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Jonah and Judgment

     But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
     But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
     Jonah went 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. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine 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.”
     But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
     “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
     But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
—Jonah 4:1-11, NIV

Jonah was a man who had a complaint against God, and certainly we might sympathize with him. Jonah put himself on the line for God, but God left him dangling, undignified, and without backup. God left him looking like a fool. So Jonah pouted under the bush and griped to God about the fix he was in.

It all started back when God called Jonah to prophesy doom to the city of Nineveh, something he did not want to do. Jonah didn’t want to put himself on the line; he didn’t want to preach destruction and doom. It might make him look like a weirdo or a fanatic. It certainly wouldn’t earn him any popularity contests.

So Jonah ran away, as hard and as far as he could, something I could imagine any one of us doing as well. He booked passage on a ship to the other side of the sea, to get as far away from Nineveh and God’s call as he could.

But God caught up with him, sending a great storm. The waves tossed the ship around like a bathtub toy. The crew was terrified. Each man on the ship prayed to his own god and threw cargo overboard to lighten the ship, but nothing worked. The only one who had not prayed to his god was Jonah, who was asleep in the hold. They rousted him from his slumber and brought him up onto the deck. Under pressure, he admitted the truth to them: he was on the lam from his God. He was avoiding God’s call. He had refused to do God’s will. He admitted that he was the cause of their predicament, so he volunteered for them to throw him overboard—but Jonah doesn’t get extra credit for self-sacrifice, because they probably would have done it anyway.

They threw Jonah overboard—the seas were instantly calm! The clouds cleared, the sun shone, the boat ceased to rock, and there was a great quiet in which they could hear the seagulls call. It was as if the storm had never been! The men were so terrified that they threw away their idols and worshipped the One True God.

Then God sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, which must have startled the crew and reinforced their respect for the power of Jonah’s God. Inside the fish, Jonah prayed mightily for salvation. After three days, God answered his prayer and the fish coughed him up on the shore.

After Jonah wiped off all the slime and got his bearings, I don’t think he was particularly surprised to find that he was right back where he started from, at the very place he tried hard to avoid.

He was at Nineveh. Oh, how his spirit must have sagged within him! All that effort wasted! So he resigned himself to the task at hand and started out toward Nineveh.

Nineveh was a metropolis. It was so large that it took three days to travel from one end of it to the other. I don’t think Jonah’s heart was really in it, because he only went one-third of the way in, preached his message, and got out as quickly as he could. I suppose he didn’t want to be caught in the conflagration. He did enough of his duty to avoid being swallowed by another fish; then he skedaddled out of town.

Even this teensy bit of probably half-hearted preaching was enough. It reached the ears of the king, who proclaimed a time of fasting and repentance that included every living creature—even the animals! Maybe the Ninevites believed Jonah’s sermon. Maybe they just saw his fear as he ran in terror from the city and figured that he must know something they didn’t. Maybe they were just obeying the king. Whatever their reason, the people sat in sackcloth and ashes and repented of their sins, on speculation that God might forgive them. I say they did it on speculation, because there was nothing in Jonah’s message about repentance and forgiveness, but they figured, what have we to lose? Whatever they may have thought or said of Jonah, their actions spoke very loudly: they repented of their sins, and they trusted in God’s mercy.

God saw their repentance and their sincerity and forgave them. No disaster overtook the city. But Jonah, who had carefully chosen himself a front-row seat at a safe distance to watch the pyrotechnics, was deeply disappointed, embarrassed, and mortified. In short, he was crushed.

So Jonah pouted under the bush and griped to God about the fix he was in.

He pouted under the bush, because he had a complaint against God, and certainly we might sympathize with him. Jonah put himself on the line for God, declaring God’s judgment, prophesying the destruction of the city—and then nothing had happened. Nothing happened at all! No fire, no brimstone, no invading army—nothing, not even a plague of frogs! Jonah felt like a fool and a public laughingstock, so he sat under the bush and pouted. Yes, the people had repented, but as Jonah resentfully went over his sermon again in his mind, he verified that there was nothing in God’s message about repentance. It had been an unconditional condemnation.

So when the city was not destroyed, Jonah looked ridiculous in his own eyes.

Yes, God hates sin. Many preachers are fond of saying this, so I will say it as well: God hates sin! Jonah learned that lesson quite well. He had even preached it well! But God did not have compassion for Jonah, because Jonah failed to learn an even greater lesson. For you see, it is true that God hates sin, but He loves people even more, which is why He sent His Son to get rid of the sin and save the people.

In the end, God reproved Jonah, because his values were all wrong. Yes, he did his duty and he did preach the message he was given—but he failed to love the people. He did not rejoice when they repented and he was not glad when they were spared. He put his personal vindication as a prophet higher than the lives of the men, women, children, and beasts of Nineveh.

Now maybe this explains why, in our Gospel reading today, Jesus strangely says, “Repent and believe the good news!” He said, “Repent and believe the good news!”

That’s really an odd thing to say when you think of it. Normally, you repent because you believe bad news. That’s what the people of Nineveh did—they repented because they believed the bad news that Jonah preached to them. However, they also heard the good news that was lurking behind the bad news, the good news that was even greater and more powerful than the bad news that Jonah preached. They found out what Jonah refused to learn, what we learn from Jesus: God hates sin, but He loves people even more. That is why He sent His Son to get rid of the sin and save the people!

Therefore we can approach Jesus without fear, we can confess all things freely to Him, and we can expose all the ugliness within ourselves to Him. The psalm we read today tells us to do precisely that, to trust God at all times and to pour out our hearts to Him. Today we see that it is a completely safe and joyful thing to follow that advice.

If you have aches and pains, a funny growth on your arm, a blotch on your stomach, a painful joint, or an itchy rash in an uncomfortable place, you know that you’ll suffer a social disadvantage if you talk about it all the time. You are wise not to discuss such things, because we all have growths and blotches and pains and rashes, and talking about them drags us all down into sadness. Even if you have something as innocent as a bruise on your arm, you might wear long sleeves to conceal it, so no one will think ill of you. But when you are in the doctor’s office, you must disclose all your complaints, no matter how unacceptable they are socially, or the doctor cannot treat you effectively.

So it is with our sins. We do not confess our faults in public in the course of idle chatter, because that would bring us social disadvantage or at least drag everyone down into gloom. But when we come to Jesus, we must tell Him everything; we must bare our souls, we must confess all sins, so that He, the Great Physician, can forgive us, cleanse us of all unrighteousness, and transform us!

If God honored the repentance of Nineveh, even without a promise of forgiveness, then certainly we have nothing to fear, because Jesus does bring us a promise of forgiveness. Let us take off the fig leaves when we go to Jesus in prayer! If it is unwise for us to show up for surgery in a tuxedo, how unwise is it for us to refuse to reveal our sins to Jesus?

Jesus loves us more than He hates our sin. As John says, if we confess our sin, Jesus is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness—He will not hold our sin against us. Jesus will get rid of our sin and start to transform us into the sort of people He meant for us to be.

Jonah was a man who had a complaint against God, but should we really sympathize with him? Jonah put himself on the line for God, but God left him dangling, undignified, and without backup. So Jonah pouted under the bush and griped to God about the fix he was in. In the end he was so bitter and so wrapped up in his ego and so concerned with his personal honor that he wanted God to slay a hundred and twenty thousand people just so he could save face! Instead of punishing Jonah for his arrogance, instead of punishing him for his callous disregard for others, God reasoned with him to move him to repentance, and Jonah’s book stands in our Bible today.

Surely you have not sinned as badly as the Ninevites. Surely, unlike Jonah, you have not demanded that God slay one hundred twenty thousand people to assuage your ego—maybe you’re like me and it was only one hundred nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine! So can’t we learn the lesson that if God dealt kindly with Jonah and the Ninevites, He will deal kindly with us as well? Can’t we learn that if we are honest to God, He will love and transform us?

Let us take heart from Jonah’s story; let us approach Jesus freely, let us disclose to Him all our sins, let us drop every pretense, every excuse, and every deception. Let us confess our sins, so that in His infinite mercy, grace, and love He can forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness, so that we can live with Him in His glory forevermore.