“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
“What is the greatest commandment? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets.”
“I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord”.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Now faith, hope, love abide these three, and the greatest of these is love.”
I could go on all morning, quoting scripture to you about the primacy of love. Love is at the center of our faith. God who is love made us in love. God who is love made us to love. We were made in God’s very image, and therefore since God is love, at the center of our being is love as well. Humanity’s flourishing is only possible when it is aligned with love. Love is the center of our faith.
That sounds all nice and good—like puppies and flowers in spring. Who can be against love? Nobody. But when the rubber hits the road, it can be really hard, can’t it? Aren’t there some people who are just too hard to love? Aren’t there some limits to this love of God? Our reading today from Jonah addresses this very question of how far God’s love extends.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” We didn’t hear this part today because it came a few chapters earlier. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh, that great city because their evil had risen up to God”. And Jonah got up and went in the exact opposite direction. Now in order to understand what Jonah might be going through, we need to think about who the Ninevites were to him. The Ninevites were the enemy. They were the ones who were beyond God’s love, the irredeemable ones. This book of Jonah was probably written during or after the exile, after that time the Babylonians had come and kicked them out of Jerusalem. Nineveh represents that oppressive outside force that took life away from them. And God told Jonah, “I want you to go and preach to them”.
To understand this you have to imagine who the irredeemable one is for you. Maybe it’s someone from another country. Nineveh is in modern Iraq, so maybe it’s ISIS, maybe it’s North Korea, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s closer to home, perhaps it‘s people here in our divided, polarized world or nation; maybe it’s a fellow citizen or group of people that are beyond the pale and who seem irredeemable to you, and God says to you, “Go to them”. I don’t know about you, but I sympathize with Jonah on this point.
So Jonah gets on the boat and tries to escape. God sends the wind and that big fish to swallow him up, and Jonah spends three days in the belly of the fish. Jonah repents about what he did, or maybe was just trying to save his life, but God gives him another chance. Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims to them, “In forty days this city will be overturned.” Jonah is expecting and hoping beyond all hope that overturning means an overturning of the city, and he is going to have the joy of watching some fireworks in forty days. But what happens is that the overturning is the overturning of the souls of the people. The Ninevites believe Jonah, and they repent. The king issues a decree that all the people, from youngest to oldest, from richest to poorest, all the way down to the animals: every single creature in Nineveh needs to repent, put on sackcloth and ashes, and fast for forty days. For who knows? Perhaps God will relent.
And that is exactly what happens, which is where our story picks up in today’s reading. The people of Nineveh repent of their evil, and God relents from doing evil to them. In the original language, evil is the same exact word. Today’s translation says, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” The people of Nineveh were doing evil and they dropped it; God was going to respond in-kind and do evil unto them, but God dropped it. Along comes Jonah, and our translation says he was “displeased”, but this is a weak description. The original language says this action by God was evil unto Jonah. He takes the evil of the Ninevites and the evil of God and carries that forward. He acts like an impetuous toddler and stomps out of town, sits down and waits for the fireworks to begin.
Even though Jonah is the one holding that evil, what does God do with him? God works with him, trying to help Jonah understand what he is trying to do. God tries teaching Jonah about the expanse and the vastness of God’s love. The whole story ends with a question, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city...” We do not know how Jonah responds: maybe he gets it, maybe he doesn’t. But either way you get the impression that God is going to keep working with him, that there is nobody beyond redemption.
The love of God is truly that vast. God’s love has a place for the Ninevites, the enemies of God’s people; it has a place for Jonah, who disobeys and picks up that very evil himself; and it has a place for you and for me.
These past few weeks we have been talking about God’s imagination in our sermons, and comparing God’s expansive imagination with the world’s anemic imagination. In the Jonah story we learn more about God’s imagination when we learn about the nature of God’s love. We hear the story of a vastness of God’s love that includes the enemy, includes the irredeemable one; the vastness of God’s love that includes us.
God’s love is wide and deep and broad. God’s love is immense. God’s love is extravagant. God’s love is so vast and so grand that he came down to be born as a baby in a manger. God’s love is so vast and so grand that it lived our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s love is so vast and so grand that it was the center of his teaching, as he taught today in the Gospel reading that every person, no matter how late or early they get to the party, everyone is included in God’s love, in God’s imagination. God’s love is so vast and so grand that it died for us, and it rose for us. That is God’s imagination: there is nobody irredeemable; there is nobody beyond the limits of God’s love. May our imaginations line up with God’s imagination. May we come to live and understand this same life of extravagant love for all people.