The pity of God, the self-pity of man - Jonah 4

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 29th February 2004.

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Whatever you may think of Oliver Cromwell, you have to grant that at least he wasn’t a vain man. When he was asked to sit for a portrait of himself he insisted that he be painted ‘warts and all’ and if you have ever seen pictures of him you might well have excused him the odd application of the air brush- ala Michael Douglas. Now the reason why this saying of Cromwell’s is so memorable is because it went against the custom of the day which was to portray the rich and famous in the most favourable light possible. At around the same time as Cromwell, a well to do lady, who was somewhat lacking in the good looks department, called in an artist to paint her portrait. As she sat there adorned in full regalia, she turned to the artist and said, ‘ Sir, I do hope that you will do me justice.’ To which the artist replied, ‘Madame, it is not justice you need, it is mercy.’ And you know, according to the Bible that could well be said of each one of us, it is not justice we need, it is mercy. The problem for some of us is that we find mercy unacceptable, at least when it is extended to others. There is the story of the mother of a young French soldier who had been ordered to be shot for cowardice and she managed to get an audience with Napoleon Bonarpart himself. She begged him on her hands and needs to show mercy to her young son. ‘He doesn’t deserve mercy’ barked the Emperor. ‘ Sir,’ replied the mother , ‘If he deserved it, then it wouldn’t be mercy.’ One demands justice. The other delights in mercy. And that is exactly the tension we see in our final passage from Jonah this morning. And Jonah is to receive a salutary lesson in divine mercy. So do turn with me to Jonah chapter 4.

Just to recap, we have been following the long and painful journey of a rebellious prophet- Jonah, and the people he represents-Israel. Nineveh is the capital of Israel’s vicious enemy, Assyria and it is to this city that Jonah has been sent with a message of repentance and belief. After being redirected by God onto his divine mission via a storm and great fish, Jonah does as he is told and the climax is recorded in 3: 10 :When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. You see, unlike Napoleon God relishes mercy. And what follows is a battle of wills over a question of rights. One the one hand is the question of Jonah's right to be angry, the conflict being underscored by the prefacing word ‘but’ -v4, But the LORD replied, "Have you any right to be angry?" and v9. But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" On the other hand is the matter of God’s right to show pity which is the main point of this whole story as brought out by the final question God poses in v11 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?". As we shall see, our tendency, especially as religious people is to be more like Jonah- self-righteous and bitter whereas God wants us to be more like him - merciful and gracious.

In the first instance we come across a resentment for the Lord vv 1-3. Jonah has just experienced something which no other prophet or even the greatest of them all-Jesus- experienced: the wholesale turning of a pagan city to God. Sure, it may only have been a short term repentance, but it was genuine repentance nonetheless. Everybody was in on the act- from the King right on down to the chamber maid. And what did Jonah do? Skip around the city singing ‘Our God reigns?’ Hardly- v1 ‘Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry’- That is,he was livid-that is how strong the term is. He was so enraged he wanted to strangle somebody-preferably God. And for the second time in this story Jonah prayed- vent his spleen might be a more accurate way to describe what is going on -v 2. ‘Just as I thought Lord, you are too soft my half- I knew this would happen. When you should have been sending down fire and brimstone you send down kindness and blessing. That is why I refused to go in the first place and now events have simply confirmed my initial instincts.’ Do you see what he is doing? He is challenging the right for God to be God. This is not the kind of God he wants to believe in. He wants more of the ‘flog and hang em’ type. ‘Doesn’t God realise that this liberal mamby pamby policy is only going to send the wrong signals and lead to moral chaos, a breakdown of life as we know it?. People will start to think they can get away with anything. You can’t have cheap grace you know’ And that is exactly the objection frequently levelled at the Christian message. All this talk of believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and the slate is wiped clean is too easy by half. It will encourage all sorts of immorality, for all you have to do is keep saying ‘sorry’ to God and you will be all right. This is the charge the Roman church brought against the Reformers in the 16th century and many churchman levelled at the evangelicals in the 18th century, as well as at us in the 21st century: ‘Your forgiveness is all too slick and simple.’ But the interesting thing is this: those who do respond to God’s kindness from the heart, are changed. They are transformed in such a way that they don’t want to abuse his kindness, rather, they want to live lives which celebrated his mercy. Once you realise that you have been saved from God’s anger in judgement and experience the warm smile of his love, then the last thing you want to do is to put yourself back under that judgement again. Having been lifted out of the cesspit of sin misery and feel the fresh clean clothes of Christ’s righteousness on your back means that you are not going to be in too much of a hurry to dive back in again doesn’t it? That is if you are properly converted. And Jonah failed to understand that. And one reason why he failed is that he is so full of himself. Did you notice how self-centred this prayer is? ‘ Is this not what I said when I was still home.. that is why I was quick to flee to Tarshish, I knew you were a gracious God.... take away my life, for it is far better for me to die than to live.’ It is all I, I, I, me and my. He is wholly self- absorbed. What God might think and want doesn’t enter into his reckoning- its all about him. And of course a person who is so ego centric is going to set himself up as judge both of other people and of God. But there are two things which should have made Jonah and make us hesitant before charging God with judicial incompetence.

First of all Jonah had been shown mercy. What a contrast between this prayer and the one he had uttered from the belly of the fish. Then it was all praise and gratitude to the God who answers prayer and rescues people. The very thing which was the occasion for that prayer- God’s character of grace in which he is supremely glorified- is now the basis for this long tirade of bitterness and venom. Why was it that Jonah having tasted mercy could not bear seeing that same mercy extended to others? Perhaps it was because he didn’t quite see it as mercy. The mistake Israel constantly made and which Jesus had to correct with the Pharisees, was the wrong belief that God’s kindness is somehow earned. That by virtue of being a Jew, of having the temple, saying the prayers that somehow you earned the right to have God’s ear and receive God’s blessing. But of course such rights did not extend to those who were on the outside. But the moment you realise it is all of grace form beginning to end- totally undeserved ,then those who have been forgiven the most should be forgiving the most. Now could it be that the reason why you are having such a hard time in forgiving someone at the moment who is genuinely sorry for what they have done ,is because you have forgotten how much God has forgiven you and at what cost- the brutal slaying of his own Son? There is nothing cheap about grace.

In the second place this eulogy of the sublime nature of God in v2 as the one who is almost beside himself in wanting to show kindness, comes from Exodus 34 right in the middle of one of the darkest episodes in Israel’s history. The place is Mount Sinai. The occasion is the birth of the Israelite nation. No sooner had the people received the ten commandments promising on oath to have no other God but Yahweh, than they are prostrating themselves in orgiastic delirium before a golden calf. It was at that point that God wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth. And had it not been for the intercession of Moses it looks like that is what would have happened. And what was it that Moses pleaded? The potential of the nation? That it did have its good points? No. The basis was the revelation captured in these words, that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. It was only v2 which stood between God’s wrath and Israel’s destruction then, as it was the only thing to stand between God’s anger of Jonah’s demise now. To demand strict justice is both rash and foolhardy because we could be signing our own death warrant. No one has put this better than Dorothy L Sayers writing at the time of Hitler: ‘ Why doesn’t God smite the dictator dead? is a question a little remote from us. Why, madam, did he not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such a cruel lack of consideration to that well meaning friend? And why, sir, did he not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery? You did not quite mean that? But why not? Your misdeeds and mine are none the less repellent because our opportunities for doing damage are less spectacular than those of some other people. Do you suggest that your doings and mine are too trivial for God to bother about? That cuts both ways: for, in that case it would make precious little difference to his creation if he wiped us both out tomorrow.’ Was Jonah’s overweening pride and arrogance any less offensive to God than that of the Assyrians? Or the West’s disregard for human life at the rate of one abortion every three minutes to that of Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds? We need to make a little more space for some personal self-examination before we claim the moral high ground in exonerating ourselves and condemning others. Thank God that he is compassionate and gracious otherwise none of us would be here today-that is the glory of the Gospel.

And so we move on to a lesson to be learnt vv 4-8. Isn’t the contrast striking between the way Jonah speaks to God and God speaks Jonah? God doesn’t verbally assault the prophet and trample all over him like Jonah has been doing with God, he gently raises a question v4 But the LORD replied, "Have you any right to be angry?" . This is another indication of the kind of God he is, he is even gracious with know it all prophets and Christians! However, we also have insight into divine wisdom. let me put it like this: Jonah’s problem is not with his head, it is with his heart. He doesn’t need a lesson in theology- he can quote Exodus 34 with ease- he needs a deeper lesson in humility. And that is often better learnt through experience rather than exposition. And so having raised the question, God gives Jonah the opportunity to learn the answer- the hard way.

Do you remember how in silence he fled from God’s presence in chapter 1? Now in silence he walks away from God’s question in chapter 4. Off he goes east of the city, makes himself comfortable and sits and waits. Waiting for what? ‘To see what would happen to the city.’ -v5 His whole body language is an answer to God’s question as he sits there pouting like a spoilt child who has had his favourite toy taken away. His eyes are fixed on the city presumably sulking and daring God to change his mind and destroy it. How irrational can you get? God has already declared his intentions and Jonah knows what those are, although he doesn’t like them. So what makes him think that God is suddenly going to change his mind now? That he will be so concerned to placate the prophet and get him back on side that he will obliterate and entire city? But that is what sin does to a person, it makes you irrational. It consumes and is all consuming. Just how do you get through to a person like that? Well, God shows us how- v6-8 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. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 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." .

God in his divine sovereignty provides a vine for Jonah just as he provided a fish, thus displaying his kindness. And Jonah is overjoyed. Then by the same token he provides a worm and a scorching wind which destroys the vine and so the shelter, exposing Jonah to the searing heat of the sun with the result that again he wants to die. In this God displays his severity. And as God he has a right to do both. Did Jonah deserve God’s kindness? He did not, but God showed it anyway. Did Jonah deserve God’s severity? He most certainly did and although he had no right to complain, complain he does nevertheless. And that is when the lesson of the book his driven home as we come to- a passion for the lost-vv 9-11. 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." 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. 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?"

The point is this: if Jonah thought he was justified in showing concern for the destruction of a plant, was not God even more justified in showing concern for the destruction of an entire city? Jonah wanted to the plant to live ( no doubt for selfish reasons), God wanted the people of Nineveh to live for good reasons- they are human beings made in his image and are more to be pitied than punished. Self-righteous, self-centred , self-obsessed with a sense of values which are directly at odds with the God he claims to know and serve- that is Jonah. But God still leaves the question open: ‘Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ Of course! He is God who by nature is concerned with the lost, that is why he sent Jonah and later sent one greater than Jonah-his Son Jesus.

You see, what we have in the story of Jonah is the OT counterpart to Luke 15. It was the Pharisees, the Jonah’s of Jesus day who wanted to keep themselves pure and uncontaminated from mixing with the religiously unclean. If the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ wanted to get sorted out, they knew what to do, become one of them. Just as Jonah criticised God for showing concern for the Ninevites, the Pharisees criticised Jesus for showing concern for the outcasts- ‘This man eats with tax collectors and sinners' they fumed. And so Jesus began to teach them a lesson, again not be giving them a direct theological blast but by telling three stories and so engaging them at the level of the heart. And in that final story of the concerned Father, we meet Jonah once again. Did you spot him? He is the elder brother. As far as he is concerned the father should not have showed the younger son mercy any more than God should have shown the Ninevites mercy. Jonah went out of the city and sulked, the elder brother stormed out of the house and sulked. Jonah poured out all his anger upon God for his kid glove treatment of the Assyrians, the elder brother rails at his father for his soft hearted treatment of his brother. God had to show concern for the Ninevites he can’t help himself. The father had to show compassion to his lost and found son- he couldn’t help himself either. If there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, can you imagine what rejoicing went on when this city repented? And so as God left the question open with Jonah, with the implication will you join me? The father leaves the question open with the elder brother- would he come and join him in the party.

You see, when you read of the exposed, tender forgiving heart of God in the book of Jonah, then you are not so surprised to read of the same heart in the Gospel. The God who goes to such lengths to get a mean minded prophet who is for ever bellyaching about ‘wanting to die’ in order to proclaim his message of forgiveness and a fresh start is of course the God who is going to send his one and only Son who is willing to die so that sinners might live, for it is at the cross that we see the meeting of justice and mercy on that thorn laden brow. And he expects his people to get caught up in the same saving business too which is why we are having a mission next week. It is sad to say that far too often God’s people are more like Jonah than Jesus- concerned with maintaining religious purity-even sound orthodoxy- than putting themselves out so that at least some will have the chance of hearing the Gospel. But the message of the book of Jonah is that we are not to be like that, but to be like God- tender, compassionate, gracious, abounding in steadfast love. That is the God we have come to know in and through the Lord Jesus and I don’t know about you but I do so wish I was more like him in this regard. Well ,we have a wonderful opportunity to do so for I tell you this: God is most concerned with this great city of Hull for that is why he has put us here.

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