Jonah - Week 4: Jonah's Anger
This week we are continuing the sermon series that we've been working on together for the past few weeks--it's the third installment, to be precise, of a series on the book of Jonah.
I believe that the very heart of this book is about understanding and doing the will of God, which is not an easy task. I asked this question last week, but it bears repeating. How many of you here have struggled sometimes to understand to do the will of God? Maybe you just struggled trying to figure out what God is up to... I feel you.
When we last left Jonah, he had answered God's call to do God's will and had prophesied to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them if they didn't repent.
This was a huge shift for Jonah, because when he was FIRST told by God to go prophesy to the city of Nineveh to tell the people there to repent. Instead of doing God's will, he got in a boat heading the other direction, and the boat is nearly sunk by a storm.
The sailors draw straws to see which person on the boat ticked off one of the gods, and Jonah draws the short straw. He tells them that he serves the God who made heaven and earth and the only way they are going to calm the storm is to throw him over board. This is how much Jonah didn't want to do what God wanted him to do. He was trying to get as far away from God and God's will as he could get--even if it meant sinking to the depths, the realm of the dead.
But God makes a large fish or a whale swallow him, which sort of spoils Jonah's plans, and Jonah finds himself in the worst situation anyone could have ever found themselves in, and he finally gets honest with God and repents of trying to do things his own way.
And then God makes the whale vomit Jonah on to the beach, which left him goopy, slimey and probably encrusted with sand.
Some time after this, the word of God comes to Jonah a SECOND time and this time Jonah answers the call and goes to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. And what Jonah discovers after he prophesies to the people of Nineveh is the subject of our talk today.
What Jonah discovered and what I want you hold on to today, the one simple thing that I want you to remember above all else, is simply this: In order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours.
We've all experienced that moment. The moment when you realize that whatever is going on in the universe is completely not at all in any way about you. I had such a moment a few years ago. I suddenly realized that I was the twenty first head pastor of this church. There were twenty other dudes before me. And there will probably, God willing, be twenty other dudes after me.
On the day that those other twenty dudes stopped being the pastor at this church, people started looking for another one.
The day I realized this was a day when I crashed pretty hard. I'd been feeling particularly proud of myself up until then. I'd had a good few weeks of high fives and compliments over a lot of stuff that was going right in the church. But then something went south, and people got mad and I got emails and phone calls of complaint.
I happened to be reading my Bible that day as I was feeling sorry for myself, and came across a Bible verse in the book of Joshua chapter 1. It reads, "Now the word of the Lord came to Joshua son of Nun, and the Lord said: "Moses my servant is dead..."
This hit me like a ton of bricks. "Moses my servant is dead." Moses did all these amazing things, faced up to Pharaoh, parted the Red sea, led the people of Israel in the wilderness, and all he gets at the end of his gig is this: Moses my servant is dead. It's not like God said to Joshua, "Hey, we are going to have a huge sendoff for Moses to thank him for everything." Nope. "Moses my servant is dead--NEXT."
I printed those words into a poster and hung it on the wall across from desk. I look at it every day to remind myself that none of this---is about me.
Maybe you've had an experience like that before. You received a word or a note or a blast from the past from someone in a moment when you thought that all of your hard work, your good deeds, your dedication, elbow grease and such were really going unnoticed that no one seemed to care all that much that you were spilling your life's blood to make the world or your workplace or your classroom, home or church a better place.
And this note says something like, "I wouldn't have come to faith without you..." or "I wouldn't be half the person I am without you..." or "I just know that because of you, I have purpose and meaning..." And then you realize that it was never about you. It was never about your accolades... your affirmation... your success... You were a cog in the wheel, you were right where you were supposed to be.
You just didn't see it at the time.
Let's read Jonah chapter 4--the final chapter in this fascinating book:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “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. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah basically is saying "I told you so!" He recalls the "rehem" the grace and compassion of God--which incidentally is a use of feminine imagery because this word actually means the maternal love and compassion--as to a newborn. He also recalls the "hesed" of God, the lovingkindness, the love that never runs out or fades away.
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
What Jonah has essentially decided is that if the Assyrians were in on the love of God, Jonah wanted out. The idea that God would redeem these people after they repented was anathema to him. He seems embarrassed that Yahweh could be bought--by others, that is. Especially these people whom he hates.
5 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. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] 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. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Seriously? This guy seems to always be wishing for death, right? Every single time Jonah is confronted by the call of God, or the justice of God or the mercy of God he finds himself being put out. At this point he wants to simply escape God's presence completely.
Interestingly, the words here in Hebrew for anger and slow to anger are actually the phrases "short of nose," and "long of nose." A person with a short nose widens the nostrils to breathe heat in and out. This phrase is also translated "burning of the nostrils." So to be long of nose, to have a long nose that doesn't open wide to heat all that easily was a good thing.
10 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. 11 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?”
Jonah cares more about his comfort than he does the lives of thousands of people. It's more important for him to feel this personal care by God, that the whole world revolves around him. When the worm comes to eat the plant--which is a not-too-veiled reference to the Garden of Eden story--all Jonah knows is that his own comfort is gone. God may as well kill him if God's not going to provide for him.
What he misses here is the entire point. God's purpose for Jonah was not comfort. It wasn't ease, either. God's purpose for Jonah was the uncomfortable business of showing grace and proclaiming the love of God.
The story is open-ended. The question hangs in the air, unspoken to the reader: What will you do?
And what I feel is going on here, what God wants his people to know is that in order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours. You have to be willing to give up what you think matters to you for what truly matters to God.
Do you see yourself in Jonah?
Think about this question:
Who or What is beyond redemption in your estimation? I hear a lot of talk in Christian circles these days about how everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Look. There's nothing wrong with believing in a just God--a God who will make things that are wrong, right.
BUT what happens when you get to a point in your life where your views on religion, politics, social worldview, race, gender, sexual identity and class lead you to a place where you kind of rejoice that God might ran down judgement on certain people, those people, the people who don't think, act, believe or look like you?
Or how about this very challenging question:
How often do you think you might be missing opportunities to embrace God's will in the moment, because you are too focused on what you can get out of it? You find yourself becoming less and less interested in the working for the kingdom, because you sometimes feel like the kingdom isn't working for you.
Or you miss out because you see strife, anger, hatred, war, poverty, disease... and you feel a little disillusioned with a God who doesn't do some serious smiting. So, you back away from doing the will of God because you feel like God is backing away from all of us.
I get it.
The only problem is, these are all just really bad excuses for selfishness and lack of courage--the courage that it takes to step out in faith and believe that God is going to do amazing things in you, around you and through you if you are faithful.
Jesus told two stories that really illustrate his teaching to his disciples on this subject. In Matthew 20:1-16 he tells the story of workers in a vineyard. The owner hires workers in the morning and agrees to pay them a denarius, or a day's wages. Then he goes out at noon, three and then five o'clock and hires people for the same wage.
Of course the guys in the morning are bummed because they got paid the same as the guys who went to work at 5PM. I can't say that I blame them. But the master essentially says to them, "What is it to you how I tend this vineyard? You agreed to work at that wage, and in the end the most important thing to me is that the vineyard gets tended."
Of course there is also the famous story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 where a man with two sons is basically told by the younger boy that he wishes the father were dead and wants his inheritance. Some time later, after he's wasted his life and ends up in a pig sty, the young man returns home seeking mercy. The father gives him much more than that, and restores him as a son.
The older brother is so mad about this that he refuses to go into the welcome back party for his brother prepared by the father. The father pleads with him to come inside and tells him that everything he has has always been the son's, and the older boy had been working for the good of the family all along according to the father's good will.
At the end of these stories the hearer is left with a question of sorts. "What will you do?" Will you embrace the will of God and surrender your own? Will you give up the things that you think matter so much to you in order to embrace the things that matter most to God?
What would this look like for you and me?
Maybe it would look like a more open handed faith---where we hold our opinions about God, faith, Scripture and discipleship a bit more loosely. Maybe it would mean that we would serve with no expectations other than the increase of the kingdom of God here on earth. Maybe we would seek peace instead of personal gain. Maybe we would stop arguing over the rules and regulations and spend more time serving the Ruler who gave himself to set us free from the rules and regulations.
And maybe it would mean just remembering that in order to fully embrace God's will, you have to surrender yours.