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Moaning - Jonah 4

This is a sermon by Chris Hobbs from the evening service on 26th September 1999.

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There are some people who read detective stories by turning to the last chapter first. If it has a good ending, then they'll consider reading the whole book. If it hasn't, they don't bother. [What they do with films, I don't know. I suppose they can only watch them on video].

We've come to the end of the Story of Mission Nineveh. This is an ending to make us want to go back and read the whole story again. It was a great mission, by any account. In the course of three days, or maybe less, the whole city was reached with God's word and the warning of judgment. They instantly turned from their evil ways and God spared them. It was a city of 120,000 people - roughly half the size of Hull. I've never seen a mission like it, only ever heard of such things.

Humanly speaking, it was all the work of one man - Jonah, the prophet from a country town in Israel. Where is he after his great work? Is he the guest of the king and his court at the great banquet, celebrating their amazing deliverance? Has he modestly slipped away so that he can't become the focus of attention? No. He's deeply unhappy about the whole thing. He's sulking. And like all sulkers, he's caught between feeling sorry for him self and being angry, very angry. He's so angry that God has spared Nineveh, that he'd rather be dead. He doesn't watnt to live in a world where God does that sort of thing. How can God's prophet be feeling like that? Isn't he supposed to be on God's side? He was God's chosen preacher for the mission.

This last chapter answers that question and ties up the loose ends for us. There are two particular loose ends to be tied up: Why exactly Jonah ran away in the first place. And why he got it so badly wrong. We may have had our hunches before this point, but it all becomes clear now. The author has skilfully saved up the details to make for a cracker of an ending to his story. The chapter turns around a single question. It is one which God twice puts to Jonah, with a slight change. The first time is in verse 4: Have you any right to be angry? The scond in verse 9: Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?


1. Why Jonah ran away (v1-4)

At last Jonah comes clean as to why he ran away, why he didn't want to go to Nineveh. God has known all along what the problem is. We the readers may have made our guesses. Now we have it from Jonah's own lips: verses 1-4.... Once again, Jonah's doctrine is impeccable. He knows and believes the truth about God. He isn't a false prophet, who tells lies about God and denies his judgment. He's disobedient, but he's a true prophet - he speaks the truth about God.

He even quotes the Bible to sum up what he believes about God. Something very close to this appears first in Exodus 22, when God reveals himself to Moses. This is the God of the Bible - gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Such a God isn't a NT invention or discovery; not a development from a previous understanding of a vengeful and cruel deity. This is God's character, from beginning to end in the Bible. He isn't two-faced, now one thing and now another. He hasn't changed, but is utterly consistent.

There are some vile caricatures of God around, which we must resist. Here is Timothy Leary, the counter-culture guru, who died recently, describing how he sees the alternative to Darwinian evolution: "Now the other theory is that life was designed by an anthropomorphic police-power freak named Jehovah. He's an all-powerful desert-macho dictator who runs around interrogating, arresting, and condemning anyone who doesn't follow his rules or bow down to him regularly." [Design for Dying, p17]. Do you recognise the God of the Bible in that description? Would Jonah have recognised such a picture? He'd have given it prettyy short shrift, and so should we. God's essential character is one of love and compassionate. He will judge, if his love and compassion are spurned, but Luther was right to call that his 'strange work'. And those who are destroyed in that judgment will have to confess that they brought the judgment on themselves.

Jonah's doctrine is impeccable. He even understood God's methods of saving people. That, when God chooses to save people he sends them a preacher to warn them of judgment and bring them to repentance - as we saw last week. He knew it. He believed it - and he didn't like it one little bit. He would not have God showing that kind of love to Nineveh. He didn't even want to give them the chance of repenting. He wanted to make sure of that by disappearing from the scene. And if God insisted on saving Nineveh, at least he Jonah would have had nothing to do with it.

How can we make sense of Jonah's absolute antagonism to God's will? Was he simply a nationalist? TheNinevites were foreigners. And in the OT that meant they weren't God's chosen people, the Israelites. How could God show them such favour, when his own people seemed to be faring so badly back home?

Isn't it easy to assume that God will only save people like us. I read this in a newspaper not long ago: Walking through the city late one night I came upon a guy about to jump off a bridge and take his life. I said, "Wait a minute, don't you believe in God?" He said, "I do believe in God". I said, "Really? Are you a Christian or a Jew?" "I'm a Christian." "Me too, what denomination?" "Baptist." "So am I. Northeren or Southern?" "Northern Baptist." I said, " Good on you. Fundamentalist or Reformed?" "Northern Fundamentalist Baptist." "Great stuff. Great Lakes Region or Eastern Region?" "Northern Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region." "Incredible. Council of 1879 or Council of 1912?" He replied, Northern Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!", and pushed him over. It would be even funnier if it wasn't so close to how we're prone to think.

Was that how Jonah was thinking? Little is made of Nineveh being a foreign city outside Israel - although all Bible readers whould know that. What we do know is how evil the place was. The second verse of the book tells us that its wickedness has come up before God. And, in chapter 3, the king of Nineveh frankly acknowledges their evil ways and their violence. We know God had scheduled the city for destruction because of its wickedness. It wouldn't be hard for Jonah to make a very strong case for the overthrow of the city. And it would be thoroughly deserved. It was right up there alongside Sodom and Gomorrah.

We also know that Nineveh was later destroyed by God. We cannot be sure of the date of Jonah's visit to Nineveh, but it was clearly the Assyrian capital when he was there. It was to be the last capital of Assyria, a nation which had ravaged and subdued the Middle East for centuries. Finally, Nineveh would meet her end, an end which the book of Nahum details. Here is how he describes Nineveh: the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims. So well-known was her brutality, that Nahum ends like this: Everyone who hears the news about you claps his hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty? There would be no tears, no mourners at Nineveh's passing, only cheers and applause.

Perhaps we're getting closer to what was in Jonah's mind. How can God spare such an evil place. But the more we can get inside his skin and feel what makes him tick, the nearer we will be to hearing what this book has to say to us.


2. Why Jonah was wrong (v5-11)

This part of the sermon carries a health warning - a spiritual health warning. It's dangerous for us to say how wrong Jonah was unless we see how likely we are to make the same mistake. Unless we're prepared to put ourselves in the dock alongside him, we would be better not to pronounce judgment on him. Worse than falling into Jonah's error would be to sit back and smugly pray, "God, I thank you that I'm not like Jonah."

This part of the story is a flashback, from verse 5 onwards. It tells what Jonah was doing while he waited to see what happened to the city. The tenses of the verbs in verse 5 should probably be translated to make that point: Jonah had gone out and had 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. The outcome is still in the balance. The author end with this flash back, because here is the crunch issue. Verse 6-9...

Here's God's lesson to Jonah. He's a powerful and compelling teacher, with the forces of nature to aid him. In this lesson, he uses a plant, a worm and a scorching east wind to make his point. Again God questions Jonah: Do you have a right to be angry about the vine? He does! He is understandably angry. There's considerable self-interest involved as he endures the loss of comfort the vine had brought him. But he has a point. As if he's saying to God, "You can't do that! You're just playing games
with me. I'd have been better off without ever seeing the vine. You can't make something like that and then destroy it again - just because you feel like it. It's not fair. You're not that sort of God."

You can feel the silence as God replies, "You're right, Jonah, I'm not like that. But can't you see? That's exactly what you're asking me to do to Nineveh." verse 10-11. When God says the Ninevites cannot tell their right hand from their left, he doesn't mean they're innocent. He means they're helpless, unable even to see their plight unless someone comes and tells them. They need a preacher - which is what God sent them. How could Jonah get into such a state? How could God's prophet drift so far from sharing God's concerns? It's terrifyingly easy. And if we don't think we can, we don't know ourselves well enough. All we need to do is forget how sinful we are. We only need to think we're not quite as wicked as the Bible says. Once we start thinking there's some thing, however tiny, within us, which somehow merits God's favour and compassion, we've had it. It's then a small step to thinking that those who don't have that something don't merit his grace - they're not worth God taking a second look at.

Have you heard of Jeffrey Dahmer? Dubbed the Milwaukee monster, this man was convicted of seventeen murders. Eleven corpses were found in his apartment. He cut off arms. He ate body parts. At his trial, he sat in court quite serenely, face impassive, eyes steely, motionless. No sign of remorse, no hint of regret for what he'd done. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole - hardly a fair exchange for his deeds, but presumably the maximum available to the court. Then, a few months before he was murdered in prison, Dahmer became a Christian. He said he repented, that he was sorry for what he'd done, deeply sorry, said he'd put his faith
in Christ. He was baptised, began reading Christian books and attending chapel.

How do you feel about that? How can God show grace to a serial murderer and cannibal? His sins washed away? His soul cleansed? His past forgiven? Surely there are limits? God can't let him off that easily, not after what he did. God may be kind, but he's not a push-over. He may be compassionate, but he's not a soft-touch. Grace is for average sinners, not for deviants like that. [In the Grip of Grace, p35-36].

How can God show grace to a man like Jeffrey Dahmer? The same way he can show grace to a man like me, or a man like you, or a woman like you. Where are the average sinners? There are no average sinners. Only sinners. There are no worse sinners than the people in this building at this moment.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because our sins are generally respectable, we're any less in need of God's grace. God didn't give his Son to die for respectable sinners, or for average sinners, or for nice sinners, but for sinners.

Is that what Jonah had forgotten? That his own life hung by the thread of God's grace. That his own salvation was entirely the fruit of God's compassion on him? Had Jonah forgotten the same was true for Israel? God didn't choose them because they were bigger or better than any other nation. They'd done nothing to merit his favour, and everything to try his patience, and yet he loved them.

Alcoholics Anonymous have twelve steps to recovery for Alcoholics. The first involves sitting in an AA meeting and saying, "My name is ..... I am an alcoholic." Their only hope is to keep remembering that. The day they forget that is the day they stop recovering from their alcoholism. Our only hope is to be brutally honest about the depths of sin in our own hearts. "My name is.... I am a sinner", is the first step to spiritual recovery. The day we forget that is the day we move away from God - and the compassion he longs to show us.


Did Jonah change his mind?

Not quite every loose end is tied up by the end of the story. There's one question left unanswered - deliberately, because it's the challenge of the book. Did Jonah change his mind? God leaves him with a question: Should I not be concerned about that great city? How did Jonah respond? Will he change his mind and share God's love for the lost? Will he have a heart like God's? Will he accept that he cannot control or contain the grace of God - but only convey it?

It's the same choice facing the elder son when his wayward brother returns and his father throws a party. Will he share his father's joy and go in to the party? Or will he remain outside, as far from his father as his reckless brother ever was? Both stories invite us to write our own ending, because the same choice faces us. There will be rejoicing in heaven over sinners who repent. That's the way it is. We can't change it. That's what God is like. All we can change is whether we'll share in that joy - first of all by repenting ourselves.

And then by longing that others repent - so we're ready to rejoice when they do.


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