Brothers and sisters, how would you feel if myself or any pastor started a sermon like this: “Look at how many seats are filled today. Look at the crowd who has come to hear the word of the Lord. I am absolutely livid that there are so many people who think they have a right to be here in God’s presence!”
Brothers and sisters, I don’t really feel this way about you or about our Lord. Hopefully it struck you as absolutely un-Christian, and rightly so. But it’s pretty similar to what we’re about to hear. When we look at Jonah here in a minute, we better be offended at his attitude toward what happened. But before we start lining up to hurl rocks in his direction, we also better take a close look at our own hearts and make sure his attitude isn’t still alive and kicking within ourselves, showing itself in ways that aren’t so obvious and absurd.
So to start with, let’s go back to our final chapter of Jonah. It’s been a real up and down ride through his story so far, but we left off on a pretty high note last week. Things seemed to have turned around and come out well. In fact, it was a satisfying conclusion to the whole mess and would’ve made any modern Hollywood producer happy. Jonah had been called to come preach a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh. He ran away. God pursued him. Jonah gave up running and threw himself on God’s mercy, and God had mercy. God rescued him and brought him home to try again. And it looked like Jonah learned his lesson. He went to Nineveh and he preached the message. “40 more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” And in a miracle greater than the fish, the people listened. All of them, from the king down to the smallest child repented and called on God for mercy. And God relented. They would not be destroyed. Jonah’s work bore the kind of fruit we dream about. God’s mission through Jonah had succeeded.
And now in our last chapter, we finally get some psychological insight into what’s been driving Jonah this whole time. Up until now we’ve kind of had to guess what’s been going through his head as he acted. Now we get to see what’s really been going on. It is a shocking contrast when you come across it. Especially when you remember that these chapter and verse numbers we see in our Bibles are not something God gave us but just a human invention to help us find certain parts. So let’s ignore those numbers and just look at the flow of the account. We end up reading this, “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
What? You want to run that by me again Jonah? Your mission was an unprecedented, miraculous success, and you’re angry? In fact, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to take a moment to give you an insight into the original language here in the Hebrew of this line. It comes out much stronger. It’s not good English, but a literal read of the Hebrew might sound something like this, “But this was evil to Jonah, a great evil and it burned to him.” Do you see that? This didn’t just upset Jonah some, he literally felt that what God did for the Ninevites was evil. An utter miscarriage of justice we might say! And that last bit, “it burned to him.” This isn’t the kind of anger where you just sit kind of fuming quietly in the corner, this is the kind of angry where the blood floods your face and you get red and hot from it. He was foaming at the mouth furious over this.
We can just picture Jonah now, going through the streets, going through the city, proclaiming his message. And he notices a change. People are starting to wear that unbearable sackcloth. They’re shouting to the Lord begging mercy. They’re sitting in the dust praying relentlessly with tears in their eyes. And he knows what this means. They’re listening to God’s message. And he knows what’s coming next. Or more to the point, he knows what’s not coming next. He figures out that God is going to forgive these people instead of destroying them, and we can just imagine the scowl that clouds his face as he continues his mission.
Why? He tells God exactly why. At the end he prays to the Lord and says. “I told you, God, I told you this would happen! This is exactly what I was afraid of from the start. You wondered why I ran away so quickly when you called me the first time? This is why! I know you. You’re a compassionate God, you’re so slow to anger and quick to forgive. I knew if I came out here and warned these people, they’d show some kind of repentance and you’d change your mind and let them go. Haven’t you been paying attention? Don’t you know what these people have done? Haven’t you seen how violent and sexually immoral they are? They should be destroyed! Good riddance! But no, you had me come and warn them and since they feel sorry about it and apologized you’re going to let them off the hook without any repercussions. This is so infuriating I would rather be dead than see it.”
We can see now that Jonah didn’t run away at the beginning because he was afraid of persecution. He wasn’t afraid of the enormity of his task. He wasn’t intimidated by the work involved or by having to carry it out himself, alone against a half-million people. He wasn’t afraid to tell all those people they were bad people and were going to die for it. No, he was afraid that he would succeed. He was afraid that they would listen. He hated those godless Ninevites and the last thing he wanted was for them to be spared God’s wrath. So he ran the other direction. And we can see now that even when God turned him around and sent him back, he still didn’t want his mission to work. Even now, after God decides to relent, we will see he still hopes that maybe it’ll change back.
God is patient and compassionate, of course, and his response to Jonah is a simple, calming rebuke, “Do you have any right to be angry?” he asks.
Jonah apparently has no response to this. Instead, his appointed task complete, he storms out of the city like a pouting child leaving the room. And does he go home? Does he put this whole thing behind him and go back to his daily life? No. He feels so strongly about this that he goes out east of the city and finds a place where he can sit and look out at the city. Forty days wasn’t up yet. Maybe, just maybe God will change his mind back and wreck the place. He builds himself a little makeshift shelter. And he sits in the desert sun and he waits and he watches. He is so single-minded in wanting these people punished that his life is literally brought to a standstill by this.
God cares just as much about Jonah as the entire city of Nineveh, and so he prepares a unique object-lesson to help Jonah understand. As Jonah sits and watches, his little shelter of twigs and dried leaves doesn’t do a whole lot to keep out the beating sun, but then miraculously, a plant of some sort springs to life overnight and provides a shade. Much better. Jonah’s liking this. His anger subsides some and he just enjoys relaxing there. This plant is his new best friend. But then the next day something has eaten away at the root of the plant and it withers away just as quick as it showed up. The sun rises and a scorching wind tears across the sands, the temperature jumps about 20 degrees and sucks all the moisture out of the air and now Jonah starts to act again like a teenager who just got embarrassed by Mom or Dad at school. He’s so angry that the plant is gone that he says he’d rather be dead than live without it.
Again God asks this question, “Do you have any right to be angry about this vine?”
We’re not at our rational best when we’re angry, so Jonah’s probably not thinking about his reply when he says, “I sure do! I’m so angry I could die!”
And the Lord, in love, drops the truth on Jonah. “Jonah you’re angry about the loss of this vine, right? But why? You had nothing invested in it. You didn’t tend to it. You didn’t make it grow. You didn’t raise it from a seedling. In fact, it was here one day and gone the next. And yet look at how important it was to you. A plant that lasted a day. Now turn back around and look at this city. People. Human souls. There are more than a hundred and twenty thousand children just in that city, never minding adults. People I created. Souls I care for. I raised them all. I caused them all to grow. And you want to be angry that I just didn’t wipe them out because I had an excuse to? Consider how precious they are to me. Instead of looking for a reason to punish them, shouldn’t I look for any reason to pardon them? Shouldn’t I look for any reason to forgive them?”
The story of Jonah ends here. And if we’re not careful, we can walk away from it thinking that this is a cautionary tale of one guy with a bad attitude who learned a lesson we already know. And yeah, I’m guessing not one of us has ever gotten so furious at the evil of a city that you went and sat out and watched to see if God would wipe it off the face of the earth (though maybe that fantasy occurred to you). No, to really watch ourselves for Jonah’s attitude we have to backpedal all the way to the start of the story. The word of the Lord came to Jonah and said, “Go preach against Nineveh.” Go and tell the Ninevites exactly about their evil and how I as God feel about it so they have a chance to change their ways and be saved. Jonah didn’t want them saved. Jonah didn’t think they deserved to be saved. So he went the other way.
Do we do this? Perhaps not literally run from the Lord but do we just ignore the same command he gives us? Do we treat someone differently because we have determined they’re not worth it? By God’s grace I should hope we’re never as overt about it as Jonah, but I know my own heart and I think if any of us are sitting here today thinking “I’ve never judged myself to be better than someone else,” then we’re lying to ourselves. We always do this. In many different ways. But before we wrap up this morning let’s look at first the root of where this attitude tends to come from and then at what God gives us to fight against it.
Like I said, this attitude of Jonah can manifest in many ways. Maybe we just don’t tell someone about Jesus because we don’t think they’re worth it, because we want them punished for what they’ve done. Usually it’s even more subtle than that. Maybe we’re just indignant that someone we know is forgiven at all. They come in here, unkempt, disrespectful, fresh from a life of blatant sin and they smile when God says they’re forgiven and we’re upset that this is it. Where’s the lesson learned? Where’s the guilt and shame poured out for a while? Where’s the consequences?
Okay I could keep going, but the point is, where does this all come from? Where did it come from in Jonah? It comes from a false sense of self-worth. You think you’re better than the other person. Again, you’d probably never say or even think those words as such. But the attitude is there. I deserve to have God save me because I’m worth it. I take my faith seriously. I try really hard for him. I’m a good person that God should be glad to have on his side unlike those slackers over there.
And at the same time, like Jonah, we are undervaluing the lives, the souls of those others. Rather than treasuring them and wanting them saved by any means possible, we’re more concerned with justice and fairness. And humanly speaking, maybe we’d be on to something.
But let’s balance this value-equation. Let’s consider our value, and their value. Do you know the answer to this question, “What is something worth?” Let me say that again in a different way, “How do you know what something, anything is worth?” You might think that’s a nonsense question that can’t have a real answer, but it does have one. A thing is worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.
Now as you consider your value on your own, as you consider the value of those we try to devalue, look to the cross and balance the equation. God himself became a human being so he could go in your place. Your own sin, your own lack of value meant God had to make up that worth himself. He had to pay for you. How much did he have to pay to bring you up to an acceptable level? Look at the cross. It was the blood of God himself. God himself had to suffer and die to complete your worth. I should hope that gives you insight into how worthless you are to start with.
But now consider it from the other side. How valuable are you to God? How much was he willing to pay for you? He was willing to pay for you in his own blood. And the same is true of that other soul you would like to consider yourself above. He or she is worth the blood of God. And before we start to devalue the blood of God saying something like “well, sure but that was a once for all shot. Jesus dying included everybody no matter who they were.” Sure, that’s true. But that’s because we are all equal sinners. If you and you alone were the only one who ever sinned, Jesus still would have done it. If that person we’re tempted to look down on was the only one who ever needed it, Jesus still would have done it.
Brothers, sisters, I call you that because that’s what you are to me. We are family in Christ, each equally important, each equally valued. Each soul out there is equally in need of the same salvation we have come to know. When we find ourselves struggling with that equality, when we start to think ourselves above or better than someone else, more deserving of God’s love and salvation, look back at that great equalizer; the cross. Remember what about you drove Christ there. Remember why he went anyway. He loves you. He treasures you. May that same love show itself through you to others in everything you do. Amen.