Fairness, love, and grace (Jonah 3-4)

The customer is always right, but then again so is everybody.

I’ve been reading two interesting books lately.  The first is the book of Jonah, in preparation for this sermon, and the second is a book by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt entitled: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion.  And no, the story of a pre-modern prophet is not as different from modern psychology as you might think.

We are wired to be righteous, Haidt explains.  People tend to think they’re right about most things.  One of the reasons I avoid things like Facebook lately is because every discussion seems to turn into a factory for self-righteousness, conversations in which people talk past each other in an effort to assert their viewpoint.

It doesn’t help that this is an election season.  Political divisions seem to get wider and wider every year, to the point that our politicians occupy the most extreme ends of conservative and progressive politics.  Which only means that we see our opponents not merely as different, but evil.


Slide4When God gave Jonah a second chance, Jonah agrees to go and call the city of Nineveh to repentance.  Loving others makes us uncomfortable.  Recall from earlier that the Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh weren’t exactly friends of the Israelites.  Jonah would have had a natural fear of those who are different.  Yet he obeys by preaching to the city:

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”

3 This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. 4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.

6 When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. 7 Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”

10 When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:1-10)

Jonah is successful.  He’s got the kind of success that most pastors only dream of.  A whole city?  This is the kind of thing that makes for a great book deal.  At the very least, it’s cause for rejoicing.


Jonah, however, isn’t having any of it.

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.2 So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. 3 Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

4 The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

Slide5Jonah is upset because he wanted the Ninevites to be punished instead of saved.  In Haidt’s book, he explains that our moral sense is like a tongue with six different kinds of “taste buds.”  People who are political progressives, he says, tend to rely on the moral sense of compassion and equality.  Conservatives share these senses, but also appeal to such things as authority and fairness.  Violate these categories, and an enemy is soon made.

I think something similar is happening with Jonah.  God’s grace seems wildly unfair.  He doesn’t want to see the Ninevites’ salvation; he wants the very fires of heaven to rain down on their heads.  They’ve done wrong, and God’s compassion is now a source of anger.

There’s a deep irony here—pun intended.  Jonah had disobeyed the Lord as well, running to Tarshish instead of obeying his calling.  If we were to read the original Hebrew, we’d find that the phrase “greatly upset” comes from the Hebrew yara.  Earlier the word (or at least a version of it) was used to refer to the Ninevites’ wickedness ( Jonah 1:2). Now the word is being used to refer to Jonah’s displeasure.  It’s as if the author is trying to remind us that Jonah has become the very thing he hated most.

Jonah had become so blinded by his personal sense of fairness that he failed to realize that the grace that had saved him could also save this city.  So God taught him a careful lesson:

5 Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 And theLord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

7 But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. 8 And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

10 Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. 11 But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:5-10)

The story ends here—quite abruptly, as a matter of fact.  The author is trying to prompt us to examine our own hearts and our own motivations.  Does our personal sense of justice outstrip our capacity for compassion?  Are we willing to extend grace to others?

Not as long as we insist that we’re right; not as long as we dismiss God’s grace as impractical or unfair.  Think hard on this, because, again, this is an election year.  When we yell at the “liberals” on TV (or on Facebook), are we truly communicating the love of God?  This is not to say that there can’t be room for civil disagreement and dialogue, but surely our allegiance to God’s kingdom becomes evident in how we treat one another.  For the real test of God’s grace is not how we treat our friends, but how well we treat our enemies and our opponents.  For all have sinned and fallen short of the grace that shines in the life of the lowly and the desperate.

This Thing Called Repentance – Part 2 – (Jonah Chapters 3 and 4)

Yesterday we read and talked about the first two chapters of Jonah, so we will finish this short four-chapter book today.

Again, here are four chapter headings to help you remember the story:

Chapter 1 – Jonah makes the sea sick.

Chapter 2 – Jonah makes the whale sick.

Chapter 3 – Jonah makes the Ninevites sick.

Chapter 4 – Jonah makes God sick!

The theme of our series through Jonah has been to talk about repentance. The prophet repented of his disobedience in running from God, and in chapter three we encounter the surprising result of the repentance of the heathen city of Nineveh.

Jonah Goes to Ninevehnineveh 1

3:1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”  3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.

Indeed, by ancient standards Nineveh was a huge city. The walls were 50 feet thick and 100 feet high. The diameter of the main city was two miles with a circumference of eight miles. A lower wall was extended out farther from the city, so the metropolitan area was quite sizeable with a six-digit population. To cover the city with his preaching took Jonah three days, saying …

4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

So why would the Ninevites believe and repent? Well, there is the work of God involved in this, of course. Beyond that, we know from history that there were two large earthquakes in years just before Jonah’s arrival; and we know from science that there was a solar eclipse on a specific date at this same general time. Ancient people saw such events as divine omens.

6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

So, in a different sense, God repented – changed from one disposition to another. We know from history that this revival must not have had lasting effect for successive generations. It would only be about 37 years later that the Assyrians would indeed conquer the Northern Kingdom. Their attempt to capture the Southern Kingdom of Judah was unsuccessful due to the intervention of God destroying 185,000 of the Assyrian army. The prophet Nahum – our readings for Thursday and Friday of this week – spoke a prediction of judgment against them because of their wickedness.

So the message Jonah shared made the Ninevites sick, but finally, Jonah’s reaction to this entire story makes God sick …nineveh_city_walls

Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion

4:1  But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

Have you ever prayed to God like Jonah did here?  I have – as I’ve several times shared with you the story of my anger at God earlier in my life, when, living in Texas and training for ministry, I did not receive a ministry position in a church that sure looked like a no-brainer at the time … and it still does. I should have gotten the position by all measurements … but God came along a few months later with a far better opportunity that has impacted my entire life since then.

Jonah is a guy you’d want on your Bible trivia team… he gets all the right answers. Verse 2 is a perfect definition of the revealed character of God. Jonah knows the truth, he just hated God’s application of it in the real world.

3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5 Jonah had gone out and 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. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.”

So Jonah finds a high spot that overlooks the city, and he there sets up shop to see what is going to happen – hopefully that God will destroy the place!

Along the way in this place of a dry dessert climate, God caused a large leafy plant to grow and provide shade, but also a worm to eat this overgrown vegetable. Jonah’s joy for his creature comfort far exceeded his joy for seeing people repent and turn from evil.

9 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.”

10 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. 11 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?”

The juxtaposition of Jonah’s attitude about a silly plant with God’s perspective on many thousands of people stands as a stark contrast with its own lessons (that we’ll talk about tomorrow).

But today, what else may we continue to learn about repentance? Here are three more points to add to those shared yesterday …

5.  God often does things in his sovereign wisdom that we do not understand and that do not make sense to us, but his desire for repentance / blessing is greater than his desire to judge.

I cannot tell you why God does what He does, nor can I explain why He does not do others things a whole lot faster! But I can tell you that God is more interested in our obedience than our accomplishments. God allows things to happen to us, so that things will happen in us, that things may happen through us; and when you get that 3-point thing understood and accept it in faith – you’ve really accomplished something!

6.  Though repentance for salvation is a once and done thing, repentance in the life of discipleship needs regular vigilance.

We talk about repentance in the issue of our salvation, and that repentance and change is a once-and-for-all life-changing directional shift where we move from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light. But in our present human condition on this side of Glory, we will have failings that require us to be vigilant about making matters right with God by turning from sin, and trusting in Him.

7.  Our constant need is a view of the sovereign work of God, that we may be blessed by being in alignment and agreement with it.

We constantly need to be looking to see what God is doing around us … in our homes and families, through our work, and together here through our church … that we may align with it. In the midst of routine faithfulness and service, we may not always see God’s plan – which may not at times look like much – but we persevere, and in the end are able to look back at His good work.

Summary – So what is repentance?  It is a change in us where we agree with God about sin (we call this confession) and then we turn from it in repentance and go in the other direction – not like Jonah away from God, but rather away from sin and toward truth.