Jonah's Advice on being Present to God: A Sermon based on Jonah 4
Welcome to Part Four of our Fire Side chat series. Thank you for joining us. You’ll remember that over the past three weeks we’ve invited Jonah and Jesus to dialogue about the Great Commission. The talks usually look like this: Jesus tells us what to do, and Jonah shows us what not to do. We’ve looked at each line from the Great Commission: Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And each time Jonah has had something very interesting to say on the matter. He’s shown us how to run from God’s calling to be a blessing to the nations. He’s shown us how to live out our baptism in dying to self. He’s taught us that there is power in God’s word, no matter how reluctant we are to speak. Today, we’re going to ask Jonah his thoughts on the promise of Jesus to be with us always, to the very end of the age. In the last line, Jesus is promising that His presence will be with His people as they live out the Great Commission. The rest of the New Testament, as well as the history of the church, attests to the fact that the presence of Jesus is made powerfully manifest through the presence of His Holy Spirit. How we experience God’s presence can take on a variety of different forms. In chapter 4, we see Jonah failing in his Commission to be a blessing to the nations. Jonah is falling short of God’s purposes. In chapter four, we see how God stays present with us, even when we’re missing the mark. What’s remarkable about this chapter is the way God stays present. God desires to see Jonah undergo a change in heart, but he doesn’t just change a fuse in Jonah’s heart, and rewire a few of the circuits in his brain. God works to change Jonah’s heart through dialogue over Scripture, through circumstance, and through relationship. In other words, God works to bring about a change in Jonah through the normal processes of human transformation. What this suggests is that when Jesus promises to be with us always, we will experience his transformational presence as deeply and personally challenging.
Chapter 4 opens with Jonah leaving Nineveh, burning with rage. On his way, Jonah expresses his deep anger with God’s decision to have mercy on Nineveh. Jonah says, “This is why I ran away from you in the first place! I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love and relenting from evil…” To which God responds to Jonah: have you any right to be angry? In essence, God is saying to Jonah, “Listen to yourself!” You may have noticed how similar Jonah’s description of God is to God’s description of Himself in Exodus 34. In fact, Jonah is quoting almost verbatim Exodus 34. When you look at Exodus 34 in context, it makes perfect sense as to why God would say to Jonah, “Listen to yourself!” Exodus 34 comes right on the heals of the infamous Golden Calf Episode, where Israel goes off the deep-end. The people of Israel construct an idol out of their gold to worship, they engage in sexual revelry, they swapped God’s truth for a lie, there worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. So God says to Moses, Leave me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” But Moses begs God to have mercy. Moses begs God to be gracious and slow to anger. Moses begs God not to abandon His people in the desert, but rather continue to continue to be with them. That’s the context of this quote, and gives a backstory of Jonah’s prayer. God promises to Moses that He will relent from the evil he had in store for Israel, and reveals his character as merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God forgives Israel. Yet its this very aspect of God’s character that infuriates Jonah. He knew this about God’s character, and didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew God would have mercy on them. Is it any wonder that God effectively responds, “Are you kidding me!! Its because I’m merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, its because of all of the above that your people, Israel, even exist!” In other words, you who have received mercy, will you withhold mercy from others? Furthermore, you’ll remember from chapter one, that the whole reason why God called Israel to exist is to be a blessing to thee nations. Jonah, have you forgotten you calling! Jonah has forgotten his calling, but God has not forgotten Jonah. Jonah heads out of the city, hopeful that somehow, God will change his mind and bring destruction on Nineveh. Jonah sits down and waits for something to happen. And something does happen, and this something is a major theme throughout the entirety of the book. God remains present to Jonah through His creation. God provides a vine that gives Jonah shelter. God rescues Jonah from his evil plight of being under the scorching sun by graciously sending him a vine. Through the vine, Jonah receives mercy, sort of like Nineveh received mercy. And Jonah rejoices over the vine. But then God sends a worm to eat the vine. God sends a scorching wind to blow the vine away. And the blistering sun struck Jonah’s head until he grew faint and wanted to die. This small little vignette advances a major theme that was summarized by Jonah right before he was thrown overboard. Jonah says, “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Throughout the whole book, the theme resounds throughout Scripture that the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. From the Storm on the sea, the fish swallowing Jonah, Nineveh being described as God’s great city, from the cattle repenting and wearing sackcloth, to the vine and the wind… from all this at least two things are evident. First, God is the God of the cosmos. Second, the God of the cosmos will use every available nook and cranny in creation to get Jonah’s attention. So, when Jesus promises to be with us always, there is this deep sense that he will manifest his presence in every square inch that covers the earth. He will use everything at his disposal to get our attention. And everything is at his disposal.
This in turn transitions into the main point of the entire book. After the plant withers and is blown away by the slashing wind, God says to Jonah, “Are you good and angry over the vine?” And Jonah responds, “I am good and angry, to the point of death!” And God says, You—you had pity over the vine, for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which overnight came and overnight was gone. Shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than 120,000 human beings who do not know between their right and their left, and many beasts” This is where God sums up the whole point of the book, and brings home to Jonah the point he’s been making throughout all four chapters. First, let’s start with Jonah’s concern for the vine. As we began the sermon, we noted the irony of Jonah’s words, as they were the words that God used to describe himself when he gave mercy to the people of Israel, and vowed to bring them into the Promised Land. God was faithful to His promise, and planted His people in the land. An image for the people of Israel, throughout the Old and New Testament, is that of the vine. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock”. And Jonah is pictured in this final scene as totally self absorbed with the vine. Jonah is devastated that the precious vine has withered away. “Yes!” Jonah says, “Destroy Nineveh, but don’t touch my little vine.” With this, the book casts its powerful and devastating critique. The author of the book rebukes the people of Israel: “You are like Jonah, focused so very much on this little plant, this little plot of land gifted to us, all the while meanwhile neglecting our Great Commission to be a blessing to the nations, to the world.” So God uses the land, the sea, the fish, the creeping things, the wind, the cattle, God uses all of creation to remind Jonah, or Israel, of its calling to be a blessing to the world.
With this, the thundering message of the book comes bounding home as the little worm comes creeping onto the stage. Who is this worm? If the vine represents Israel, who does the worm represent? The worm is Nineveh. Nineveh is, of course, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. The empire which destroyed entirely northern kingdom of Israel, and seriously threatened the southern kingdom of Judah. Nineveh is the most hated of nations for a Hebrew. So here is a picture of Jonah, lamenting the destruction of the vine, his homeland, while furiously waiting for the destruction of that worm, Nineveh. But according to the book of Jonah, God appointed the worm to attack the vine so that it would wither! God appointed Nineveh to attack Israel, because Israel had become self-absorbed and forgotten its calling to be a blessing to the nations! Israel had focused on its own vine to the neglect of her calling! When we neglect our calling to be a blessing to the nations, we lose our reason for existence.
Jonah is crying over the loss of the plant, much as the people of Israel were crying over the loss of their land to Nineveh. Yet God seems to be saying, that doesn’t matter! What matters is the commission to be a blessing to the nations, and if you won’t bless the nations you lose your reason for existence. God says, if you won’t bless the nations, I will! God says, “Shall I not pity Nineveh, the great city which has more than 120,000 human beings, not to mention all the animals!” In this final statement, God reminds Jonah of the whole point behind the calling of the people of Israel. God is not simply the God of Israel, He is the God of the whole world. The whole point of Israel was to restore the world into right relationship with the merciful God. This meant even going to enemy cities like Nineveh and calling for repentance. But God doesn’t stop there, and this last point explains the punch line, God says, “shall I not pity Nineveh, the great city with so many beasts.” Again, as is true throughout the entire book, all of creation belongs to the Lord, and he is concerned about putting it all to right, including the animals.
God’s Word to Jonah is His Word to us. The minute our focus gets self-absorbed, concerned with the success of our own church, our own denomination, even our own faith, we’ve developed tunnel vision. These are all good things, but they are handmaids to living out the Great Commission. The Great Commission is cosmic in scope. That’s why Jesus begins with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” When we limit our focus to being wholly concern with the little vine that’s growing at 1348 Highway 16, we’ve lost sight of our commission, which is to make the invisible reign of Christ, visible. But when we’ve lost sight of that Great Commission, we have the beautiful and shattering promise of Jesus: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” As God was with Jonah every step of the way as he fled from that commission. As God sent the storm, as God sent the great fish, as God sent the worm and the scorching wind, but also, as God also sent the vine to give Jonah shade, so also will God be with us. As God pointed out Jonah’s pettiness, as God confronted Jonah’s vengeful anger, as God was with Jonah even in his meanest of times, so God will be with us. And, like Jonah, we may experience His presence as infuriating. But he infuriates us because he loves us. His presence is tenacious. And once we’ve been commissioned, as we have, the Spirit of Jesus will be with us relentlessly, working through earth, sea and sky to very end of the age.