When a food critic comes to a restaurant, absolutely loves the food the chef has prepared, and writes a rave review, this is a delight to the chef. When a writer’s novel is published and is a best seller, this is deeply gratifying to the author. When a football player is chosen to play on the national team for the World Cup, this is the most gratifying recognition of his talent.
So, when a prophet receives a word from the Lord and preaches that word, it would seem that an overwhelming, positive response to that word would be cause for joy and celebration. Jonah preached what God told him to say and Nineveh repented, from the poor all the way up to the king. But, as we have seen, there are many twists in the story of Jonah and his anger at the positive response of the people of Nineveh is one more of them.
As we read through the book of Jonah, it is not until we get to this fourth chapter that we know why Jonah ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction that God wanted him to go. Just to recap the story: Jonah received a word from the Lord that he should go preach to the people of Nineveh. Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship to head as far away as he could go from Nineveh, perhaps to Spain at the end of the known world. A storm arose soon after setting sail and Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard to make the sea quiet down. They threw him overboard, the storm quieted down, and then Jonah was swallowed by a great fish.
In the belly of the fish Jonah reflected and repented. He made a vow to God that if he was delivered to land he would be obedient the next time God called him. The fish vomited Jonah onto the shore of Palestine and then Jonah received, once again, a word from the Lord. This time he obeyed and headed off to Nineveh. He preached the word that God had given him to preach, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”
To his amazement, the people of Nineveh, from the king down to the poor, repented. And then to his dismay, God, in his grace and mercy, did not punish them as he had said he would.
Doug Stuart, in his commentary on Jonah, suggests that in chapter four, the first four verses are the conclusion of the story with the verses that follow a flashback. So when we read it in chronological order, after Jonah preached and the people repented, Jonah went up on a hill overlooking Nineveh, waiting and hoping it would be destroyed.
5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah watched and waited. Day after day he waited and watched, hoping that God would destroy Nineveh. God had told him to preach, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” and he had done this. But when the forty days had passed and it was clear Nineveh had been spared the punishment Jonah had warned them would come, Jonah was angry.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
“Have you any right to be angry?”
Why was Jonah angry? Because God showed mercy to the people of Nineveh. What is the problem with that? The Ninevites were Assyrians, the Assyrians were the enemy of Israel, and Jonah was a nationalist prophet of Israel. He was a prophet of God and when God gave him a word that was good for Israel, Jonah was happy. But when God gave a word that was good for Israel’s enemy, Jonah was angry.
This takes us back to the psalm Jonah wrote that we looked at two weeks ago. (Jonah 2:7–9)
7 “When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
9 But I, with a song of thanksgiving,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
Salvation comes from the Lord.”
Jonah ends his psalm with the proclamation that “Salvation comes from the Lord.” This seems, on the face of it, to be a proclamation of submission. Jonah seems to be saying that he would allow God to work in any way he chose to work. But in this fourth chapter it becomes apparent that this declaration was not a declaration of his heart. He wrote his psalm in a desperate situation, and it is apparent that his submission came from his head, not his heart.
There is an expression that says, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Foxholes are the holes soldiers dig to be protected from the bullets fired by the enemy. In such a situation, with bullets whizzing by and bombs being dropped, soldiers are terrified and desperate. In those situations it is not only those who regularly go to church but also those who rarely, if ever, go to church, who call out to God for help. Foxhole prayers promise God that if he will get them out of this desperate situation, they will go to church, be good, or whatever the promise is. But when the battle is over, and the soldier has returned home, the promise is often forgotten.
This seems to be what happened to Jonah. He made a promise with his head in a desperate situation, and he did obey when God told him to go to Nineveh, but his heart was not in it. His heart was still a heart for Israel and Nineveh was still a large city of Israel’s enemy. Jonah preached the word he had been given but he hated the Assyrians, he hated the people of Nineveh, and now he was furious that God had shown them mercy.
Jonah’s anger was the anger of the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the third Sunday in a row I have mentioned this parable, but I mention it because it applies so well to the story of Jonah – as it applies so well to us. The older brother was responsible, worked hard, was obedient to his father, and he was furious at the disrespect and dishonor his younger brother showed. When his younger brother left he was glad to be rid of him. But when his father welcomed back “the little undeserving brat” he was highly offended. The younger brother was receiving what he did not in any way, shape, or form deserve.
This is why Tim Keller calls this parable the “Parable of the Prodigal God”. A prodigal is one who is wastefully extravagant, one who spends money freely and recklessly. The father in the parable wasted his love, threw it away on someone who did not deserve it. The older brother despised this waste of his father’s love for his undeserving son. Jonah despised the mercy of God shown to the enemies of Israel.
What Jonah failed to remember is that God had been wastefully extravagant with him when he was in the sea and was rescued. Jonah received the mercy and grace of God and was delivered on land when he deserved to have drowned in the sea. Now he was upset and angry because God’s mercy and grace had been shown to the Ninevites.
Jonah had two problems. He did not know how wonderful it will be to be in heaven with Jesus. And he did not know how little we deserve to be rescued by Jesus and brought into his kingdom. And because we are so much like Jonah, we have the same two problems.
We do not know how wonderful it will be to be in heaven with Jesus.
Jonah was so wrapped up in the politics of Israel, he failed to see what God was doing. When Jonah looked into the future, as far as he could see or imagine, what he saw was Israel with a strong king, defending itself against the enemies of Israel. Jonah could not see God’s heart for the people of Nineveh and all the peoples of the world.
We have the advantage of having the teaching of Jesus. We know that God became flesh to save us. We know that Jesus promised to return and take us safely into his eternal kingdom. We know God has a heart for all the world and we have benefitted from the gospel of Jesus that was brought to our nations. If the gospel of Jesus had not been taken to Gentiles, we would not be sitting here this morning. But still we get so wrapped up into the politics of our time, the preservation of our institutions, and the protection of our rights that we fail to see the absolute priority of what Jesus is doing to rescue this generation. We think life is about getting an education or learning a trade, earning money, and perhaps having a family. We worry and fret when obstacles stand in the way of getting what we want and deprive us of the life we want to live.
If we really understood more about the reality of heaven and were more confident that this is where Jesus will take us, we would not be so anxious about life events.
When I get a really bad headache, I have difficulty thinking of anything else. I need to take a couple aspirin, go to bed in a dark room, pull the pillow over my head, and be totally absorbed in the pain until I get tired enough to sleep.
Life events can become like a bad headache, We have difficulty thinking of anything else. We are so absorbed in the difficulty, the pain, the injustice, or the loss that we completely lose perspective.
But when we remember that Jesus promises to be present with us and to take us safely into his kingdom when we die, then we can absorb abuse and disappointment. We can love those who are out to hurt us. We can face rejection and discrimination. We can walk peacefully through the most traumatic of life events.
We believe that when we die we will go to heaven, but for most of us, that is more religious dogma than a reality. Heaven is far off but the world is right in front of our noses. So the world is far more real to us than heaven. We do not know how wonderful it will be for us in heaven.
Jonah’s second problem, and ours, is that we don’t realize how little we deserve to be rescued by Jesus and brought into his kingdom.
Jonah experienced God’s mercy and grace. He rebelled and refused to do what God told him to do. He turned his back on God. God did not give Jonah what he deserved, death. That is mercy. And God gave Jonah what he did not deserve, a second chance to obey him. That is grace.
To some extent, Jonah thought that he did deserve the work of God in his life. After all, he was a Jew and the Jews were God’s chosen people. Out of all the people in the world, God chose to work through Abraham. Jonah was not only a Jew, but he was a prophet of God. Jonah had the proper bloodline. He had a proper calling. He deserved God’s love and favor. At least, he deserved it more than the Ninevites. This is the older brother thinking in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jonah thought he was better than the Ninevites.
Jesus told another parable that relates here. A king wanted to settle accounts with his servants. A man who owed him ten thousand talents (a fortune) was unable to pay him. So the king ordered him and his wife and children to be sold to repay the debt. The servant begged him for mercy and the master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
As he went on his way, he met one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 denarii. This is the equivalent of the money earned for one day’s labor. To put the two amounts in perspective, you would have to work for 200,000 years to repay the ten thousand talents.
He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
Like this man in Jesus’ parable, Jonah was shown great mercy by being rescued and given a second chance to obey God, but he was unwilling to have that mercy shown to the Ninevites.
Paul writes in Romans that we were once God’s enemies but that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. We have been forgiven for so much, so how can it be that we will not forgive someone for their sin?
We are not saved because we are good people, or because we are religious, or because there are so many people who do far worse things than we do. We are saved because God loves us and while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us.
Followers of Jesus are not better people than those who do not follow Jesus. We do not deserve what we have received. We cannot repay what Jesus has done for us. We can only be grateful recipients of the grace and mercy of God in our lives.
We do not know how wonderful it will be to be in heaven with Jesus. And, we don’t realize how little we deserve to be rescued by Jesus and brought into his kingdom.
This has two implications for us. We don’t focus on Jesus as much as we should. We fail to see how wonderful the people we meet will be when they are transformed in heaven.
Because we do not know how wonderful it will be to be in heaven with Jesus, we don’t focus on Jesus as much as we should.
This was the problem for Jonah. Jonah was grateful to be a Jew, one of God’s chosen people, but he was not willing to make God Lord of all his life.
In Jonah’s psalm, he wrote,
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
9 But I, with a song of thanksgiving,
will sacrifice to you.
What Jonah did not realize is that his nationalism that put Israel first above anything else, was an idol. God was not first in his life. Israel was first and God was a supporting actor that made Israel strong.
Jonah did not want God to lead. Jonah wanted God to manage the team with Jonah having veto power over the decisions of God.
When we first surrender to Jesus, Jesus is our Savior. But then begins the lifelong process of making Jesus Lord of our lives. Some of the changes come relatively quick and easy. We stop getting drunk or stoned. We no longer steal. But these are rather superficial levels of our sin. The real challenge is to surrender my will, my pride. We often build up defensive walls to protect ourselves from the pain of relationships, but these walls also prevent us from being open in our relationship with God and with his church. These walls keep Jesus from being Lord of all of our life.
As we grow in faith we surrender more and more of who we are to Jesus, but until the day we die we will still be struggling to surrender everything to Jesus.
The more we comprehend who God is and the more we experience his love in our lives, the more completely we are able to give ourselves to him and trust him in all situations. Because this is an ongoing, progressive experience for us, we will get caught up in the tensions and anxieties of life. We will become absorbed in things that are really not that important, certainly not eternally important. But as we persevere, we will trust him more. We will discover that even in the darkest of moments, there will be light.
The second implication is that because we don’t realize how little we deserve to be rescued by Jesus and brought into his kingdom, we fail to see how wonderful the people we meet will be when they are transformed in heaven.
God’s ability to transform us is amazing. God can take the foulest heart and make it clean and pure. He can transform us and he can transform every person in the world. At the end of the service we will sing, “To God Be the Glory”. The second verse of that hymn reads:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev’ry believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus forgiveness receives.
The vilest offender, that is a powerful line. It bears witness to the unlimited creativity and power of God that is able to take the worst person and make him or her a saint.
Jonah saw the Ninevites and he saw Israel’s enemies. If Jonah had taken a good look in a spiritual mirror, he would have seen his own rebellious heart. Jonah worked against the purposes of God. In terms of how God views us, Jonah was closer to the Ninevites than he imagined.
There is a huge difference between the people in this church and people who are murdering and raping. But if we were able to view ourselves from God’s perspective, it would be clear that we are far more like these people who rape and murder than we are to God. This is disturbing truth we do not like to hear, but it is true. We are all desperately in need of Jesus to rescue us and bring us safely through life into his kingdom.
God is transforming us, making us his holy children, and he is able to do that to the most vile person in the world who turns to Jesus and repents.
Let me end this sermon with some exhortation.
Be faithful. Persevere. Don’t give up reading your Bible and praying. Even when it does not seem to make a difference, keep on holding on to the disciplines of our faith. We do not become saints overnight. God has been at work in my life for 43 years and there is still a lot of work to be done, but I tell you that it is encouraging to see how much progress has been made. My faith and hope have gone much deeper in my life, giving me a perspective on life events I did not have ten or twenty years ago. I have far to go, but Jesus is much more Lord of my life than he was in my early years as his follower.
Look at other people with the eyes of Jesus. There is no person Jesus does not want in his kingdom. And, as nasty and unpleasant as someone is, if they surrender to Jesus, they could become your closest and most valued friend.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory,
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
We are surrounded by people heading to heaven or hell and Jesus is cheering for each of them to choose him and head to heaven. We need to be cheering on Jesus’ side.
When you see a man picking through the garbage, know that God wants to make that man his son and bring him into his kingdom. When you meet someone who arrogantly promotes his or her belief system, know that God is patiently working, waiting for opportunities to break into the heart of that person. The people you pass by are people God loves. They are precious to Jesus. Jesus is working to rescue them.
When Jonah was sitting on the hill, watching and hoping Nineveh would be destroyed, God allowed a vine to grow up overnight and give him more shade. Jonah was pleased by this. But when the vine died the next day, Jonah was angry. Jonah cared about the vine because it served his purposes.
God used this to teach Jonah that as much as he cared about the vine, God cared far more for the people of Nineveh. We are created to give praise to God and live with him forever. Those who reject God were created by God to be with him in his kingdom. God grieves over those who reject him.
The lesson of the book of Jonah is that God will go to great lengths to rescue his creation. God is merciful and full of grace. This is his nature. He is pursuing you to rescue you. No matter what you do in this life, God will continue to pursue you.
There is nothing in this life more important than working with Jesus as he seeks to rescue the lost. Hold on to Jesus and let his passion for the lost in the world become your passion as well.
I wish you well in this life. I hope you have a good life. I pray you will find satisfaction in your work and blessing in your relationships. But above all, far more important than anything else, I pray that you will have a growing passion to work with Jesus as he works to rescue this generation. I pray you will experience the joy of seeing God work through you to bring men and women he loves into the warmth of his embrace. I pray you will have the joy of having been part of the process that took men and women of this earth and made them your eternal friends.