Sunday, September 18, 2005

Eighteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

...because to you it hath been granted in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer in his behalf...

In the aftermath of great tragedies, it is not unusual to hear some preacher or prophet wannabee proclaim a message they claim is from God. It happened after the attacks of 9/11 and after Hurricane Katrina. In both cases the responsibility for the tragedy was given to the wrath of God, as statement against the lawlessness of the people in the United States or the region or it was God's response to some action in policy or practice of the people.

What I find most interesting about these prophets is that they come out after the event with their words. They claim the prophecy came before the event, post the words immediately following with a statement about the date and time it was received. These prophets might share the message with someone, but they are often unable to correctly define the people, place or time for which it was given. When some tragedy occurs that seems to fit the vision, they take credit for seeing what was to occur and receive acclaim from the other prophets for their great vision.

This is what Jonah would have liked to do. He received a message from God for Nineveh, the enemy of his people. The Ninevites had done terrible injustices to Israel and did not, in Jonah's eyes, deserve the mercy of God. They deserved to be destroyed by His wrath. God sent Jonah to Nineveh with a call for repentance. Any call to repentance is supported by a promise for forgiveness. Jonah could not forgive the Ninevites and so withheld the call to repentance. He knew God was gracious and abounding in steadfast love. He just couldn't understand why God would be gracious to his enemies.

We know the story of Jonah very well. Jonah was called by God to speak repentance into the lives of the Ninevites, but Jonah decided to go in the opposite direction. You can't run or hide from God, so Jonah's ship was battered by a storm. Finally, Jonah gave in to God, was thrown overboard to save the lives of the sailors and he was eaten by the big fish. Three days later, after intense prayer and repentance, Jonah was expelled onto the bead near Nineveh. He went, preached and the people repented.

Our story today begins there. Jonah preached the message, much to his disdain, but went to the top of a hill to watch the destruction of Nineveh, hoping that God would do Jonah's justice. When God relented – changed His mind – Jonah got angry. "And he prayed unto Jehovah, and said, I pray thee, O Jehovah, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil." Jonah was so angry that he wanted to die. He no longer wanted to live in a world where his enemies were given mercy. It was better for him to die than to live seeing God's lovingkindness given to the very people who had destroyed his people.

There are a number of reasons why a prophet might not share a God-given message to the people for whom it was sent. Most prophets are simply afraid to be caught in a false prophecy. It is much easier to share what God has spoken after the fact, when the meaning of the message is clear. Others can't believe what they have heard is really a message from God. They do not know why God would choose them and they doubt their ability to share the message. Moses would be a good example of this. He did not think he could even speak, let alone make a difference for God's people. Many prophets only share their message for the personal benefits that come, like the accolade of their friends. They share these messages when it would best serve their needs, not for the sake of those to whom the message was sent.

What I know from Jonah's story is that God did not allow Jonah to run away. He had a message for the people of Nineveh and He would not do anything until they were given the chance to turn to Him. Jonah tried to keep the message from the people, but God ensured that it was spoken. If the prophecies were true, they might have been rejected but they never would have gone unheard. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He sends His prophets to speak His love, mercy and forgiveness into the lives He wants to hear. Sometimes, however, His prophets would rather that message go unheard.

There are aspects of our Christian life and faith that are difficult to live. While we rejoice in the grace and mercy of God, we still want to see God's wrath on our enemies. Jesus' command to love our enemies is perhaps one of the hardest things He has asked us to do. Last week we learned of God's forgiveness for us and now we are being called to share that same forgiveness with others. Are we like Jonah, running the other way in the hopes that God will do what we feel is just, or will we go forward and do the work He has called us to do?

Though the stories are different, the Gospel lesson for today has a similar theme. Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who went out to hire field hands for the day. As the day progressed, the landowner went out to find more and more helpers for the field. Finally, at five o'clock in the afternoon he found a group of workers standing idle on the street. He asked, "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" They answered, "Because no man hath hired us." He sent them to the field, too, even if it was for only an hour. When it came time to pay the workers, the landowner paid the last ones hired first and he gave them a day's wage. The first ones hired were sure that they would get something special, a bonus for working more hours. However, when it came time for them to receive their pay, it was what they were promised.

The workers thought this was unfair. They had labored a long time through the heat of the sun. Didn't they deserve more than the workers that only worked an hour? Of course, from our perspective, which are so much like Jonah's, those late hires do not deserve to be paid so well. Where were they in the morning? Where were they even at noon? Why is it they were not available to the landowner until late in the day?

We don't know where they were. Perhaps they were trying to find a job elsewhere. Perhaps they were at the wrong place, waiting at another corner where no landowners came to hire. Perhaps the landowners had a reason for rejecting them – they were too small to do the work or of poor health. Perhaps they were known to be men of ill repute. They may have slept late and missed the bus to the field. Some of these are good reasons and we might have mercy on those workers. Others we would cast off as lazy and unworthy of the grace.

Jonah had cast off Nineveh as unworthy, but God had not. God desired all to be saved and we see that also in Jesus' parable. The story of the landowner is a message about grace and God's desire for all to receive the incredible blessings of His forgiveness. Yet, we have a very hard time hearing it. We question God's judgment when He offers His forgiveness to someone who is our enemy. Certainly they don't deserve what we will be given, and if they are given such grace, don't we deserve something more?

The thing we don't realize is that those of us who were 'hired' early, who have worked a full day, have had the blessing of working for the kingdom of God. We have the joy of sharing God's message to those who need to see God and receive that gift of salvation that He gives freely to all who believe in Jesus Christ. It is a privilege to be a worker in the kingdom, not a burden. The reward we receive, eternity in heaven, can't be any more generous than what we have already been given. Shouldn't we want such grace for everyone?

Paul writes, "For he [God] has granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…" Faith is a privilege granted by God, and all that comes from faith is also a privilege. Now, it is easy for us to look at the word suffering and think of the horrible things that come in our lives. Our health troubles, our financial worries, our broken relationships and our other hardships, we grasp on to these troubles as if they are our cross to bear, our burden for the sake of the Gospel. Yet, as we look at this passage from Paul's letter to Philippi, we see that the suffering of which he is talking is suffering for the Gospel.

He was in prison, unfairly bound by the laws of Rome. I can imagine that he had many moments of doubt and uncertainty. Like Jonah, Paul probably wondered often whether it was even worth his living to see the pain around him. He had a right to be angry because he was unjustly being persecuted for his faith. Yet, Paul knew that even the time in prison was for the glory of God. The work he could do there would help grow the kingdom and spread the Gospel. Even if he suffered the ultimate end – martyrdom – it would be for the benefit of the Church. Yet, he saw that he still had work to do and while he wanted to receive his reward immediately, he knew that the time would come according to God's good and perfect will.

What we see in both these stories, and in the encouragement of Paul, is that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. He changes His mind for the sake of a life and grants gifts beyond anyone's worth. The Ninevites may not have deserved God's mercy, but when they heard His word they turned to Him. They mourned their sin and sought forgiveness. They sang his praises. I can almost imagine the Ninevites singing the psalm for today. "And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts; And I will declare thy greatness." They deserved the fire and brimstone that Jonah proclaimed would come to them. They repented and received grace.

How are any of us different than the Ninevites? Aren't we all enemies in some way to some one? Certainly we are all, by our own nature, enemies of God. We deserve the fire and brimstone that is promised to those who do not repent of their evil ways. Yet, we are unable to repent of our own volition. We need to hear God's Word, so that God's Word – Jesus Christ – might bring us to the repentance God seeks. God sends His people out into the world to speak that Word so that all who are lost and dying might hear and believe. Once we have heard, He calls us to the same task. By His grace, He puts His Word in our heart and in our mouth so that we might speak forgiveness into the world.

Jonah's story does not end with God's change of mind. Jonah, angry that God would forgive his enemy, went to the desert and wanted to die. God raised a bush over Jonah's head, to cool his brow and give him rest. Jonah was happy about the bush. However, the next day God made the bush die. This made Jonah even angrier. How could God take away his bush and let him suffer, especially since He'd had such mercy on the Ninevites? Jonah was angry enough to die.

Jonah loved a busy – a bush that was not his and that did not last even a day. God said, "Thou hast had regard for the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" God loved Nineveh, even though they did not love Him. There was too much at stake for God to rush to judgment, He had to give them a chance to change.

It is often said that we will be surprised when we get to heaven and see some of the people who are there. How will we feel? Will we be like the field workers and battle the landowner over his generosity? Will we be like Jonah, so angry that we would rather die than live with them?

God has granted us the privilege of believing in Jesus and suffering for Him. What does this mean for us today? For some, it means everything that goes wrong in their life is some statement by God about sin or His response to our actions or lack of action. For others, every burden is a cross to bear, the suffering they have been called to do for God. Yet, the suffering Christ calls us to is like that of Paul, and of Jonah, to go out into the world and share the message of forgiveness and mercy with those who are dying in their sin. It isn't easy to preach repentance to those who are our enemies. It might mean we will be dealt with unjustly and we might just feel like we would rather die than see their salvation.

However, God has not given us His grace to keep for ourselves. He has given us His grace to be shared, even with our enemy. He may have given you a special message for a friend that you would rather not share. Yet, God will not let go. You can try to run and try to hide, but it won't work. God loves even those who do not love Him and He desires that they hear His word of grace so that they might repent and come to worship Him too.

I wonder about those prophets that think they know why tragedies happen in our world today. I have no doubt that God still sends prophets into the world. However, if a word given does nothing to glorify God, if it does not bring God's people closer to Him, then I wonder if it comes from Him. He speaks into the world for a purpose. Sometimes His Word is rejected. However, He will give every opportunity for sinners to hear of His mercy and grace so that they might be saved. Thanks be to God, or else we would still be dead in our own sin. The LORD is truly gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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