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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Really, God? (Jonah 4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - February 10, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "O God, My Faithful God" (Karg-Elerg)
Hymn of Praise: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (FAITHFULNESS)
Song of Praise: "God of This City" (Boyd et al.)
The Word in Music: "Sea of Mercy" (Fettke)
Offering of Music: "Psalm 145: The Lord is Gracious" (Shane Barnard)
Song of Sending: "As You Go" (Altrogge)
Postlude: "Tocatta on 'Amazing Grace'" (Pardini)

"Really, God?"
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Text: Jonah 4

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are in Jonah 4.  We left off with God relenting and showing mercy on the people of Nineveh after they all, from the king to the least of them, humbled themselves in repentance before God.  That was the last verse of chapter three; then we have the beginning of chapter four: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.” (v. 1)  With that we are back to Jonah and his seeming laundry list of foibles and issues with God and His ways.

This chapter has one of the stranger scenes in it, with God growing and then destroying a plant around the sulky prophet.  And we have some dialogue between God and Jonah.  We could continue to focus on God’s extravagant mercy and compassion, which are worthy of our contemplation and thanks.  But we also see Jonah striving against those things, providing at least two piercing object lessons for us in this chapter: one having to do with anger and compassion and then one deeper yet.  Today I want to look at those object lessons together with you.

An Object Lesson on Anger and Compassion

What jumps out at us in this chapter is Jonah’s anger!  What is he angry about?  It’s right there in verse 1.  He is angry about God’s compassion – God RELENTING and not destroying the city of Nineveh.  They were a cruel people, literally and figuratively far from God and His people, Israel.  Jonah began with God saying that the wickedness of the people of Nineveh had come up before Him.  No doubt, Jonah also was angry to have come so far, risked so much, and not seen the “fruit” of his message fulfilled.  (Though surely we can see that it was; just not in the way Jonah imagined!)

So Jonah went out of the city to look down upon it and the lack of destruction and judgment.  And the object lesson ensued.

Last Wednesday night, in the sermon preview class, we were noting the attributes of God demonstrated in this passage.  We were quick to identify the ones named, like “gracious… compassionate… slow to anger… and abundant in lovingkindness.”  What we also see as this object lesson unfolds is that God has power and authority over all creation.  Not only did God command the wind, waves, and fish earlier in Jonah; here God commands a plant, a worm, the wind, and the sun for His divine purposes.  And again, it all is brought to bear on Jonah.  We also noted the similarities and differences with Job; with Job, God simply declared His power over creation as justification for His actions.  With Jonah, words were apparently not enough and God had to whack him over the head with it more than a few times.

So God appointed a plant, which grew to provide shade over Jonah, who was hot and uncomfortable.  And we read in verse six that “Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.”  Then God appointed a worm to attach the plant and it withered, meaning that the hot sun and wind beat down on Jonah, who grew weak and pitiful.  For the second time in this passage, Jonah says something along the lines of “I’d be better off dead.”

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?”  And Jonah said, “I DO have good reason to be angry… even to death!”  A third time… “I’d be better off dead.”  Jonah is clearly not a happy man.

So here’s the object lesson which, as far as I can tell, was lost on Jonah.  But it need not be lost on us.  Jonah had compassion on a plant, lamenting its “death” when it was gone.  And that was simply because it offered shade.  How much more – TIMES TWO – should God have compassion on the people of Nineveh?  For one, because they were more than 120,000 living and lost persons (far more than a plant).  And for two, God didn’t benefit from them, but loved them as human beings created in His image.  It’s not unlike Jesus’ teaching on worry – that if God cares enough for the birds of the field to provide their basic necessities, how much more will a loving Heavenly father care for you, His children!

Well, we don’t find out what Jonah made of that.  But surely we don’t have to have such a significant lesson lost on us.  It’s spelled out in Psalm 86, which we heard as our second scripture reading.  Not only is God gracious, good, ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call on Him, but God has a heart for all the nations and people of the world.  As I have said many times, that scope of God’s love runs through all the pages of the Bible, from start to finish.

A Deeper Lesson on Selfishness and Sin

But there is a second lesson embedded in Jonah, and in many ways it is a deeper and more personal one.  Anger, for all it is visible and destructive, is often the manifestation of something deeper down.  I want to try to uncover what that is for Jonah – in a couple ways – and then ask how we might respond to that deeper lesson and challenge.

First, the best way I know to focus us on the question in the text is to ask this: We’ve talked about why Jonah was angry, but why, according to this text, did Jonah flee to Tarshish?  It’s in verse two; see if you see it.

Was not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
    …for I knew that You are gracious… compassionate… slow to anger… abundant in lovingkindness     Therefore, IN ORDER TO forestall this, I fled.
Ponder that while I try to illustrate in two ways.  The first is a clip from the hit PBS show, Downton Abbey.  In the clip I want to show you, a relative of the aristocratic Crawley family (who live at the Downton Abbey estate) has taken in a wayward young woman as cook at the nearby “Crawley House” in town.  Finding out about this, Carson the Butler from Downton Abbey forbids any other employees from going to Crawley House and associating with the woman.  In this scene the head cook from Downton, Mrs. Padmore, shows compassion on the woman, Ethel.  Then, in a later scene, we see the Butler condemning her for her actions.  See if you can see the connections to Jonah.
[Downton Abbey clip]
And then for a second illustration of Jonah’s attitude, consider the older brother in what is better known as the story of the “Prodigal Son.”
21 “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”  [Luke 15:21-32]

What is going on with these folks: Jonah, the Butler, and the older brother?

It is not that they don’t know compassion; it is somehow that there are some they view as beyond the reach of mercy and grace.  There is a sense that some people are not fit for their “present company.”  It is a deadly mix of selfishness, jealousy, and sin.  And in Jonah’s case, it is most extreme.  Not only did Jonah flee in order not to witness or be a part of a wicked and foreign people’s redemption, he would rather die than be a part of it.  That’s stark and ugly and tragic.

Oh that he could have heard the lesson from God or understood his own salvation from judgment through the great fish! Oh that he could have been stirred to compassion at the salvation of the sailors, the repentance of the king, and the humble prayers of an entire city! Oh that he could have received the words spoken to the older brother: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found!"

What Does Jonah Have to Do with Me?

So is there more to take from this than sadness (and a bit of finger-wagging) at Jonah and joy at the redemption of the people of Ninevah?  There is, but I think it’s a hard lesson to hear.

Is there a part of us – a part of you – that gives lip service to sharing the Good News of Jesus, being a good neighbor, or helping others; but that isn’t ready for just anyone to walk through the doors of this sanctuary?  Are there those who are ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’ to us that we’d just as soon see be saved somewhere else?

We’ve been talking for years about getting outside the walls of the church and being a good neighbor right here in this neighborhood.  It is a neighborhood filled with an amazing range of ages, races, lifestyles, and economic realities.  How does one grow a church?  Many these days just build better and better programs and swap sheep with surrounding churches.  But we are surrounded by THOUSANDS of people who have no church connection – within a mile of the church.  What would we do if they started surging in, moved by God’s Holy Spirit to venture into this lighthouse church?  Would we celebrate?  Would we rejoice at the compassion and mercy of God?  Or would we sulk in the corner?

It is a piercing question.  And it is one we must figure out if we are to truly become the light of Christ in this place, inside or out, because what we would do in here reflects how we carry on out there. The good news is that it’s a work God longs to help us with.  It is already the heart of God – for the nations; is that something we can envision?  With God’s help, surely so!  Amen.

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