Saturday, 20 September 2008

Changing God's mind?

Readings: Jonah 3 v 10-4 v 11
Matthew 20 v 1-16

A little boy was asked what we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale. His answer was, "People make whales sick." Well, that's one thing we can learn from the ancient story of Jonah. People do make whales sick. But there are lots of other things beside.
The part of the story we read this morning is the part that we don’t hear about in Sunday School, the part we don’t tell the children.
We would rather focus on Jonah as some kind of hero, rescued from a deadly encounter to go and do God’s will.
We don’t want to look at the ugliness that made Jonah resent God for taking pity on a city that got a hold of itself and changed its ways.
The last words of the book of Jonah are some of the most beautiful in all the Scriptures. Jonah wants God to destroy the people of Nineveh as was the threat but God says to Jonah, "You have pity on a gourd which you did not plant, which grew up in a night and perished in a night; And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot discern their right hand from their left and also much cattle."
God's universal love. That’s what we see displayed in the book of Jonah.
But there’s something else I’d like us to discover today and that is that our God is a God who is not afraid to change. That is an interesting thing about the God of the Old Testament. This is not a rigid God. You will remember on one occasion, the great man of faith Abraham argued with God about the people of Sodom. God was going to destroy that city because of its great wickedness. Abraham succeeded in getting a pledge from God that the city would not be destroyed if as many as ten righteous people could be located there. Unfortunately, there weren't ten righteous people in Sodom, but at least God was swayed by Abraham's arguments. That is not an isolated event. God chose a man named Saul to be the first king of Israel but soon God realized that Saul was not worthy of such responsibility. So God had a change of mind and had Samuel the prophet anoint David to be the new king of Israel.
The God of the Old Testament was not afraid to mark out a new direction.
And that’s the story in Jonah. God gives Jonah the assignment of preaching to the people of Nineveh. Jonah is to tell the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy the city because of their wickedness. Then an amazing thing happens. All the people of Nineveh repent. From the king in his palace to the ordinary man in the street, they all turn from their sin. When that happens, God changes his mind. He decides not to destroy Nineveh. This embarrasses Jonah beyond belief. He has told the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy them. Now God is not going to do it. Jonah feels utterly humiliated. Besides, he didn't like the people all that much anyway. Angrily he says to God, "I knew it! I knew that you were that kind of God." Jonah is so upset that he goes out and sits on a hillside overlooking Nineveh to mope. He is angry enough to sit there until he dies. What do you do with a God who changes his mind-who says he is going to destroy people and then lets them off the hook? Often it seems our prayers are pleas to change God’s mind. Sometimes our prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes they are supplications for forgiveness. More often than not, however, we pray for God somehow to change plans.
We are like the five-year-old, who told his dad he'd like to have a baby brother. His dad thought for a moment and then replied, "I'll tell you what. If every night for two months you pray for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!" Maybe that dad knew something that his son didn't. That night this young boy went to his bedroom early to start praying for a baby brother. He prayed every night for a whole month, but then he began to get a little weary. He stopped praying for a baby brother. After another month, however, his mother went to the hospital. When she came back, she brought home, not just one baby brother, but two baby brothers - twins! The wee boy’s dad looked down at him and said, "Now, aren't you glad you prayed?" He thought for a moment and then looked up at his dad and answered, "Yes, but aren't you glad I stopped praying when I did?"
So often when we pray aren't we trying to change something - whether it be the natural processes of nature or the results of some deed or misdeed that we have performed? Or perhaps we may pray for somebody that we wish God would change. From reading the story of Jonah we might get the idea that repentance changes God's mind. Mature faith understands that it is not God's mind that needs changing, but ours. It was never God's purpose that Nineveh be destroyed. It was God's will that Nineveh recognize its need for repentance.
So it is with prayer. Archbishop Trench once said that prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of God’s willingness. We serve a God who knows our needs and whose will is always for our good. We cannot help but pray when things need changing. That is the most human response to danger or to heartache in the world.
But we need to understand that even while we are praying a loving God is already at work in all things. What we need to pray for is not that God’s plans will change but that we will change and be enabled to trust God more. It is understandable to pray that God will change circumstances but it is far better to pray that regardless of our circumstances we will be enabled to cope with life with God by our side. God’s grace is amazing, the way it encompasses everyone, welcomes everyone, forgives everyone, and loves everyone. But grace can also be exasperating. There are times when grace doesn’t feel all that gracious, depending on where you happen to be standing at the time you encounter it. Today’s story from Matthew’s gospel is a case in point.
Of course those guys who had worked all day expected to be better rewarded than the folk who turned up at the last minute.
Isn’t it funny how grace doesn’t feel so gracious when we have to share it with someone else – especially if it’s someone we don’t think is deserving of equality with us? Isn’t it funny how the more amazing God’s grace becomes, the more we grumble about it?
Sometimes we have such a hard time being happy when something good happens to someone else. We don’t think they deserve better treatment than we do. Why should someone who didn’t even go to church for the first 40 years of life get the same benefits as those of us who have been WORKING in the church longer than that? And why should those people who never help out in the church and only show up at the odd communion service or at Easter and Christmas get the same treatment we receive? Is that fair?
I hate to step on anyone’s toes, - but the truth is we are all more like the eleventh hour workers than the ones who worked all day. We can all RECEIVE God’s grace, but not one of us DESERVES it. Sometimes in life that may seem to be unfair. But if grace were fair, it wouldn’t be grace, would it?The grace of God is amazing - born out of an unconditional love for all of us.
God's love for us is unchanging. It is we who need to change. Jonah learned that lesson while brooding in resentment over God's saving such an undeserving city as Nineveh. As Thomas Carlyle put it: "And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking." Then Carlyle adds," And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to His way of loving." It was not God who needed a change of mind, but Jonah. That is our greatest need, too, to bring our lives into such harmony with the love and purpose of God that God’s plan is our plan.
Then we can know God’s grace and experience God’s love without feeling resentment for those, seemingly undeserving folk, on whom God also lavishes extravagant grace.
May we know ourselves loved by the God of love and, as we know God’s grace at work in our lives may we be able to celebrate with others the love and grace that God lavishes on them.
God is in every changing circumstance that we encounter in life, bringing love, bringing grace. May we be enabled to see God at work and to celebrate with others who experience the extravagant grace of God too.
For the glory of God.

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