Tonight we end our very short series on the book of Jonah, and tonight we see just how wide the arms of God’s love is held out, in extension to our sinful world.
I was not raised in a Christian home, which means that when I first started really coming to church, I was an outsider. I didn’t know all of the basic Bible stories that all the church kids knew, or Bible songs with weird hand motions, or that it wasn’t okay for me to cuss in the church parking lot. I was very green. There are many things that I don’t remember about my high school church experience, but I do very strongly remember for the first time feeling as if I was included into a community of people who really loved me and felt like I really mattered. That was an incredibly powerful feeling, and I felt so stunned by it because I felt like I honestly didn’t really belong there, but lo and behold, week in and week out, my church was glad to have me there. That changed my life.
Fast forward several years, and I am in Bible college, want to be a pastor someday, and am sitting and talking with a fellow friend in seminary, and he is explaining some complex doctrine to me. Now, this guy is way smarter than I am and in the conversation I am struggling to keep up with what he is saying, but at some point a guy that we both loosely knew walks into the coffee shop. This guy was an interesting fellow – he struggled with many addictions, bounced around from church to church, make really passionate, emotionally charged promises to follow God again, and then a week later be doubting if God was real. And honestly he was just a had bit of an annoying, over-talkative personality. But this guy walks in and sees that we both have our Bibles open and then excitedly says, “Hey! You guys talking about the Bible? Can I get in on this conversation?” Now, granted, what we were talking about would have been really difficult to try and explain to him, however, the response of my seminary friend shocked me. He condescendingly laughed and said, “No man, no you don’t want in on this.” Of all the possible ways to handle that situation, I think that may have been the worst. He walked away, trying to save face and act like everything was okay, but looked like he was just told he wasn’t allowed into the cool kids club. All I can remember thinking is, That was the most un-Christian response I could have imagined, and I am so glad people didn’t treat me like that when I first came to church.
How we treat the “outsider” is very important because it reveals what we believe about the most fundamental essence of the Gospel. Today, Jonah encounters what its like to see God welcome the outsider, and he handles it about as poorly as you can.
The Great City of Nineveh
In Jonah 3, we see Jonah finally fulfills what the Lord originally asked him, and he travels to Nineveh and preaches a message of repentance. And much to Jonah’s surprise, the entire nation repents, led by the king in a heartfelt mourning over their sin and fear of the coming judgment. In seeing this, God relents of the coming disaster, and spares the city of Nineveh (3:10). And friends, we should pause here and see that this tells us a great deal about our God. God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23). God does not relish the judgment of the wicked by any means – rather, He desires that they repent and live. This Sunday John mentioned that someday soon Jesus will return again and will set all things right with His justice, and will judge the wicked. And friends, that is good news that wrongs will be set right, but we should keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t love judgment the way He loves salvation. Our God is fundamentally a God of grace.
Jonah’s response is shocking, to say the least. Chapter four opens with, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” The language here could be literally translated that Jonah saw what God did as a “great and exceeding evil”. Jonah sees God forgiving Nineveh and relenting from destroying it as a great evil – that is alarming. And this is where we discover the prophet’s original motives for fleeing to Tarshish back in chapter one, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” (4:2). Here Jonah quotes the passage we mentioned last week, extolling the grace and mercy of God from Ex. 34:6. But in a strange use of the passage, Jonah explains that the gracious and forgiving nature of God was exactly why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh – he was afraid God would forgive them!
Now, why is Jonah so angry with the Ninevites? Why is he so eager for God to destroy them? It would do us well to understand some history about the Ninevites themselves. Nineveh was a city within the Assyrian empire, and the Assyrians were enemies of the nation of Israel, where Jonah is from. Not only did the Assyrians worship another god than the Israelites, but also the Assyrians prized themselves on their brutality and viciousness in war, equally committing horrific acts and celebrating in them. We see this noted in the king of Nineveh’s call to the city to repent from their “violence” (3:8). So, not only do the Ninevites believe differently than Jonah, but they also gloated in how violent they were. The only modern day example I could compare this to would be the radical jihadists in the Islamic State. If tomorrow morning we read in the news that a Christian missionary working in Syria had led ISIS in a massive shift of repentance, and they had thrown their weapons down, and became Christians – how would you feel about that? Now, this isn’t a perfect example because we have a world government now and they still would have to answer for their crimes. But how would you feel knowing that someday in heaven, right alongside you, there could be two men talking, one – who once wore a black hood and slit throats for ISIS, but repented and came to faith in Christ – and the other, a victim who was killed by the first man. Does that make you feel uncomfortable?
It certainly made Jonah uncomfortable – uncomfortable to the point where he asked that God would take his life (4:3). Now, it is evident that Jonah is in sin here – he is looking at God’s work and calling it evil, but what lay at the roots of Jonah’s sin? Why is Jonah calling God’s graciousness evil here? Shouldn’t he be like God, who takes no delight in the death of the wicked but desires them to repent? No, Jonah is the exact opposite – delighting in the death of the wicked and desiring them not to repent, so that they may be destroyed.
If you could sum up Jonah’s sin into one word, it would be this: forgetting. Forgetting. Remember Jonah 1 and 2? Jonah and Nineveh actually share many similarities. Jonah sins, God calls Jonah to repent (through the storm), Jonah repents, and God saves him. Nineveh sins, God calls Nineveh to repent (through Jonah), Nineveh repents, and God saves Nineveh. In fact, as barbaric as Nineveh is, in our story here, Nineveh is the one who comes out looking more holy than Jonah does. Nineveh repents much faster than Jonah did, and on a much larger scale. But, Jonah looks at Nineveh and says, “They don’t deserve to be forgiven!” Jonah here sounds like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
When the older brother sees that the Father has welcomed back the reckless, foolish younger brother with an extravagant party and rejoicing, he is outraged. His Father tries to reason with him, but the older brother flies off the handle, “‘‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! ’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:29-32). This seems to be very similar to the heart of Jonah: the Ninevites don’t deserve God’s forgiveness, but I do; the younger brother doesn’t deserve the Father’s gifts, but I do. Now, what is the older brother’s reasoning? Why does he think he is more deserving of the father’s love? Because he has earned it. He’s worked hard, been good, followed the rules, and the younger brother didn’t.
And Jonah is sitting, looking out over this city that has been known for its idolatry, violence and brutality, thinking, “There is no way God could forgive them.” But, remember the essence of Jonah’s sin? Forgetting. Jonah is forgetting how much he has been forgiven of. The book of Jonah is not a testimony that sings about the moral superiority of Jonah – not by a long shot – the book of Jonah is a sweeping symphony of the over-the-top radical grace of God for rebels, traitors and sinners alike. But Jonah has forgotten that, and is busy comparing himself with the Ninevites, his enemies. God’s grace is not awarded to winners, but gifted to losers like Jonah, like the Ninevites, and like you and me. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” (Luke 5:31-32).
Friends, here is a simple truth: when we become more aware of other’s sins than our own, we have forgotten the gospel. The Christian is the one who is always more stunned and amazed that God has forgiven them, than offended or frustrated at other’s sins. Where are you at friends? How easy is it for you to be offended at others? How long do you hold onto grudges? How quick are you to forgive?
The Nuclear Reactor of Christian Community
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the nuclear reactor of Christian community. It is the power source that makes all of our unity, friendships, families, love and laughter possible.
You see, the world creates community the way that Jonah did – through creating cliques and inner-circles; us vs. them. This leads to clustering together with other people like you, demonizing those who disagree with you, and becoming suspicious of those that are different. This can happen with Christians in the church just as much as it does with non-Christians outside of the church. Inside the church they emphasize repentance at the expense of transparency and authenticity. Outside the church they emphasize authenticity, at the expense of repentance. So, they are different, but still very much the same. Both say, “look like this, act like this, love this, laugh at this, don’t laugh at this – and then we will love and accept you.” And this leads to us feeling like we have to pretend, act, perform and measure up to stay within the inner-circle.
The Gospel, however, offers a completely different approach. The Gospel leads to a diverse community of repentance, transparency and acceptance. How? Because Jesus died in our place for our sins, then if we are willing to admit our weakness and cry out to Jesus in faith, we will be saved. We are accepted and loved by the Father, no questions asked. Like the prodigal son trudging back up the pathway to his Father’s house, shocked to be met by his Dad’s warm, loving embrace. And then out of the overflow of that love we receive, we repent – we forsake our sins because we love Him. To call people to the inclusive love of Christ without forsaking their sin is to empty the cross of its power, and call people to a false-version of Christianity that will not save them.
You see, the only thing that will keep anyone out of the kingdom of Heaven is the belief that they are too respectable, strong, and intelligent to need a savior. That is why Jesus said to a group of people a lot like Jonah, the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you,” (Matt. 21:31).
Now, what happens to a community when they believe that? They become the most warm, inclusive, humble people alive, but without giving an inch on their must fundamental beliefs. You see, most people today see strong convictions as divisive to community, and think that for the sake of community, they should not put too much emphasis on what they believe. But that entirely depends on what you believe. Typically, the more dogmatic someone becomes about what they believe the more arrogant and judgmental they become towards those who don’t agree with them. But if your fundamental belief is that because of Christ, salvation can be freely given to anyone, regardless of their history, their struggles, their bank account, GPA, or social status – then in place of the “I’m better than you” swagger, there will be a gentleness and warmth. We are a thousand times more aware of our own sin, than others’, and are always more filled with wonder that God would love us than we are of frustration at others lack of progress. We are free to love and embrace others, though they may be radically different than us because we all can rally together around the most central reality in the universe: the glory and beauty of Christ in the gospel.
Friends, when students visit our youth group, do they feel the warmth of Christ? When someone who doesn’t fit your normal criteria for a friend, how do you manifest the inclusive love of the Gospel to them? Who do you look down on, and why? Is there a class, race, religion, or type of people that you feel better than, or do you see human beings as equally in need of the grace of our Lord. May God reveal our sin sinful prejudices and continue to marinade our hearts in the wonder of the gospel till we are stunned at His loveliness, more than