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Mercy: Jonah and the Whale

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Wrapping up final week in the book of Jonah.OT prophet who prophesied during a time when Israel had rebelled against the LORD.YHWH sends this prophet named Jonah (Dove son of faithful) on a special mission to deliver a message because their evil had come up before God.Jonah rejects God’s mission and flees to the end of the known world.On his way the LORD uses the sea and the wind to cause Jonah to wake up to not only his disobedience, but also his apathetic heart.As Jonah realizes that he is the cause of the storm he tells the sailors that throwing him overboard was the only way they would be rescued. And he was right.God used an instrument of death (great big fish) to not destroy Jonah, but spare Jonah from death.Jonah has this moment of self-realization where he sees that what he thought he wanted so desperately really took him to the bottom of the sea floor in the stomach of a giant fish.Jonah repents of his disobedience and God causes the fish to vomit Jonah on the beach. The LORD hasn’t changed his mission in any way and he gives Jonah the mission again.This time Jonah responds in obedience to the plan. He proclaims the message, the Ninevites repent of violent and evil ways and God relents of the judgment He initially intended.The purpose of the book of Jonah:
SLIDE - To Reveal the Inconceivable Greatness of God
One of the reasons I love the narrative form of Biblical literature is because of the way we get to watch God interact with mankind.And while we read these stories we are learning about God. We are trying (with our finite minds) to understand His nature.And just when you think you have God all figured out, He does something absolutely perplexing.God is immutable, he is unchanging, but we are very mutable. And that’s not a bad thing, in fact we should always be growing. Living things grow.Does anyone in here feel like they’ve got God “all figured out?”And really there are only two ways to respond when confronted with the idea that we might not have God all figured out.
SLIDE - 1. Humbly
SLIDE - 2. Indignantly
When Isaiah encountered YHWH in , his experience with YHWH brought him to this place of severe self-recognition:
(ESV) — 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
When he saw himself for who he was, he was then able to see the LORD for who He is.And out of that experience flowed his obedience:
(ESV) — 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
The longer you sit under the teaching of the Bible, and the personal meditation on the Bible, you will come to know and interact with God through the Holy Spirit in a very real way.And your knowledge and understanding of God will change. And you will be brought to the same place as Jonah. Will you respond humbly (as Isaiah did) or will you respond indignantly?By the simple reading of the text, I think we can safely say that Jonah’s response to this shift in his thinking of how YHWH deals with those outside of the Covenant people of God was in every way, indignant.We need to understand how the Hebrew people viewed themselves and how they viewed the way YHWH interacted with them and those outside of Israel.Not only was the Assyrian empire the most brutal empire and the long standing enemy of Israel, they were pagans. They were not moral people. They were outside of the general favor of YHWH.So in a very real sense, the Jews saw themselves as special people. This served to be an indictment against them. Because they were a people chosen by God, not because of their goodness, but because of God’s goodness.Jonah, and the Hebrew people had developed a God that was different than YHWH. They had put their version of god in a box and they were happy to worship that god as long as he stayed in his place. I’ll show you what I mean:
(ESV) — 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
Before skipping to far over that first line, the irony isn’t as clear in English translation as it is in Hebrew: “It was evil to Jonah with great evil.”In other words, what God had done in relenting of judgment on Nineveh was evil to Jonah with a great evil. It displeased him exceedingly, he was angry WITH GOD!He obviously lacked understanding here. Why would God NOT punish the Assyrians? They were at the very least an excessively brutal military force in the world. There was only gain that could come to the rest of the world by the removal of the capital city of Assyria.It was not a secret, Jonah hated the Assyrians. But instead of rejoicing in the withholding of more death he takes the path of self-righteous pity.Any chance a true prophet of God has an opportunity to be a part of God’s plan in the earth should bring joy.And now we get the confession:
2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish;
This is the second prayer of the book, but it has such a different flavor to it. In we get this picture of a man who is humbled by his own sin and thankful for the grace of God.Here, we see the idols of Jonah’s heart in this perplexing prayer.“You played a trick on me God. I knew that you would do this! Isn’t this what I said?”Jonah is literally out of his mind here, look at what he recites back to God?
“for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
The way Jonah responded reminds me of what one of my kids said to me this week when I asked them why they weren’t working on their chore, they said, “Daddy! It’s because I hate to work and I love to play.”It’s like, Jonah is asking God to see his point of view. This is why I fled, I knew you would do this. Huh?This combination of attributes of God was like one of the “Coffee mug” verses of the day. It was like the of the OT.So what does this mean? The first two commandments? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.”If you remember this is exactly what happened when Moses was atop Mt. Sinai receiving instruction from God. They became impatient, thinking something had happened to Moses, so they made an image of a cow out of gold and they began to worship the cow and say the things that they had said of YHWH in times past.In Moses is up in the Mt again conversing with God and he pleads with YHWH to see his glory, to have a full understanding of God’s character. So YHWH complies and as the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with Moses in the cleft of the rock, the LORD proclaimed these same words to Moses.Because the Hebrews were forbidden to make idols, they were to see the full expression of the character of YHWH in these words.When the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem after being in exile in Babylon, they rebuilt the temple and the wall and were led to worship the LORD by Ezra the priest and the Levites. During their worship service they heralded these words in during their prayer.Again the LORD speaks this through the prophet Joel, extending mercy to the Hebrew people. The point is that Jonah and the Hebrew people were very familiar with the nature of YHWH towards them. They were a people acquainted with forgiveness, grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.But that was THEIR forgiveness. That was THEIR grace. THEIR mercy. THEIR patience. THEIR love.It was understandable, acceptable, and good for YHWH to relent of disaster towards them, they were used to that, but God blew their mind when he offered mercy towards another people. Their enemies.This rocked Jonah’s world so badly, he said:
(ESV) — 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
What a roller coaster ride of emotions this time was for Jonah. First he fled wanting that feeling of freedom, then he realizes God is leading him to repent, but he opts to be thrown into the sea, and as he’s falling down to the sea floor he’s thinking, I messed up, I want your will now YHWH, to I can’t stand you God, you spared the people I hate, just kill me.He was either thinking, “I don’t want to be around to see Assyria be the instrument you use to punish Israel.” Or “I can’t bear to go back home and have to tell everyone that you decided NOT to overthrow Nineveh after all because they repented.”This is what responding indignantly looks like. He sees God do something that is out of HIS understanding of God’s character and instead of humble adoration and worship, he’s irritated, confused and angry.
(ESV) — 4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.
Peering in on the dialogue it’s hard for me to see how the LORD doesn’t just say, “Jonah, I’m done with you. I’ve tried to be gracious with you long enough.”Instead it’s “Jonah, is this anger a justifiable anger, a righteous anger?”It seems rhetorical, but Jonah just kind of angrily storms off the scene. What’s going on here?
SLIDE - The Inconceivable Greatness of God is Revealed in His Patience Towards People Through Sanctification
I know we’ve talked about YHWH’s patience and longsuffering towards the rebellious. But this dialogue gives us more detail about God. He’s not content with Jonah’s outward obedience. Jonah did exactly what God told him to do, God’s plan was carried out successfully… why doesn’t He just leave Jonah alone and tell him “Good job Jonah, I know that was tough for you, but you bit your lip, took one for the team, and got er done!”?God loves Jonah too much. He loves Israel too much. He loves us too much to just require outward obedience. That would be characteristic of Asshur (the Assyrian god) or any number of the gods of pagan nations.If they believed they were being told by their god to do something, they would have only had to comply. It didn’t matter if they understood what they were doing, it didn’t matter if they felt it was warranted or right, it was truly blind obedience.YHWH, God has always expected obedience. But he is deeply concerned with the heart behind the obedience.It seems like God wants Jonah to consider his heart attitude towards the people of Nineveh. It seems as if the response God was looking for was Joy!Spiritually maturing Christians don’t have everything figured out. But what they realize is that God really does “work all things together for good.”Spiritually maturing Christians have confidence that God is actually really good at handling the events in my life. That as Tim Keller put it, “Our bad things will turn our for good, our good things cannot be taken from us, and the best things are yet to come.”And it is a gracious thing to know that God is patient with us until we get there.So Jonah is hanging out outside the city, just waiting, watching to see what’s going to happen to Nineveh.While he waits, God graciously, patiently teaches this lesson to Jonah, through three different ways:
(ESV) — 6 Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.
As Jonah sits, stewing in his anger towards YHWH’s decision NOT to overthrow Nineveh, he builds himself a little booth or tent. Probably made of leaves and twigs, not anything too strong or durable.As his booth is fading, but his heart is not changing, the Creator (YHWH-GOD) compassionately assigns the plant (that’s his first attempt to teach Jonah) to bring comfort (literally to deliver him from his evil) to Jonah.Jonah benefits from the compassion of YHWH and the obedience of the plant. And what’s his response? Joy.In this first lesson God is painting this picture for Jonah where Jonah is getting to be in the Ninevites shoes. Here is Jonah, committing evil against God, but God (instead of destroying Jonah) actually raises up this plant of deliverance from Jonah’s failed attempt to protect himself?
(ESV) — 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.
God quickly ends Jonah’s gladness because of the plant by assigning a worm to attack the plant to death.If you’ve been jotting down all the ways that ELOHIM (the name for God that refers to His power and superiority over all) has used the most random things in this story you have him assigning a great storm to wake Jonah up, a great fish to rescue Jonah, a medium size plant to deliver Jonah, and a tiny worm to make him drive home the lesson.This is one of the most fascinating lessons in this book. Think about this with me, with all of the talk of destruction from line one to the last line, the only thing that actually is destroyed is this plant that’s providing shade for Jonah.This plant of deliverance was something that brought Jonah much joy (exceeding gladness), but had Jonah become possessive of this plant of deliverance? God’s not done with the lesson:
(ESV) — 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah wakes up and realizes that his shade is completely gone. It’s at this time that God calls upon the wind from the east (sirocco) and combines it with already blazing heat of the Assyrian sun.On a hot day, the temperature in Mesopotamia can be as high as 110 degrees. But when the east wind picks up it is like a perpetual blow dryer with no humidity and fine particles of dust that lodge themselves in your eyes, nasal passages, and ears… especially if you’re not wearing the proper clothing.The intense wind and heat would cause exhaustion, depression, and at times delirium leading to irrational thinking and activity.In this state Jonah re-prays the prayer from verse 3, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah not only doesn’t get what God has been trying to teach him, he doesn’t get his purpose in life as an ambassador of YHWH.Truth be told, not much has changed in God’s people from then until now. You will be frustrated when trials and suffering walk through the door if you don’t understand that God’s purpose for your life is to be transformed into the image of Jesus.Elisabeth Elliot - wife of Jim Elliot missionary to the Auca indians:
“Jim had always hoped to have the opportunity to enter the territory of an unreached tribe. The Aucas were in that category -- a fierce group whom no one had succeeded in meeting without being killed. After the discovery of their whereabouts, Jim and four other missionaries entered Auca territory. After a friendly contact with three of the tribe, they were speared to death.Our daughter Valerie was 10 months old when Jim was killed. I continued working with the Quichua Indians when, through a remarkable providence, I met two Auca women who lived with me for one year. They were the key to my going in to live with the tribe that had killed the five missionaries. I remained there for two years.”
Our vision is so limited we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering…. The love of God did not protect His own Son…. He will not necessarily protect us – not from anything it takes to make us like His Son.
~Elisabeth Elliot
God responds to Jonah’s petition for his life to be taken with another question:
(ESV) — 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
This question hits Jonah right between the eyes. “You think it’s okay to be angry at the plant?” It’s a leading question, a question that requires examination.Jonah reveals that his examination is on a totally different frequency. “Yeah, I am totally justified in being angry… I’m so angry God, I could die. Please just kill me!”And there you have it, this is the climax of the trial. This is the part in a courtroom scene when the prosecutor is bombarding the person on the witness stand with questions and they crack, they finally give in, they sorta bare it all.The lesson God is teaching Jonah, the Israelites, us is that:
SLIDE - There can only be One God and it can’t be us.
You remember Jonah’s reasoning for fleeing, he tells God, in so many words, “I can’t live in an economy of free grace” meaning, “I’m not okay with you showing mercy to the undeserving Ninevites.” And now you have Jonah who’s angry with the plant who YHWH says:
(ESV) — 10“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.
This shows that Jonah wasn’t okay with not receiving mercy, “I don’t want to live in an governed world where there is no mercy for me.” So which is it Jonah? Which is it Israel? Which is it Blue Oaks? You’re passionate about the free grace of God until he extends it to your enemies. Or more likely for us, He extends it to people you don’t think deserve it. God closes the conversation with an exclamation point:
(ESV) — 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah, you would make a terrible God. You pity plants that cease to give shade and you think you’re justified in your anger. I have pity on a people, my creation, people who are misguided (sinful, yes) but they are lost and you have the audacity to be angry with me?At it’s highest point, this is a lesson for us all to remember that God does what God will do. He cannot be contained or boxed in, so “let God be God and every man a liar.”But at a very practical level, this book points out the nature of humanity to try and put ourselves in the place of God. Determining who deserves grace, determining how God SHOULD react or respond to a particular situation. Many scholars believe the reason the book ended with a question and not a particular answer is because this story is not just about Jonah and God, it’s about you and God. What are you angry with God over? Do you struggle, like Jonah did, with Nationalistic or racial prejudice? Believing that North Korea, ISIS, Russia, et al all other nations that are not America or parts of Europe should be judged and destroyed?Do you struggle with self-righteous pride? I’ve watched more than one youtube videos where the pastor, holding a Bible, preaching from a pulpit said, “The solution to aids, and the HIV virus is to kill all of the Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, people in the world.”Do you struggle with religious pride? You’re happy when you see the Mark Driscoll’s and Rob Bell’s implode. I’m just curious, have you ever done anything for the sake of making yourself look better? Have you ever said something that seemed like you had good intentions but you had wrong ones?Do you struggle with political pride? Obama is the anti-christ type stuff? Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but I know this, “There can only be one God, and it can’t be us.” Because we have been extended free mercy, free grace, free forgiveness totally apart from any righteousness that we have done.One afternoon a man was really hungry. And while he was waiting for his dinner to be made he fell into a trance. And when he fell into a trance he actually saw this giant sheet that had animals of all kinds, even reptiles, and birds, and then he heard the voice of the LORD telling him to get up, grab one of those animals and eat it. And the guy was like, no-no-no I couldn’t do that, I don’t mess with those filthy animals. This happened three times and finally the LORD says, stop saying “unclean” to what I am telling you is clean.” This guys name was Peter. This was an actual event that happened to a Jewish man one of “God’s chosen people.” So besides telling Peter he could finally enjoy BBQ ribs, what was he saying? Well it took Peter a while, but the Holy Spirit communicated to Peter that this lesson was taught to him as a way of shifting his view point of how vast God intended for the free gift of grace should extend, here’s what Peter says to a group of Gentiles:
(ESV) — 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.
Peter went on to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and those who were with him and low and behold, the dirty Gentiles believed in God, they were baptized and were filled with the Holy Spirit, just like the Jews.Peter’s view of YHWH was altered, but he humbly submitted to God’s plan.I wonder, has your view of God been altered? I commend this to you, repent of what needs to be repented of, and be faithful ambassadors of the free grace of God.
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