Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maundy Thursday Sermon "God's Unexpected Grace."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Brothers and Sisters Redeemed by the Grace of God in Christ Jesus:
For all intents and purposes, we should have finished our journey through the book of Jonah last Wednesday. The plot seemed straightforward enough: Jonah is called by God to preach to Ninevah. Jonah, for whatever reason, decides otherwise and heads the opposite way - to Tarshish via the open sea. God intervenes. Jonah is rescued from destruction by a great fish. Spit out on dry land, he journeys to Ninevah and preaches the city's immanent destruction. Ninevah repents; God relents. End of story.
But similar to some contemporary movies that have a scene or two after the credits roll, we suddenly realize that there is more to the book of Jonah, even after everything seems to have come to a pleasant end. Like the last chapter of the Gospel of John, here we have a kind of epilogue as Jonah stands and watches Ninevah repent and the storm clouds of God's wrath subside. Here we get a glimpse of the inner struggle within God's called and ordained prophet as he witnesses God's unexpected grace and mercy toward the most undeserving of people.
The book of Jonah, the third and fourth chapter:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 3:10-4:2 ESV)

This unexpected "narrative after the narrative" begins with what should have been received as good news. God's justice and power serving his mercy and forgiveness. God's Word, despite the inadequacies and weaknesses and sin of God's prophet, has it's way with the inhabitants of Ninevah. The severity of the Law brings a confession of sin and, in the midst of hopelessness, a hope that maybe God would turn from delivering upon their heads what the Ninevites knew they had coming as a result of all the evil their hands had done. God sends the sweetness of his Gospel to those found in sackcloth and ashes.
"However, it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry." Our ESV translations soften the force of the original Hebrew text. A better translation into English might read, "However, it was evil to Jonah — a great evil — so that it inflamed him." (R. Reed Lessing. Jonah. 350)
God's Gospel of amazing grace was truly amazing to the people of Ninevah — and, in a completely different way, to God's own prophet Jonah.
Now we see clearly the inner-workings of Jonah as faith wrestles with unbelief, as the desire to forgive struggles with the desire to never forgive, as the Word of God goes head-to-head with the words of fallen Jonah.
The unbelievable had happened: God had relented of what he had said he would inflict on these undeserving people. And, because of this, the even more unbelievable had happened: Jonah calls God's declaration of unearned grace to the Ninevites not only unexpected and unbelievable — but evil — a great evil.
This revelation of the depravity of Jonah's sinful heart is the shocking kicker to the plot of the book of Jonah. We heard about some great things in the first three chapters of this book of the Bible. The greatness of the city of Ninevah. The greatness of the storm God hurled at the boat to bring pagan sailors to a confession of their sins. The greatness of the fish that rescues Jonah from his desire to drown in the sea rather than preach to those he had written off as undeserving of God's gift of a second chance. The greatness of Ninevah's repentance, from the king right down to the least of Ninevah's lowly animals.
And now we see up-front and center the greatness of Jonah's resentment — a resentment that calls God's great and amazing grace a great and amazing evil.
Jonah shakes his fist before God. "I knew you were going to do something unbelievable like this. I knew you might relent of your threats if they acknowledged their sin before you. Why didn't you follow through with what they had coming? Why are you so easily persuaded to give another chance to those who shouldn't be given any more chances, even if they should repent? Showing divine mercy to the unmerciful. Showing loving-kindness to the unloveable. Showing grace to those who had committed great evil is an even greater evil!"
Jonah had slid into something greater than mere confusion or displeasure or frustration. He was inflamed with anger. He had become enraged. He was seething with resentment.
And in the heat of his anger he prays a very different prayer than the one offered after being consumed by a sea creature. Jonah is now consumed with an unrighteous, sinful anger that cries out for something completely different than deliverance by God's gracious hand: unrestrained punishment for a city that, from Jonah's perspective, was not worth even the thought of saving.
"Why did you have to go and forgive them?" is Jonah's furious cry. "And why did you have to call me to deliver your almighty Word that brought about their repentance and pardon? Why did I have to be the one to bring your Word to these undeserving Gentiles? Your Word that allowed you to then come as a God of grace and mercy and loving-kindness, slow to bring punishment and disaster on the heads of those who deserve to drink your cup of wrath to the last drop? Your caving in to these Ninevites' plea for pardon is unfair and unjust and inexcusable. How dare you let your grace have the final word!"
The fact that God, in his heart of hearts, is a merciful God who's Word of Law serves his Word of Grace is a stone of stumbling to more than just an indignant Jonah. It consumed Cain and lead to the murder of his own brother. It consumed the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day and lead to the murder of the Son of God.
"This showing mercy to the undeserving is unacceptable." is found coming from not only the lips of the fallen prophet Jonah but also from the lips of Caiaphas and the Pharisees and scribes who took issue with Jesus' liberal dispensing of deliverance — salvation to even low-life tax collectors and sinners.
Jonah was a prisoner of his own sinful nature, a sinful nature that, in anger, cries out to the merciful Lord of heaven and earth: "If you are going to forgive the unforgivable sins of those people — if those kind of people are going to be graciously included in heaven — then I don't think I want to be a part of your plan of redemption. If Christ died for the deserving — the people I would approve of — the people that I can forgive — then all well and good. But there's got to be a limit on who Christ atones for."
That, unfortunately, is the teaching of many who call themselves Christians. "Christ died only for the elect," they mistakenly believe. "Those who God knew would do the right thing and change their heart and give some reason for God to offer them salvation. Everyone else is outside God's grace and mercy."
It makes sense to our old, sinful nature and to the world around us. God showering his grace on us is one thing. God showering his grace on others less deserving is quite another.
But sin is sin. Breaking God's holy and perfect will is breaking God's holy and perfect will. Deserving of God's wrath and punishment is deserving God's wrath and punishment.
Nevertheless, God's grace is God's grace. It is, by it's very nature completely undeserved, completely unexpected. Complete gift that has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with our Father and the one he has sent to save.
And as gift it can't be bought, earned or regulated — even by the old nature of God's called and ordained mouthpieces. The amazing gift of God's grace is always pure gift. That's what made it so foreign to Jonah's fallen way of thinking. God's grace for even foreigners. God's mercy for those who didn't have a clue how redemption would be revealed — how redemption would be won and secured for a sinful Adam and Eve and all their lost children.
When asked "what is the most difficult petition of the Lord's Prayer," some privately confess that it is the phrase, "thy will be done." That was the petition that also got Jonah's nose all out of joint. "Not my will, but yours be done" was perfectly prayed by only one: our Lord Christ on the night he was betrayed, on the night Judas gave himself over to the belief that Jesus' dispensing deliverance to the undeserving — even undeserving tax collectors and prostitutes and Gentiles — needed to come to a very quick end.
Jesus prayed for God's good and gracious will to be done. And tonight he calls on each of his own to join him in praying that God's Law would always serve his Gospel of forgiveness and restoration. That we would ask God to graciously forgive us as we, at the same time, are given the grace to forgive others.
Some things are out of our control. The way our sinful nature stains even our best intentions and seems to get the upper hand just when we think we've got him under control.
Some things are out of our control. The way God works all things for our ultimate good and the good of his people. The way the Word of God comes, even through poor and miserable sinners, to bring to despair those secure in their sins, and bring comfort to those who despair of any attempts to earn God's forgiveness.
The older brother of the prodigal son became incensed at what he saw as an unacceptable injustice in his father's gracious restoration of a son who didn't deserve restoring. But, thanks be to God, our heavenly Father replies to the old nature in Jonah — in each of us — with an affirmation of who he is — of who he cannot but be. This is the confession of faith found on the lips of Moses and all who are being saved:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin ... ." (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Tonight we remember in faith the culmination of God's revelation of his redeeming grace for the undeserving who have nothing to offer their Lord but their many sins. Tonight we see clearly for who's sake "the many" — Ninevah, the sailors, Jonah, Israel and each of us — are freely, lavishly, eternally forgiven.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the [new testament], which is poured out for [the] many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:26-28 ESV)

By his grace, may God keep us from the great sin of being offended by the generosity of heaven's Gospel to those we don't believe it should be extended to. May our Lord through his Word open our lips, that our mouth would declare the amazing, unexpected grace of our Heavenly Father in Christ — in our lives and in the lives of all for who Christ died. Amen