Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lectionary 25A
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

One generation shall laud thy works to another, And shall declare thy mighty acts.

A couple days ago I wrote about a guy who took an online store to court because the price that was ďadvertisedĒ was $0.00. At first he thought that the company was running a special and that they would hit him with high shipping costs, but in the end his total bill came to $0.00. It was obviously a mistake, and he sent an email to the company making note of it. The company was thankful for the manís email because it made them aware of the problem which they fixed immediately. Imagine their surprise, then, when he sued them for false advertising, seeking an award of $300 for false advertising. He expected the order, which was worth thousands of dollars, to be shipped to him for free. When it wasnít, he sought damages. In the end, the judge ruled in the companyís favor, they were not guilty of false advertising.

I make a lot of mistakes on my website. Iíve found links that donít work and grammatical errors. On one occasion I ended the devotional with half a sentence and the next day I couldnít even figure out what I meant to say. Iíve hit that Ďsend mailí button only to realize that Iíve sent an email I should not have sent. Computers might be excellent tools for us in this day, but they arenít without error. Human beings are imperfect and computer space is vast. A company with thousands of items for sale might never know about an online error until causes a problem, as was the circumstance in that court case. Anyone who works on the Internet must have people who are willing to speak up when there is an error and have grace in the process, or companies will be forced to go out of business from the consequences of their errors.

But we like to benefit from other peopleís errors. We donít mind when someone gives us an extra quarter in our change or when the computer makes a mistake that gives us a deal. We are quick to cry out when that price comes up too high, but we cheer when it is lower than we expect. When someone has made a mistake that harms us, we demand justice, but when they make a mistake in our favor, even if it will harm them, we let it go. Sometimes, when the error comes at the hands of someone who has done us wrong, we praise God for bringing justice in an unexpected way.

How often, however, do we see evil when the reality is that the enemy does not even know thereís something wrong? That man who wanted something for nothing decided that the company was evil because they didnít give him what he wanted. In his mind, justice would be in his favor no matter how it might harm the ignorant party. Thatís what happened with Jonah.

Now, Jonah had good reason to hate the Ninevites. They were, indeed, his enemy. Theyíd murdered his people in border skirmishes and wreaked havoc on their lives. Jonah had no room in his heart for forgiveness. So, when God called him to warn them about their sin so that they might repent, Jonah didnít want to do it. He ran in the other direction trying to hide from God. He found that it was an impossible task, and after a few days in the belly of a big fish, he went to Nineveh and spoke Godís word to the people.

The people heard and believed. They turned their lives around and sought Godís forgiveness. They did what He required and He had mercy on them. Thatís where we join the story in todayís scriptures. Jonah did what he was supposed to do, but even in so doing had some hope that God would do what he felt was right. They were his enemy. They didnít deserve mercy; they deserved to experience the justice that would benefit Jonah and his people. They deserved to suffer. Jonah was offended by the idea that God could have grace on such a people. ďAnd 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.Ē He knew that God was merciful and he did what he could to guarantee his own justice. When the people repented and God relented, Jonah got mad.

The very thing that God does to make us worship and praise Him is the very thing that makes us most angry. We embrace His grace when it is applied to our lives, but hate when it is given to those who hurt us. Jonah was so angry that he wanted to die. He no longer wanted to live in a world where his enemies were given mercy. He thought it better to die than live seeing Godís lovingkindness given to those that did so much harm to his people.

I think it is interesting that the first time God asks Jonah if he has a right to be mad, Jonah remains silent. He simply left town and went out into the desert. He still had hope that God would do what was right. He made a booth and waited to see what would happen to the city. I suppose we all have hope that our enemies will do something to screw up, to disappoint God and then send Him over the edge. If they screw up, God will certainly see that mercy was the wrong thing to do and will give us the justice we deserve. So, Jonah waited.

While he waited, God decided to give him a lesson in love. He caused a bush to grow up around Jonah, and it provided shade and comfort to him in the heat of the day. Jonah was happy about the bush, but the next day the bush had been destroyed by a worm. The wind blew and Jonah was so uncomfortable that he wanted to die.

The last time Jonah said that he wanted to die, God asked, ďIs it right for you to be angry?Ē Jonah didnít answer, perhaps because he knew that God was the authority and he had no right to be angry with Godís decisions. This second time he wanted to die, God asked again, ďIs it right for you to be angry about the bush?Ē Now Jonah had something to be angry about and he said so. ďYes, I have a right to be angry. I loved that bush and now it is gone.Ē God answered, ďSee, now you know how I feel.Ē

God cares about all people, and in the case of the Ninevites, He knew that they were ignorant of their sin. Thatís why He sent Jonah in the first place. They needed to hear Godís Word and know that they were not living rightly. They needed to know that the way they were treating Godís people was wrong and that God was angry. They needed to know that there was a second chance, and that if they repented they would be saved from the destruction they deserved.

There are many in our world today that need that chance to repent, to turn to God, to hear about His grace. Are we willing to be the voice? Are we willing to give them a chance? Or will we keep the Good News to ourselves so that they will get what we think they deserve?

This takes us to the other tough passage for today: the story of the generous employer. Now, this is not a story that should lead us to the understanding that every employee should get paid the same amount no matter how much they work. It is a reminder that the master has a right to be as generous as he pleases. We should not apply this to modern workplaces; it is not a rule for pay tables. It is a salvation story and the pay is Godís grace.

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, ďWhy stand ye here all the day idle?Ē They answered, ďBecause no man hath hired us.Ē 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? They are a lot like Jonah, unwilling to allow Godís grace for those late hires that did not deserve to be paid so well. They fought for their rights, unwilling to take anything less or give anything more to the others. If we think about this story in light of our heavenly reward, donít we do the same thing? Donít we decide that our enemies do not deserve to spend eternity with Jesus because they donít deserve the same grace?

But we are reminded by todayís passages that our enemies belong to God, too, and since He is God, He is the one who chooses what to do with His people. Whether baptized as a baby or converted on a deathbed, all those who hear Godís voice and turn to Him will receive mercy. Are we willing to be Godís voice to those for those to whom weíve been sent, especially those we would rather not see benefit from Godís grace?

Imagine what it must have been like for Paul. When he wrote the letter to Philippi, he was in prison. Despite his suffering, Paul continued to do the work of Christ. He preached the Gospel to anyone who would listen, including those who were his captors. He was unfairly bound by the laws of Rome and 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 martyrdom, it would be for Christ and His Church. He knew that he still had work to do and while he wanted to receive his reward immediately, he knew the time would come.

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.

The psalmist writes, ďOne generation shall laud thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.Ē Like Jonah, we are called to take the message of grace into the world. But we are not given the responsibility to decide who gets how much of our Fatherís love. Thatís up to God. We canít pick and choose who we want to hear the Gospel. We canít decide someone doesnít deserve to receive mercy. We canít get angry if we see our enemies turn to God and receive salvation. Whether we are part of Godís kingdom for a lifetime, a day or a minute, those with faith will spend eternity with God.

The Lord is indeed gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We thank God for that because we are as imperfect as our neighbor. We need His grace and mercy as much as our neighbor. How blessed are we that we have received the grace that made us part of Godís kingdom. That grace has given us strength and courage, hope and peace, joy and love that makes our life worth living. We have that grace to get us through the bad times and help us do what is good and right in the world. That grace gives us the wisdom to treat our neighbor with respect and to value them as God does. Donít we want to share that with others so that they donít have to wait until that last minute to have what we have enjoyed our whole lives? Who knows, we might just discover our enemies make wonderful friends.

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