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Grumbling About God's Love

Date: Sep. 6, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Jonah 4:1-11

Key Verse: Jonah 4:10-11

But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?"

Have you ever been able to predict that something was going to happen? You might have known the circumstances and you can just see exactly how things will play out. You might know the people involved and know how they act and react in certain circumstances. With that, you can see from a mile away what the end result will be. I remember watching the movie Avatar. There is going to be a bit of a spoiler alert, here. Now, in the movie there are two human characters that have their consciousnesses in these alien bodies. Part way through the movie, something happens to one of them, but there is a ritual that the aliens can perform that would put the human permanently in the body, but it fails. As soon as I saw that, I knew that the other character would end up in his alien body. It was predictable. The same thing goes for romantic comedies. There is such a formula on those that you can actually predict the entire movie. The couple meets and don’t really care for each other. Then they get to know each other, fall in love, but something breaks them up, only for a massive gesture to bring them back together in the end. It becomes even more formulaic when it is a Hallmark Christmas movie. In that case, one of the characters is from a big city and the other is from a small town. The big city character comes to the small town for some reason and the rest goes from there. In today’s passage, Jonah knew exactly what was going to happen and he did not like it.

Now, this is our final message from the book of Jonah. It was a short book, but in it, we have seen God call Jonah to deliver a message to Nineveh, but Jonah wanted nothing to do with that and ran away. He attempted to run as far away as he could, but God sent a storm to stop him. The sailors were all afraid for their lives because of the ferocity of the storm. They found out that Jonah was the source of their predicament but refused to throw him overboard as he requested. Eventually, they gave in and threw Jonah into the sea, and all the waves stopped. Jonah thought that he was going to die, but God sent a great fish to swallow him and return him to dry land. Inside the fish, Jonah praised the Lord and thanked him for saving his life. He told God that he would make good on his vow, so the fish vomited him out onto the land, and he made his way to Nineveh. Jonah proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days and those Ninevites believed God. From the greatest to the least, the people of Nineveh repented of their sins and even the king gave a decree for all people and animals to fast and repent, because then, maybe, the Lord will relent. When God saw that the people repented, he relented and spared Nineveh from destruction.

That is when we get into this chapter. Our passage begins, “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” (1) Jonah had responded to what God had done with anger. He thought that the Lord relenting from his anger was wrong. It is strange. Jonah thought that sparing Nineveh was wrong. He thought that the Lord was wrong, and he became angry. Now, this seems like an odd thing, right? But, honestly, how many times have we disagreed with how God handled a situation? How many times have you been upset at how God is working? It really shows the humanity in Jonah. Now, that doesn’t necessarily make it right for him to feel that way, but we can understand where he is coming from.

In response to his anger, Jonah chooses to pray to God, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (2-3) Jonah takes his complaint to the Lord, which a welcome change over what the majority of people would do, and that is, complain about God. Humanity loves to complain about things. If there is something happening, then there is someone out there who will complain about it. Most of the time, we don’t even try to help the situation, we just want to share our displeasure with whatever it is we see. Jonah, however, came to God. We learned when we studied the book of Philippians, that whenever we are anxious, we should bring everything to God with prayer and petition. Jonah, here, is doing just that. But, before we praise him too much, let’s look at the contents of Jonah’s prayer.

Jonah starts out by telling God, I told you so. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord,” are the words he uses, but it is just an “I told you so”. Jonah knew what was going to happen. He even says that he tried to delay it by going to Tarshish. Jonah was trying to justify his attempt to flee from the Lord. He knew what was going to happen, so he ran away to make sure it wouldn’t happen. Jonah didn’t like the idea of the Lord forgiving the people of Nineveh, so he tried to prevent it by taking off. What I really find interesting, though, is what he prays next. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (2) Jonah knows the nature of God. Jonah knows that the Lord is gracious and compassionate. Jonah knows that God is full of love and is slow to anger and does not want to see anyone get hurt. Jonah, himself, experienced these attributes of God when the fish swallowed him. Jonah had run from God and the Lord sent the storm to stop him. When he was tossed in the sea, he faced certain death. He was going to drown, but the Lord sent a fish to swallow him. Inside the fish, Jonah repented and recognized that the Lord is salvation. The Lord had saved him, and Jonah was so thankful for the Lord’s compassion on him.

However, Jonah’s attitude for the Lord’s compassion toward Nineveh was anger. He was angry that the Lord had compassion on Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want God to act in the same way as he did toward him. It is really striking at this contrast. Jonah was thankful for the Lord’s compassion on him, but angry at his compassion for others, especially the Ninevites. It has been talked about before that the Ninevites, who are Assyrians, were considered to be Israel’s enemies. By Jonah’s time, the Assyrians have had many border skirmishes with the Assyrians encroaching on Israelite territory. In fact, Jonah, himself prophesied about Israel restoring her borders. Jonah had prophesied against Assyria and its expansionism. Since Assyria had been a thorn in the side of Israel, Jonah did want for them to be saved. In fact, in about 50 years from Jonah’s time, the northern kingdom of Israel would fall to the Assyrians in the year 722 BC. I’m not sure if Jonah knew it, he was a prophet, but if Nineveh were spared, they would become the instrument of judgement on Israel and destroy the nation. The Assyrians were brutal to those they conquered. The kings of Nineveh were thirsty for blood and had countless killed and their bodies. Why would the Lord even want to have compassion on people like that?

Israel was God’s chosen people. They were the ones who received special favor from God because he chose them. In all the world, Israel was God’s special child. To the Israelite, God’s love for them was special. The Lord was their father, but the rest of the world didn’t have the special relationship. The rest of the world was disobedient and violent. They were undeserving of the Lord’s love. Israel had a covenant relationship with God, the rest of the world were just street rats, undeserving of any attention. These thoughts reflected the pagan thought that a god was the god of a certain people. Every city or nation had their own god who was supposed to be the protector of that city or nation. That god had no interest in the people outside of that city or nation. Those gods were just interested in the well-being of their own people. A number of Israelites, including Jonah, had those thoughts about the Lord. They knew that the Lord was the God of everything. But they thought that the Lord was Israel’s god, much like those pagan gods. They thought that the Lord was only really concerned with Israel, because Israel was God’s special possession. Why would the Lord care about the enemies of his special possession? With this mindset, it didn’t make sense for the Lord to have compassion on the people of Nineveh. It made Jonah angry to even think about it. He was so upset that he thought that it was better for him to die. He even prayed to the Lord, asking the Lord to end is life.

To Jonah’s anger, the Lord asked him a simple question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4) Is Jonah righteously angry or selfishly angry? I have three kids and there are times when the get angry about something. When they do something wrong and get caught, they don’t get upset that they have done something wrong. They become upset that they were caught. They might have lied or hurt one of their siblings. When they are called out for what they did, they cry, not because of remorse, but because they were caught. Their tears are not because they are sorry for what they did. It is similar for Jonah’s anger here. He is acting like a child by being upset that the Lord was true to his nature.

Jonah, however, does not answer the Lord. “Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.” (5) Jonah did not leave the area. Instead, he went to the east of Nineveh to see what would happen to the city. Perhaps he wanted to see if the Lord would change his mind about Nineveh. He made a shelter and sat in its shade wanting to see what would happen.

During that course of time, something happened. “Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’” (6-8) The Lord wanted to help Jonah understand something, so he a leafy plant grow up over Jonah. It was a miracle. Overnight, a leafy plant grew up to provide shade for Jonah. That plant grew like what you would see in a cartoon or movie. If you have ever looked at a plant, you probably would never see it grow. A number of years ago, in an April, I took pictures of one branch of a tree outside my window at the same time every day. The branch had a few buds on it. If you were to look at it for a few minutes, it would look like it would never change, but taking those pictures day after day for a week, there was change each day until small leaves emerged from the buds. Back when we were in our study of Mark’s gospel, I made a mention about seeds. We planted those seeds and plants are growing, ever so slowly. However, here this plant when from nothing to full size overnight. The Lord provided the plant to ease Jonah’s discomfort and Jonah was happy about the plant. He seemed to have forgotten about the anger he had before.

At dawn the next day, however, God provided a worm that ate up the plant and caused it to wither. As quickly as the plant grew it was gone. Then the Lord provided a scorching east wind and the sun blazed down on Jonah. The weather was hotter and more dangerous than from the time before the plant grew up. Jonah was now in danger. It was so hot that he was on the verge of a heat stroke. He was about to faint, and, again, he says that it would be better for him to die than to live. He was suffering so greatly because of the heat, he thought death was preferable to the suffering. But it wasn’t just the heat getting to him. His anger had returned.

So, the Lord asked Jonah a little question, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (9) This question is very similar to the one he asked in verse 4, but this time it is specifically about the plant. God saw his anger and confronted it again. Now, the Lord wasn’t angry with Jonah, but he did want Jonah to understand something. The last time the Lord asked this question, there was no answer from Jonah. This time, however, Jonah answered, “It is. And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” (9) Jonah thought that he was justified in his anger about the plant. He had enjoyed its shade, but it was gone now, and his situation was worse than ever. So, he was angry, so angry that he wished that he was dead. This is the third time that he mentioned to God that he was angry enough to die. He preferred death over life. I find this ironic since he was so thankful to God for sparing his life by providing the big fish. He said that salvation comes from the Lord, but now he wanted God to take his life. He didn’t value that which the Lord had saved.

Again, the Lord was not angry at Jonah, but he wanted him to see something. “But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?’” (10-11) The Lord showed Jonah that he was concerned about the plant even though he did nothing to care for it. Jonah was concerned for the plant because it benefited Jonah. The provided him shade and shelter from the hot weather, and he was upset that it was gone because, now, the heat beat down on him with even more ferocity. Jonah’s concern was selfish. He was only concerned because he had a stake in it. But the Lord’s concern about Nineveh was far greater than that. The city had a hundred and twenty thousand people in it. They may have not been Israelites, God’s chosen people, but they were still God’s people. Jonah was right about God in that he is full of compassion and relents from sending calamity. The apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) The Lord cares about people. He finds no joy in causing people to suffer of be destroyed. He wants for all people to come back to him. He doesn’t play favorites with any people. The most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God so loved the world. He didn’t just love one subset of the world, but the whole world. Jesus didn’t come to die on the cross for a select few, but for the multitude. He came to bring salvation to the whole world.

It is also written, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10) We have all been God’s enemies. We have all sinned against God. There is no one who is truly righteous and deserving. If we take an honest look at ourselves, we can see that is true. It was true for Jonah, too. He had sinned against God, but the Lord was slow to anger and tried to help him. The Lord was merciful to Jonah for fleeing and for his temper tantrum. The Lord is slow to anger, but Jonah was very quick to get angry. Even though, he was one of God’s chosen people, he didn’t see that he was no different than the Ninevites. They had sinned against God, but so did Jonah. At least the Ninevites were ignorant of God. They didn’t know the Lord or his ways. No one had taught them what was truly right and wrong, but Jonah knew, and he still sinned. He wanted God to follow his rules, not the Lord’s own. He was putting himself greater than God, but the Lord was still slow the anger. Jonah was being like a petulant child, being very rude to his Father in heaven. If one of my kids were so rude to me, I would not be so calm about it.

Jonah needed to learn from God’s nature and grow to be more like the Lord. He wanted the Lord to take his view, but he should have taken the Lord’s view. He was so angry, but the mark of the believer is love. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) We are followers of God when we are filled with the love of God. The apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:19-21) We have to love others. If we can’t love those that we can see, then how can we love God, whom we have not seen. Our love comes from the fact that God loved us first. He loved us by sending his son to this earth to die on the cross for our sins. Like Jonah, we were spared to give God’s message to a people who were lost. Like Jonah, we should be thankful for our salvation. But, unlike Jonah, that love and thankfulness should overflow from ourselves onto others. If we don’t, then that love is wasted.

This seems like very much a timely message. Our world, our society has become increasingly polarized. There is a thought that if someone doesn’t agree with you 100%, then they are your enemy. People get so angry because someone doesn’t agree with them. People have begun to bully others who they feel don’t go far enough, and this is not limited to one ideology. It is pervasive in the left and the right of the political spectrum. If you don’t agree then you must be destroyed. Lately, we can’t even agree to disagree. We don’t accept that there are others with different viewpoints than our own. There are people with other value systems. There is so much hate on social media and angers get inflamed. People have lost their minds over silly things, forgetting their humanity, let alone any divinity they may have had. It is not something that is unique to the secular. There are so many believers that fall in the same boat. It is so sad that there is hatred in the hearts of believers, but they are just like Jonah. He was a prophet of the Lord but hated those he saw as enemies. He didn’t want for them to be saved. There are people that we don’t want to share the gospel with because we don’t want to see them in heaven.

Jesus gives a good summary of how we should act. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45) We need to love those that are even our enemies. God still loves them. They are still his children. They might be lost and need help to find their way home. The Lord is still gracious to them. He takes care of them. He cared for the Ninevites and wanted them to repent and come to him. They did and Jonah should have rejoiced, because heaven rejoices even when one sinner repents and turns to God. If we are to be God’s children, then we need to have the same mindset as God. We must be like him in his love and mercy. I know that I am not like that. I don’t have that warmth and I need it so badly. It is something that I need to pray about, too. I need the Lord’s mercy upon me to change me to have his love for others. We cannot live in hatred or apathy to the thousands who do not know Jesus. We must have compassion upon them. We must love them with the same love that God has for them. We must rejoice when they repent and turn to God. We must not be like the world but be a beacon and a light. We must be like the Lord and love.

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The Greatest of These is Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Key Verse: 13:13b

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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