Sermon on Jonah

24 September 2017

Jonah 3: 10-4:11

Expectations. We all have them. We all have expectations about how life will be, what we expect of ourselves and of others. We have expectations around our relationships with others, with our family, with our friends, with people we know and perhaps work with. Our expectations can be good as they can help guide us through life; give us some parameters or boundaries to work under. But they can also be a hindrance, can’t they? Because we all know people who have what would be called unrealistic expectations. Expectations that are too high or perhaps too low. Expectations that are detrimental and not helpful.

Not only do we have expectations around ourselves and others, but we have expectations about God. How God will work in our lives; how and when he answers our prayers. We also have expectations of how he works in the world. But what happens when our expectations of God don’t line up with who he is or what he chooses to do?

In today’s Old Testament reading where we hear about the prophet Jonah, we hear of a prophet of God struggling with this very issue. Right from the first chapter when God called Jonah, Jonah did not like what he was called by God to do. Jonah was more than just unhappy, he was disillusioned and determined not to be the instrument of the Lord’s mercy to that disgraceful city, to the vile people who lived in Nineveh. These people unquestionably deserved to get what was otherwise coming to them in terms of God’s wrath. So Jonah packed his bags and looked for the first opportunity to get as far away from the presence and the purposes of the Lord as he possibly could.

Nineveh was a city in Assyria, with a reputation. A reputation for evil. It can be hard for us to imagine what the city was like. So imagine that this city was filled with the most hurtful spiteful gay lobbyists intent on destroying God’s laws and his people, or picture the hardest-hearted Muslim intent on murdering Christians, or picture the most brutal rapists or serial killers. Think about people who really can make our skins crawl because of their evil hearts and behaviour. Then imagine that there are about 120,000 of these people living in one city. This gives an image of what Nineveh was like. And God tells Jonah to go to them and say that if they repent God will extend his mercy and grace to them, or else they will suffer God’s wrath. Jonah did not want God to show mercy to these people, he wanted God’s wrath to fall on them. After all, this is what they deserve so he ran away hoping that if he did not speak God’s word to them then they would not be able to hear and so they would all rot in hell.

As a Christian, I have been inspired in my own life and faith when I have seen and heard about how God has worked his grace and love in the lives of those who have not deserved it. There is something that is amazing about God working in the most extraordinary circumstances changing people’s lives around. I believe that we all want to see God working in our community like this, to see him work in ways that are awesome. But sometimes the truth is that God and his ways can be challenging and unsettling.  Sometimes God’s love for the loveless is nothing short of shocking. You mean he loves everyone? You mean he actually earnestly longs to extend his love and forgiveness to everyone? Even the evilest people in the world? Some will say no! This can’t be right. God only loves and gives his grace to people like us, not them.

Jonah tried to run away, but as we all know he could not get away from God and so he eventually came to the people of Nineveh and warned them that if they did not repent of their evil ways then they would suffer the wrath of God, but also that if they did repent God would shower them with his grace and kindness and forgiveness. And the people responded and repented. This should have been wonderful news; this should have been a joyous moment. Yet not for Jonah. He was angry. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and easy with punishment.”

Every single prophet in the Bible hopes prays and dreams of the response of the Ninevites. Yet it never ever happens this way. When they are worn out, chased, harassed, run down, and at their wit’s end, the prophets can only say, “Lord, it would be better for me to die.” Jonah, on the other hand, after witnessing 120,000 people and countless animals change their ways in one day — goes on to say, “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

After God providing Jonah with a plant for shade and taking it away, this book ends with God asking Jonah a final question, “You are concerned about the bush, which you didn’t work for and which you did not grow … Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

It is easy to judge Jonah here, but if we look at him a bit closer we realise that he is very human. We all struggle with how God works sometimes. And the danger is that because of our expectations that we put onto God, we can be just like Jonah. We can become so fixated on those sinful evil people, and miss the fact that God has been gracious and merciful to you and me. We can become hard-hearted to the point of not wanting God to work in people we do not like. People whom we think don’t deserve God’s grace.

But the account of Jonah pushes us to see how God and his Word works in spite of us! We may strongly have opinions and attitudes about others, but God’s Word of the Gospel is for everyone, regardless of what we think. Isn’t it amazing that God provides a shade bush so that Jonah can watch the transformation of the city unfold before him in comfort, but he just can’t seem to enjoy it? It’s easy to blame Jonah for being petty, but we often do the same thing ourselves. Can we lift up our eyes from our own concerns, just for a second, to see God acting right in front of us?

When God responded to the Ninevites, it says: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (3:10). God was faithful to his Word and he did not do it. For Jonah maybe this was about a betrayal of God against his own, for these people were in fact Israel’s enemies. But for us, we are to see not a betrayal but the lengths to which our God is willing to go for everyone, for the good, the bad, and what we could call ugly, which includes you and me. For the Lord, our God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). If his love is for some, his love is for all, the appalling, the abhorrent, all. We can be thankful to God, for it matters not who the sinner is, God’s way has won out. And rather than focusing on others, we need to see that God has his way in us. We are the recipients of God’s mercy and grace, we are on the end of the lengths that he goes to reach us, which includes the innocent death of his own son for our sake. God comes to us through all our sin, to give us his grace. If we keep this in mind then we are more likely to rejoice with God when he brings this grace to others, even those we think don’t deserve it.

The world around is a harsh place, there are many people who are hurting, whether from their own sins or the sins of others. There is much judgment, condemnation, criticism of people. God wants to reach them with his mercy and grace through Jesus, and he wants to use us like he did Jonah to reach out to them with his Word of the Gospel. God will work, but are we going to be like Jonah, or are we going to rejoice and be open to letting God reach those around us.

I encourage you all to think about all that God has done for you, particularly about the grace and mercy that he has given you in your life. I encourage you, rather than to judge and condemn others, to lift your eyes up to see what God is doing in the world and to rejoice with him as his Word does its work in bringing others to faith. And to rejoice with them, as they were once lost but now have been found.