Today’s text is from Jonah 3.
There has been an anger burning in our city in recent days and weeks. But also burning for decades and centuries as well. It’s an anger that we’ve witnessed in other cities across this country too. It’s an anger for justice, for accountability, for order of law, an anger for the world to just work.
It’s an anger that is often well placed. We’re angry because something hasn’t worked out in the way we want. We’re angry because justice hasn’t been served in the way that we want it. But, just like Jonah, I think we need to examine what we even mean when we say, “we want justice.”
Of the 7.2 billion people currently on this planet, 2.4 billion of them are Christian. One third of the world’s population considers themselves to be Christian. And there are certainly 2.4 billion definitions of what justice and mercy are. There are going to be billions of statements of faith and theological ideologies and systems of belief. But I think that gets lost in the fray when we claim God to have blessed us or a certain people or country. I think it’s easy to take our belief systems and place them near the top of importance. That’s, in part, what growing up in the United States does to our faith – it makes it seem superior.
Right now in another country, in another hemisphere, there are over 11,000 athletes from 207 nations competing for 918 medals at the Olympic Games. Years and lifetimes worth of hard work sometimes come down to a mere 10 seconds. And yet, for over 90% of athletes, they’ll return to their home countries without a gold, silver, or bronze medal. Most athletes will never experience the feeling of standing on the medal podium and hearing their national anthem being played.
As of Friday, the United States led the medal count with 100 overall medals. Coming in a distant second was China with 58. Now, it’s typical to expect the U.S. to dominate in the Olympics. It’s typical to expect the best from the U.S. no matter what arena we may find this country in.
It’s typical because we’re constantly bombarded by claims that the U.S. is the best nation on earth. This leads us to wonder why our enemies can’t be defeated since the U.S. is the best. What could possibly stop this nation from succeeding? Perhaps the idea that we are the best.
Chapter 4 gets chopped off in our reading today, but toward the end of it God effectively compares the people of Nineveh to a gourd. In the grand scheme of things it may look and seem like Nineveh is anything but that. We’re told it’s a massive city with hundreds of thousands of people that rules the surrounding areas and destroys anyone standing in their path. Their power seems immense and unstoppable.
But here we find this great people at the whim of God. We find a city and nation that seems powerful and awesome begging God for mercy. We find that it’s God who creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys.
We find God asking Jonah to stretch his theologies and beliefs around justice and mercy. Because what is justice for you and me is going to be different than what our neighbors believe. And sometimes God’s justice and mercy don’t seem just or merciful at all. Jonah has been calling God out for this the entire time! He calls what God is doing evil. If you’ve ever wondered if God can handle your anger look no further than Jonah.
But let’s put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes. He believes, like any good Israelite would, that God has specifically blessed their nation. Jonah believes that God’s grace and mercy and love and forgiveness extend as far as the borders of Israel. If we fast forward for just a moment, we see that this is the issue of the early Christian church. When we say Jesus died for the world do we just mean Israel? Were other people supposed to be included too?
So, this is the dilemma Jonah finds himself in. But it’s more than a slight bending and stretching of his beliefs about who receives God’s mercy – because he finds God asking him to preach to not just anyone, but enemies. Imagine you received a word from God that told you to go into the heart of ISIS held territory and preach a word of repentance. I know I’d keep that sermon short – and Jonah does, it’s only 5 words long in Hebrew – he’d make a good Lutheran.
But this raises a serious question: What does justice look like for a group like ISIS? Or what does justice look like for Nazi Germany? How about us? I think we know what justice looks like for the U.S. We’re leading the world in the medal count in the Olympics and we lead the world in the incarceration rate as well. Justice means jail for this great nation. Justice in Wisconsin and Milwaukee means having the highest incarceration rate for black males in the entire nation. So Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin wins the gold medal for putting black males behind bars the most of any state in this country.
Like Jonah, we have our own definitions of what justice and mercy are. Like Jonah, we have been raised in a culture and society that elevate how we think of ourselves and have been taught to place ourselves above others. Like Jonah, we become angry when a version of justice and mercy are put forward that don’t line up with what we’re thinking. In fact, it’s easy to be angry enough to claim that justice and mercy that extend to others in ways we don’t like is in fact evil.
But I don’t think Jonah got to that point on his own. I think he was raised to believe that he, and the Israelites, were chosen and blessed in a way that other peoples and nations weren’t. I think he was raised to believe that God was truly merciful and just and loving, but those attributes of God only applied to him and his group of people. Because the moment they applied to his enemies suddenly his God was evil.
That’s interesting. If Jonah received the gift of mercy and grace from God it was out of love. If his enemies received the exact same gift it was now an evil act. But if you told me that if a 5-word sermon somehow changed the hearts and minds of ISIS and they received no punishment for their crimes I’d probably wonder what type of warped justice God practices.
And that’s okay, we’re free to ask God that question. But, we’ve just got to be prepared for God to ask us the same question in return. We’ve got to be prepared for God to come to us in love and ask us if what we practice is truly justice and mercy – because throughout the narrative of the Bible it’s obvious that God puts into practice a justice and mercy that are lightyears different than what we could ever dream of.
We’ve got to be prepared for God to challenge us not just to bend our theologies and beliefs, but to shatter them. Because it’s easy to get comfy in our faith. It’s easy to think that we’ve won the gold medal and to kick back and relax. But the God of all creation reminds us daily that we’re not in charge. The God of all life reminds us every minute that life and death aren’t up to us. The God of love reminds us with each moment that we are not creator or judge.
The God who sent his own Son to bring about your salvation reminds you with every waking breath that you are a child of God. That every single person on this planet is a child of God. Neither makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for the people of ISIS to be children of God and it sure as heck doesn’t make any sense for you and me to be a child of God. It doesn’t make sense because we can’t ever hope to comprehend or understand God’s character or why God has chosen us.
But in Jesus Christ, you have been chosen and set free. Not because we’ve believed all the right things, or followed the rules, or walked the path that God set before us. No, in Jesus Christ the world was set free because God loves it and everything in it. In Jesus Christ we find the world to extend far beyond our horizons.
And, like Jonah, glimpsing a fraction of who God is can throw us for a loop. Because being great and blessed and justified have nothing to do with greatness and strength, but instead brokenness and weakness.
I think Jonah is interesting because we are Jonah. God says we’re saved, but so are those people that we hate and don’t understand, and so we end up kicking and screaming as we go into heaven. But this is the God we worship – a God who, in Jesus Christ, did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unfathomable – saved you and me and the world.