Our God Is Their God


Sunday— 9:30 AM Sunday School, 10:15 AM fellowship, 10:30 AM Worship Service

Jan. 21

Text: Jonah 3:1-5,10

We see it all the time. It happens everywhere. We see it on elementary schoolyard playgrounds. We see it in the classroom, the boardroom, the map room. It is second nature in politics, in sports, in business. We see it happening between peoples of different nations, different incomes, different colors and cultures. It happens in our homes between family members, and we and our neighbors are awfully good at doing it -- so are churches.

It’s called choosing sides, drawing lines, erecting walls, making enemies. Humans love to organize the whole world around ourselves, as if our little corner of the universe were the whole universe. I and my people, I and my color, I and my family, I and my ways of doing things, I and people who think like me are it, we are the center of everything. Nothing else and no one else quite measures up to “I and my” world.

And this human tendency to define our worlds and choose sides and in the process, make enemies, is a very powerful part of our human nature. There is just something in us that craves to tear others down in order to build ourselves up. Human beings love to draw lines keeping others out in order to improve our group cohesiveness and togetherness. There is something about our human condition that just can’t seem to go a day without a good ole fashion choosing sides and dividing up between us and them, between friend and foe, ally and enemy.

And when you add religion to the human tendency to choose sides, why then you have an absolute natural mess indeed! Is there anything more dangerous in this world than religious people who draw lines of distinction between us and them; who look down our noses at people who practice a religion different from ours; we religious people who find it hard to trust anyone who espouses beliefs and practices different from our own; we religious people who shun those whose lifestyles don’t add up to what is right in our eyes; we religious people who get it all figured out who it is we like, who it is we hate, who it is we can trust, who it is we don’t trust -- and then, why then we add God to the mixture to justify our human tendencies to choose sides, draw lines, tear others down -- all in the name of OUR God.

Jonah was told by God, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Now let’s step back a moment and see what’s happening here. Jonah is an Israelite, a worshiper of Yahweh God, the one true and only God. There is not a fiber in Jonah’s body that in anyway could say that Nineveh was a great city. Nineveh was the capital of the vast Assyrian empire. The Israelites despised Assyria, and for good reason. Assyria was politically aggressive, economically powerful, militarily invincible and universally renowned for their absolute cruelty to the people they conquered and subjugated. And to add insult to injury, the Assyrians worshipped a multitude of gods and could have cared less about this Yahweh God of the Israelites.

The Assyrians were the absolute, positively, without-a-doubt supreme enemies of the Israelite people -- a different nation, different culture, different religion. A hated, bitter enemy. “Go to them,” God tells Jonah, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Now let’s be reasonable here. It’s quite a job that God lays on poor Jonah. It is one thing to denounce foreign people in the safe confines of your favorite living room chair. It is quite another thing to march into the capital city of your bitter enemy and right there in their very own streets tell the Ninevites what a nasty, grimy, despicable lot they are and that MY God is going to destroy you.

So, Jonah runs. He hops a boat for Tarshish, which is believed to be modern day Spain, a region in Jonah’s day rumored to have been devoid of God’s presence. Jonah is literally trying to run away from God. But not because he fears God. Not because he fears the Ninevites or is quaking before the great Assyrian lion. Jonah tells us later that he hightails it for Tarshish because he is afraid that God’s message might work! He is bitter that the Lord’s message may hit home and the Ninevites may repent and turn to Jonah’s God. Jonah runs because his cozy little world of drawn lines, bitter enemies, secure God is being severely tested and threatened. Jonah runs in fear away from God not for his life, but in fear of what his world may come to when Jonah does not have the Assyrians to hate anymore.

You know the rest of the story of Jonah. You can’t run from God. That’s another sermon. A storm blows up on the sea at Yahweh’s command and eventually Jonah is chunked from his ship, overboard, and is swallowed by a large fish and remains in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. And after three days and three nights of severe indigestion, the big fish vomits Jonah right back on the very shore where Jonah had begun his runaway scrape from God.

And there on the beach, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah again, “Okay Jonah, let’s go over this one more time, SLOWLY....Get up, go to Nineveh that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” And Jonah, feeling by now like chopped sushi covered with large fish stomach grunge, AGREES! He goes to Nineveh, which we are told is a city exceedingly large, three days’ walk across it. But Jonah only goes to the suburbs, one day’s journey the text says, and cries out: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

That’s it. Only five words in the Hebrew text. Jonah’s sermon contains no illustration, no elaboration, no pithy poems or tear-jerker stories to mush over. Billy Graham Jonah is not. There’s no music, no fanfare, no altar call here. Jonah does the absolute least he can possibly do to satisfy God’s demand. He stops in the suburbs of a huge, sprawling city, and proclaims one of the shortest, worst sermons on record. Jonah is resisting God’s initiative to the dreaded and despised Assyrians to the bitter end. Jonah puts one toe into the city limits of Nineveh, deposits a very sparse five-word sermon, and high tails it out of Dodge as quickly as he arrived.

And the text is simply profound here. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, (including the animals) put on sackcloth.” The dreaded, hated, despised Assyrians believed God, repented, turned from their wicked ways and the violence that was in their hands, and turned to the living God and were spared from God’s judgment, welcomed home as a prodigal child.

Now we might expect that Jonah would be turning cartwheels over such preaching success, ready to sign with an agent, write some books, produce some videos, and go on an evangelism tour. But again, the text is simple, and powerfully penetrating: “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” Jonah goes into a pretty deep depression, in fact he asks God to kill him right there and then. Why? Because God has proven to be what Jonah has a very difficult time accepting. God has torn down the barriers Jonah and his people have erected; God has erased the lines Jonah and his people have drawn; God has broken down the wall between us and them, between friend and foe, between their god and our God.

In short, Jonah himself says that God has proven to be what Jonah suspected, but would not grasp: “...a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Good satire burns deeply and exposes the truth. And the book of Jonah is biting, cutting edge satire. To Jonah’s people, the Jews, a religious people who had drawn tight lines of who’s in and who’s out; tight lines of us and them; tight lines between friend and foe and brought in God to justify such separation, the burning satire of the book of Jonah is God’s way of opening closed doors, erasing lines, tearing down walls so the truth is plain to see: God is sovereign and free, merciful and abounding in steadfast love for all people.

Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt.5:43-45) Jesus goes on to add that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The Greek word for “perfect” means “merciful.” Jesus is saying that the measure of our obedience and holiness as a religious people is mercy—not wrath, not righteous indignation, not erecting pious walls, not judging discriminately. Jesus is saying the measure of our obedience and faithfulness as a holy people of God is mercy – the same mercy that Jesus says is the very character of God.

Jesus means that any people who would dare follow such a free, merciful God must constantly be God-critical of themselves and God-reflective of their actions—particularly those thoughts and actions that lead to making enemies of others, excluding others, judging others, destroying others.

Jonah and Jesus have a lesson to teach us. A lesson that like Jonah before us, is hard for us religious people to swallow. That lesson is this: There is only one God. And it just so happens that OUR God is THEIR God.