Sermon: Have you Good Reason to be Angry?
Sunday 21st January, 2018
Sermon, Epiphany 3 – St Petri
“Do you Have any Good Reason to Be Angry?” – Jonah 4:4
The theme of repentance and its relationship to this world runs through all of the readings today. But I’m going to concentrate on the Old Testament reading from Jonah. In particular I want you to understand that this sermon is indeed a call to repentance, but perhaps not in the way that you may imagine a call to repentance is uttered or perhaps not even something you may understand a call to repentance means.
I want you to picture, if you will, this scenario. It’s the day before Christmas. You are in the supermarket. It is packed. You are standing in the fast checkout lane, you know, the 12 items or less. You have 11 items in your basket and that allows you to possibly buy a packet of chewies on the way out. You are getting close. You are only 15 people from the front of the queue now, and then some big, sweaty, smelly bloke with a trolley absolutely packed, overflowing with stuff – muscles all the way through to the front of the queue, pushes in. And then what’s worse, the checkout lady starts serving them! One item at a time. What goes through your mind? or let me ask you this? What repeatable thing goes through your mind? – Something will go through your mind that says “It’s not fair!”
The other thing that happens when you’ve got that sense of not fairness going through your head and your heart, is that you become the emotion that you would associate with that scenario. You become angry, impatient, hostile, grumpy. Does that ring bells with any person in this building? Well then we have got a sermon for you today.
If you understand that picture, you understand Jonah’s problem. Jonah’s problem was one of “not fairness”. It’s one of anger and bitterness and resentment. The problem is that if you let that “not fairness” and that sense of anger dominate you, it becomes the lens through which you see everything. You then become like I am fast becoming, a grumpy old man. No, you then actually become a cynical person, you see everything through the lens of that bitterness which makes even good things in the world, interpreted cynically, bitterly. The other problem that it does is that it roots within us a rejection of God, and a rejection of his word of grace to us.
Here is a bold statement. I believe it to be a true statement, which is why I’m making it. All of our anger, even if at the point where our anger is directed to the smelly big man with a trolley at the front of the queue. All of our anger is finally against God. Our problems with anger are God problems. He is to blame, finally, for the things that have gone wrong.
If you let that angry disposition sit within you, it becomes what one of the other passages in Scripture calls, “a root of bitterness springing up”. As a root of bitterness springs up, it defiles many. It touches many. Paul in Ephesians speaks about the necessity to let all that angers you go. The wrath and the clamour and slander. The cynicism, the bitterness let it all go because, he says, unless you do that, you give the evil one a foothold. An opportunity to make mayhem in your life.
My wife and I used to live, before we moved here, just north of Cairns in a place called Clifton Beach. If you have ever been to it, near Palm Cove. It is a fantastic spot. We could just walk for two minutes from our place onto the beach, and we could walk along the beach and look at the palm trees. What are we doing living in the Barossa?
I don’t know if you remember a few years ago, there was a total eclipse of the sun which occurred. We had a prime viewing spot because it was going to pass almost directly over us. So we went down to the beach early that morning to look at what was going to happen. To our shock and horror, our beach was filled with tens of thousands of people from all over Australia, and the world. All come to look at this thing. So we were standing on our beach, packed in like sardines and looking up the sky. It was a bit cloudy. My wife said; “Darling all of these people have come to see this, and it’s cloudy”. “They can’t see anything”. “I think we should pray that God would move the clouds”. I thought to myself, you have got more faith than I have sweetie, but sure enough we did. She prayed, and I prayed, and over a period of the next five or 10 minutes the cloud started to move and break apart. What was obscured became visible. Just at the point where the total eclipse was total, and you got that magnificent diamond ring effect happening. All of the clusters and stars coming out like the classic pictures you see in newspapers and magazines all around the world. It was like a box seat, and God had moved the clouds so that they formed this stunning sort of halo around it. Tens of thousands of people clapped and applauded and whooped and hollered in a spontaneous act of worship. They didn’t know who it was they were worshipping, I’m sure. But it was just such an awe-inspiring experience. And just as the egress started to happen, when the clouds started to move back over again, as the moon was moving away, the clouds started to cover over that little ending part. A bloke in front of us utters, loud enough for everybody to hear, “Yeah that would be right!” In other words, I’ve got such a cynical disposition about God, and all that he’s done wrong in the world that I can’t even enjoy the magnificent spectacle that I’ve seen – a once in a lifetime revelation of glory, without complaining about something. As if to say “God, you stuffed it up again”
Jonah’s problem was an anger problem. Jonah is probably one of the best known of all biblical stories, but having said that, I think we need to remind ourselves that there is now a huge gap between ourselves, who are used to biblical stories, and many people who are not. Let me give you one example. A friend of mine who is a pastor and working in one of our eastern states in a rural district, has seen a wonderful work of God amongst a group of farmers at a little outstation about 100 km away from the main town in his district. One farmer there has had a wonderful revelation of the love of God in Jesus Christ. He has invited many of his friends to come so that they now have a gathering on one of the farms, often 25 farmers or more, and now they are starting to gather some of their wives and children once a month – but it is just as an illustration that my friend was talking with them about the parable of the prodigal son. He said, “How many of you have heard of the parable of the prodigal son?” and one of these blokes puts his hand up says, “Was that a Johnny Cash song? – Really! That is the level of difference between what we commonly speak about, can you understand?
So even though we know the story of Jonah, perhaps it is worth repeating some of the details. Jonah was an old Testament prophet. Probably the most unwilling and grumpy prophet that the Lord has ever sent into the world. Jonah was called, on one occasion, to jump on a boat and go to Darwin, so he decided he would go to Hobart. In fact, it wasn’t quite that way, it was that he was told to go to Nineveh. We know that instead he decided he go to Tarshish, which is the equivalent of saying ”I want you to go to London” and instead go to Antarctica. They are not close to one another. They are about as far away as you could get. To run to Tarshish was to run away from what God had asked him to do. Jonah speaks about it as trying to run from the presence of the Lord.
Why did Jonah want to run? Well, Nineveh was a godless town of idolatry and greed and hostility, who raised up over the next centuries as one of the mightiest empires and strongest armies the world has ever seen. That empire and that army eventually crushed the whole of the northern part of Israel. They were governed or ruled over at that stage by a King, but he himself was ruled over by a God called Asher. If you were to look at some of the ancient reliefs you would see the King in his chariot and this God Asher, would be riding ahead of them into battle. In other words he was the servant of a pagen God, ruling over a city which was ignorant of God, sitting in darkness and due to become one of the biggest enemies of God’s people. Nineveh even at that point, by reputation, was held in awe by all of the surrounding nations. No one wanted to be friends with the Ninevites or the Assyrians. God asked Jonah to go there and to preach a message of repentance, so that if the Ninevites were to hear this word. God would turn and bless them and do them good, and transform their society, and cause them to live in righteousness and peace and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Jonah’s response was “I don’t want them to be blessed”. Like the man who pushes in at the front of the queue at the point that you’re standing there with your 11 items in your bag. You don’t think “Gee, I wish that God would bless that man immensely”. That’s not what’s in your mind is it?
Jonah decides that the Ninevites don’t deserve to be blessed and he knows God is the sort of God who will bless people like the Ninevites if they repent, so he decides that he is not going to Nineveh he is going to Tarshish. We know the story, he jumps on a boat to Tarshish. A big storm comes up. People say “How come we are in the middle of this storm?” “The gods must be angry with us”. Jonah ‘fesses up and says “Look in the end, it’s all my fault, I’m running away from the presence of God”. “He’s asked me to do something and I’m not doing it, so toss me over”. So over he goes, and of course you know the story. God appoints a big fish and the big fish swallows Jonah.
Now to all intents and purposes Jonah is a dead man. He is out of sight, out of mind. Is drowned. He’s in the depths of the sea. He is down by the roots of the mountains, as he calls it. From the world’s point of view, he is dead and buried. From Jonah’s point of view he probably felt he was dead and buried, but three days later he is spat up again on the beach at the very place that he needs to be. He most reluctantly trudges through the city bringing the message of God’s forgiveness to these people and saying “repent”, hoping against hope that they won’t believe it, but they do. Everybody believes! The King believes, and they proclaim a fast. They put themselves through this visible sign of their repentance and God blesses them.
Then Jonah becomes grumpy. He says to God “This is what I said would happen.” “If I came here and they heard and believed, you said that you would bless them” “Now they have heard, and they believe and you have blessed them, and it’s just not fair!” “They are godless pagens who hate us and they eat the wrong food and they wear the wrong clothes”. “They have got tats and they’ve got piercings and they don’t know when to stand up or when to sit down”. So, what does Jonah do? He goes outside of Nineveh, he sits on a hill grumpy, with crossed arms and basically waits to see if God would change his mind. Perhaps if I sit here and let my cynical grumpiness rise up to heaven, God will eventually bring judgement on them. So he sitting there in this stew of his own anger and bitterness and cynicism and hardness. Stewing away, waiting for the fire of judgement to fall on Nineveh. Waiting for the city to burn down and of course it doesn’t happen.
The Jewish people approach that Scripture somewhat differently. Jonah and also Esther are great books of humour and celebration. With Esther, for example they would read it and act it out like a pantomime, with goodies and baddies and fixing the baddies. They come on stage hissing the baddies and cheering the goodies. This is the way it is meant to be read. It’s meant to be understood to be entirely a humorous but pointed illustration.
A humorous but pointed illustration is this, that it is possible for you to be one of God’s people like Israel. It is possible for you to be here Sunday by Sunday and never hear or believe and just be angry about the people out there who aren’t here Sunday by Sunday but whom God is willing, and wanting to and preparing to, and even now blessing. The pointed illustration is that the people who should have believed and repented don’t and the people who should not, by all rights, have believed and repented do. It’s getting a bit close to the bone now isn’t it.
So Jonah sits there on the hillside, and God in this beautiful story, causes a plant to grow. A 42° day hot north wind. The plant gives relief and shade, and then God causes a worm to come and to nibble away at the plant and destroy it. Heat, sweat, uncomfortable. Rage – “It’s not fair”. “Even my plant has died”. That’s where the question comes. “Do you have good reason to be angry?” Jonah says, “You bet I have got good reason to be angry God, because you don’t use the same rule book that I use”. “In my rule book, if you do the right thing, if you stand in line in the checkout with 11 items not 15 and if you’re patient, then you get rewarded”. “You don’t get rewarded if you are a big sweaty ugly bloke who pushes in at the front of the queue and the Ninevites are big sweaty ugly blokes and you are blessing them!” “It is just not fair God, and yes, I have good reason to be angry.” Thank you very much for asking, because you’ve never done anything right as far as I’m concerned, in the whole history of the creation. To which God’s response is “Jonah, I’ve got many, many, many people in this city as well as animals, cattle and beasts and I want to bless them all”. “Don’t you want to share in that?” That’s sort of roughly the question that the thing ends on.
It’s a little bit like the question that the parable of the prodigal son ends on, where the older brother refuses to come in for the rejoicing of the feast for the returned son. You remember the story I told a few minutes ago about the farmers. Well, as they talked about that parable that night, one of those farmers thumped the table, and with words that you would never use in Church, swore and cursed and said “That is never going to happen in my place, because my son is an utter waste of space”. To which my friend the Minister understood and said, “You’ve heard the parable and you understand it”. The elder brother in that parable stands outside and refuses to join the celebration.
This is where we can so readily and so easily be, but as we said, I think in last week’s sermon, when you are thinking about the old Testament in particular, you need to think not just in terms of linear reasoning but in terms of images and pictures and the structures that go along with that picture language. Jonah is full of that, in particular his name. His full name is Jonah Ben Amity. Jonah the son of Amity. Do you know what the Son of Amity means? Ben Amity means, Son of Truth. So Jonah, who is to be the son of truth, actually is the opposite of that because he’s not portraying God as he really is. He is not experiencing God as he really is except in a negative, cynical, angry, hardhearted rejection of God’s character. Do you know what his name “Jonah” means? Jonah means “dove” as in pigeon.
In the world of all small trivial coincidences, this is also the meaning of our Surname. Due is a Danish surname, “dove” or “pigeon” so perhaps the message is I am Jonah. I don’t know.
So, Jonah the dove. Where do you have a picture of a dove in your old Testament knowledge. What old Testament story that’s got a dove in it somewhere? Noah. You have got Noah who is save in the ark. Who is saved in the ark with his family and sends out the dove. The dove comes back with an olive branch to say that the waters are receding and there’s land, which in effect says that the judgement is passed you are free to re-establish a whole new life now. The dove brings a message that the judgement is passed and a new thing is beginning. So, Jonah the Dove brings a message that he disbelieves and doesn’t want to be true – but that message is that the judgement is passed and a whole new life can begin for you Ninevites and, blow me over with a feather, they actually believe it.
But also think about this. Noah and his family are on the surface of the water as they come through the judgement safely. Jonah is underneath. He is sort of buried under that judgement as God’s weight presses down on him, and rather than coming through on the top saved in the ark, he has to go the long way down underneath. Until God gets him into exactly where he wants him to be. Here’s one bit of truth, “You can’t get away from God” no matter what. You can’t get away no matter how angry you are you can’t escape him.
But now jump ahead. Can you think of another story, with another bit of water and another man? Another dove? Jesus at his Baptism and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of the dove. Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit becomes a messenger of God’s peace and he says that ”He is anointed, that the Spirit is upon him to proclaim good news to the captives and release to those who are in bondage, the acceptable year of the Lord’s favour”. And so being filled with the power of the dove, which is the Holy Spirit, Jesus the prophet (remember he says, ”There is someone greater than Jonah here”. Jesus the prophet, greater than Jonah, goes out into the world to preach to his enemies. To preach to those who crucified him. To weep tears over Jerusalem which is going to nail him to a cross through the hands of godless men. He arrives on a donkey and when any one of them repents, he rejoices. When the Holy spirit with joy unspeakable, when he describes that event in relationship to the kingdom of heaven, he says “There is more joy in the kingdom of heaven over one sinner who repents than there is over anything else in the whole world”.”I am here delighting to be the saviour and messenger that God has sent because I want you to experience that joy”.
Jonah and Jesus are direct opposites. Jesus the son of truth, who is the truth, who speaks the truth. Jesus anointed with the dove who participates in the Ministry of the Spirit to bring repentance and reconciliation. Just as we have confessed in that commentary on the Apostles Creed. He rejoices in the Holy Spirit when it happens.
Now the message for this morning is not this. “Don’t be like Jonah!” There’s no good news in that. If I were to say okay you heard all of that, the take-home message is “Don’t be like Jonah” It’s too late – you are like Jonah. Everyone is like Jonah.
The take-home message from today is that, in the face of the grumpy, cynical, anger which has taken root in your heart and life, God has sent someone greater than Jonah. That one who is greater than Jonah has loved you more than you could ever say, and more than you will ever know, I suggest. This one who is greater than Jonah, has come with the fullness of the Holy Spirit to grant you forgiveness and peace. So that, in repentance and faith you would enter into the joy of the Holy Spirit which he himself has. This one, who was greater than Jonah, has come to give you the whole of the kingdom of heaven and here is the point. It’s not fair, it’s not fair that he should do that!
If you say “It’s not fair that you should bless the Ninevites”. “It’s not fair that you should bless the ugly man at the front of the queue”. “It’s not fair that you should bring forgiveness to those people who have never been inside this building”. “It’s not fair”!
Well, by what right is it fair for you to experience forgiveness? There’s nothing fair about you experiencing forgiveness. You haven’t earned it or deserve it. You haven’t earned the Son of God coming from heaven. It’s not fair that he should have to come. He does it because he loves you. And if you’re happy to receive him on the basis of his own grace in love and mercy and goodness, and face the fact that it’s actually not fair that he’s come to find you – then why should you refuse that to someone else? Anyone else in the whole world? Let all wrath and anger and clamour and slander go says the apostle Paul in Ephesians.
God doesn’t come to us, sort of saying “Look I know it’s not fair, but I’ll just do it anyway”. He comes to us with enormous joy and freedom and grace to say “I don’t care what it costs”. “I don’t care how much I have to expend of myself”. “I don’t care how much blood it takes from me, God”. “I want you in my family and nothing is going to stop me doing it”. “Nothing”. “Even your own anger against me which crucifies me and puts me to death and buries me”. On the third day someone greater than Jonah rises up and he walks among us this morning and he says “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
So, you can go from here today actually free. You can actually let all that anger and bitterness and cynicism and resentment go, because Jesus Christ has accounted for every bit of it in his cross. And he has forgiven you freely, and fully, even for hating the bloke who pushes in front of you on the line. Even that’s forgiven. There is no reason for any of us to hold on to that anger any longer. In Jesus name, we are called to repentance. Amen.