Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Whom Will You Serve?

The Book of Jonah is very short, only two pages in my Bible. It’s a wonder that the story appears in the scriptures at all. Think about it: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a pagan nation, and preach the word of God to them. Instead, he gets on a ship going in the opposite direction. When a storm arises, Jonah senses why, and tells the crew to throw him overboard. Jonah spends the next three days and nights in the belly of a great fish. Finally, when he gets to Nineveh, he brings them God’s message: “Forty days, and the city will be destroyed!” A simple choice: repent, or else.

The people of Nineveh heeded Jonah’s message. “They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. The entire city did what the LORD commanded: the grown ups, the children, even the cattle were sprinkled with ashes, and the orders of the King of Nineveh.

Do you think Jonah was pleased that his mission was successful? Think again! Jonah hated the Assyrians (nothing much has changed, between the Jews and the Syrians, even today). They repented, God relented, and Jonah dissented. He was so royally ticked off that he pleaded with God to let him die. He actually admitted to God that he knew that the LORD was a compassionate God, slow to anger and of great kindness, a loving God, who does not keep the memory of offenses, and does not punish people according to their crimes. From the outset, he was afraid that the Ninevites might listen to his preaching, repent, and avoid destruction. Just imagine turning on the tube, and seeing one of the TV preachers telling his audience: “Hey, y’all! I’ve been asked to preach the word of the LORD to you, but I’m not going to do that, ‘cause if I did, you might believe and be saved, instead of going straight to damnation, like you deserve! LORD, save us and protect us from preachers like Jonah!

Today’s Responsorial is known as the Sinner’s Psalm. It is either Psalm 50 or 51, depending on how the psalms are numbered in your bible.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

This psalm goes to the heart of who God is, and what God wants from you and me. He wants to show us mercy, to wipe out our offenses, wash away our guilt, and cleanses us from our sins. He wants to renew our hearts, and fill us with his Holy Spirit. In return what he seeks from us is humility, contrition, and steadfastness. No matter who you are, even if you’re one of those pesky pagans, the Assyrians, God will not spurn a humble and contrite heart.

In Jesus’ day, the people identified with Jonah’s story. It should come as no surprise, then, that they were troubled by Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the Good News; he healed the sick; he cast out evil spirits, but still, the people clamored for a sign.

Jesus has two responses: First, the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah”. Just as Jonah was a sign for the Ninevites, Jesus would be a sign for the present generation. As Jonah was swallowed up for three days by a sea creature, so Jesus would be swallowed up for three days in the earth. Then, the Queen of Sheba will rise up and condemn this generation, because she traveled from the heart of Africa to seek the Wisdom of Solomon, and the one who is preaching to them is greater than Solomon. On the Day of Judgment, the people of Nineveh will rise up and condemn this generation, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and there is one greater than Jonah here.

It is disturbing to realize that there are so many people in our generation who think that God is like Jonah, not the reluctant prophet, but the terrible and angry LORD who keeps a memorandum of the slightest offense, and can hardly wait for the day when he destroy the sinful world, not by water, as in the days of Noah, but with fire this time.

In every generation each individual must choose between the God of Jonah, with his terrible swift sword, and the God who is so in love with the human race that he sent his eternally-begotten Son to become one of us, and to sacrifice his own life to save us from our sins.

Whom will you serve?

1 comment:

Fr. Warren said...

Good post on the whole Jonah experience. I suspect it's all the more poignant (if we allow it to be) for us who are under orders in our ministry.

What the plum assignment is may or may not (often not) have anything to do with what God would have us do.

In the face of God's getting through to the Ninevites (figuratively) how many of us are silently frustrated that they 'don't get what's coming to them'?

If we take a step back, perhaps we should be happy that we don't get 'what's coming to us' either. God has a different idea of what we deserve it would seem.

Thanks be to God for that!