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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/baldivis/
 
Title:No Partiality With God
Text:Jonah 4:4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Mercy
 
Preached:2009-11-01
Added:2011-03-08
Updated:2011-08-18
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 98:1

Psalm 106:1,2

Psalm 107:1,2

Psalm 145:5

Psalm 98:2

Read:  Jonah 4

Text:  Jonah 4:4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thomas Carlisle wrote a poem entitled “You Jonah”.  This is how the poem ends:

And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat

And waited for God to come around to his way of thinking.

And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs in their comfortable houses

To come around to His way of loving.

 

Jonah waiting for God to come around to his way of thinking.  You can see him there, sitting under a crude shelter, waiting to see what would become of the city of Nineveh.  Trying to put a bit of pressure on God, to do what He said He would, and destroy the city.

Jonah waiting for God to come around to his way of thinking. 

Jonah:  Is it right for you to be angry?  (Jonah 4:4)

The LORD responds to Jonah’s anger with a question:  Is it right? 

These verses in Jonah 4 fill us with a sense of dismay.  Of course it is not right of Jonah to get angry!  How could he react like this, after all that he had gone through and after all that the LORD had done for him?  What happened to his confession that salvation is of the LORD?  What happened to his belief in the love, the mercy, the hesed of God?

Jonah could not accept a God who was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, and One who relents from doing harm not just to covenant Israel, but also to the enemy Nineveh.  Such a God did not fit Jonah’s world view.  It did not fit his understanding of what was right and wrong, and of what God should be like.

And so Jonah waits for God to come around to his way of thinking.  But don’t we do the same?  Are we not in danger of limiting God’s nature to the image of God that we have created in our hearts?  In that sense, can we not say that there is a bit of Jonah in each one of us?  Where we decide what God should or should not be like, and consider ourselves and others according to our understanding of how things should be?

This morning I wish to preach to you about the response of Jonah when the LORD spared Nineveh.  And the message I wish to share is that rather than attempt to shape God’s nature to our carnal thoughts as to what God should be like, our thoughts and understanding must be shaped by God’s nature, as He has revealed this to us in His Word.  I preach to you from Jonah 4 under the following heading:

 

Be shaped by God’s Nature

1.    The cause for Jonah’s anger.

2.    The basis for Jonah’s complaint.

3.    The challenge in God’s response.

1. The cause for Jonah’s anger.

Perhaps it would have felt better if the book of Jonah finished at the end of chapter 3.  The sailors were saved, Jonah was saved, and Nineveh was saved, and so “they all lived happily ever after”.  But repentance is not the climax of the book of Jonah.  The book of Jonah is not a lesson on the repentance of man, but a lesson on the nature of God.  And the LORD seeks to teach this lesson both to Jonah and to us in chapter 4.  And so rather than a tidy ending with everyone living happily ever after, chapter 4 begins with the word “but”.  “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.”

What caused Jonah to become angry?  Was he balanced and in his right mind?  When things are not going too well in your life, and you feel as though you are “losing it”   it is a good practice to HALT.  The word H.A.L.T is an acronym for the following:  are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?  It is more difficult to be balanced and to see things clearly when are hungry, angry, lonely or tired.  And so we can be sympathetic to Jonah.  Jonah must have been at the point of mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion.  He had been on the run from God, was caught up in the most terrible storm with only a bunch of heathen sailors around him, he’d been thrown into the sea, spent three days inside a fish and then went on a long and dangerous journey to Nineveh.  Humanly speaking, he must have been living off adrenalin for too long now.  One might be tempted to conclude that being compelled to preach a message of judgment to wicked Nineveh tipped him over the edge and so he lost the plot and became an emotional wreck.

But we can not excuse Jonah’s anger on the basis of temporary insanity.  There was a specific reason why Jonah got so angry.  Jonah 4:1 says, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly.”  The thing that made Jonah so angry was the nature of God – that the LORD saw that Nineveh had repented and in turn relented from destroying the city.  And then Jonah yells at God, “I knew it, God!  When I was back at home, I knew this was going to happen!  That is why I ran off to Tarshish!  I can not accept it!  God, you’d might as well let me die right now.”

Now Jonah lets it out as to why he ran away in the first place.  It was not because he was scared that he would be killed or ridiculed.  It was not because he simply did not feel up to the challenge.  He ran away to Tarshish because he suspected that once he preached to Nineveh, should Nineveh repent, then God would show His mercy to Nineveh.  And that was something that Jonah could not accept.  Jonah did not seek or rejoice over the repentance of Nineveh.  For Jonah, the sparing of Nineveh was a tragedy beyond belief! 

Jonah believed that salvation comes from the LORD (Jonah 2:9).  He believed that the LORD would grant him salvation (2:4,6).  He believed that salvation is not because of man but because of God’s mercy (2:8).  But he could not and he would not accept that this same grace and salvation could be given to pagan gentiles.  That God would show His mercy to an enemy as wicked and terrible as Nineveh.  The angels could rejoice in heaven for all Jonah cared.  But Jonah knows better.  He is burning up with anger at the possibility that God might see it in His love to relent and not punish Nineveh as He had said. 

“Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Jonah is unable to believe in and serve a God whom he considers to be soft on sin and weak on justice.   This was not the right response of God to the situation in Nineveh.  Nineveh was a wicked and violent city that had caused much grief to Israel and was in danger of causing even more.  Jonah may have gone to Nineveh and preached a message of judgment, but he was going against his instincts and convictions.  Jonah wanted –  no, he demanded – that Nineveh be destroyed.  Nineveh must be treated like Sodom and Gomorrah.  No second chance.  May their infants be taken and dashed to pieces against the rocks!  Jonah is the “man on the ground”.  He sees it all with his own eyes.  He knows what is going on here.  And as far as Jonah is concerned, there is no way that the LORD should relent and not bring about the disaster that He had said would happen to Nineveh.  It is as if Jonah is saying, “God, this is what You must do:  pour our Your love and mercy on your special people Israel, and your justice and your wrath on all Israel’s enemies.” 

And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat

And waited for God to come around to his way of thinking.

 

And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

To which Jonah would later respond, “It is right for me to be angry, even unto death!”  (Jonah 4:9)  Jonah has got God and the world all mapped out.  The world is divided between Israel and the nations, “us and them”.  For Israel is the Promise, for Israel comes the goodwill and blessings of God.  For Israel, God shows Himself as One who is full of compassion and forgiveness.  But for Nineveh is the curse, for Nineveh comes the anger and punishment of God.  For Nineveh there is but one message:  judgment and condemnation.  Jonah is angry at what he sees happening before his eyes.  He is prepared to offer the voice of thanksgiving and serve the LORD.  But the God he is prepared to serve is limited to the God as Jonah sees him.  But right now  things are not going in the way he believes they should.  Right now his fundamental beliefs concerning God lay shattered at his feet.

There is a fine line between seeing ourselves as God’s special people (1 Peter 2:9) and His exclusive people.  Jonah had crossed that line.  He had forgotten that God had promised that in Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  He had failed to rejoice with Psalm 87 that Egypt and Babylon, Philistia and Tyre would be joined to God’s covenant community and be considered to have been born in Zion.  He did not consider it right that the LORD should have a love and concern for the nations.  The cause for Jonah’s anger was that God was prepared to extend His grace to Nineveh and so relent from destroying Nineveh as He had threatened he would.  Rather than be shaped by God’s revealed nature, Jonah wanted God to be shaped according to his views on what God should be like. 

 

And that is not unique to Jonah.  In the time that Our Lord Jesus was on this earth, the Pharisees had the same problem.  “We have Abraham as our father!” they boasted.  “God will reward us, but He must punish those sinners.”  But that was not the message that Christ had come to bring.  In Matthew 21:31,32, He told them,

“Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”

And in verse 43 of Matthew 21 Christ said,

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”

And is that not a danger for us as well?  It happens so quickly that in our own minds we develop a picture of God, who is this or is that.  In our minds we decide what God’s love looks like and how He is to distribute that love and to whom.  Rather than consider ourselves to be God’s special people, the danger is always there that we slide into the trap of considering ourselves to be His exclusive people.  Rather than receive our theology from the Bible, the danger is there that we impose our theology on the Bible.  Rather than humbly accepting God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, the danger is there that we pull God down to our understanding of Him.

But sometimes it is not so “cut and dried”.  And for Jonah also, it was not simply a matter of him having a false understanding  or theology of God that he wanted to hold on to no matter what.  For Jonah it was also a struggle to accept God in the way that God has revealed Himself in the Bible. We’ll see that further in our second point.

 

2. The basis for Jonah’s complaint.

What is striking about Jonah’s prayer in verse 2 of Jonah 4 is that he quoted Scripture back to God.  Jonah complained that what made him so upset and angry was that the LORD was revealing Himself to Nineveh in the manner that He had revealed Himself to Israel.  “For I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm.”  This comes from The LORD’s own description of Himself, as He gave it to Moses in Exodus 34:6,7.  So what Jonah did in chapter 4 was to blame his anger on God’s own revelation of Himself, and on God acting in the way that He had described Himself to Moses! 

Jonah is saying, “God, I’m really angry because You are letting these people in Nineveh know what You are like!  I know that You are gracious and merciful, full of compassion.  I know that You are patient and You do not get angry quickly.  And I know that You are so full of loving-kindness, of hesed, that you basically love people back into Your arms.  That’s what You told Moses, and since the time of Moses we as Your nation of Israel have experienced Your love and mercy over and over again.  But not Nineveh.  Please, not Nineveh.  I can not stomach the thing that I see happening right before my very eyes!  I can not accept that Your love might be so great that it extends even to the vile enemy Nineveh.”

But why couldn’t Jonah accept that God’s love and mercy could even extend to the people of Nineveh?  Jonah himself had experienced God’s grace, His compassion, His mercy, His love and His forgiveness in such a tangible way.  Why couldn’t he accept and even rejoice over God displaying that same sense of goodness, love, mercy and forgiveness to Nineveh?  Why was Jonah so vehemently angry about this?

When it came to Nineveh, Jonah had no love.  It might have been a great city.  It might have been full of every-day men and women.  There might have been young children playing in the streets and little babies hanging from their mothers sides.  But when it came to Nineveh, Jonah’s heart was stone.  They were the enemy.  They were wicked.  They were the most visible threat of all to the peace and well being of Israel.  If Egypt, Babylon and Assyria could be considered to be the “axis of evil” of those days ( to borrow the words of George W. Bush), Nineveh was the pinnacle of evil and danger.  God was going to far when He showed love to Nineveh.  Nineveh needed to be punished.  And the sooner the better.

Most commentators highlight Jonah’s so-called provincialism.  That Jonah felt that God’s love must be limited to Israel, that no one outside of that covenant community was worthy to receive even a token of God’s love.  And there is something in that.  It is human nature to think that our own people, and that our own culture is superior to all others and if we can find some religious justification to that, all the better.  That still happens today, and various people have seen England, the Netherlands, the United States of America as God’s favoured nation, in the sense that He loves one or more of these nations more than He loves others.  We still see it from time to time that a nation or a group of people or even a church consider themselves to be an exclusive community of the LORD.  The community that the LORD must bless while all those outside of that exclusive community ought to receive nothing but God’s curse.  And what they end up basically saying is, “God, how dare you show Your grace and favour to those others, those dogs outside?”

But that is not Jonah’s only problem.  Perhaps it is not even his most basic problem.  Even though Jonah angrily quotes back to God His own description of Himself, when he observes the LORD showing grace and favour to Nineveh, Jonah is challenged to understand God in a manner that he’d never understood before.

It is interesting that when Jonah quoted Exodus 34 back to God, he failed to complete God’s description of Himself, that He “by no means clear(s) the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the forth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)  The nature of God is such that He displays both His justice and His mercy.  And that applies to Nineveh as much as it applies to Israel.  When the LORD relented from the disaster He had threatened to bring upon Nineveh, He did not close one eye and pretend that Nineveh’s sin was okay.  In fact, Nineveh will be judged and will ultimately be condemned if this city does not repent and turn to the LORD.  Many years later the prophet Nahum had a strong message against Nineveh. This is how the “burden against Nineveh” begins in Nahum 1 –

“God is jealous, and the LORD avenges; the LORD avenges and is furious.  The LORD will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies.”  (Nahum 1:2)

The LORD does not change.  The God who relented from the disaster He had threatened to bring upon Nineveh in the days of Jonah was the same God who gave another Word of punishment through Nahum –  and that was a prophecy that came to pass.  But Jonah must see both sides of God, His justice and His mercy.  And God’s grace to Nineveh is a wake-up call to both Jonah and Israel to observe not just His mercy, but also His justice. 

Jonah son of Amittai, was a prophet in the days of King Jereboam II.  During the days of Jereboam II, Jonah was called to prophesy a message of grace, of compassion, of love towards Israel.  The LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter and so he promised relief.  And even though Jereboam II was a wicked king who did evil in the eyes of the LORD, God still showed mercy, patience and love towards Israel.  But Israel must now turn to the LORD.  They could not pat themselves on the back and congratulate each other for being the exclusive people of the LORD, destined for blessing no matter what.  Because the LORD is also just and will by no means clear the guilty, those who do not come to Him in faith and repentance. 

Romans 2:3,4 says,

“And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”  (Rom. 2:3,4)

And verse 11, “For there is no partiality with God.”

Jonah considered it to be intolerable and unthinkable that Israel’s privileged enjoyment of the LORD as One who is merciful and gracious should be replicated in Nineveh.  But what we, and Jonah, must also understand is that there is no partiality with God.  We deserve His mercy no more than anyone else.

Jonah:  Is it right for you to be angry?  Is it more right for God to show mercy to unrepentant Israel than to Nineveh who repented in sackcloth and ashes?  There is no partiality with God.  None of us may consider ourselves to be God’s exclusive possession, more worthy than others to receive His love.  None of us may puff up with self-importance, thinking that somehow we are better or more worth than others to receive God’s grace.  None of us may create for ourselves an image of God who is limited to how we wish to understand and experience Him.  The basis for Jonah’s complaint was his understanding of who the LORD is.  But even though Jonah quoted from Scripture itself, He did not confess and humbly receive God as the LORD has fully revealed Himself in Scripture.  Jonah must worship the LORD not according to his own thoughts and desires, but he must worship the LORD as fully revealed in His Word.

 

3. The challenge in God’s response.

And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat

And waited for God to come around to his way of thinking.

And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs in their comfortable houses

To come around to His way of loving.

For as long as we have even an ounce of self-righteousness in us, for as long as we think that somehow we have a greater claim to God’s love than others, for as long as we hug ourselves and think we are not just God’s special people but His exclusive children, then we might think that God is too generous towards certain people. 

Jonah:  Is it right for you to be angry?  Is it right for you to oppose God’s nature?  Do you have a leg to stand on when you believe that while God should bless Israel, He ought to destroy Nineveh? 

God’s challenge to Jonah and to us all is not to re-write covenant history, and is not to reject the notion that Israel in the Old Testament and we today are the recipients of God’s special favour.  Israel was God’s special covenant people and Nineveh was not.  But that does not give Israel reason for pride and so claim God’s love for themselves at the exclusion of others. It does not give Israel reason to sit back and be comfortable, basking in God’s goodness irrespective of their walk with the LORD, and disdainful of all those around them.

The challenge in God’s response is that Jonah, and we, do not see ourselves as better than others, as more worthy of God’s love but that we might see that we have a great responsibility to others and proclaim God to the world as He has revealed Himself to us.  The blessings of God’s grace must cause us to proclaim that grace to others and to never see ourselves as better or more worthy than anyone else.

The Pharisees felt they had the right to claim God’s mercy ahead of others.   When they saw that the tax collectors and the sinners draw near to Jesus to hear Him, they complained, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:2)  But Jesus warned them.  The Kingdom would be taken from them and given to a nation bearing the fruits of the Kingdom.

Israel and Nineveh were a foretaste of that prophecy of Jesus.  The nation of Israel refused to repent and continued to decline.  Until in 722 B.C. they were attacked by Assyria and sent away into exile, to be relocated to the North of Nineveh.  Meanwhile, although Nineveh would later be destroyed for her godlessness, the city first grew from strength to strength.  A later king of Nineveh, Sennacherib, changed Nineveh into an oasis.  He established parks and gardens, and at one point Nineveh even had a zoo!  And to achieve all of this, he built huge aqueducts as wide as a four lane highway to channel water from as far as 70 kilometres away!  And there can be little doubt that many of Israel were pressed into slavery, to help achieve the dreams that Sennacharib had for Nineveh.

Inside the city of Nineveh the king sat in discomfort, in sackcloth and ashes.  Hoping against hope that God would lower the hand He had raised against them and the city would be spared.  Meanwhile Jonah sits outside the city walls, hoping against hope that Nineveh would be destroyed.

Praise God that Nineveh was spared!  The LORD spared Nineveh because He is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness.  So abundant in loving-kindness that not only did He send His Son to this earth, but he allowed human beings to reject and kill that Son so that in turn we might receive His steadfast love and mercy.

Romans 5:8 - “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

To escape God’s punishment, we all need to receive His mercy in Jesus Christ.  And the Good News is that in Christ God gave to us grace upon grace (John 1:16). 

In Jesus Christ, One greater than Jonah is here.  He is greater not just because His resurrection is more wonderful than surviving a fish’s belly, but because He came to bring the mercy of God and now extends that mercy to all the nations.

And there is the challenge for us.  The love of God that He has sent into this world teaches us that there is no partiality with God.  We were all sinners, we were all under the curse.  We all deserved to be destroyed eternally.  But while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Let us humble ourselves before God and come to Him in faith and repentance.  And then let’s tell the world that the Gospel is for them just as much as it is for us, and that He extends His grace and mercy to all whom He calls.   Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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