Thanks for joining me again this week. This is the final instalment of our series on Jonah since we’re looking at the final chapter of the book: Jonah 4. I hope you find the video, prayer and suggested songs helpful.
Please click here to read Jonah, chapter 4.Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.
Last week we read of how Jonah finally obeyed God’s call. He went into the city of Nineveh and preached. Jonah’s preaching led to the whole city repenting and God did not punish them.
What a miracle! The whole city repents, even the cows! Preachers dream of getting a response like this. Of making such an impact on people. An entire city responded to God’s message and all Jonah did was utter the short warning that God gave him to say:
‘Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.’
(Jonah 3:4b, NIV)
Just eight words in our English translation. Just five words in Hebrew. I strive and study and stay up way too late to write my sermons. I read over sentences asking myself if this is this the right thing to say. Is this faithful to God’s word?
Jonah just mopes into Nineveh and says five words and he gets the kind of reaction that I can only dream of. God is glorified in this — a whole city, a great city, turning from its sin. The power of God’s word! What a display of mercy. Think about how God will be glorified in the lives of all these people who have turned from their sin. But Jonah… Jonah is angry.
Other prophets in the Bible did not have it so easy. Poor Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” begged and pleaded for people to listen to him for years and he was persecuted for his efforts and for warning the people of God’s coming judgement. And this was in Jerusalem, the holy city! Jonah walks into a huge pagan city and says five words and it’s comical how effective it is! This is a complete success, something that should be a prophet’s dream come true. But again, in this strange story we’re confronted with the unexpected. Jonah is so angry and bitter that he says he wants to die. He sulks!
The grace and mercy that God showed to Nineveh offends Jonah. As we’ve been going through this book you may have noticed signs of Jonah’s pride. He really doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, a huge pagan city. When he gets swallowed by the fish, he still manages to have a little dig at the pagans while patting himself on the back for being one of the people who know how to worship God properly. He manages to do this while in the belly of a fish… after trying to flee from God. Well here in chapter four Jonah’s religious pride is on full show.
God’s mercy displeases and even angers him, and we find out here that this is the reason Jonah ran away from his call in the first place. Jonah didn’t run away because the job was too hard or scary, but because he knew that God is merciful, and he didn’t want the Ninevites to have the blessing of that mercy. He knew that God is merciful, the whole history of his people is full of stories of God’s mercy and faithfulness to them when they didn’t deserve it. What Jonah’s attitude now tells us is that he believed that he and his people were somehow worthy of God’s grace and mercy, while the Ninevites were not. It was okay for him to be blessed by God, but not the Ninevites, not the pagans.
Pride finds a way. We are desperate creatures looking for security. Looking for some way to feel safe, to feel like we have value and we’re worth something. Sometimes to make ourselves feel good we’ll pick someone else or some other group of people and just try to feel better than them.
Deep down Jonah knows that he and his people never earned or deserved God’s blessing — it’s grace, it’s mercy. But it is a hard thing to really accept grace because it means forgetting about yourself and we really don’t like doing that. The only way we’re ever going to find the security we need is in completely surrendering to the grace of God. Accepting it with empty hands, forgetting about any notion of paying for it or deserving it.
You’re not perfect. You don’t have to be. God loves you. You fail at things sometimes. Despite that, God loves you. You’re not as smart as you’d like to be. God loves you. You’re not as pretty as you’d like to be. God loves you. Or perhaps you really are highly successful, smart and oh so pretty. God loves you, but not because of any of those things. You’re not better than anyone else. God loves you; you don’t need to be.
Jonah’s having a hard time wrestling with the grace of God because he sees that it means he’s no better than these pagans. It means he’s no more deserving of all the ways God has blessed him. None of his religious practices have made him any more deserving of God’s love.
Have you received God’s grace for the gift that it is? Or are you still trying to be good enough? Or pretend that the things in your life that you’re proud of somehow make you good enough?
Jonah wishes to die. Or at least he says he does. But God doesn’t kill him. Instead what we see in response to Jonah’s tantrum is another display of God’s amazing grace and mercy.
What we saw happen to Nineveh was a spectacular display of mercy when a whole city was overwhelmed by the spirit of repentance so that they were not destroyed for all their sins. A spectacular display of God’s mercy. What we see after that, in God’s interactions with Jonah, is something also miraculous, but a quieter, more intimate, more personal display of God’s mercy as he reasons with Jonah. God stoops down and puts on a little show just for Jonah to draw Jonah away from his pride and hatred and awaken compassion in him.
Think of how God could have responded to Jonah. “Who are you to question me and my mercy!? You are angry with what I, God Almighty, have done?! Who do you think you are little man!?” Jonah the runaway prophet is angry that God is merciful, while at the same time having just been shown amazing mercy himself and while relying on that very same mercy for every breath in his lungs.
God doesn’t rebuke Jonah. God questions him:
But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’
(Jonah 4:4, NIV)
God wants Jonah to come out of his anger and think. He is stooping down to meet Jonah where he is to draw him away from his hatred. Marvel at the patience of God dealing with this rebellious prophet sulking in response to God’s amazing mercy!
The question goes unanswered at first. Has Jonah ignored God and stomped off in a huff? Who does he think he is? He goes out of the city to watch and see if God will change his mind. As if his little tantrum would make God second-guess his mercy. Jonah must have a high opinion of himself.
So, God pursues Jonah. He’s after Jonah’s heart. And so, as we’ve seen before in this amazing little book, God who is in control of all things, pulls some more strings. In verses 6 to 8 we see God appoint a plant to grow and shelter Jonah. This makes Jonah incredibly happy. God then appoints a worm to eat away at the bush, then the hot wind and the sun make it wither away and Jonah is off sulking again. This incident with the bush and the worm is all just so God could show Jonah something. God made Jonah care about something. God awoke Jonah’s compassion. Over a plant!
God is trying to get through to Jonah to make a point. This time when God asks the question again Jonah answers.
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’
‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’
(Jonah 4:9, NIV)
Jonah is sulking again and this time it’s about something which was destroyed — his little plant that kept the sun off his head. This is all part of God’s plan, pulling strings to use this plant and the worm to make a point to Jonah:
But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’
(Jonah 4:10-11, NIV)
You care so much about this bush which you had nothing to do with and which came and went and you object to me caring about this great city?
God is saying to Jonah that he cares about Nineveh. God knows exactly how many people live there. God knows them all by name. He has given them life. For every moment of every one of their lives, God has been there. He knit them together in the wombs of their mothers. He was there when they took their first steps and spoke their first words. Why shouldn’t God care about them when Jonah cares about a plant that sprung up overnight and which he did nothing to make grow?
Nineveh matters to God. People matter to God. Animals matter to God. If God is sovereign — and we’ve been shown time and time again in this short story that God is indeed sovereign — then he gives life to all people everywhere. Every breath you’ve ever taken has been a gift to you from God. He has been there every moment of your existence. You matter to God. Your friends and neighbours matter to God and whether they know it or not, God has been there all along in their life.
Perhaps you do not know God. Could he be pulling the strings in your life to direct you so that you ended up hearing this message that you matter to God and that he is calling you to himself?
Our story of Jonah ends there, We’re not told what Jonah said in response. God just lets that question hang in the air like the final note of a piece of music. It sticks with you. Because Jonah doesn’t respond you’re left thinking about the question. It becomes a question directed towards you because Jonah’s not there to give his response. This is a short story, but it sucks you in and it makes this issue of mercy very personal. If God cares so much and shows mercy to those who hate and rebel against him, why should we be angry when he blesses our enemies. In fact, shouldn’t we be merciful. Shouldn’t we bless our enemies?
But perhaps underneath all the pride and all the ways that Jonah forgot that he too was depending so much on God’s mercy, perhaps underneath all that there was something good that led to his anger. And maybe you’ve been thinking of this too. I’ve been going on and on about grace and mercy and I make no apologies for that, but what about justice?
I mean this was a great city full of idol worshippers, full of sinners who turned their back on the living God. This people forgot about their creator and worshipped created things instead. What about justice, what about God’s honour? And I’ve been talking about loving our enemies, but what about all the hurt that our enemies have caused us? What about the people that have hurt you?
How do we worship a God who we believe is good and holy and pure, who cares about right and wrong — justice and injustice — while at the same time believing in his amazing grace and mercy, bigger than we can imagine?
God does care about justice and injustice; they matter to him. Sin matters to God. It can’t simply be waved aside. Sin matters to God because people matter to God. He cares about all the ways we hurt one another. Our Creator cares when his creations turn their back on him.
God has shown us how these two things — justice and grace — are held together. And we see that in Jesus, in the cross. Sin must be atoned for and it was atoned for. To atone for the sins of human beings a human being suffered not just rejection, not just hatred, not just torture and death, but separation from God. The debt was paid. The justice of God was satisfied when Jesus Christ stood in our place and paid our debt. And grace — that man who died was also God himself. Justice and grace meet at the cross, each perfectly fulfilled. God can show mercy and grace to those who have put their faith in the sacrifice of Jesus because the demands of justice have been satisfied. That grace is for you if you put your faith in Jesus. This is how grace and mercy meet — in the cross of Jesus Christ we see a righteous God who hates evil, but who is also a gracious and loving God who blesses his enemies. Put your faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done and peace with this righteous and gracious God is yours.
I am glad that God is merciful to his enemies because if he wasn’t, I would have no hope and neither would you. And reflecting on the cross and on God’s lingering question to Jonah shows us the kind of attitude we should have. We should love our enemies because God loved his. While Jesus was being killed, he prayed for the forgiveness of the people doing this to him. Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to show mercy to? That’s what this short story is about. Although most people immediately think of the fish, that’s not the point. The point is mercy. God’s grace and mercy which is bigger than you can imagine. As we gladly receive that grace and mercy for ourselves, we must be careful not to let pride keep us from a kind of religious stinginess that makes us callous or cruel to those who are not like us. We’re no better, no more deserving. It’s a gift. A gift that we can share.
Lord we praise you for your mercy and grace to us in Jesus Christ. We look at the cross and see the greatness of our sin, we see that you are a just God. But as great as our sins are, the cross shows us that your love is greater. Help us to receive your amazing grace as a gift. Help us to know that we are not saved by our own virtue, but only by the righteousness of Christ who died in our place.
As we receive your grace may it make us humble. Protect us from falling into pride. Keep us from looking down on others. May we be a gracious and merciful people.
We pray for our country. We thank you that the number of new cases of COVID19 are lower, and we pray that they continue to go down. We pray for those who mourn the loss of loved ones to this disease. Please comfort them. We pray for healing for the sick. We pray for all those working to fight against this disease and its impact on our society, whether in hospitals, care homes, labs, factories or shops.
We pray for those who have suffered loss during this time and because of restrictions have not been able to mourn in the usual ways that we find helpful here. Draw near to them and comfort them.
As businesses reopen please help us to be careful. Help us to care about our neighbours and communities.
As churches prepare to reopen please help the leaders to implement all the necessary steps to create a safe place for people to gather for worship. Help us to be wise as we draw up our plans.
We pray in Jesus’ name.