This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Jonah 4:1-11
Sermon prepared by Rev. Walter Vanderwerf, St. Catharines Ont.
Followers of Jesus: Jonah is acting like a child throwing a temper tantrum because he was forced to share a toy with someone he didn’t like. He did not want to share. And for good reason! Nineveh was the capital city of an empire known as Assyria. Assyria was the number one enemy to Israel. Jonah prophesied to Israel during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash. This Jeroboam (the 2nd) restored the boundaries of Israel in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken through the his servant, Jonah (II Kings 14:23-25). Some border cities had been attacked and captured by several of the kings of Assyria. Jonah didn’t like Assyria because Israel had experienced first-hand what Nahum called its endless cruelty (Nah 3:19).
Isn’t it amazing that God would send Jonah into that place? Jonah was uncomfortable with the whole thing; he didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to make the time. God wanted him to, so what choice did he have? Jesus says, "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27). Will we do this, church, in a world that is increasingly hostile and hateful toward the church?
Jonah is not just angry because the enemy Nineveh was spared destruction; Jonah was angry at God. Jonah can’t stand God! Have you ever been mad at God — so angry at him that you’d rather die? Jonah was angry at God. Unlike those of us who’ve been there (or still are), Jonah was not angry because something evil has happened (some kind of tragedy or death or accident). Jonah was angry at God because — well, because God is just too good! He’s too merciful! Jonah would rather not live with a God like that, "a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (vs 2).
Peter asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" (Matt 18:21). In his answer Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom: the Father asks Peter (and us), "How many times have I forgiven you? What would happen if I just forgave you seven times?" God is too good! He’s too merciful! Jesus says, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
Or think on the people in the parable, workers in the vineyard. They’d worked all day in the blazing hot sun. But those others, they’d just worked a few hours! So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius (Matt 20:10). It’s not fair! It’s not right! But when they angrily complain, the owner asks, "Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (vs 15). Can we live with a God who is that good, that generous, that merciful to someone who works only a few hours compared to our full day, and gets exactly the same pay? Can we live with a God who has a heart for this wish? "Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing" (Joel 2:14).
Jonah was angry at God, but notice what God does not do in response. He does not give Jonah a slap in the face and ask, "How dare you question my goodness?" He does not give Jonah a kick in the pants to smarten him up, for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust (Ps 103:14). Peter says, "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to a knowledge of the truth" (II Pet 3:9). He is patient with YOU! "For I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath" (Hos 11:9).
I want to pay some attention to how the Lord God handles Jonah’s temper tantrum. He does not first of all speak to Jonah and tell him his error; instead, the Lord God shows Jonah who God is, and who Jonah is. "I want you to see yourself, and I want you to see me," He says. He does not, in other words, simply preach to the preacher. God shows in a visual way — a way in which Jonah gets to take a look at himself — God shows what He means. God sends his search-light to pierce the heart of his servant, Jonah the prophet. It’s God’s show-and-tell time, and this is no game. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).
Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in the supernatural, things that science can’t explain? We can’t read the book of Jonah and not believe in miracles. Consider: the Lord literally throws a great sea wind at the ship Jonah was on — a wind that comes out of nowhere and shocks the sailors into a terror previously unknown. The sailors cast lots to see who’s responsible for the storm, and the Lord arranges the lot to fall on Jonah; as the proverb says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (16:33). They throw Jonah overboard, expecting him to drown, but instead Jonah is rescued by a great fish turned into a submarine; again, all arranged by the Lord. And that’s just the first chapter! Three miracles in one day! We can’t read the book of Jonah without believing in miracles.
But the greatest miracle of all is found in this chapter. Jonah is outside in the brutal heat. He was like the people who work in a restaurant kitchen in 40 degree heat, and then go home to their air-condition-less apartments to endure the oppressively hot, humidity of a summer day in July; heat like a weight that takes away all energy; heat in which tempers flare up like a spark cast into the tinder, dry grass. They go to the neighbor’s swimming pool, but after a few weeks of heat even that does not cool. It was hot — no escaping it. Jonah sat in discomfort near to fainting until the God who performs miracles points his finger and, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, a plant big enough to provide plenty of cool shade plops itself right over Jonah’s head!
Jonah did not have to be the East-of-Ninevah garden centre grower. He didn’t have to plant the seed or water it so that "the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how" (Mk 4:27). Jonah did nothing to make the plant grow, "did not tend it or make it grow" (vs 10). He worked not, sweated not, did not make it possible.
The greatest miracle is this: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8). He did nothing, anymore than any of us could have arranged to be born to Christian parents who taught us the truth that is in Jesus, sent us to Sunday school and Christian school. John Newton, slave trader turned Christ-follower wrote the poem that says it: "I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. And we’d still be lost and blind, if God had not shone his light in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). Psalm 116 sings it with the most beautiful of voices, with the most perfect musical instrument: "For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living" (vss 8-9).
The plant reminded Jonah of God’s concern for Jonah. "And now, Jonah, since you are so interested in a people’s destruction, try this out," God says through this plant. And just like that, Jonah’s shade is taken away and he is angry enough to die. It is as if the Owner of the Garden Centre moves out all the stock in one night and Jonah’s comfort and rejoicing with great joy (vs 6) is taken away; everything taken away.
How would we react if God would, right now, remove all our Bibles from this sanctuary, from our homes, from the bookstores so that there wouldn’t be a trace of it, and no memory, either. How would we react if God would take his Holy Spirit away from us, as was David’s fear in Psalm 51:11? By taking away the plant God was destroying every piece of his compassion and mercy, pressing delete, throwing it inside the recycle bin, emptying out the recycle bin.
He was saying Matthew 9:36 doesn’t exist, nor the truth of what actually happened, there described. Know what it says there? When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And who could forget what Jesus said in another Matthew passage? "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (11:28). It’s as if God says here in the little, bitty worm, "You have never heard him, and in fact he never said that. It simply did not occur."
God removes it, makes it all disappear under the sea, buried and gone: the joy of His salvation (Ps 51:12), the God of hope (Rom. 15:13), the God of peace (Heb. 13:20), the kingdom of God and of righteousness and peace and of joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). He hauls it all away: redemption through the blood of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7), life that is of the eternal kind (Jn 3:16), peace that surpasses all understanding (Php 4:7), Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27). It is all out of reach, past where hands can grab it back again.
Overnight, in the time it takes for dawn to reach dawn, God denies Jonah the comfort of the gospel of peace, the comfort of belonging to Jesus, the hope that is the only hope for a world captured by hopelessness. What would it be like if we had never, ever heard about Jesus, never ever heard about the Ten Commandments? Overnight God lets Jonah feel the heat of God’s wrathful destruction.
So Jonah wants none of a God who would do such a thing as destroy what would benefit him so very well, and he is angry enough to die. Fickle Jonah, for just in Chapter 2:6 we can read Jonah’s psalm, how grateful he is to be alive. "But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God." Jonah does not want this God, because he is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him (Ps 115:3). "If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him" (Jonah 11:48). He’s out of control, this God! And Jonah doesn’t like a God he can’t control.
It’s as if God is saying, "Hello?! Jonah! Wake up! You care about the plant, but you don’t care about your enemy? You don’t want to stop benefiting from God’s grace? Then you shouldn’t want Nineveh destroyed, either." Jonah wants to sound like another upset prophet, Elijah. Elijah wanted to die, too; he’d had it, was tired of a Jezebel not hearing, no matter how many times Elijah told the truth.
Jonah was no Elijah, though. Elijah without question went to the starving widow who had only a son left to her, and who willingly shared the abundance the Lord provided for him and this woman outside of Israel: "For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land’" (I Kings 17:14). Elijah under- stood what the psalm writer knew, too. No temper tantrum because someone we don’t like wants to share what we have; share it! The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made (Ps 145:8-9) not just us.
This God is the God who also had mercy on Israel. But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. "O Lord," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?" (Ex 32:11). God heard the prayer and did not destroy Israel, did not start over with Moses. The God who had mercy on Israel is the God who had mercy on Nineveh and he is the God who has mercy on us.
So the Lord asks, "Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (vs 11). God is concerned about Jonah (that’s why he sent the great fish to rescue, the plant to cover his head). God is concerned about us (that’s why he sent a preacher to us whom we heard and believed). He is also concerned about the people who may have a Christ- less eternity. So God asks us as he asked the prophets of old, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"(Isaiah 6:8). Will we respond, "Here I am. Send me"?
And why should we go? Because the people of Nineveh are like children; children who don’t know any better, "who cannot tell their right hand from their left," people who do not "know enough to reject the wrong and choose the right" (Isaiah 7:16). Who will show them the way? Who will show them the God of the Bible? Who will tell what God has done in Jesus?
People who do not know God are like little children. They don’t know any better. What is "normal" to them, is not normal to God. It’s all they know. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception (Ps 12:2), and since it’s what everyone does, many more join in, trying to hang on and in, lest they fall into their own trap. It’s just all so normal.
We have children growing up in our society who think it’s normal to have babies without first getting married; in fact, it is sought after. Never mind father or family the way God intended it. It’s normal for many people to live together and not get married, normal for them to use language filled with curses.
They don’t know what is wrong or what is right according to what God says. "Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush" (Jer 6:15). Many people really hope to win the lottery or the jackpot. Many believe that Hollywood stars and other famous people have a life to be jealous of, filled with all kinds of delights. "Let us eat and drink," they say, "for tomorrow we die!" (Isa 22:13) — this is the stuff life is made of for many people.
Many truly believe that everyone is basically good, and surely they are good enough to get into heaven; after all, they’ve never done anything bad enough to deserve hell. Many more say, "You can believe that if you want, and I’m happy for you, but it’s not for me." Many believe the church is filled with hypocrites, and maybe they are right, or that the church is full of people who hate homosexuals or abortionists, and who have no idea how to love. Many people are thoughtful, moral people who are as concerned about the way things are as we; except they do not know Christ. They don’t know any better, and if God is concerned for such people, shouldn’t we be?
If Jesus was willing to be accused of being called "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matt 11:19), what are we willing to be, no matter how it looks to the proper Pharisees we know or are? If God wants to be known as a God who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (I Tim 2:4), what about the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth?
(I Tim 3:15) If Paul could write, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord," (I Thessalonians 1:6) and also, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings," (I Corinthians 9:22,23) then should we not do the same? Not just agree that we should, or form a committee that says we should, but "just do it"!
It is true what Jonah thinks. God is too good. And that is good! I said to the Lord, "You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing" (Ps 16:2). He is good: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (Lam 3:22). Will we share the good news, will we share our joys of the gospel and not keep them to ourselves? "Whom shall I send?" "Here I am. Send me!"
Proposed Order of Service
Reader: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
People: And that is what we are! — 1 John 3:1
Hymn #454 "Now Thank We All Our God"
Reader: O Lord, our Lord
People: how majestic is Your name in all the earth!
Reader: From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise
People: how majestic is Your name in all the earth! — Psalm 8:1-2
Song #8 "Lord, Our Lord, Your Glorious Name" (refrain, st. 1 & 2, refrain)
Reader: People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but his disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them,
People: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Reader: I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a littlechild will never enter it."
People: Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. — Mark 10:13-15; Psalm 145:3
Song #183:1, 3 "With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring"
Declaration of Dependence: We need help. We look in front of us, behind us and beside us, and we don’t find it there. We look within ourselves, at our own wisdom and resources, and we don’t find it there. We look up, into heaven where God is and Jesus, His Son sits at His right hand and we say, "Our help comes from Him!"
God’s Greeting: May grace, mercy, peace and love be multiplied to us from God the Father, who loved us, from Jesus Christ, who redeemed us, and from the Holy Spirit, who is in us and will be with us forever. Amen.
Hymn #231:1, 2 "How Great is the Love of the Father"
Reader: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith (Romans 5:1-2)
People: we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
Reader: through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.
Hymn #263:1 "Just as I Am, without One Plea" (announced after previous hymn)
Prayer of Confession (for forgiveness, for the desire to love God and neighbor)
God’s Directions — Mark 10:17-27
Hymn #517 "There’s No God as Great"
Prayers for the People
Scripture — Jonah 4; Text: verses 4, 9;
Sermon: "When God is Just too Good"
Hymn #630 "Now Blessed Be the Lord Our God"
God’s Blessing: May God bless us and keep us, may the Lord be gracious to us, and make His face to shine upon us, may the Lord turn His face toward us a nd give us peace. Amen