Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon: The Problem with Mercy (Jonah 4: 1-11)

The Problem with Mercy
Psalm 145: 1-8; Jonah 4: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2017

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.

One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendour of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
- Psalm 145: 1-8

When God saw what [Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ - Jonah 4: 1-11

The past four weeks we have been exploring the book of Jonah. We have learned a lot about God’s character.

When Jonah turned tail and ran from God’s call, the Lord pursued Jonah with a relentless love. When the storm raged as Jonah was headed in the wrong direction, the Lord provided a whale to plant Jonah’s feet where God needed him. When Jonah’s heart was not in his proclamation to Ninevah, the Lord still worked a miracle by giving both Ninevah and Jonah a second chance. They were both delivered by God’s amazing grace.

And today God’s Word reveals the heart of the matter between Jonah and the Lord.

God delivered Ninevah and as Jonah watched God’s mercy unfold he became undone. Jonah was not perplexed or miffed. Jonah was angered to the point that rage was kindled and burning within him. Jonah looked like a red-faced cartoon character blowing steam out of his ears because Ninevah did not get what they deserved.

Jonah confessed this to God. He knew God’s character and he had a hunch the story would end this way. But still Jonah had resisted God’s mercy in hopes that God would resist mercy too.

Jonah’s conflict with God reveals there was something at stake for Jonah. Remember he was a court prophet earlier in Israel’s history (2 Kings 14:23-26). Jonah had known the threat Assyria had posed to Israel all those years ago. He and the readers of this story also knew the injustices of Assyria in a very personal way, for the people of Ninevah had since destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. Therefore, Jonah wanted justice to be done. And he told God, give me justice or give me death.

Ninevah experienced first-hand that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2: 13b) and Jonah experienced the problem with mercy. When we have experienced the brokenness of the world in a very personal way, we judge the merits of mercy for those who have wronged us.

God saw this conflict raging within Jonah. I am struck with God’s response. The Lord did not dig up Jonah’s past failures of faithfulness. The Lord did not remind Jonah of all the mercy he had already received and failed to take into account. The Lord did not chastise Jonah for his anger.

God met Jonah where he was. In a moment of sheer grace God not only drew near to Jonah. God also offered a teaching moment to give Jonah a new perspective of mercy.

God gave Jonah an opportunity to look more deeply into his own heart. The Lord asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?” When Jonah’s emotions got the best of him he walked away from God’s presence. You see Jonah was wrestling between the differences of his reality and God’s reality. In fact, the light of God’s grace shone so brightly that Jonah tried to shield himself from it.

And yet again God drew near and embraced Jonah in nothing less than grace. Not only did God bring forth the shade tree to comfort Jonah, God also took it away to bring Jonah to his senses. God stayed by the prophet’s side in hopes to reframe Jonah’s perception of mercy from a problem to a gift.

Dewitt Jones was a professional photographer with National Geographic Magazine for twenty years. Over the course of his career he learned so much about society, geography, and people. But more than that, National Geographic reshaped Dewitt’s worldview by their vision: “Celebrate what is right with the world instead of what is wrong with it.”

From a young age Dewitt recalls being taught the traditional maxim that we all know, “I won’t believe it until I see it.” As he shot photographs for National Geographic that maxim shifted for him in a profound way. Dewitt realized the truth of the maxim is understood rather as: “I won’t see it until I believe it.”

The magazine would send Dewitt to places he had never been before. Dewitt knew he would not see the shot worth capturing until he believed it would be provided. He believed there would be beautiful landscapes to photograph and they would appear. He believed those landscapes would be full of wonderful people and they would be there. He believed he would see the good in every face framed by the camera lens…and even in the worst situations the good would shine through. He began every shot trying to celebrate what was right with the situation rather than what was wrong with it.

Twenty years of working behind the camera lens gave Dewitt a new understanding of how the world works. He came to learn that “Vision controls our perception and perception controls our reality.”

If we choose to focus on what is wrong with the world we will always see the worst. We will see the world around us through the lens of shortcomings, failure, and evil. We will make our own judgments about people and surrounding situations. We will be tempted to disengage from opportunities to make a difference. Seeing the worst of the world often leaves us hopeless. We get angry and frustrated when we cannot bend the outcome by our control.

Vision certainly controls our perception and perception controls our reality. God gives us opportunities to see the world and ourselves through the Lord’s kingdom vision to shape our faith perception and guide our spiritual reality.

God’s vision is captured through the lens of steadfast love. The Lord is gracious and merciful. God hears the cries of humanity and creation. God is compassionate; for the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in an unconditional love that remembers God’s covenant promises.

Faith charges you and me to celebrate what is right with the world. The cornerstone to be celebrated is that all of humanity and creation are tethered together in a web of intricate relationships by our Creator’s redeeming love.

Every time we affirm our faith saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” we are professing important truths about God’s character; The Study Catechism helps our articulations of these truths:

“God is a God of love and God’s love is powerful beyond measure. We are created to live together in love and freedom – with God, with one another, and with the world. We are created to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives.”[1]

We see the fullness of God’s merciful compassion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The whole of Jesus’ life is illustrated by him meeting us in our brokenness without judgment or condemnation. Christ already knows the worst in the world and also in us and yet chooses to see us through the lens of God’s compassion.

God’s care for the world reached a tipping point for mercy to triumph over judgment, therefore Christ died for us to reconcile us back to God. Christ rose for us so that we may experience the joy of salvation in our lives today and know God is eternally by our side.

That word “us” is not defined by our boundaries of grouping like-minded people or defining someone’s worthiness; God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11). In Christ there are no longer man-made categories that divide us; there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Christ is on the move to break down the divisions we create.

Likewise, we are to respond to God’s mercy and celebrate our common calling. For the body of Christ is called to go where God sends us, “to welcome and accept others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of you and me,” and to extend God’s mercy to others [2].

In doing so we join God in this holy work of redeeming the brokenness of the world into something new and beautiful. God celebrates our potential to share the mind of Christ. God celebrates every opportunity for all of God’s children to be transformed and changed by God’s mercy and grace.

The problem with mercy is that our vision controls our perception and perception controls our reality.

Jonah’s vision was centered upon what was wrong with the world and how he had been wronged by it. That vision misguided Jonah to perceive that at he knew better than God to decide the merits of mercy. His reality became so narrowed that he could not see the abundance of God’s mercy in his own life.

God’s vision is centered upon what is right with the world; and what is right is God’s merciful compassion that pursues us with a relentless love. That vision opens our hearts and minds to perceive God’s mercies are new each morning. God’s compassion has the ability to shape our spiritual reality focusing on what breaks God’s heart and celebrating God’s abundant goodness that is always present in our brokenness and in the worst situations.

The book of Jonah leaves us holding the question – will we see mercy as a problem or as a gift?

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] “The Study Catechism,” (Louisville: Witherspoon Press by the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 1998), Questions 7 and 19, pp. 3, 9.
[2] The Study Catechism, Question 39, p. 25.

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