Week commencing 17th September 2017 With a PDF found here
Notes for next Sunday’s sermon on Jonah “Compassion which annoys.”
DAY 1: Read Jonah 1
In some ways, this little book of the Old Testament is quite unusual. The ‘hero’ is an unreliable and really quite ungodly prophet! It is a book of prophecy, and yet we hardly hear anything of the message! Through it all, though, we see some amazing pictures of God’s compassion and we are challenged regarding our own responses to God’s grace and to those of our world who are currently far away from it.
The story begins with Jonah receiving a direct message from the Lord to preach against the great city of Nineveh because the Lord has become aware of its wickedness. (Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, placing him in the reign of Jeroboam II, about 780BC.) For an Israelite audience of the time – assuming that is for whom this book was written down – this would have seemed fitting, as the Assyrians were known for their cruelty, destroying whole cities and supplanting populations.
Jonah, however, famously runs away from God, refusing to take God’s message to Nineveh, and boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. At this point we see that God not only speaks, he acts, sending a storm so violent that the seasoned sailors fear for their lives! With their own gods proving to be useless, they urge Jonah to cry out to his god. “Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” As they interrogate Jonah as to his story, he has opportunity to proclaim to them, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” After he advises them that their only hope was to throw him overboard, they cry out to the Lord! (v14). When they follow his instructions, the Lord shows compassion by calming the sea instantly. We never hear of those sailors again, but I am sure they never forgot this encounter with the living God!
Finally, God shows his compassion again miraculously sending a ‘great fish’ to swallow Jonah, keeping him alive in the sea for three days and nights.
So, in the context of pronouncing judgement on his enemies, God has shown his mighty power over nature and his compassion for pagan idol worshippers and a disobedient prophet.
DAY 2: Read Jonah 2
As Jonah sits/lies in the belly of the fish, he has ample time to reflect on what has just happened. The prayer that he would later record – poetic in form – testifies to the Lord’s compassion. Jonah does well to capture something of the physical and emotional terror of his descent: distress, the depths of the grave, the deep, the violence of the waters, ‘my life was ebbing away.’ More than this is the spiritual distress of a man who knows he has deeply displeased the Lord: ‘I have been banished from your sight (v4).’ In the face of this, the Lord has truly been gracious to him: he answered me/ listened to my cry (v2); you brought me up out of the pit, O LORD my God (v6); Salvation comes from the Lord (v9). And in this context, being aligned with any ‘god’ other than the true God is utterly worthless and provides only illusory comfort: those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs (v8)…which brings us back to the problem of a great city of people – pagan idol worshippers – who are on the wrong side of God’s grace. And so, God commands the fish to compassionately vomit Jonah onto dry land….
DAY 3: Read Jonah 3
…and so God’s purposes are not derailed, for he goes back to square one with Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you (v1).”
This time, Jonah obeys. The exact size of Nineveh at this time is debatable. The Hebrew text here suggests literally that it was ‘three days’ journey.’ Circumference? Diameter? (Cities 90km across were in short supply in 780BC!) Likely, the NIV’s rendition is on the money: a visit required three days. Perhaps he paraded the streets wearing sandwich boards or going from street corner to market place, perhaps lining up audiences with key officials…what we do know is, word got around! It reached right to the top, to the royal palace! The take-home point of his sermon was obvious: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” What should these wicked idolators make of this strange prophet from a strange people, bringing a threat from a strange god?
Miraculously, Jonah’s message scores a direct hit on the communal heart of Nineveh.
The Ninevites believed God….(v5) And they repented in the best way they knew how: fasting, wearing scratchy hessian and sitting in the dirt. Those outward signs were not something a great king of ancient times did without the inner reality of deep and personal remorse for one’s personal and national disgrace. He is joined in this by the nobility, the whole population, and even the animals. Even more important, though, is the king’s command of v8-9. (On a side note, where did this response of faith come from? Check out Ephesians 2:8-9; yet more compassion!) This is the perfect response to the Gospel: owning one’s guilt, resolving to change one’s behaviour, throwing oneself on God’s mercy. “Who knows, God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger…”
And he does. Nineveh repents; God relents. ‘He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened (v10).’
DAY 4: Read Jonah 4
And here comes the punchline to the whole story of Jonah: having beheld miraculous repentance from the wicked, pagan Ninevites; having beheld the life-giving grace of the Lord, ‘Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.’ The Ninevites deserved to be flattened! And God didn’t send Jonah to say, “forty more days and Nineveh might be overturned, unless they repent.” Jonah had picked it from the start, and it was this, not fear of what the cruel Assyrians might do to him, that drove Jonah to run away from the Lord in ch 1.
This is ‘compassion which annoys.’ We might view it as gobsmackingly ungracious when we see it in Jonah, but doesn’t give this book give us a window into ourselves? What about the mass murderer who ‘found religion’ on death row, and gave an interview saying he doesn’t fear execution, because he knows God has forgiven him and he will go to heaven? ‘Surely not, Lord! I don’t want to see them in heaven!’ What about the ISIS thug, handed a Bible by the Christian he was about to murder, who then smuggled the Bible home, read it, and converted to Christ? ‘How dare you forgive him, Lord!’ The same Christ died for them as for us and for the Ninevites.
But it’s also a window into God’s heart. His ‘acted parable’ with the vine and worm shows how weak Jonah’s position is. He has no right to be peeved, either at the vine’s demise or at God’s compassion for the Ninevites, who ‘knew not what they were doing,’ together with the cattle. They are of God’s making and he has a right to be concerned for them.
And what of Jonah, this man whose heart seemed so far away from God’s? We don’t know, but we do know that somebody recorded this story, although it put Jonah in a bad light, and only Jonah was there to see it. I suspect at some point he came around to God’s way of thinking: compassion. What about you?