Sunday, September 21, 2008

My sermon for this morning: Proper 20 Year A

Turn with me to Jonah, chapter 4.
You may remember that Jonah was a prophet of the Old Testament, called upon by God at a particular moment in time to go to the great city of Nineveh to preach the impending judgment of God because, says God, ‘their evil has come up before me’. ‘Repent’ Jonah was supposed to say, ‘because otherwise God will destroy you.’ Upon hearing the word of the Lord, hearing that he was supposed to go to a foreign city, an enemy city, a city full of people who had gone out against Israel on various occasions in horrifying, stomach wrenching violence, Jonah rebelled against God and went away in the opposite direction from Nineveh, taking a ship to Tarshish. Jonah heard God’s voice, knew the character and nature of God—that he is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love and that if the people of Nineveh repented, God would spare them—and so he ran away. He did not want the gracious mercy of God to spread over his enemies.

But God, being sovereign and merciful, sent a storm against the ship. The pagan sailors were afraid and cast lots, a kind of drawing straws, to discover the cause of the storm. The lot fell to Jonah and he, at his own request, was cast into the stormy sea so that the ship could be saved. You should all know the next bit. A large fish swallowed him, saving his life. Prefiguring Christ himself in the grave, Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days and nights wherein he cries out to God. You can read his moving prayer in chapter two, again, describing accurately the character of God as merciful and gracious, ‘You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you’.

The Lord appoints the fish to mercifully spit him, or rather vomit him on dry ground where he is given a second chance to go to Nineveh to warn of God’s looming judgment. This time, sensibly, Jonah goes, but still not with a desire to see God’s forgiveness and mercy at work. Jonah ran in the first place not from laziness or ignorance. He ran because he knew God, he knew what God was like, look at chapter 4 verse 1, ‘but it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’

It is very easy to look at Jonah from the comfort of a pew, in church, indeed in a church that is becoming known for its evangelistic efforts, a church that welcomes everyone and goes out to bring people in, to sit back and say, quietly of course, ‘Oh how awful. Can you believe how unloving he was? Thank heavens I’m not like Jonah.’ I have this reaction almost every time I read Jonah. I think, quietly to God, ‘well, I really want everyone to come to you, even and especially my enemies, because, of course, Jesus has told me to love my enemies so please, let everyone come to church.’ And in so doing I, and perhaps you, stand in judgment over the text, over Jonah himself and pass on easily by.
Instead of doing that, then, let us do the hard thing, let us zero in on chapter 4, and begin with God’s question to Jonah.
And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’
Jonah did not answer the Lord but instead went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth or a tent for himself there. He sat under it till he should see what would become of the city, hoping, ostensibly, that God would go ahead and destroy the people of Nineveh for their sin instead of having mercy on them.

Do you do well to be angry? This is a very interesting question of God’s, to Jonah. The right answer to this question, obviously, is ‘no’, Jonah had no business being angry, no business being angry after disobeying God, no business being angry after disobeying God and then being shown mercy. But even though Jonah is not justified, this is not a righteous and holy anger, God, in his mercy and grace, continues to work with and discipline his wayward child, and the process of discipline here is very helpful for us.

I want, as you look at your text, to consider Jonah’s anger. ‘Do you do well to be angry’. What on earth did he have to be angry about? Anger against God is a normal, albeit totally unjustified state, in which almost every believer sometimes finds him or herself. I spent many hours trying to think of some light funny examples of how I have been angry at God to show you how this is not a good thing. But this part of my sinful nature I was unable to find in anyway funny. The times that I have been angry, angry enough to die, God had to rend me open, had to break me open to deal with it and it wasn’t fun, or pleasant, or funny.

It is easier, I think, to look for a minute, very briefly at the gospel reading, Matthew 20. You don’t have to turn there, we just heard it read. The master of the vineyard goes out and calls people to come work, that’s any of us who have been called by God, justified and saved, we have eternal life, we believe, we are workers in the vineyard. After a while the master finds that he wants more people, there’s still enough work to do, he goes out and gets more but promises the same wage. And so on through the day, until at the end of the day, those who worked a very little, and those who worked a great deal are all paid the same, they all receive eternal life with God, the blessing of the Father. It’s easy to be fine with God’s mercy when we’re talking about eternal life. But our anger comes from our expectation of how God should operate, how he should manage his kingdom in keeping with our agenda. Jesus ran into this constantly with his disciples. They planned for him to do one thing, he did another. They wanted him to give them power, he gave them humility. They wanted him to be a king and he died a criminal. God does not meet our expectations, does not deliver on our own agenda in a thousand small ways, and numerous big ones. And anytime we find our expectations, our plans unmet, indeed thwarted by God, it is very easy to go build a little tent, or carve out a little emotional space, and plunk ourselves down, entrench ourselves and be angry, sometimes even angry enough to die. Not many of us would be angry about someone repenting and coming to the Lord, but I’ve been angry that more people don’t come to church. Not many of us are angry that God hasn’t rained down fire on the wicked of the world, but I’ve been angry that Jesus hasn’t saved the people on my list. Or perhaps you’ve faced an illness, or a trial or something that wasn’t in your plans, wasn’t on your agenda, and when God didn’t do something about it on your schedule you retreated to your booth to be angry.

Do you do well to be angry? God’ asks. Well, no. God is not obligated to save anyone or do anything. Everything thing we have is grace—food, clothing, breath, a clean house, family, any friends at all. God does not owe us the vine.

God is gracious, and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and so when you are angry, or in sin, or have a bad attitude, God works with you, he disciplines those he loves. In this case he makes a vine grow up over Jonah’s booth to give him some extra shade. And Jonah is happy about the vine. Which, again, let us not pass over. The weather itself is a cause of friction between us and God. I have been hot enough, sometimes in Africa, to wish I could just lie in my own grave. And the snow here, in New York, has made me plenty angry on occasion. Shoving my hoard of children in and out of their coats and boots for months when the weather in Oregon is so reasonably cool without being hot All Year. Do I do right to be angry about the weather? But why am I? Because I’m the center of my own universe. I want God to cater to me. It’s the small things that lets the anger creep in. Left to our own devices that anger would grow enough to maybe hurt someone.

But we are not left to our own devices. After growing the beautiful vine over Jonah’s head, God appoints a worm to eat the vine and leave Jonah scorching in the sun, angry enough to die. Do you do well to be angry about the vine, Jonah?

No. Jonah didn’t make the plant grow. He didn’t do anything to deserve the shade. It was a gift, the grace of God. He did not have a right to be angry. He didn’t build the city of Nineveh and fill it with people and much cattle. God did.
God will have mercy on whom he has mercy. God will do what he is planning to do.
He is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. That means that if you belong to God but are sitting in a booth, a cacoon of anger or rebellion or disobedience, this morning, out of sorts with God, out of fellowship with your neighbor, part of God’s plan is teaching me, and you, and Jonah that its All Grace. That we have nothing to hold over God’s head. God is God and we are not.

This is really a sweet truth, though sometimes a hard thing. A life lived with anger and discontentment is not all that pleasant, I can testify myself. Once God has pried our selfish limited expectations out of our angry balled up fists and knocked down our carefully built anger insulated booths, life in his vineyard, serving him freely, living every day with his mercy and grace and abounding steadfast love is better than a thousand days in a hot lonely anger infested booth. In a world that calls out for ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ and ‘rights’, life in the vineyard is all about mercy and truth and never ending love—you cannot come to the end of God’s love. You cannot come to the end of his grace. You do well to seek him, this morning, and let go of what was never yours. Amen.

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