Jonah & Ninevah
March 24, 2019 (Lent 3)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
The greatest evangelist in the history of the universe, who had just led the greatest and most successful evangelistic campaign in the history of the universe, looks down on the people he’s just saved and seethes with anger.
Imagine if the evangelist Franklin Graham sneaked into Tehran and began a revival. Imagine if he somehow organized a rally so large almost all of greater Tehran showed up. Imagine if, when he gave the alter call, almost everyone came forward, including the Shah, the president and the leading generals in the army. Imagine if, the next day, Iran emerged as a new nation, seeking peace with Israel, converting mosques to churches, calling all to turn to Christ. And imagine if Franklin Graham was overheard cursing God and admitting he’d wanted the revival to fail.
All Lent we’re talking about relationships. Today we look at how we relate to our enemies. And, have no doubts about it, the Assyrians – whose great empire was fed by plunder, enslavement, forced deportations and crippling demands for tribute – and whose capital was Ninevah were Jonah’s enemies.
The Ninevites were Jonah’s enemies, were Israel’s enemies, but they were not God’s enemies. “Should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city?” God asks Jonah. That’s after Jonah confesses he hadn’t wanted to come because he knew God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. Jonah comes to Ninevah filled with burning anger for the injustices and violence committed against his people. God comes to Ninevah filled with compassion for a people who do not know their right hand from their left.
We should pause here to note scripture does not minimize the reality of enemies. From global enemies like the Assyrians to personal enemies referenced by the Psalmist, to those who killed Jesus and persecuted the early church, violence and threats of violence fill scripture’s pages. The ancient Jewish law stresses benevolence and care for strangers and foreigners – even when that foreigner is among your enemies. The ancient stories acknowledge the very real danger strangers and foreigners can present. At the hand of Jonah, God saves Ninevah. Through the mouth of Nahum, God promises “piles of dead, heaps of corpses” to the very same city. But when our gracious and merciful, slow to anger and steadfast love abounding God comes to earth his message is clear: “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 on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
“Why,” God says to Jonah, “should I not be concerned about Ninevah?” Did I not create them too?
Enemies abound. They abounded last week in New Zealand. They abounded at a stop light in Columbiana. They abound on the news and in the papers, in the speeches of politicians and in our own lives when those around us threaten or hurt or oppress or hold us back.
But we have to be careful. Its easier to hate than to love, its easier to declare someone an enemy than to take the steps to make peace. An older lady walked into my New York church extremely upset. She hated her new neighbors. They mocked her, she claimed. Said bad things about her. But in reality they were just having normal every day conversations in a language other than English. Yet she was saddened by how many of her friends had died, moved to nursing homes or to Florida. Her block, where she’d lived for decades, was changing. She didn’t know everyone, didn’t feel secure. So her new neighbors had become enemies to her, even as they peaceably lived their typical suburban New York middle class life – much as her family had done decades before.
Relating to our enemies begins with asking whether our enemies are actually our enemies. Whether our fears are justified, whether our hatred is warranted, or whether we’re allowing the evil in our world and the evil in our own beings to feed the basic human desire to define an “other” whom we can blame for our problems and then declare not human, or sub human, beyond the grace of God, beyond our moral responsibility.
Relating to our enemies continues with prayer. Prayer for ourselves when we realize our enemies are of our own making and prayer for the other when we realize our enemies are more real and more terrifying then we could imagine. For we do have enemies. The nation whose missiles wait, aimed in their silos and whose armies stand on alert. The terrorist who expresses their own fear and hatred through violence. The abusive partner. The vindictive neighbor. The estranged family member. The colleague at work who wants our job.
When we become consumed with hate for our enemies, we become their prisoner. When we pray for our enemies we allow the Spirit of our gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing God to fill our hearts. The same God who birthed us birthed them. The same sun rises on us both, and the same rain waters our fields and brings food to our tables. As we experience God’s love, our fear fueled hate fades away. Our enemy becomes our neighbor becomes our fellow child of God and, even if prudence suggests we stay far away, they no longer control our lives. We can be at peace.
Finally in relating to our enemies we never forget the power of resurrection. As followers of Christ we’re specifically told not to be afraid. We’re told if God is for us, nobody can be against us. We need not fear death, or hurt, or pain, or suffering. We need not fear the terrorist or the opposing army or the vindictive neighbor or the abuser because they cannot take from us that which God has given us. We need not fear so we are free to love, to ask our gracious and merciful God to withhold his anger and to include our enemy in God’s glorious new creation.
We may want to join Jonah on his sun scorched hill but we know what is good, we know what is right, we know what the Lord requires of us.