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1 But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
4 The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 5 But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.
6 Then the LORD God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7 But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8 Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
9 God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
10 But the LORD said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
We sometimes mistakenly think that before Jesus no one in Israel saw God as merciful and forgiving. No—even Jonah had a surface awareness of that. “Jonah’s list of five attributes is practically creedal in the OT (Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13), so it is ironic that Jonah uses them as a basis of his complaint.” * There’s this story’s crowning irony. The same Jonah who thanked God for saving him in chapter 2 was furious about God’s mercy to the people of Nineveh.
Lord Jesus, Jonah thought God’s mercy was utterly wrong. But thank you that your Spirit led the writing of this book, and its inclusion in the Bible, to help me see that God was utterly right. Amen.
(Yesterday we asked you to pray for Jennifer Creagar, who’s been ill this week. Today we ask your prayers for Ginny Howell, our regular blogger in this slot, dealing with Covid. Kari Burgess first wrote this thoughtful blog post in October of 2020.)
This reading in Jonah today has been a convicting one for me. It’s a familiar story from my childhood, and yet, as often happens when I allow myself to be open to what Scripture is saying to me personally, I read this story through a new lens today. The Sunday School story from my childhood was naturally much more simplistic and focused on what God did for Jonah in saving him from the fish and God’s mercy for the people of Nineveh. I seem to remember a cartoon bubble that said, “Hooray! God saved Jonah! God saved Nineveh!”
But our study questions today made me dig deeper and reflect on what we’re supposed to learn from Jonah’s anger about God saving Nineveh. I mean, why would someone be angry about God being merciful to a group of people? That doesn’t sound like loving your neighbor. As Christians, we’re called to tell those who do not know Jesus about God’s grace and mercy through the good news of Jesus. Shame on Jonah. I’d never do that. (The sarcasm comes through, right?)
But we’re supposed to see ourselves in the story. We’re challenged to ask ourselves if there is a group of people we’d rather see God “zap” rather than repent. Say what? Of course not!
Until maybe I reflect a little more. When I’m on a walk and see a neighbor’s lawn filled with political signs of the opposing party, do I feel love for them? Or do I make assumptions about that person? When I see some of the extreme groups on the right or left in this politically divided nation use hurtful language or harmful actions, can I honestly say I am praying for those people’s repentance? More likely, I find a friend with my same views to complain to and reinforce my beliefs. I can’t say I’m consistently looking for ways I can contribute to dialing down the conflict.
Or more importantly, in my own relationships, if I feel wronged or have a conflict with someone, is my first response to pray for that person? Or is there a tendency to be quick to anger, or worse, speak badly about them with someone on “my side”? While I can’t imagine wishing harm on anyone, if I’m honest, I might hold some resentment and resist focusing in on their good traits. If something really great happens to a person I’m in conflict with, am I truly happy for them? Or is there a small part of me that feels jealous or bitter something good came to someone who I don’t think deserves it?
These are hard truths to face and they feel a little too vulnerable to share. But I’m grateful for the clarity with which God is speaking to me through the story of Jonah today. While it’s easy to make excuses or feel justified during these highly volatile, divisive political times, I’m being called to reflect on how well I’m really loving my neighbors, to repent for those times when I haven’t been loving, and to start anew.
Dear God, I don’t deserve it, but I desperately need your grace each day. Forgive me for those times I’ve been quick to anger, used negative speech and held harmful resentment. Help me live out this calling to love my neighbor. Guide me to find ways to love those who feel harder to love. Give me a spirit filled with compassion, grace, mercy and love. Amen.
* NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook (Kindle Locations 206968-206971). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
** John Goldingay, Daniel and The Twelve Prophets for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 158.