonize those who take a different political or moral stance. It has become common place to surround ourselves with those who agree with us and associate with those folks alone and exclude anyone who might challenge us or our way of thinking.
And in reality, it’s a very old problem. A very old problem. You might at this point go so far as to say, “Well, what is the problem? What’s so bad about hanging around people who agree with me? There’s no fighting. There’s no arguing or bickering. We get along with one another.” Point taken, but let me ask you a couple of questions: number one: how will you then grow? How will you then allow yourself to think through things if you are never challenged by anyone else? Are you telling me you have everything in the world figured out and there is no longer any need to learn? Second point: are you absolutely sure you and those you hang around with agree on everything? Are you sure that your relationship isn’t just superficial–for a real relationship to occur, there must be some sort of difference between you and another person. If there is no difference or if someone simply agrees with you at all points and at all times, then you would have what is called a Stepford Relationship. That is to say, if you remember the movies “The Stepford Wives”, then you remember how the husbands in a small town programmed their wives to be absolutely obedient and never challenge them on anything. While that does indeed remove conflict, it also removes a relationship. In fact, there is no relationship at all. So, if you just surround yourself with people who agree with you, you are limiting your growth and you really don’t have real relationships. Does this sound like an agreeable thing? Some of you might think so. Okay. This sermon isn’t for you.
But for those of you who do want to grow and who do want authentic relationships, the issue now arises: how do you interact, get along with, respect, and even love someone who is different than you are? How do you come to respect and love someone whose ideas and actions have even hurt you in the past and are hurting you now? How do we live together with others who are completely and utterly different?
Let’s begin trying to answer these questions by looking at our Old Testament lesson from the book of Jonah. We have all of chapter 3 in front of us this morning, and it begins in an intriguing way, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, ‘Go to Nineveh and preach what I will tell you.’” A little background: the book of Jonah is the story of a reluctant prophet who does not like the Ninevites. Nineveh is a city in Assyria, and the Assyrian empire had been threatening the Israelites with invasion. Essentially, the Assyrians were enemies of Israel. Furthermore, the Assyrians were brutal. We have a notion today of how one’s enemies should be treated with some amount of respect and dignity during war. This is why we have war crime tribunals. No such thing existed in those days back then. Assyrians were particularly nasty in treating those whom they conquered. I will not go into the gory details here, but please know, they make ISIS look like saints. Nineveh was a large city in Assyria, and they were known for their debauchery and evil. They were violent, and apparently there were all sorts of sexual perversions going on as well. They were not nice people.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go and preach at Nineveh–telling the Ninevehites that the Lord’s anger was kindled against them. But Jonah didn’t want to do this. Jonah didn’t want to go to his enemies. Jonah didn’t want to give them the chance to repent, so Jonah went in the exact opposite direction that the Lord told him to go. For those of you who know the story, the results of Jonah’s disobedience were not pretty. Jonah ended up spending three days in the belly of a fish for his disobedience; he repents of his behavior; the fish vomits him out on shore, and the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, “Go to Nineveh and preach what I tell you.”
So, fearing something worse than before, Jonah heads to Nineveh, and I find it interesting what Jonah says. I mean, he walks a day into the city and says, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s all he says. There are commentators who suggest that this is a condensed version of what Jonah really said. They find it incredulous that this would be all that Jonah would say. I don’t particularly find it incredulous. In fact, I think Jonah says exactly what the Lord tells him to say and nothing more. What do I mean by that? Well, if you read through all the Old Testament prophets, I believe it is almost 100% of the case that the prophets always begin their proclamations with, “Thus says the Lord.” I think every prophet begins their proclamation in this fashion so that everyone knows where the proclamation comes from. Everyone knows this isn’t the prophet’s own words. Everyone knows this word comes from God.
Jonah does not use that phrase. Jonah does not say, “Thus says the Lord.” Jonah just blurts out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” He doesn’t tell the Ninevehites where this proclamation comes from. He doesn’t tell them God is angry with their transgressions. He doesn’t expound or explain. Why? He still wants Nineveh destroyed. I’ll get to that in a minute.
But the more intriguing thing is the effect Jonah’s message has. The folks have no idea that it comes from the Lord–at least by Jonah’s proclamation; however, they seem to figure it out very fast. There must have been something that cut to the hearts of the people in that proclamation. There must have been something which aroused within them a deep sense of their brokenness and sin. For even though Jonah doesn’t mention God, the people begin fasting and praying.
Word even reaches the king of Nineveh, and he makes official what the people started unofficially. The king proclaims a time of fasting and repentance. The king himself dresses in sack cloth and sits in the dust, and he utters these words, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And God does change His mind. God does not bring down punishment upon the Ninevehites. Theoretically, this should be a cause of great joy. This should be a cause for celebration. Repentance occurred. People changed their ways. They stopped committing evil.
But Jonah does not rejoice. Let me read to you a snippet from Jonah chapter 4. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”
Jonah wanted to die when he saw that the Lord allowed his enemies to live. Think about that a minute! Did Jonah’s foray into the belly of the fish have any effect on Jonah’s heart what-so-ever? No. None. None at all. Jonah was still as self-righteous and self-centered as ever. The punishment God gave to him did not transform him and did not lead him to love his enemies. The punishment did not bring about any change at all.
But, you may say at this point, the threat of punishment changed the Ninevehites. They repented. They changed their ways. I ask you, “For how long?” Do you think their change was permanent? Do you think they stopped being violent and bloodthirsty? Do you think they permanently stopped their sexual perversion? I wouldn’t ask you the question if I didn’t already know the answer. The book of Nahum a little later in the Old Testament gives us the answer. In chapters 2 and 3 the prophet Nahum rejoices in the Lord’s destruction of Nineveh. He talks about how the Lord visited punishment upon the city for its violence and sexual perversion. Sure, the Ninevehites changed their ways, but it wasn’t a lasting change. Why?
Because punishment or the threat of punishment will not change a heart permanently. It just will not. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes punishment is necessary. It teaches that there are consequences for actions. It can serve as a deterrent, but it will not affect the deepest parts of a person’s heart. It will not lead a person away from self-centeredness and self-righteousness because even if a person does not commit a wrong for fear of getting caught, that person is only doing so out of self-interest.
I mean, this should be common knowledge to most of us. We should get this, but for some reason we don’t. We should learn this with raising our children and how we were raised. I mean, when I was a kid, I was scared of my dad. I was scared of the consequences of disobeying him. I dreaded the sound of his belt coming off. I followed his advice and teaching because I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would receive punishment. But as I matured, I came to a very different place. I began following my dad’s advice and teaching out of respect for him. I should include my mother here as well, but dad was kind of mom’s enforcer. I wasn’t as afraid of my mom. But that is beside the point. As I grew up, I began listening to my mom and dad not for fear of punishment but because I loved and respected them. Fear no longer governed things. Love did. And it changed the dynamic of the relationship.
And if we understand the love of God, it changes the dynamic of the relationship as well. If we understand how God operates with us through Jesus Christ, it transforms us deeply. If we understand that God loved us in the midst of our self-righteousness, in the midst of our sin, in the midst of our brokenness; if we understand Jesus took our place on the cross and removed the threat of punishment; if we understand that Jesus took the punishment meant for us, then we see how our heavenly parent sacrificed for us; how He gave Himself for us; how He truly and desperately loves us; then we are indeed transformed. Because we know that Jesus died for us when we were enemies to Him. Jesus died for us when we were acting completely opposite to what He taught and did. We were enemies to God because of our sin, but instead of punishing us, God died for us.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
And how can you be self-righteous if you know God did this for you? How can you be self-righteous if your salvation was given to you when you were an enemy to God? How can you think highly of yourself when God had to die to reconcile you unto Himself? Simply put, you can’t. You can’t keep your head held too high because you were like those Ninevehites. You were like Jonah. You were in rebellion to God, but instead of punishment, He gave you Jesus. He loved you with a mature love–the only kind of love that can transform your heart. And when it does, you can look at those who disagree with you and say, “I do not agree with you, but I love you because God loves you like He loves me.” Amen.