Father God, we have sung of your great love, your compassion, your goodness, your forgiveness – And we have told our souls to praise you. But our hearts are not always so willing to comply. So as we open your word now we pray that you would shape our hearts to trust and obey you more and more. Amen.
Please take a seat. And it would be great if you could grab a Bible and turn back to Jonah, chapter 4 which we're looking at this morning. And as you try to find that let me say – it's a tiny wee book and there is no shame in using the index. That's what it's there for, so no need to feel embarrassed using it!
Having said that, I want to begin this morning by mentioning a memory I'm a bit embarrassed to own up to. I want to tell you about a time when I was listening to the Gardener's Quiz on Radio 4. In my defence I think I was round at my mum's or my gran's – and they just happened have it on. Seriously you must believe me! But I couldn't help but overhear the final jokey last question that you often get on these kind of shows. And the question was: "If you could invite anyone round for tea in your garden, who would you have?" And the gardeners' went round one by one, until the last one said:
"I'd have God if I could choose anyone. I'd like God to be in my garden for tea, because I'm longing to ask him some questions like why he made greenfly and what moles were created for. I think it would be quite entertaining, quite fun to have God for tea."
And as I heard that I thought to myself: "Wow! That says a lot about our attitude to God these days." I mean what a role reversal. It wasn't so long ago that everyone assumed that if they met God it would be him who would be asking the questions – not them. He would be the one holding us to account for the way we live our lives. We knew that God was our judge. But we modern human beings in our arrogance have turned that totally around. And we can hardly wait to get our hands on God and sit him down and ask him a few tough questions like why he made greenfly and moles… and more profound questions like:
- Why is there suffering in the world?
- And why has he allowed Aids?
- And why does his alleged good book say sex is only for marriage?
- And you could go on and on. There is no end to the pointed, accusatory questions we'd like to ask God.
Why is there no fear of God around today? Why have we lost respect for the one who made us and gives us everything we have, that we would reduce him to a rather weak, pathetic figure cowering in the dock as we with our judges robes on point our fingers at him and bombard him with our questions?! Well there's a lot that we could say about that – but the short answer I have for you this morning is… that there is a lot more Jonah in us than we'd like to admit.
If you're here for the first time this morning or you've not been around for a while, then you've missed a treat – As if ever there was a book in the Bible that tells you that you can chuckle in church it's this book of Jonah that we've been looking at over the last month. It's the story of the Lord of all heaven and earth who tells his prophet to go that way and the prophet goes this way. It's a book with one of the greatest prayers of the Bible in it and it's not prayed in a cathedral or a chapel but in the belly of a great fish. And when the fish sicks Jonah up, he finally embarks on his mission picking bits of seaweed off his jacket and slicking his hair back not with gel but with big fish vomit. And as he reaches his destination his only message is 'repent within 40 days or you've had it' – And they do! They repent… in massive numbers! It's incredible! It's amazing… and yet as we read on this morning in chapter 4 we find what has to be the most bizarre and bewildering thing in the entire story so far, as Jonah responds to God's amazing grace with anger and accusation.
It's outrageous! So outrageous, it's almost comical. And I wish I could say that I can't relate to Jonah. I wish I could say we have nothing in common with him, but we do. There is a lot more Jonah in us than we'd like to admit. So here's the first thing we have in common with him…
1. Jonah has a Problem with God: "It's Not Fair!" (v.1-4)
Ever said that to God? Well take a look at Jonah 4.1-3:
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
So the email comes in 'Revival – whole city turns to God. Mass repentance. Praise the Lord!' And does Jonah respond with praise to his merciful God? Does he rejoice in the success of his mission? Does he start organising some follow up for these new converts – getting the Ninevites into Bible study groups or one to ones so that they can grow in their new found faith? Not a bit of it – Jonah is doing his nut in! He's as mad as a hatter over this. And who is he angry with? It's God. As in his anger Jonah prays to God. And he essentially prays: 'I knew you'd do this God! I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! That's why I didn't want to go to Nineveh in the first place - 'cos I knew that all it would take was for the Ninivites to turn on the water works and say sorry, and YOU being the great big softy that you are would just go and let them off. I just knew you'd do that!'
You see this isn't just a toddler tantrum Jonah is having here. He is actually arguing for the logic of his rebellion. And the main weapon he uses to argue his point is... what he knows about God. In fact, he actually quotes the Bible back at God as he attempts to show him why his rebellion was really a good decision after all. For when Jonah says to God in verse 2: "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster", he is quoting what God told Moses about himself in Exodus 34. You'll find these words throughout the Bible. And they describe to us...
- A God of glorious grace – a God who delights to give us what we don't deserve.
- A God of wonderful mercy – who loves to forgive.
- A God who is slow to anger – we give God plenty of reasons to get angry with us, but day by day, hour by hour he patiently holds back his righteous anger. As he is also...
- A God who abounds in steadfast love – love overflows from him. He is the source of all love. What a great God. What a great God.
And yet... those beautiful elements of the incredible character of God a man will actually use to defend his sin. Isn't that amazing? That Jonah says to God: 'This is exactly why I turned and ran away... because I knew that this is what you're like.'
Folks, I can't say anything else to you than this: Be shocked... but also be warned. For, we can know a lot about God, but not really want to know God. We may have grown up in church all our lives, being taught the Bible since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. We may have hardly missed a single Sunday at church since. We may now be the one leading Sunday school or a Midweek group. We may even work for the church or have been to Theological college. But yet… we can still find ourselves in just the same boat as Jonah – a good theologian, but a reluctant servant. Well versed in scripture, but immature in our faith. So that we will look at God and see Him as the one whose character is flawed!
'Well maybe, Ken,' you might say, 'But it's the 21st century and our problem is not going to be with God's mercy; it's with his judgement.' But I want to say wait a moment, I don't think it's as simple as that. I think we find God's mercy just as difficult to live with as Jonah did. It offends us. It offends our sense of justice. I mean seriously, we don't really want to see the awful big bully of the moment like President Assad of Syria – or whoever has the blood of Syria on their hands – treated the same way as Mother Theresa, do we? That doesn't seem fair or right to us!
I remember a minister friend of mine telling me about a woman in his congregation who was divorced from her husband. He told me that when they were married her husband had treated this woman like a pig, and then right at the end of his life he repented, genuinely repented, fully clearly repented. And he died having turned to Christ for forgiveness, trusting in his cross for mercy. And the wife… found it so hard to take. And in a moment of disarming honesty she confessed that she had wanted him to go to hell, because she knew he really deserved it.
Folks, we talk a good game when it comes to mercy and love, but we are just as selective with our mercy as people have ever been. I mean just watch the next time a convicted rapist gets probation. I think Jonah's argument still resonates today. Jonah's problem isn't really with God being merciful, but with whom God shows mercy to. There is Nineveh with its pagan worship, its weird religions, its sexual immoralities, its violence, its murder, – and Jonah says 'God you're a soft touch and I've had enough.'
Let me ask you this morning – who would you rather see judged than graced? Who would you rather see punished than forgiven? Is there perhaps a place in your life where you would rather see God's judgement than God's mercy? And if you're struggling to answer those questions – let me push you to find an answer by asking you this: Who wouldn't you be willing to serve if God called you to? Answer that question, and you like Jonah will have found your own personal Nineveh.
Well once we do find our answer, God asks us the same question he asks Jonah in verse 4: "And the LORD said, "Do you do well to be angry?"" Are you right to withhold your service from God and from others? Here's the second thing we have in common with Jonah, as we find that not only does Jonah have a problem with God…
2. God has a Problem with Jonah: "You Don't Care!" (v.5-11)
Have a look at verse 5:
"Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city."
Can you hear the teenager's bedroom door slam shut as Jonah leaves the city? If an angry outburst doesn't work that's what you do, don't you? You stride off in a huff. And as Jonah sits and sulks he looks out over the city hoping that God will somehow wake up and come round to his point of view and go: 'Ah Jonah, you know you were right all along – those Ninevites really are the pits! They don't deserve anything!' And send down a mighty foot to stamp on the city as if he were squashing an ants' nest.
And as Jonah waits, the sun beats down on his head and God very kindly provides a plant to shelter him from the heat of the day. But it doesn't last long, as God sends a worm which nibbles away at the plant and it dies. And Jonah starts whining about how unfair God is yet again! And once again God asks Jonah (v9-11):
"Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." And the LORD said "You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"
Can you see how outrageous Jonah is being here?! He is more concerned for his own comfort over others' salvation. Jonah cares more about plants than people! For, as far as he was concerned, those Ninevites could just go to hell. And if you're a Christian here this morning, there's a sting in the tale of this book of the Bible. If you're a Christian then I need to say that for as long as we are not open to taking the message of God's coming judgement and his great forgiving love to anyone he gives us opportunity to – then that's what we're saying: 'Let them go to hell.' I doubt any of us would express it like that, but in so far as we are inward looking and just concerned for our plant, our well-being, our agenda and we don't really stop to care about those who get in our way and get up our nose – What we are saying is: 'Let them go to hell.'
And for those of us who still think that there are two categories of people on this earth – the good guys who deserve the good life and a ticket to heaven for the good that we've done, and the truly wicked who deserve nothing but hell, there's a clue in verse 11 as to why some people appear to be better than others – as it says: "…120,00 persons who do not know their right hand from their left..." Now I'm hoping that you know your right hand from your left. But how did you find out which was which? I mean, you didn't just pop out of your mother's womb and say 'I am coming out left hand first.' 'I am now lying in my cot on my right hand side.' No! You went 'Goo-Goo! Ga Ga!' You needed to be told which was your right hand side and which was your left. You were educated as to what your right and left hand are.
You see what this means here is moral naivety. Spiritual ignorance. 120,000 people who wouldn't have known how to avoid judgement until Jonah preached to them. Until Jonah told them. They didn't know which way is up! And they acted that way. And it made them look like they're much further away from God than others. But it doesn't matter if we appear to be a big sinner or a little one, if we're socially acceptable or completely anti-social. God still cares for each one of us just the same – regardless of our privileges. And he saves each one of us in just the same way – not through our own goodness, but through his great mercy.
I need to wrap up. But let me finish with a bit of Spooks! Does anyone remember the hit TV series Spooks? It was a spy show all about MI5 agents and I remember watching one episode that got a bit hairy at the end when one of the main MI5 agents had her daughter captured by a terrorist and he was going to kill her if the agent didn't let a bomb go off. It was pretty tense – and I've got three kids so I knew how that woman felt about her kid. So the relief when the terrorist got a couple of bullets in the chest and she got her daughter back was incredible. I found myself starting to get a bit misty-eyed. My wife turned to me and said: "Are you crying?" And I go, "No, No, I've just got the sniffles. I think I've got a cold coming on. Maybe it's my hay fever playing up."
But then it hit me. That's how God feels about every one of the six billion people on this planet, because he has created every one of us and we are his children. He knows each one of us from the tops of our heads to the toes of our feet. So should he not be concerned about us? Should he not try to save every one of us? That's what the very last verse in the book of Jonah asks: "And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city… [i.e. Should I not be concerned about that great city?]" And if our hearts beat with his heartbeat – don't we need to share his concerns? And if we did... where would they take us? And how would they change us? And what comfort zones and personal conveniences limit our discipleship now? "…should not I pity Nineveh, [should I not be concerned about] that great city?"
Now that might take us to the other side of the world, but it doesn't need to. It could just take us next door to our grumpy inconsiderate neighbour, or the sullen looking teenager at the bus stop, or the smooth sneering college on the desk opposite, or the awkward family relative. And if I have somehow unwittingly mentioned that person who you thought of when I asked you earlier on who you are unwilling to serve, don't sigh and feel burdened by that. Taking on God's concerns doesn't start with a job to do, which like Jonah you begrudgingly carry out with a bitter and resentful heart. No! It starts with asking for a heart like God's. So pray that he would give you a heart full of his love. And pray too for those you currently find impossible to stomach, let alone forgive. And in time he will help you discover a love that you didn't think yourself capable of. "…should not I pity Nineveh, [should I not be concerned about] that great city?" The book ends with that question and sadly we never get to hear Jonah's answer! But God gives his answer resoundingly when Jesus hangs on the cross.
"God so loved [God was so concerned for] the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3.16)
That's his heart. What's ours? Let's pray…
Father God, we are convicted by Jonah's heartlessness and we ask for your forgiveness for any way in which we have been heartless to others in recent months and years. Please give us something of your compassion for the lost. Give us a heart like yours. That we would bear with those who we find difficult, and care for other's needs, and those who don't know you or your judgement that they too might find the mercy we've received. We pray this for your great name's sake. Amen.