Pastor Nelson Bonilla: 1-21-24  “What a Graceful God we have”

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Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Ever since we were children, we sang songs relating to the story we read this morning. Ever since our childhood, we know of how Jonah was swallowed by the big fish. And what most adults know of Jonah, we learned it in Sunday school class. Sometimes I believe that we have made of Jonah a children’s book.  However, this book is not only for children and the story of Jonah being swallowed and then spited out by the great fish is not the biggest miracle in this small book of the Old Testament; it is not even the central message of the story.

The book of Jonah is about God’s Grace and mercy; and the greatest miracle and central message of this short book is the change of heart that takes place in the evil city of Nineveh. The central message is God relenting from sending calamity to Nineveh when Jonah finally shares God’s message with the city.

The opportunity God gave Nineveh clearly demonstrates that God desires to forgive and not destroy, regardless of who we are and what we     have done. This book is about a prophet who knew God very well, Jonah knew that “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love,” Jonah knew that “God forgives sin and rebellion.” That is why he wanted to avoid his prophetic assignment. Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to be punish for their sins, and he knew that if they heard God’s words they would repent, and God would forgive them.

In order to understand better Jonah’s attitude and God’s grace, mercy, and compassion we must have an idea of who the people of Nineveh were. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was Israel’s enemy. They were constantly at war; the Assyrians were ruthless people. The Assyrians were notoriously cruel. Defeated enemies were impaled, beheaded, or flayed. The Assyrians were the one who introduced the policy of deportations. Whole populations were deported from their native territory to far lands and other people were brought in to replace them. The intention behind was for them to lose their identity and make them disappear.

 Archaeologists found a tablet describing the actions of the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser against his enemies. The tablet reads: “I built a wall before the great gates of the city; I peeled the skin off the chief men of the rebels, and I covered the wall with their skins. Some of them were enclosed alive in the bricks of the wall, some of them were crucified on stakes along the wall; I caused a great multitude of them to be flayed in my presence, and I covered the wall with their skins. I gathered together the heads in the form of crowns, and their pierced bodies in the form of garlands.” What this tablet says can give us a good idea of how cruel the Assyrians were and why Jonah did not want to go and preach.

 In the year 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel were taken captive by the Assyrians and no doubt many of them ended like those described in king Tiglath-Pileser’s tablet. To the first hearers of this story, Nineveh was a threat, for them Nineveh was the capital of the evil empire. And even though God told Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim to them the message I give you.” The message God gave Jonah was a warning, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

I can understand why Jonah disobeyed God, he hated the ninevites, and instead of going to Nineveh, he bought a one-way ticket to the other end of the world, Tarshish. Tarshish was located in what today is Spain, what it was believe then to be the end of the world. Jonah rather to go to end of the world than share God’s mercy with the people of Nineveh; he wanted God to destroy them. He thought they did not deserve his mercy. When God sent him to preach his message, I believe Jonah was expecting to be a message of destruction not of warning.   

What can we learn today from this unwilling prophet who tried to run away from God? A lot I believe. But today, I will share two lessons with you.

Lesson number 1, while our love for others fails, God’s compassion knows no ends.  

One of the great needs of the church in our day is to understand and proclaim the message of grace, mercy, and forgiveness for all regardless of who they are. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he thought Israel’s enemies were also God’s enemies. Jonah knew Nineveh; he knew who de Assyrians were and for him they did not deserve God’ mercy. Jonah even prayed for their destruction. Jonah was preaching God’s message expecting people not to hear and not to obey. He was planting the word of God, expecting no harvest; he wanted God to please him by destroying the city.

Listen to Jonah 4:1-3, he prayed this after God saved the city. “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” From this we can see that Jonah knew God, but he had not yet learned to say, “may your will be done and not mine.” But not even a reluctant prophet like Jonah can stop God’s work.

I believe the message from Jonah is relevant for our days since we are living in such a polarized society. Now everyone standing on the other side of the isle are considered enemies. In today’s society when people do not think, act, or look like us are considered our enemies. However, we have to remember that those who we consider enemies, God sees them the same way he sees us: people worthy of salvation. The day we learn this, a great change will happen in our world. The spiritual awakening, the church is dreaming with will come when we realize that “where sin increases, grace increases more.” As Paul reminds us in Romans 5:20. And this grace applies to every single person of this world regardless of who they are and where they live.

Second lesson from Jonah: God does not show favoritism, we are all equal before God’s eyes.

Reading Jonah, I have concluded that God’s love is like a weapon, when is used it does not discriminate. God’s word is a weapon of mass conversion, His love does not discriminate. That is what Jesus meant when he said, that “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” If God’s love was able to save Nineveh, he can save anyone, all we have to do is preach God’s message of love with John 3:16 in mind, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The prophet Jonah reveals to us the depths of human’s hearts, always looking at the outward appearance. But also reveals God’s grace, for those we call “outsiders” and to those we call “insiders” because he looks at the hearts. Jonah is a reminder of God’s compassion for the lost and His patience with the disobedient people like Nineveh and also Jonah.

We all here have experienced God’s love and grace. Mindful of the steadfast love and grace God has shown to us in Christ, let us speak to others of the same steadfast love that is available to all the peoples of the world, regardless of what we think about then; regardless of class, ethnicity, or any other socially defining marker. This society has divided us among blues and reds, liberal and conservatives, straight and gays, white and blacks, young generation, and old generation. But regardless of all these names we call each other, regardless of all our external differences, Jonah reminds us that God sees us as equal and before his presence, we are all women and men in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. For God there are not outsiders or insiders, Ninevites or Israelites. For Him we are simple the reason why Jesus died on the cross.

Between three thousand or twenty-five hundred years later, the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28, using what divided society in his time reminds us of the same message of love and mercy for everyone, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To end my meditation this morning, I invite you to actualize what Paul said in Galatians 3:28. We can say “There is neither…and name what is dividing our world and end it with, “for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but thanks be to God that we all are justified freely through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Amen.  

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