Choose Carefully

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Book of Jonah

Cedars of Lebanon is the final song on U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon. Lyrically, the song comes from the perspective of a weary war correspondent. It speaks of homesickness and loneliness while juxtaposing images of human decency with flashes of violence. There’s an ache in Bono’s voice as he sings the thoughts of a tired man.

It’s the song’s final lines that capture my imagination this morning, however, for in the end, inspiration strikes and the writer shares his wisdom.

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The fights that we fight, the people at whom we direct our anger—even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous—these take a toll.

And let’s be honest, even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous, we easily succumb to temptation.

Hatred takes root in our hearts.

Inflicting pain becomes an end in itself.

Words dehumanize, self-awareness is lost, and attitudes calcify.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The ancient Israelites told a story about a reluctant prophet named Jonah to guard their hearts against hatred’s temptation and to encourage each other to embody God’s love for all people. It’s a story that speaks a timeless and fundamental truth that challenges arrogant and bigoted attitudes in every generation, including our own.

Like so many of the Bible’s stories, Jonah begins with a calling, an invitation, from God.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah…saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

 

Unlike others who responded eagerly to their calling, Jonah wanted nothing to do with his assignment, that city, or the God who would send him there.

The prophet Isaiah’s iconic response to God was “Hear I am, Lord. Send me.”

Peter and Andrew dropped their nets to go with Jesus.

Jonah’s reply was just as clear.

“Not a chance, God. There’s no way I’m going to those people.”

Ninevah, you see, was the capital of Assyria, one of ancient Israel’s fiercest enemies. It was a place from which war and devastation had rained down on Jonah’s homeland and the prophet hated the city and its people.

Therefore, when God called Jonah to go to Ninevah, which happened to be east of Israel, the prophet bought a ticket on a west bound ship, intending to put as much distance as possible between Assyria, God, and himself.

His plan failed miserably.

When the sea rose up against the boat, its crew rose up against Jonah and they threw him overboard.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

There can be no doubt that this is Jonah’s claim to fame. If you spent any time at all in Sunday School as a child, odds are you heard this part of the story.

I remember well the coloring pages and felt board fish of my youth.

I’m not sure any of those lessons went to teach me about God’s desire to see enemies become friends and the prejudice uprooted from my heart and community, but I was crystal clear that Jonah was the guy who spent three days in a fish’s belly.

I don’t want to belabor the point now, but it’s worth noting that if our take away from Jonah’s story is a strong opinion about the likelihood of somebody surviving inside a fish, yet we remain wishy-washy on our commitment to barrier-breaking reconciliation, then we’re probably telling the story the wrong way.

Or maybe the point is that we often act as though we’d rather be thrown overboard than to do the hard work of giving up our prejudices.

Regardless, Jonah’s is so much more than a big fish tale.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.”

The prophet preached, the people responded, and God forgave.

But Jonah became furious.

There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people becoming angry because others ignored their message, but I think Jonah is the only one who became upset when people listened.

And why was that?

Because Jonah’s hatred of his enemies had become intrinsic to his identity, and the realization that God wanted to take these things away from him was disorienting.

Listen to this incredible exchange.

[Jonah] became angry…[and he] prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

 

A misunderstanding isn’t the cause of Jonah’s anger.

He’s angry because he knows the truth too well.

He’s angry because God loves and blesses the people Jonah judged to be unworthy and unlovable. God shows mercy to those he would deny mercy.

And Jonah knows that if he’s going to worship a God of patience, love, and mercy, then he’ll need to find room in his own heart for these qualities, too.

But letting go of his prejudice is a price Jonah doesn’t want to pay.

“O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live…[without these enemies I love to hate].”

 

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, he sees his hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, as intrinsic to his identity.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry…?” And [Jonah] said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

One of the most important elements of Jonah’s story is that this is the note on which it ends.

There’s no clear resolution of the prophet’s inner turmoil, no teary-eyed redemption scene, no Come-to-Jesus-Moment.

Reading the book, it feels as though there must be a missing chapter in which Jonah admits his error, rushes back to Ninevah, and professes his love for the people living there.

But that chapter doesn’t exist.

In the end, there’s Jonah’s bitterness and the radical truth about God’s love.

And then, ultimately, there’s our response.

Which example will we follow?

Will we open ourselves to the truth about love and the realization that there’s divine mercy for even those we would deny mercy, or will we double down on anger and prejudice?

Will we faithfully worship the One who causes the sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike, or will we act as though grace is a sucker’s bet, and that the love and blessings in our lives are the obvious results of our own greatness?

Today we pray that the Spirit will keep our hearts so tender that we would overcome temptation and choose wisely.

Today we pray that, even as we pursue justice with passion, we must rise above the lie that our opponents are less human than us, farther beyond redemption’s reach than us.

Today we pray that, even when we walk through the valley of death’s shadow, we would always stay in the light, that never in the name of fighting a monster, would we become monstrous.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Choose carefully.

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, was intrinsic to his identity.

So where are the signs of grace in your life?

What lesser loves would ask you to deny them?

Today we pray and worship and give of ourselves so that we might truthfully answer these questions and walk on in the light Christ shines on our way.
Let’s do so with joy and a renewed desire to see the walls around our hearts come crashing down.

Let’s say “Yes” to God’s barrier-breaking gospel and move forward with thanks.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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