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Monday, April 18, 2011

More on Jonah--Chapter IV: God's Surprising Grace

Jonah 4:1-11

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of evil.
Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
This saith the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?
So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and he sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
And the LORD God prepared a gourd and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, it is better for me to die than to live.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

When I studied theology, our homiletics teacher, the wise and saintly Dr. Robert Rayburn, now with the Lord, used to tell us never to end a sermon with a question. Some of the class wags would then tease him and suggest that he would correct God's own homily to the prophet Jonah. Dr. Rayburn took it all in good grace, for whatever the disagreements I might have had with him, he respected and honored the Bible; and his purpose was that we would learn to preach Christ.

The last chapter of Jonah is one in which the mind of the Messiah was indeed opened up to those who lived before his coming. It is perhaps no wonder that Jesus took Jonah as a type of himself in Luke 11:29-32. Here, Jesus says the following, according to the New King James Version:

This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.
For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man [Jesus Christ himself]
will be a sign to this generation.
The queen of the South will rise up in judgment against this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed, a greater than Solomon is here.
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Let us look closely at the repentance of the Ninevites. It should be clear to the reader of the text from Jonah reproduced at the beginning of this posting that God is pleased with the repentance of the Ninevites, while Jonah was not. Of course God is in the right in sparing the repentant Assyrians and Jonah in the wrong as he parks himself outside the city to await the destruction of Nineveh. But perhaps all this is to tell us that God has a gracious purpose even in the darkest eras of our history.

FIRST: In today's world, there is probably no nation that is completely reprobate.

Jonah's bitterness comes from his patriotism. He first appears as a patriotic prophet in II Kings 14:25, who foretold the restoration of the Northern Kingdom's borders. Then he appears again in the book that bears his name to bring a message of judgment to Assyria, the bitter foe of Israel. Doubtless his flight to the far west (Assyria is to the northeast of Israel), to Tarshish, stemss fromm his fear of the ruthlessness of the Assyrian war machine, for the archaeological remains of left by the Assyrian kingdom boast of impaling its enemies, sacking their cities, and enslaving the portion of enemy populations not subjected to massacre. Hence Jonah's misgivings about the recipients of his prophecy are justified.

Yet Jonah has a surprise ending, in which the Ninevites repent, and are spared. God has touched the hearts of his own people's implaccable enemies.

And what a tragic contrast this is to Israel herself in those ancient times! The books of the Kings show an Israel divided due to the harshness of Solomon's son Rehoboam, and a northern kingdom that follows the first king Jeroboam into idolatry. It becomes the land where King Ahab may murder guiltless Naboth to steal his ancestral vineyard, and where "he walked in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin" echoes like a mournful refrain. Jonah, who had been blessed to foresee the brief restoration of Israel's borders, is later called to preach a word of judgment to Israel's mortal foe that turns into a word of mercy.

But this mercy to the Ninevites turns out to be from the heart of God himself.

Modern Christians should take note. We are quick to see foreign enemies of our own lands as the mortal enemies of God and truth. We are quick, in our domestic politics, to demonize our neighbors. James Cone, the mentor of President Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, declared that his people will have nothing to do with a God who does not help them against their white enemy. The Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan, while claiming to be Christian, will have nothing to do with a God who does not dehumanize non-whites. We are quick to demonize all currently on the side of apostate culture, forgetting that God can call a Ms. Covey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, to saving grace. We are certain that the Muslim nations are beyond the pale of saving grace following the 9/11 attacks and cry for vengeance, even as there is a quiet movement of former Muslims into Christian churches worldwide. Would we not be wiser to plead for grace to our enemies as well as ourselves?

Jonah was sent to God's enemies, who responded to his message of impending doom precisely as men should to such a message: with repentance and faith. When we are similarly challenged for our lesser sins, may we show a similar posture before the Lord.

SECOND: Even the best of men may be morally blind

Jonah was a prophet, blessed with a gift that few are given. He was allowed an immediate message from the Almighty. Yet he shows himself a bitter and vengeful man. Hence, God gives him the object lesson of the gourd plant, which grows to shade him. When I lived in Taiwan, I often saw gourd vines growing over trellises and fences, creating a thick, dark green shade against the tropical sun. Householders might harvest the fruit for a tasty vegetable dish served with the next meal while enjoying the cool shade of the plant. Hence, I find it easy to picture Jonah's booth of branches and poles with a luxuriant leafy growth spreading over it. If Mesopotamia was as hot then as it is now, he had reason to be grateful for it, and to be pained when the worm killed it.

Here, God revealed to Jonah his own selfishness, as Jonah's own preaching had revealed to the Assyrians, from King to Commoner, their own bloodthirstiness and the peril their souls faced. God, who is compassionate to the ignorant and spiritually blind Assyrians, reminds his prophet that those people are, no less than Israelites, the works of his holy and gracious hands despite their many sins.

It is no small thing to harbor sin. Sin is destructive. God was not fooling when he sent Jonah to preach the upcoming destruction of Nineveh. But had the Ninevites not repented and their city overthrown, it should have been no cause for gloating on Jonah's or any Israelite's part. Rather, the surprise ending, with the repentance of the Ninevites, should have been the welcome news.

Today, the church of Christ is beset by many enemies; faithless persons both inside and out. When _South Park_ may show Jesus Christ as a farcical figure, yet tiptoe around Muhammad due to the producers fears of possible violent repercussions, it may indeed be part of a wide enmity towards Christ on the part of the media industry that is not so much a brave criticism of traditional icons but a cowardly picking on "safe" targets. The lawyers, judges, and politicians who would condemn us for "hate speech" for calling homosexuality a sin or for declaring that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ are indeed our enemies, and of them we must be wary. Yet we do not know what God has in store for such persons tomorrow, or five years from now. It could be that God may call such people to repentance and faith, as he did the Ninevites of old. Hence, while we are right to expose their evil thoughts and deeds, our victory is not in their destruction, but in their repentance.

THIRD: us be open to God's surprising works of grace.

Jonah was not prepared for what God would do with his preaching. Yet God is never surprised by the true repentance of men. Grace is grace because it is the unearned favor of God given freely to the undeserving. If Muhammad in the Qur'an flatters his followers that they are "the best of men", the true prophet Moses reminds his hearers in Deuteronomy that they are a stiff-necked people, and nearing the end of a lifetime of remarkable holiness and usefulness, the true apostle Paul still declared himself to be the chief of sinners. The posture of moral humility rather than moral superiority is that which God would have us take--and if we are honest, it is not an easy one to take.

The Gospel--especially since the perfection of Jesus Christ has been revealed--turns God's enemies into his friends. A vengeful and vindictive spirit is the easy way in any conflict, but Jonah shows us that God himself prefers the salvation of his enemies.

Perhaps we live in an ungracious era not because the enemies of God and Christ have stolen the limelight, but because Christians have abandoned it. The limelight in which we are to stand should be the work of reconciliation of sinners to God through the work of Jesus Christ. But this cannot be done if we surrender to the spirit of bitterness.

But, thankfully, God can give us the object lessons we need. Let's pray that they aren't too hard!

It should be our prayer in these dangerous times to be allowed to see surprises such as the one shown to Jonah.

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