Scripture: Jonah:3:1-5; 3:1-4:2
A long time ago when someone wanted to be current on the news, everyone would read the same local paper and watch Walter Cronkite on the evening news. Today though there are multiple 24-7 cable news channels that all bring different spins and there are endless way to customize our news sources and what stories we actually read or see. Once it could be assumed that most people would be fairly up to date on the same news stories, but that is not the case anymore. Because of how I have my feeds set up, there is a particular news story that I saw a lot about this week but I am not sure if that is true for you all as well. The news story that kept popping up for me was related to Pope Francis and something he said. This past week in an interview the pope was asked about hell and he said, “What I would say is not a dogma of faith, but my personal thought: I like to think hell is empty; I hope it is.”
Even though he stated this was a personal thought, and not official catholic doctrine, his comment set of a firestorm of reactions and commentary. At first thought, I would agree with the pope. If hell is eternal separation from God, shouldn’t we hope hell is empty? Shouldn’t we not want anyone to have to be there? It seems that a lot of people did not agree though, and a lot of this reactionary commentary was an emphatic insistence that it is impossible for hell to be empty. Several protestant commentators who weighed in to oppose this statement, insisted that because God is a just God hell cannot be empty because there are people who never accepted Christ and are now getting the eternal punishment they deserve. At those points, I tended to stop reading the comments as they devolved into more and more vitriolic arguments. Yet I was still left wondering shouldn’t hoping hell is empty be something all Christians should agree with? Shouldn’t our hope be that everyone comes to know Jesus and is saved? For some it seems that kind of hope is naïve at best and unfair at worse because if hell is empty that means that there are people who are not getting what they deserve. This week as I read this morning’s scripture and saw all of the various reactions to Pope Francis’ comment I could not help but think that a lot of believers today would find a lot of common ground with Jonah.
The story of Jonah is one that most of us are familiar with. If you grew up in the church, then chances are you first learned this story as a child. For whatever reason we always tell children the bible stories that involve animals. The story of Jonah is a great candidate for this since he gets swallowed by a well, or to be really accurate a big fish. Often when we hear the story of Jonah we place the emphasis on the big fish and Jonah getting swallowed. We focus on the fact that Jonah ran from God, God sent the fish for three days Jonah was in the fish before he repented and was obedient to what God asked. It is common to make the takeaway point of the story to be obedience to God above all else. While that is one way to focus on the story, that is not the main conclusion the story itself comes to.
In this morning’s story we look at end of the story of Jonah, and we see the part of that we miss if we just focus on the first part with Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. This morning’s story tells us why Jonah ran in the first place. Jonah ran because he knew that if he did what God said, then the people of Nineveh would not be punished. To Jonah that would not do, to Jonah that was not fair. They deserved God’s wrath, so he ran to try and ensure that would happen. As Jonah mentioned in verse 4:2 he had tried to flee to Tarshish. The exact location of Tarshish is up for debate but there is some consensus that it somewhere on the coast in Southern Spain. That is in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was as far as Jonah could flee to the west as humanly possible. Jonah was willing to leave everything behind and go to the literal end of the earth in order to see the people of Nineveh get what was coming to them. I think this leads to the question, why?
To answer that question does require a little bit of the historical and geographical context of Jonah’s time. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, so he was active as a prophet during the reign of King Jerobaoam II. This was during the time period when the Israelites were divided into two kingdoms, and Jonah was active in the Northern kingdom. This kingdom was under constant threat. In fact, right after Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings, the very next verse paints a picture as to how bad things were. 2 Kings 14:26 states, “The LORD had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them.” One of the great causes of all this suffering both directly and indirectly was the mighty Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire was based to the east of Israel, with their capital city in Nineveh. The Assyrians were a military powerhouse that got their wealth by taking from others. Many of the prophets wrote about Assyria including Isaiah. In Isaiah 37:11 we read, “Surely you have heard what the Kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely.”
Within a couple of generations of Jonah’s life, the Assyrians would eventually conquer the northern kingdom and haul off many of the people into exile. The Assyrians were the enemy. Their greed, violence, and warmongering was the cause of so much suffering. They were a real and present danger to the lives of all the kingdom of Israel. It does not take a lot of imagination to see why Jonah wanted God to destroy the city of Nineveh. This would have kept Israel safe and it would have it would have stopped a lot of potential suffering. This morning’s scripture gives us the viewpoint as to why Jonah ran, but it also gives the main point that the whole story of Jonah is trying to teach. We find that main point in verse 4:2 where Jonah complains, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
The main point that we are supposed to get from the story of Jonah has less to do with a fish and being obedient to God and more to do with the nature of God. In the days of Jonah, the Assyrians were the biggest bullies, they were the worse of the worse. If there were any group of people who deserved some divine wrath and destruction being dropped on them, then a strong case could have been built for the Assyrians. Jonah wanted to see the Assyrians destroyed. Likely from his viewpoint that would have been fair. They would have deserved it. Yet even these people, God is willing to forgive. God is compassionate towards them, slow to anger and quick to relent because God is abounding in love. The main point of Jonah is that compassion and abounding in love is part of the very nature of God, and it is such a core part of God that God’s grace and compassion extends to all people. The main point of Jonah is that God’s grace and love is more than fair.
I think one of things that we can easily lose sight of is how radical of an idea this truly was. The ancient Middle Eastern world, was polytheistic. Every culture had their own gods, and they believed their patron deities were the only gods that had any care for them. What Jonah, and the other Israelite prophets advocated is that the God of Israelites, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the great I AM, was more than just the God of Israel. They advocated that the LORD was the God of all, that the entire world was God’s concern, and that God cared deeply about all of it. This was still a radical belief 700 and some years after Jonah when Jesus met with Nicodemous in the gospel of John. About that encounter the gospel author declares, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” The message of both the old and New Testament, the core theme of Jonah and the gospels is that God loves and desires to save everyone: The whole world, with no exceptions. The great commission given to us from Jesus was to make disciples of all the nations, not just the nations we like and look like us. All means all. This message that God loves everyone and that God cares for everyone, not just the special, the elect, or the chosen was truly radical in its day. Unfortunately, it is still somewhat a radical message today, because it is not a message a lot of people here. This inclusive good news-that God loves everyone and that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, is still the good news that people need.
Unfortunately, the good news of God’s love is not always the news that people hear even if they need it. Unfortunately, too many of us are far less compassionate than God and more like Jonah. The book of Jonah ends with one last little detail which we read today. Jonah wanted to see just what would happen to the city, so he waited around. The Middle Eastern sun is brutal and God provided a plant to shade Jonah, but the day God caused the plant to die. Jonah got so mad and miserable about this that in verse 9 he states, “I am so angry I wish I were dead.” This is when God drops the object lesson on Jonah. He cares more about a plant that was making him more comfortable than he cares about all of the lives in the city of Nineveh. This kind of self-centered attitude that starts with “how does this affect me?” is still overly common, even among people who claim to follow Jesus. Honestly, we should know better because being self-focused is not the example that Jesus taught us.
The example Jesus gave us was to be neighbors to others, to love the least of these, and to serve others instead of being served. We should act more like God in Jonah: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. This past week in reading people’s responses to the pope stating he hopes hell is empty, more than once people’s comments listed off the type of people they believed were going to be filling the bowel of hell. That is not loving or compassionate. It is also not helpful to anyone. Often this attitude is done under the banner of “love the sinner hate the sin.” I can say from my study of Christian history, and from the observations made during my life time Christians are not very capable of doing this. If we devote any energy to hate, I am not sure how well we can love at the same time. Part of the problem American Christians have in general, is that we have been very articulate in communicating the sins we hate, but we have not always done the best job at loving others. We should love all others, without exception, without qualification. We should have compassion for all other people because as this morning’s scripture illustrates God has compassion for all people. All means all. Friends, Love the sinner, hate the sin, should not be our motto. Let’s drop the last five words or so and just focus on love. Let’s follow the example of God in this morning’s scripture and let’s practice abounding in love.
We should hope that hell will be as empty as possible, because we should want as many people as possible to come and know the good news of Jesus Christ and the saving love of God. This is not going to happen if we focus only on ourselves, and this is not going to happen if we put any energy into hating the sins of others. This is only going to happen if we seek to love, care for, and have compassion for the same people that God has compassion for. Which is everyone. God’s love is not fair. It is compassionate and abounding in love. It is more than fair. So may we treat the world, the community around us in such a loving way that our actions prove when the scripture says “For God so loved the world”, it means it. May the way we treat others show that when it comes to the immense, unquenchable, and unchanging love of God all means all. May we seek in all we say and in all we do to abound in love.