Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Terrible Love of Hatred
Jon. 3:1-5, 10[1]
Some of you may know that I’m a “bachelor” this weekend. What you may not know is that I’m not a very good bachelor! I usually spend a lot of time watching mindless movies. This weekend, I’m going through the Star Wars series—in Blu-Ray! I haven’t always been a fan of what are now known as Episodes 1 through 3—they aren’t the original Star Wars! I’ve always much preferred the original films—even though the acting is pretty bad, and the effects are primitive by today’s standards.
But I decided to watch them anyway. And this time I noticed something. When you only watch the original movies, Darth Vader is this evil, cruel, brutal villain. He’s somebody just about anybody could love to hate, because he’s the right hand of the emperor, the instrument of oppression, injustice, and cruelty in the galactic empire. But something different happens when you watch the new movies. You meet Darth Vader as cute, sweet, wounded little Anakim Skywalker! It’s pretty hard to hate Anakim. Even when he whines like a spoiled teenage about not getting the recognition he believes he deserves. Even when he turns to the dark side of the force and becomes Darth Vader. You still have the image of that cute, sweet little boy!
In the days of Jonah, city of Nineveh represented the center of evil and brutality and cruelty. It was the capitol of the Assyrian kingdom, and they were known throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world as ruthless conquerors. Nineveh was to Jonah what Babylon and Rome would be to later generations.[2] It was a city that any Israelite would love to hate. You would think that Jonah, as an Israelite, would be happy that God was planning on destroying Nineveh. Of course, being happy about it, and obeying the call to go into the heart of the devil’s den to announce it are two completely different things![3]
Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Jonah winds up in Nineveh, walking the streets and declaring God’s impending judgment. And, lo and behold, the people of the Nineveh repent! Even such a brutal and hated city—called a “city of bloodshed” by the prophet Nahum (Nah. 3:1)—isn’t beyond the power of God’s Spirit to soften their hearts to repentance. No less than the “King of Nineveh” proclaims a fast on the odd chance that they might avert disaster.
And it would seem that not only is Nineveh not beyond the power of God’s Spirit, it is also not beyond the scope of God’s love and grace and mercy! In response to their repentance, God relents. Instead of rejoicing over the success of his preaching, Jonah goes off on a hillside to pout. Turns out he wanted the people of Nineveh destroyed—men, women, children, and even the animals![4] In fact, he admits that’s why he ran the other way in the first place—he was afraid that God would have mercy on them (cf. Jon. 4:2). Seems Jonah had a terrible love of hating the people of Nineveh.
What is it that makes us so fond of this terrible love of hating certain people? For some of us, I think it is fear. There are many of us who are afraid that someone will take away what is ours, or violate our sense of safety and security by a crime or an act of terror. We are so afraid that we can only respond to certain people whom we have “decided” are criminals and terrorist with fear and hatred. For some, it is religious arrogance. They are so certain that they are on God’s side and God is on theirs, that anyone who differs or disagrees with them in any way become not only their enemies but also God’s enemies. And if they’re God’s enemies, then we’re perfectly right to hate them. Or lock them up in prison camps as long as we please. Or summarily strip them of all human rights.[5]
I think that was Jonah’s problem.[6] He bought into a version of the Jewish faith that basically said that they were God’s chosen people and everybody else was not. All of the grace and goodness that God showered on the Jewish people made those who bought into this idea think that somehow they were immune from the possibility of displeasing God in any way. They believed, regardless of what they did, they were automatically on God’s side. And as a result, everybody else was excluded. But it would seem from the story of Jonah that God had a lesson for all those who think they have an exclusive claim on God’s love. Even godless, ruthless Nineveh is not so far gone as to put them beyond the reach of God’s Spirit softening their hearts to repentance. Even the people that Jonah and others who shared his inflated sense of self-importance loved to hate are not beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love!
Of course, it’s all too easy for us to sit back from our comfortable vantage point and shake our heads at such religious egotism. But the fact of the matter is that we too have people we love to hate. During the era of the Second World War, for many people it was Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito. That hatred shifts as one enemy after another falls by the wayside. During the “Cold War,” the people we loved to hate had names like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Then it was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Then it was Saddam Hussein. Then it was Osama Bin Laden. But no matter what, we always seem to have this terrible love of hatred. It seems we’re not capable of seeing them as little children who were once as innocent and sweet as Anakim Skywalker.
The hard truth is that we share the terrible love of hatred that kept Jonah from rejoicing in the miracle of repentance and restoration wherever it happened. In fact, in the Christian faith, we have a place for the people we love to hate—we call it hell. And there are certain people we love to hate so much that we’re all too happy for them to literally go to hell! And yet, the joyful lesson of this season, the good news of Epiphany—that wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—that wonderful good news isn’t just ours to hoard; it is a message that applies to all people, everywhere. Even those we love to hate. Especially those for whom we cherish a terrible love of hatred. No one is so far gone that God’s Spirit cannot bring them to repentance. No one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/22/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., “Jonah, Book of,” by W. Neil; James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 139-140.
[3] Cf. Phyllis Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” VII:515 on the disjunction of an Israelite prophet preaching to the people of Nineveh.
[4] Cf. Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 152-57.
[5] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness, 89, for a similar perspective based on the Rwandan genocide.
[6] On this view, see Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., “Jonah, Book of,” by W. Neil, p. 967; for a range of different interpretations, see Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” NIB VII:488-90.


stevo said...

Well said and right on the money.

Alan Brehm said...