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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Since God rightfully cares about his creation, so should we
Text:Jonah 4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 99:1-4

Psalm 87

Hymn 81

Hymn 1

Hymn 10

Scripture reading and text:  Jonah 4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Perhaps you’ve heard Handel’s powerful coronation anthem Zadok the Priest.  If you’re not familiar with that kind of music, you can substitute U2’s classic Where the Streets Have No Name.  In both songs, the composers created an air of expectancy with an introduction that lasts over a minute.  The tension slowly builds up until it explodes into the main body of the song.  With Handel, the strings pick up speed, then slow down again, then speed up, pick up volume, and when the singers finally start with the rest of the orchestra – I’ll never forget the first time that I heard it:  goosebumps all over.  With U2 it’s slightly different:  first you hear the keyboard, then the guitars, then the bass and drums, all picking up speed, till finally the whole thing takes off with the singing – with powerful effect.

Those two musical examples give us a good picture of the biblical mission song.  The Old Testament forms the introduction.  Throughout the Old Testament there’s an air of expectancy created by certain events and phrases.  The tension builds, sometimes faster, at other times slower, the volume builds – till finally, Jesus Christ comes into the picture.  After his ascension into heaven, the music explodes into the main body.  God’s people are empowered by the Spirit to go out into all the world with the good news of Christ – to make disciples of all the nations.

So, where does the book of Jonah fit in this song?  Obviously, we’re still in the introduction.  We’re in a time when some of the themes of the song are being heard, but it’s all in a preliminary way.  The tension is building, expectancy is mounting.  Readers are supposed to ask themselves:  if God works this way in the old covenant era, what does that say for the time when the new covenant era comes? 

With Jonah 4 this morning, we’ll hear one of the important themes announced in the introduction to the song of missions.  The story of Jonah is a familiar one.  The Assyrians were a nation of savage butchers.  When they’d attack other nations, they were just brutal.  They’d been brutal to the Jews too.  No wonder that Jonah fled to Tarshish when God sent him to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh – he went 180 degrees the opposite direction.  He wasn’t going to preach to those Assyrian animals.  But God dramatically grabbed Jonah’s attention with a storm and the digestive tract of a whale.  Jonah finally did God’s bidding.  He went to Nineveh and preached.  He called them to repentance.  That happens in chapter 3.  At the end of that chapter, we find out that Jonah’s preaching had an impact.  The Ninevites have repented.  So God has relented from the doom he threatened to send upon Nineveh.  Now Jonah is stewing.  God uses this opportunity to teach his people an important lesson, one that also has consequences for how we view the mission of the church today.  That lesson has to do with how God relates to the work of his hands.  So, I preach to you God’s Word this morning with this theme:

Since God rightfully cares about his creation, so should we

We’ll consider:

  1. Jonah’s intense anger at God.
  2. God’s powerful response to Jonah.

Verse 1 of chapter 4 tells us how Jonah was profoundly angry at what happened in the previous chapter.  When God didn’t bring the destruction threatened through Jonah, Jonah flew into an intense rage.  Now Jonah wasn’t the first Old Testament figure to have these feelings about a situation in which God so clearly had a hand.  For example, in the first pages of Genesis, Cain became angry because his brother’s offering was acceptable to God, and his wasn’t.  But in those sorts of instance, it was typically God’s justice that people couldn’t handle.  With Jonah, it’s different. 

Jonah is the first Old Testament figure who gets angry with God over what we’d see as his more positive attributes.  Look at what Jonah says in verse 2.  He speaks to God and says, “This is exactly the reason why I took off in the beginning.  I know who you are!  I know what you’re like!”  Jonah’s fury was fueled by God’s character. 

Jonah knew how God was gracious and compassionate.  All these descriptive words are used only to describe God in the Old Testament.  They’re never used to speak about people.  So, God was gracious and compassionate in a way that’s not typically found among people.  The word used for “gracious” is also found in Exodus 22 where God says he hears the pitiful cry of the person who is friendless and cold because his only coat has been taken from him in pledge against his debt.  God says, “…If he cries to me I will hear, for I am compassionate.”  Our God Yahweh is just like a father or mother that cares deeply for their child.  This is what Jonah knew God to be like.

He also knew God to be slow to anger.  That means God doesn’t have a quick temper.  On the positive side, it means God has a huge measure of patience and forbearance.  And not only that, but he’s abounding in steadfast love.  That’s the kind of committed love which is going to stick it out through thick and thin.  And that sticky love God has in abundance.  That’s the kind of love that Jonah had a hard time accepting.  Jonah couldn’t handle a God who relented at sending destruction when the Ninevites repented. 

In fact, Jonah says in verse 3 that he’d sooner die than live and see God relating to Nineveh in this manner.  Jonah desires death because he can’t stand the idea of God giving life.  You can see how Jonah’s problem wasn’t Nineveh but God.  Jonah wanted God to be different, at least in so far as he relates to the Ninevites.  Rather than be gracious, Jonah wanted God to deliver justice.  Rather than be compassionate, Jonah wanted God to be cruel.  Rather than slow to anger, Jonah wanted God to blow his top and the sooner the better.  Rather than abounding in love, Jonah wanted to see God’s anger at sin expressed with the destruction of Nineveh.  That’s what these butchers deserved!    

And so what happened to the repentant prophet of chapter 2?  What happened to the prophet who said that he “remembered the LORD” (2:7)?  That’s another way of saying he came back to the ways of living in covenant faithfulness.  And now here the prophet is back at the point of shaking his fist at God.  What happened?   People are fickle, that’s what.  One minute we’re saying we believe one thing about God, and the next minute we’re acting as if we really don’t believe it.  Jonah was no different.  He was back to angrily resisting God’s plans.

And what was all this saying to the people of God?  The Jews who first read this book would be confronted with a prophet getting so angry that he wants to die.  He’s angry because God doesn’t fit his box.  Jonah wants a God who only shows mercy and compassion to one people, one tiny little part of his creation.  This was a not-so-subtle message to the people of God:  God’s concerns go beyond your borders.   Not accepting this had serious consequences.  If you believe that God’s concerns are only within the borders of the holy land, this shortchanges God on two counts.  First of all, God’s sovereignty – who are you to impose your restrictions on God?  Second of all, God’s glory – who are you to say that God can’t receive the glory he deserves from all his creation?   The purpose of this prophetic teaching was to transform the people of God.  God wanted to change them.  His purpose was to transform them in their thinking about God and their neighbour.  It was to prepare them for the main body of his mission song, when God would bring every tribe, tongue and nation into his kingdom. 

Jonah’s role in this purpose is to provide a vivid contrast, especially with his intense anger.  God uses Jonah to teach his people to believe him as he has revealed himself.  In this way, Jonah was a negative example. 

But several hundred years later, God gave a positive example with another prophet.  Christ shared the grace and compassion of the Father with all – he rejoiced to see people turn to God.  During his earthly life, he also occasionally ministered to Gentiles.  Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7.  She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.  The Lord had compassion and did this for her.  That’s a picture of God and his character.  Our Lord Jesus reveals, shares, and delights in the attributes of God.  He reveals, shares, and delights in God’s mercy, compassion, and steadfast love.  When you think about it, when you think that he himself is the Son of God, a person of the Trinity, how could he do otherwise? 

And sure, it’s true, Jesus also became angry, but he never became angry with his Father.  His anger was directed at the self-righteous and the hypocrites among the people of God.  United to his Father, our Lord Jesus shared the concerns of his Father.  Listen to what he said in John 14:10, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”  The Father is in Jesus.  The Father dwells in him.  Therefore, the concerns of the Father were the concerns of the Son – and one of God’s chief concerns at that time, and in our time, is his glory among the nations. 

We’re prophets today because we share in Christ’s anointing.  We have his Holy Spirit and so we’re called to confess his Name wherever we can.  That’s how we work as prophets, we share the gospel.  As Christian prophets today, our concerns are to be the concerns of our chief prophet and teacher.  This is part of what our Lord Jesus meant when he said in John 14:20, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Through faith, we have union with Christ, and through union with Christ we have union with the Father. 

That helps us in taking the message of our text into our own lives.  Because of who we are in Christ, we desire to be reflections of Christ’s image.  We delight in God as he shows himself to us.  We delight in God showing care and compassion for the nations, for all his creation.  In other words, when God sends the church out into the world to make disciples, this isn’t a burden for us, but a joy.  We’re excited and enthusiastic that our God is like this.  He doesn’t fence in his blessings, but wants to spread them far and wide for his glory among all. 

So, we’ll never minimize the mission of the church, as if it’s just gravy – something we do if we happen to have a little extra time or money left over.  Because God is who he is, because Christ is who he is, and because we’re in Christ, mission is an inescapable part of what the church is about.  That means we can never make a false dilemma between missions and work done inside the church.  The two belong together.  God wants his people to be built up and strengthened inside, but God also desires his glory to be magnified among the nations.  God cares about what he has created and his will is that what he has created should be worshipping him.  God taught this lesson to Jonah in a powerful way. 

Through both words and actions, God’s response to Jonah comes in several stages.  The first stage has God speaking in verse 4.  God says to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”  The question is rhetorical – we all know what the answer is.  But notice how Jonah doesn’t give an answer with his words.  Instead, it’s his actions that speak.  Jonah goes off to the east side of the city and builds himself a crude hut.  This hut would likely have been built with branches and any available green leaves.  Jonah built this hut and then he sat down to see what would happen.  Even though he knew Nineveh had repented, even though he knew God had expressed his compassion for Nineveh – Jonah still held out hope that the repentance was short-lived and the program of God’s judgment would still play out in front of him.  He was hoping to see a Sodom and Gomorrah scene happen right there and then – hellfire and brimstone from heaven destroying all these wicked, undeserving people.  “I just want to watch these people get what’s coming to them.”  Imagine a preacher hoping that his preaching didn’t change things for his listeners.  It’s so pathetic, you almost have to laugh at it. 

Well, God isn’t finished with this anti-preacher, this anti-prophet.  God sends the second stage of his reply with actions.  Look at verse 6.  God provided or appointed a vine to grow over Jonah and give him shade.  Just as in chapter 1, God appointed the winds and the great sea creature, so here God, in his sovereign providence appoints some kind of plant, most likely a castor oil plant.  Such a plant grows fast and has large leaves that might provide the shade a crude hut wouldn’t give.  Verse 6 tells us that this plant or vine was appointed by God to ease Jonah’s discomfort.  The end result was that Jonah had some joy in life again.  Jonah was happy about something, even if he couldn’t be happy about God and Nineveh. 

That lasted for all of one day and then God appointed another part of his creation to chew on the vine.  It was a worm, probably some kind of weevil or weevil pupa.  So the vine withered, the leaves shriveled up – no more shade.  Then in verse 8, we find how God added to Jonah’s chastisement by giving a powerful hot wind from the east.  God directed the weather so that it was blue skies and hot wind.  And so Jonah felt a heat stroke coming on.  One day Jonah had joy and the next day he wanted to die again.  Notice how every word that comes out of Jonah’s mouth in this chapter has to do with death.  Jonah has a profound death wish.  He’s gone up and down and now he’s down again – longing for the grave.  God has given this to Jonah to chastise him and lead him to repentance. 

Then God speaks again to Jonah:  “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”  This time Jonah replies with violent words, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”  Literally, “I am angry to death.”  And note carefully:  these are Jonah’s last words in the book.  Jonah’s last word is literally “death.” 

God then comes with his last words, the climax of the entire book.  Jonah didn’t create the vine.  Jonah didn’t take care of it or make it grow.  Its lifespan was one day.  Yet Jonah cared about it – he cared about it because of the pleasure it gave him.  Jonah did nothing for it.  But then there was Nineveh.  God had created all the people and the animals of this great city.  God had providentially led the lives of all 120,000 people and the animals as well.  All these people who don’t know their right hands from their left – in other words, people too ignorant to take care of themselves.  God took care of each one.  If Jonah cared for the plant, which was so insignificant, why wouldn’t God care for Nineveh?  Shouldn’t God be concerned about this great city?  God cares about it because it pleases him when the people turned from wickedness.  God desired to see the people of Nineveh live and glorify their Creator.  And so when God says, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city?” – that is a last word about life.  God’s concern means life for the people and animals of Nineveh.  Jonah wanted death, but God wanted life. 

Notice how the book ends with that lingering question:  “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city…?”  We’re not told what Jonah’s response was to God’s question.  Many interpreters have guessed what he might have said.  Many children’s Bibles put an answer or an implied answer in Jonah’s mouth.  But all of that dulls the point.  The point is that God’s people of all ages have to find the answer in the revelation of who God is in Scripture.  Think of what God says to Moses in Exodus 33, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”  Paul later quotes those words in Romans 9 to make a point about God’s good pleasure and sovereign choice.    God is the one who sovereignly decides to send a message of judgment, God is the one who sovereignly works repentance and faith, God is the one who sovereignly shows compassion and mercy upon the repentant.  God is right to care about what he has created, both his physical creation and his spiritual re-creation. 

Now remember that all of this was in the Old Testament.  God was like that in the Old Testament.  That was to point ahead to the full picture of how he lavishes his grace upon the nations in Christ in the New Testament.   Today, we want to be God’s instruments to that end.  You see, the whole issue of the book of Jonah is this:  what is God like?  And knowing what God is like, how should our lives be transformed?  In Christ we have the answer.  In Christ God shows himself to be abundant life for those who repent and believe the gospel.   It’s God’s people who are in Christ by faith whom the Spirit uses to bring that gospel. 

So today there’s a song that’s exploded into full melody with nearly all the lyrics.  With Christ’s first coming, the time of expectancy was over, but not entirely.  We’re still waiting for the brilliant conclusion of the song – it promises to be the most spectacular part of all.  God is still working on it.  You see, God is still concerned for a great city – the great city of the New Jerusalem.  As time moves on, God is building that glorious city through his people and the spreading of the gospel.  The enemy tries to destroy that work, but his efforts are all in vain.  One by one, citizens are brought in behind the fortified walls no one can breach.

At the end of the age, God’s care for his creation will be gloriously vindicated.  Through his Son, through his Spirit, God will bring more glory to himself when the Holy City, the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven.  God will bring that day through the mission of the church.  In this spiritual orchestra we all have a part to play, we all have a line to sing.  The New Jerusalem which we eagerly wait for, it’s not going to come down from heaven till all the elect of God have been gathered in.  Christ’s church-gathering work continues through us till the day we hear these words from the throne, words spoken to people from all tribes, tongues, and nations:  “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  God’s final and eternal word for us will be “Life!” AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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