This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Jonah 4:1-11
Sermon prepared by Rev. Rita Klein-Geltink, Lucknow, Ontario
[Read opening paragraphs before the Scripture passage, as indicated]
In the first chapter of the book of Jonah we meet a reluctant prophet. God says to Jonah, “get up and go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it” (1:2). He was to warn them that God had seen the city’s wickedness and he would not tolerate it any more. Jonah, however, is convinced that Nineveh deserves exactly what it has coming and so he ignores God’s instructions. But God is not easily duped. God yanks him back. Jonah then confesses his sins, and is prepared to bear the repercussions. He dares to die. The sailors comply with his wishes and throw him overboard. But a fish came by and swallowed him up; he spent three dark and dreary days inside a whale. [Our Sunday School children can probably sing that ditty.] In an amazing resurrection story, God plucks Jonah from his watery grave. There inside the fish, Jonah vows to show his thanks to God.
After the fish vomits Jonah onto the beach, God repeats his instructions to Jonah (3:1): “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah’s response in verse 3 is nothing less than what we’d expect after the ordeal he’s just been through. After he cleans the seaweed and fish vomit out of his hair and beard, Jonah “obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” The people heard his message, they believed God (3:5), they repented of their evil ways (3:8), and God had compassion on them.
That would have been a nice place to end the story, kind of like, “and they lived happily ever after.”
But that’s not where the story ends. Let’s read Jonah, chapter 4.
Dear people of God,
A man shared the story of his recent experience at the supermarket. He had only a few items on his list. The express line was packed, probably with people with more than eight items. The only other check-out that was open was occupied by a woman with two children dangling from the cart and enough groceries to feed the 5000. Our friend could feel his temperature rising; “why couldn’t they open a few more cash registers?” Being in a rush, he opted for the self-check-out. He was a smart man; surely he could master the technology. Press start. Scan item. Place item in the bag. Scan next item. Things were going along quite smoothly until he tried scanning his carton of eggs. He dragged it across the pad – nothing. He tilted it, turned it, he used both hands. In desperation he looked for assistance. With no clerk in sight, he pressed the Help button. And then he pressed it again. His frustration level was steadily rising. After several more punches at the Help button and a few more swipes at the bar code, he took those eggs, shoved them into the bag, and paid for the remaining items. He marched out of the supermarket, angry, and with a dozen eggs to compensate for his mental anguish. As the man shared his story sometime later, he maintained his right to be angry, and his right to his free eggs.
We like to be angry, don’t we? A little righteous anger gets the blood pumping, fires us up a bit, gives us something to talk about. Hey, even Jesus got angry, right?
Trouble in the Text
Jonah had a good grip on some of that righteous anger. He had delivered his fire and brimstone message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” We don’t know if he elaborated on that message or not, but from what we read in chapter 4, it doesn’t look as though his heart was in it. He probably set out from the west end of the city, having been washed up on that Mediterranean beach, marched through the city, repeating his message as he went, and ended up at a place east of the city. Assuming his listeners wouldn’t have taken him seriously, he arranges some rocks and twigs to provide a little shade, unfolds his lawnchair, and gets ready to watch the fireworks.
Jonah still can’t understand why God would send him to warn this wicked city, and he tells God as much. Jonah is greatly displeased to learn that God might let Nineveh off the hook. Absolutely disgusted. It’s just wrong. Wrong to Jonah as a great wrong. That’s the thrust of the verse in the original Hebrew. It’s just wrong.
Trouble in the World
We are all instilled with a noble and righteous sense of right and wrong, of justice. Simply gauge your reactions to stories on the evening news and you’ll know what I mean.
- A man in Toronto shoves three teens off a subway platform.
- In an attempt at break and enter, a man falls through the skylight of a building, then sues the owners of the building for his injuries.
- An investor is accused of defrauding people out of billions of dollars. As part of his $10 million bail, he is being confined to his Manhattan penthouse apartment.
Anyone who doesn’t get a little angry about that kind of stuff has gone soft. God Himself must be angry about these stories. We hope the long arm of the law will get its man. That’s why we like watching shows like CSI – the evidence is read, the crime is solved, justice is done, all in the space of one hour.
But our sense of justice goes beyond the punishment fitting the crime. We also have a little trouble with the way God distributes His grace. We all know of non-Christians who seem to have the world by the tail. Their businesses succeed, they go on great vacations, they don’t suffer from cancer or heart disease. What is God doing? Shouldn’t He reserve such special favours for those who love Him? Shouldn’t those gifts be for us? It bugs us when God blesses the “undeserving.”
Oh, and this one really gets to us – what about those people who say they are Christians and then they act any way but? They stand on principle, these people. Somehow they think that God has revealed to them that they are right and the next person is wrong; they proudly maintain that their conscience dictates their behaviour. In their brutal honesty and determined spirit they become mean and selfish. They have hurt us, they’ve said unkind things to us, and then they go on their merry way as if nothing happened. Doesn’t God SEE that?
Admit it: it makes us angry.
Grace in the Text
And God said to Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry?”
Rather than wait for an answer, God shows Jonah how ridiculous he is being. God causes a vine to spring up overnight. I think I’ve seen some of these weeds in my flower beds. One day you go out there and you’re shocked to find a four foot thistle in the middle of your flowers. The plant which God caused to spring up for Jonah’s benefit may have been a castor-oil plant or some sort of gourd or cucumber. The castor-oil plant grows as tall as 8-10 feet and its leaves are quite broad – perfect for shade. Jonah was “very happy about the vine.” But his pleasure is short-lived; he gets to enjoy the plant for only one day. At dawn God sends a worm of some sort to attack the plant. It chews the roots or stem, and the vine dies. To make matters worse, God provides a scorching east wind and the sun blazes on Jonah’s head. Heat stroke is imminent. And in his delirium and depression, Jonah could just die. He says, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
And God asks him a second time, “Do you have a right to be angry?” “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” says Jonah. “I have every right to be angry; I am angry enough to die.”
Whereas we might find some parables in the Bible puzzling, this illustration is pretty clear. God points out to Jonah his over-the-top concern for a plant, of all things. Not even a nice plant. Maybe if someone tore up your prized rose bush... but this wasn’t much more than a weed. Yet that gourd was significant in Jonah’s eyes. He loved it. It delighted him. And now that it is dead, he is furious. It was wrong, just wrong that it should die.
Occasionally you will see a road built around a tree. In British Columbia you can see a road built through a tree. Some trees are too important, to majestic to cut down, even to accommodate city development. The people in the neighbourhood might love their tree and after lobbying city council and gathering enough signatures, the tree is spared. But for every tree that survives, many more are lost to new housing projects, lumber harvests, or oil developments. Perhaps you grieve for a beautiful oak tree that is torn down to make room for a house on the lot beside yours. We get a little angry, even if it is just a tree.
Jonah grieved for his vine. And that’s when God made his point. It’s a plant, for goodness sake. A plant. And here’s Nineveh, a city of more than 120,000 people, people who are trapped by their troubles and their sins, people who don’t know how to escape the mess they’ve found themselves in; people who don’t yet understand that the Lord is a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The people of Nineveh would not have heard that refrain, spoken first to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but then repeated over and over again in Scripture. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” The book of Jonah ends with that question; a rhetorical question.
Of course God should be concerned about these people, even though they are wicked. These people too, are made in God’s image. Jesus also died for these people. And you know what? God loves them. Yes, they were wicked people. But God was concerned about them. This was a city of blood, full of plunder, never without victims, known for their endless cruelty (Nahum 3:1, 19). You can read the indictment against the people of Nineveh in the book of Nahum, a few pages after the book of Jonah. But God was concerned about them.
They certainly didn’t deserve God’s love. Jonah was right – they deserved punishment, they deserved the fire and brimstone that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah; they deserved to die.
Grace in the World
Where does that leave us and our sense of justice and fair play?
We worship a Trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s a difficult concept to grasp, and we so easily mess it up. If we focus only on God the Father, we think of God as a judge; He’s going to punish all those people who have wronged us. When we focus on the Son, Jesus, we preach a message of love and compassionate, mostly for us; yes, I need Jesus, aren’t you glad He’s loving and gentle? If we focus on the Holy Spirit we might not even worry about sin, but focus on “other-worldly” stuff; the spiritual, that’s what counts!
Certainly the Bible reveals God as three distinct persons, but He is still the one, true, eternal God (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 25). Jonah knew all about God’s justice; he also knew that God has a soft spot for his chosen people. But to extend that softness to undeserving heathens, well, that was just wrong!
Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven. So true. Jonah had that much right. The financier who scams people out of their life savings—he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. The man who pushes unsuspecting teens into the path of a train– he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. Charles Manson, Paul Bernardo, Jeffrey Dahmer, they don’t deserve to be forgiven. And what about:
The person who lied about you.
The man who took advantage of you.
The person who humiliated you.
The one who took from you that which was most precious.
He/she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.
But then, who does deserve to be forgiven? You? Me? No. If we deserved to be forgiven we wouldn’t be in need of forgiveness.
If – we – deserved – to – be – forgiven – we – wouldn’t – be – in - need – of – forgiveness.
Can you even fathom that God might be concerned about Paul Bernardo [substitute the name of another notorious murderer if you wish]? This God gave up His Son, the Son He loved, to die for a serial rapist and murderer? If God cares for the most despised members of society, then He also loves _____ - you fill in the blank.
God reminds Jonah, and He reminds us, that we don’t have to worry about whether or not God’s honour is maintained. We don’t have to step up to help God in dealing out His judgements; He can take care of that by Himself.
Listen to this from a 2002 BC newspaper article:
Jason Lang was in many ways a typical teen, according to his dad. He enjoyed sports and had bought his first car - a 1983 Camaro - three days before he died. The very morning of Jason’s death, his father Dale had helped him learn how to drive the five-speed Camaro. "On the last day of Jason's life, he and I were the best of friends," said Pastor Dale Lang, an Anglican priest. "I hope you understand how thankful I am that April 28, 1999, was not a day we argued.
People have asked him how he has responded so gracefully to the tragedy. "If it wasn't for the grace of God in my life, I think I would be a very angry man," he said to the Ottawa Citizen. "When I share my story, I talk about the initial anger—and the pain. But you don't have to live with the anger. We prayed and we forgave the boy [who killed my son]. That was very healing for our family."
In the days following the first fatal high school shooting in Canada in 20 years, shock and disbelief gripped all of us as Canadians. Tragedy can so easily crush us, embitter us, and turn us desperately inward. Pastor Dale Lang chose to respond to the death of his 17-year-old son Jason, by turning outward and living for others. Dale proves that life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, forgiveness is stronger than revenge.1
Dale Lang had a right to be angry, didn’t he? Yet, clearly, the answer to God’s question, “Have you any right to be angry?” is “no.”
We have no right to be angry about long line ups at the supermarket, no right to be angry about eggs that won’t scan. And we have no right to angrily insist on God’s judgement upon others. No, you and I have no right to be angry. If God decides to let the guilty verdict slide and go soft on evil, that’s really not our business. If God can be concerned for even the wicked city of Nineveh, maybe we ought to be a little more concerned about those wicked people that we know, the ones that really get under our skin. Jesus loved those people enough to die for them. Maybe we could learn to love them at least a fraction of that; maybe we could learn to set aside our anger and our judgements and be genuinely concerned for others.
That might start with something as simple as a smile or a wave. It might mean helping out at the local food bank, offering assistance to those who may have blown their government cheque on cigarettes and booze and pet food. It will mean a change in attitude toward those who don’t deserve to be forgiven. It begins with prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit upon our hardened hearts. It should be as easy as being concerned about a vine, or an oak tree, but it isn’t. In fact, if we can pull it off, it will be a miracle, a miracle made possible only through God’s undeserving grace.
Let’s pray for that miracle.
Dear God. Of all the things we have to turn over to You, our anger is often the most difficult. Today we pray that You will help us do just that. Soften our hearts so that we can honestly and sincerely be concerned for others. And may You be exalted. May Your glory be over all the earth.
1 From an article for the July 2002 Deep Cove Crier, British Columbia
Order of Worship
We Gather for Worship
Welcome and Announcements
Opening Song: “God Himself is with Us (#244)
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 1-3
God Greets Us: 2 Corinthians 13: 14
Songs of Praise: “Now with Joyful Exultation” (#95)
“Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” (#249)
We Hear God's Assurance and Respond with Gratitude
Prayer of confession: (from Worship Sourcebook, p 89)
O Lord, great God,
all holy, Father most gracious,
filled with mercy and steadfast love,
we are embarrassed to come before you,
for we have preferred the ways of this world to your ways,
for we have rebelled against your wisdom
and we have gotten into trouble,
for we have rejected your fatherly guidance
and have gotten lost altogether.
To you belongs righteousness, O Lord,
and to us confusion of face.
O Lord, great God,
all holy, filled with awe,
Father, most gracious,
filled with mercy and steadfast love,
incline your ear to our troubles.
Hear us when we pour out our sorrows before you.
not on the ground of our own righteousness,
but on the ground of your great mercy.
On the ground of your great mercy
in the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ.
It is in his name that we pray,
for he is our Savior and the mediator of the covenant of grace. Amen.
—based on Daniel 9:4-19
God’s assurances: Exodus 34: 4-7
Our response: 10 Commandments, responsively (pg 1013)
Song: “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (#557)
We Offer God Our Gifts
Prayer of the People
Song: “Hear our Prayer, O Lord” (#624)
We Hear God's Word
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Jonah 4 (read opening of message first, to set context)
Sermon: “Every Right to be Angry”
Song: “Be Exalted, O God” [or, “How Great is the Love of the Father” #231]
We Receive God's Blessing
Blessing: “May God cause us to stand firm in the faith, may He make us into people of courage. May God cause us to be strong and to do everything in love. Amen.” (from 1 Corinthians 16: 13, 14)
Song: “Worthy is Christ” #629