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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Read: Jonah 4.Text: Jonah 4:10,11.
Brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the month of September, the Jews celebrate a day known as Yom Kippur. In English, we call that the Day of Atonement. The day when, in the Old Testament, the high priest would place his hands on the head of a live goat and so put the sins of the people on this goat, and then send it away into the wilderness. The Jews today don’t send a goat into the wilderness, but they do have a set way of celebrating this day. And for centuries, in the afternoon service of the Day of Atonement, they read the book of Jonah from beginning to end.
Perhaps reading the book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement is even more applicable than many Jews realize. In our first sermon on Jonah, I quoted from a Christian Jew, Rabbi Baruch, who explained that both the book of Jonah and the Day of Atonement call us to be grieved over our sins and turn to the LORD. We also rejoiced in the fact that we no longer place our sins symbolically on the head of a goat, but that they have been taken away by Jesus Christ. “All we like sheep have gone astray … and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” But the Day of Atonement and the Book of Jonah both teach us something more, and that is that the LORD does not deal with us according to what we deserve. For the LORD is “a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm”. (Jonah 4:2)
And now, at the end of the book of Jonah, we come to the crux of the matter: Is God’s nature right and good? Does He deal with this world in the manner that he ought or is He too free with His love and compassion?
This morning we will conclude our sermons on the book of Jonah, focusing on the last two verses of chapter 4. I preach to you the Word of the LORD under the following theme:
God’s created beings mean the world to Him.
We will see the contrast between:
1. Jonah’s selfish pity; and
2. God’s selfless pity.
1. Jonah’s selfish pity.
Nineveh is a hot place in Summer. Assuming the weather has not changed too much over the last few thousand years, Nineveh had a cool, wet winter, with rain falling most days from late November to late February, and temperatures averaging around 11 degrees. But when Summer came, it came with a vengeance. Summer is hot and dry with an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius, and a maximum temperature peaking at about 60 degrees. Now Jonah was in Nineveh at this hot time of the year. And we all know that any temperature above 40 degrees with no air-conditioning can become quite unpleasant. And for Jonah, slowly baking on a hill to the East of Nineveh it was almost unbearable and enough to make him quite irritated.
So he built himself a crude shelter. Most likely four sticks in the corners, some cross-beams for a roof and whatever grass or leaves he could find to put on top. And Jonah sat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking.
And then something curious happened. Just as the LORD had prepared a fish to swallow Jonah, He now prepared a plant to protect him. We don’t know what sort of a plant this was. Some believe it was a castor oil plant. This plant does grow fast, can reach up to 12 metres in height and has leaves that are 15 – 45 cm long. Others think it was more like a vine, perhaps one that covered the shelter Jonah had made. What we do know is that God prepared this plant and caused it to grow, and it grew miraculously fast. And the cool green leaves gave Jonah the shade that his crude shelter could never have given. And that made Jonah happy. He loved this plant and was very grateful. Jonah must have taken note of the miraculous way this plant appeared and rightly concluded that it was a gracious gift of the LORD. Jonah sitting under the shady leaves of this plant gives a picture that is similar to the one the LORD uses to describe those who enjoy His covenant blessings. The LORD had said that when He blessed His people, each person would sit under his vine and fig tree. And now here is Jonah: yesterday he was sitting in the hot sun, but now he sits in relative comfort in the shade of the cool green leaves of a plant. In his morning prayers he may have said, “Thanks for Your compassion, God. I really appreciate it.”
This plant gave Jonah a major change of mood. In Jonah 4:1, it says in the original Hebrew that because God showed mercy to Nineveh, Jonah was displeased with a great displeasure. But now in verse 6, God shows mercy to Jonah, and he rejoiced with great joy. It was the same mercy from the same God, but responded to by Jonah in completely different ways. We might be tempted to label that ‘hypocrisy’.
But the plant does not change Jonah’s heart. He’s still angry at God for sparing Nineveh and is still waiting for God to change his mind. Jonah was most likely talking to himself and talking to God in his own mind, convincing himself that he was right and God was wrong. “God, I know you are gracious and compassionate. But some people just don’t deserve that. There are some really evil people around you know, God. They cut peoples’ noses off and skin them alive – and that’s just the beginning of it! They do not deserve to be forgiven. Oh God of vengeance, give them their just reward!”
According to Jonah, some sinners do not deserve to experience God’s pity. And to be honest, would we not agree? Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. Pol Pot. Saddam Hussein. They never showed pity, and they don’t deserve to be pitied. Paedophiles like Dennis Ferguson. The ones who beat up and rob the elderly. The drug pushers who prey on our children. It is hard to see that they deserve any pity: “Lock them up and throw away the key!” our civilized society demands. The person who lied about you. The man who took advantage of you. The one who turned your life into a living hell. They do not deserve the pity, the grace and the mercy of God.
But who does deserve the pity, the grace and mercy of the LORD?
The next day when Jonah woke up from his sleep, he soon sensed that something had changed from the day before. The sun felt a little too warm, and a hot easterly wind was beginning to blow. He looks up at his shelter, that green plant . . . and he can hardly believe his eyes! The LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, had prepared a worm to make short work of that miraculous plant, and it withered. And as the sun rose, the LORD sent a hot, blistering wind from the East. And the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. While Jonah might have felt that he was under the gracious blessing of the LORD when the shady plant appeared, now it was as though he was under God’s curse. In Deuteronomy 28, those experiencing God’s covenant curse would have their crops or their vineyards destroyed by worms. It is also interesting that in Hosea 13:15, the East Wind is described as the wind of the LORD that would come in judgment.
And Jonah gets angry. Angry enough to die. Why is God playing games with Jonah? He didn’t want to do this job in the first place! He ran off to Tarshish to avoid God’s call, but God pulled him back and sent him on to Nineveh. Then to his horror Nineveh repents and the LORD pities them. And now God gives him a taste of His mercy in the form of a plant but then snatches it away again. How can a man function with a God like that? How can a man function with a God who will show grace and mercy to the enemy and then, as soon as He gave some comfort in the form of a plant to His prophet, He snatched it away again and makes life doubly miserable?
Who does deserve the pity, the grace and mercy of the LORD? Jonah or Nineveh?
Jonah was right about one thing. Nineveh did not deserve an ounce of God’s pity. But that’s what God’s pity is all about! His pity is never deserved! The plant that Jonah got to enjoy for a short time was a free gift. Jonah didn’t plant it. He didn’t water it. He didn’t even ask for it! But Jonah acted as if God owed him that plant. It was his plant and so Jonah got angry when the plant was taken away. What Jonah should have learned from this is that the grace that was given to Nineveh was the same grace that was given to Israel. That grace is free and undeserved. Nineveh did not deserve God’s pity and His grace, but nor did Israel. And nor did Jonah. God’s grace is free.
Many of us are a bit like Jonah and walk around with a chip on our shoulder. We are bitter. We are angry. Someone hurt us and did something terribly wrong, and it looks as though they are getting away with it. They go on as if nothing happened, while our life has fallen in a heap and we are unable to pick up the pieces. Now it is most appropriate for Christians to cry out to God for justice. We can call upon Him to rise up as judge. We can plead with Him to make wrong things right. But watch out lest you respond to sin with sin and can not find it in your heart to look upon your neighbour in love and the spirit of forgiveness. Watch out that you don’t take God’s pity, His grace and mercy as if it was your right but refusing to allow that same pity, grace and mercy, be poured out on that other person.
The point is that no one deserves the pity, the grace and the mercy of God. No one deserves atonement, having our sins taken away by Christ so that we can have peace with God. We were all His enemies when Christ died for us. For Jonah to think that ungodly Israel deserved God’s favour but not repentant Nineveh was to fail to understand the free and undeserved nature of God’s pity for a fallen world.
Jonah had pity for a plant. But it was selfish pity. Pity that things were not going well in his life and that he was not experiencing the blessings of God in the manner that he felt he deserved. And the LORD used Jonah’s selfish pity to contrast this with His own selfless pity that He showers on Jonah, Nineveh and us all.
2. God’s selfless pity.
Jonah got angry about the plant that died. No plant meant a miserable day on a hill outside of Nineveh, and the hot sun and the blistering wind was enough to drive him insane. He was experiencing a feeling of pity, but there was no love in that pity. And the LORD confronted Jonah in that and in essence He said, “The pity you expressed for the plant is due to your own selfish interests. But those people in Nineveh – I made them and they mean the world to me.”
“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:11) Should God not pity Nineveh? “No Way!” says Jonah. “Wipe Nineveh and everyone in that city off from the face of the earth!” But the LORD said, “No. Nineveh is mine. I created those people. I created the animals that live in Nineveh. They mean the world to Me! Isn’t it right that I have compassion on them? Should I not pity Nineveh?”
And here again we have evidence that the book of Jonah is to be taken as real history. For in the city of Nineveh, there were 120,000 people who could not discern their right hand from their left, a distinct number. Traditionally it has been held that this refers to all people under the age of 7, giving Nineveh a total population of about 600,000. That is possible. More recently, however, it has been suggested that this refers to the entire population of Nineveh. The message then is that while they might be adults in years, the people of Nineveh were children in character, and in danger of perishing as ignorant beasts. There may be a difference of opinion on whether God was referring to just the children or the whole population of Nineveh. But what is clear is that Nineveh’s eyes were clouded from the true revelation of God, for they did not have the spiritual advantages of Israel. As the apostle Paul would later write in Romans 2:12, they sinned without the law and so less would be expected of them than would be expected of Israel. Before Jonah had come, Nineveh sinned in ignorance and even after Jonah had come, their knowledge of God and His Word was very small. And so theologically, they were like little children, and the LORD had pity on them all.
And God also pointed to the livestock of Nineveh. These animals had also joined in wearing sackcloth and fasting. The king had also commanded them to cry mightily to God for mercy. And the LORD considered them. The cattle also had been created to glorify God, and they also are a part of His plan to redeem the world. The day will come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together and the lion eats straw like an ox. (Isaiah 66:25) The animals too could look forward to the Day of Redemption. Christ would come to redeem the whole world from the curse of sin.
And this is a point worth underlining. God’s created beings mean the world to Him and His pity reaches to the ends of the earth. That does not take away from the fact that the Bible clearly teaches us that there is enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. There is a distinction between the people of God’s covenant and the rest of the world. God is merciful in saving His elect and just in leaving the others in the fall and perdition into which they have plunged themselves. (Belgic Confession, Article 16.) God hates the realm of evil and all that is hostile to Him. But at the same time we confess that God so loved the world that He gave His only beloved Son. The world is still the object of His care. Man was created in God’s image, and the earth still declares His handiwork – even though sin has severely distorted God’s image in man and the world is groaning in decay. The God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, still recognizes His own work in the world and His plan is to redeem this world from the clutches of the evil one.
And God’s pity for this world, as He expressed it in the last verses of Jonah, has come to a climax on Golgatha. It was there that God gave up His only Son so that He might redeem the world, that all authority on heaven and on earth might be Christ’s and that He would rule until all things are placed under His feet.
And that is what God was working towards, even in the Old Testament, and when He sent Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. Already then God had a love for the nations and a plan to redeem a people for Himself that went beyond the city walls of Nineveh. In Psalm 22:27,28 we read:
“All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’S, and He rules over the nations.”
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David prophesied of the Christ in Psalm 22, and looked forward to the time when “all the families of the nations” would embrace the true religion. He looked forward to the time when Christ would govern the world and exercise His authority over it.
And that included Nineveh, but His plan was bigger than Nineveh. Nineveh as a city was destroyed according to the word of the LORD through the prophet Nahum, but the people of Assyria remained. And before Nineveh was destroyed, many from Israel were sent there into exile. One of the apocryphal books of the Bible, Tobit, indicates that while many of those captives merged with the Assyrian population, some of them were loyal to the LORD. And so the people of Assyria were again confronted with the God of heaven who calls all men everywhere to repent and believe.
But that is not where the compassion and pity of the LORD for Nineveh and the nations ends. The God of grace and mercy who declared His pity for Nineveh to Jonah is the same God who not only sent His Son to die, but also sent His Spirit at Pentecost. And from the history of the church we learn that the people of Assyria were among the very first to not only hear, but also believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And God’s pity for Nineveh and the nations did not even stop there. From those Assyrian Christians, the Gospel spread further to the ends of the world. This is what I’d call “the untold history of the Christian church.”
In the year 1623 AD, an ancient commemorative column was discovered in China. It is about 2.5 metres high, a metre wide and 30 cm thick. It contains writing in both Chinese and Syriac, the language of the Assyrian Christians. The heading of that column reads, “The monument that commemorates the spread of the western religion of light in China.” This monument dates itself to Sunday, February 4, 781 A.D. It tells the story of how the gospel was spread from Assyria all the way down to China and beyond. And that is not all they have found in China. In 1908, a treasure trove of ancient art and manuscripts were found sealed in a cave dating back to 1036 A.D. A good number of Christian texts and liturgies were found in that cave. And a third amazing thing in China is the remains of the Da Qin Pagoda, an old monastery reported to have been built by Assyrian Christians in 640 AD. And in that pagoda, apart from some art work showing the birth of Christ, there is another piece of art. There is a city wall, and near that picture of a wall is a tree. And sitting beneath that tree are the remnants of a human figure. Could that figure be, as is commonly believed, Jonah sitting outside the walls of Nineveh?
The LORD’S sparing of Nineveh in the days of Jonah has had a massive and a positive effect on the spread of the Gospel. The Assyrian Church spread through India, Mongolia, China and beyond. The first recorded missionary to China was Alopen, who arrived in 635 AD – that’s before Willibroad and Boniface came to the Netherlands. But it is believed that Assyrian Christians travelled throughout Asia long before that and hundreds of thousands, (some would say millions) of people became Christians. Many crosses, Christian graves, Christian books, paintings and the remains of churches can be found in Mongolia, China and all along the Silk Road. We don’t get to learn much about this part of the church’s history. That is partly because this branch of the Church has almost all died out. But the main reason is because the Assyrian church of the East parted ways with the Western church over a dispute about the two natures of Christ. The Assyrian Church has been labelled “Nestorian”, as followers of Nestorius’ teachings about the two natures of Christ. No doubt the teachings of Nestorius as well as other heresies were spread. We know that for a fact. But the Gospel also went out. Writings have been discovered about the nature of God, original sin, the Trinity, and Christ taking on human form and bearing the sins of mankind and that man is saved apart from works. Thus we have good reason to believe that many people in Asia came to faith in the one true God and received salvation through Jesus Christ as a result of Christian mission work that began with the Assyrian Christians. And while much of the work of the Assyrian church has either died out or become false, even today there are Christians – even Reformed Christians – who descend from the people of Nineveh and Assyria.
And the gathering in of the nations continues to this day. It is true that God works in different nations at different times. The gospel is declining in some countries but expanding in others. But we must press on and imitate the pity, the love and compassion that God had for Nineveh, obeying the call to preach the Good news to all creatures until the end of time. And then the day will come when all evil is banished from this world and God will be with His people. And then
“no more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother saying, ‘know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
That is the ultimate plan of the LORD. Not just to save Nineveh for a further 150 years, but to redeem the world and to bring all things into submission to Him.
The LORD asks Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city? And if God pities Nineveh, should His servant the prophet not do the same? Jonah: it is a way of looking at the world, and of your place in it. It is a way of looking at your heathen neighbour and of your desire to reach out to him. It is a way of looking at God and of His pity, His grace and mercy for you.
Did Jonah listen? Did his heart change? Did he go back into the city of Nineveh, apologize for his hardness of heart, and proclaim the Good News to them? We don’t know. Scripture is silent and history is silent. But it is probably better that way. For now the question is directed not at Jonah, but at you. Should you not be concerned for the people around you? Amen.
 For more information on the early mission work of the Assyrian Church, here are two articles you can find online: “Christ on the Silk Road: The evidences of Nestorian Christianity in Ancient China” by Glen Thompson found in www.touchstonemag.com/archives/print.php?id=20-03-030-f AND “The Assyrian church in the Mongolian Empire as observed by world travellers in the late 13th and early 14th centuries” by Stephen Missick in Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies. (also available online)
* 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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