Jonah 4:4-11 The Character of Compassion

In the 16th century a Polish astronomer completely changed the way we think about our solar system. His name was Copernicus.

For years people had believed that the earth was fixed at the centre of the universe with the sun revolving around it. (pic)

The 2nd century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy presented this view and it had been held onto for centuries.

But then along came Copernicus and everything changed.

He argued that the sun is at the centre of the and that the earth revolves around it. Astronomy forever changed. Since the 16th century we have continued to discover all kinds of things about the universe we live in and we continue to discover how vast and amazing it all is.

The Copernican revolution was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way that we look at the world.

As we have been exploring the book of Jonah over the last nine weeks what we have seen is the invitation for Jonah to make a paradigm shift in his thinking – not about the universe, but about God.

What Jonah discovers as we see the story unfold is that he is not at the centre of the universe in the same way that the earth is not at the centre. It is not all about him. Instead Jonah is invited to see God at the centre of the universe – this story places God squarely in the middle of everything and invites Jonah and us to see God at the centre of life.

Jonah of course keeps trying to make it all about himself, as we are wont to do.

And God right through the story of Jonah keeps reminding him that it isn’t about him. We see in this final section of Jonah today that God teaches Jonah a lesson about character – both Jonah’s own character and God’s character. So let’s turn the story and look at it together….

 

In verse 4, God asks Jonah a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

And from Jonah there is no response. Jonah stonewalls God. It is a classic passive aggressive response. Here once again irony abounds as Jonah functions as the silent prophet – a contradiction in terms. And so we might imagine the tone with which Jonah went out of the city. Perhaps if there was a door Jonah would slam it.

And so Jonah goes out to the east of the city and constructs a booth. This booth would likely be a simple construction made out of interlaced branches of trees, a kind of temporary dwelling. In New Zealand terms, Jonah constructs a bivvy and sets himself up. And he waits there in his little bivvy presumably to see the destruction of the city. It seems even though he has a hunch that God will forgive the Ninevites he harbours a secret longing that God might still destroy the city because of its wickedness. And so he takes his place and waits.

Jonah sits. In chapter 3 the Ninevite king sits, but he sits in a very different way. He humbly sits in ashes as a sign of repentance (3:6). Yet Jonah sits waiting for God to do what he thinks God should do

While he is waiting God does something, but not what Jonah was expecting.  

Right throughout the story of Jonah, despite Jonah’s bad attitude God has provided for him.

And yet again God provides.

Earlier in the story Jonah runs from God, he takes control, he hires a ship, and here as he constructs his booth for his own purposes he asserts once more his own will and his own illusion of self-sufficiency.

And yet God Graciously appoints a bush that comes up over Jonah. There is debate about the kind of plant but a likely guess is that it was the castor oil plant, a tree that grows with large shade giving leaves.

Jonah’s reaction to this plant is quite something.

He is delighted, over the moon and full of rejoicing. Jonah can’t believe his luck. God has provided him with this wonderful mercy from the hot sun, a plant to cover him.

Of all the things to be excited about, this is what the story emphasizes. This emotion isn’t shown by Jonah elsewhere. When the people respond to Jonah’s preaching? Nothing. When God turns from destroying Nineveh? Nothing. When God gives Jonah a simple plant to care for his needs? Jonah can’t get enough of it.

This is telling isn’t it?

But Jonah’s joy is short-lived.

Because then something strange happens.

God appoints a worm to attach the bush and what he once rejoiced over is gone. The plant dies. And then as the sun rises God appoints a  hot east wind that provokes Jonah to cry out that he might die. This wind was known as the sirocco, it is a hot wind full of fine particles of dust. It is know for causing exhaustion, depression, and feelings of bizarre behaviour. It’s kind of an extreme version of the Canterbury NorWester which makes everyone a bit silly.

So, here is poor old Jonah lamenting over his plant and wanting to die and here is where God teaches him a lesson once more.

God inquires of Jonah – “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And this time rather than silence Jonah pushes back – “Yes, angry enough to die.” Graciously God replies: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah is confronted with his own self-centredness. He is given perspective by God – what is the plant in comparison with the whole city of Nineveh? Why did he not rejoice at the salvation of Nineveh? Why would he demand to die when something he did not even plant died?

God firmly puts Jonah in his place – here we see the paradigm shift that Jonah is invited into – he is called to place God and the centre, not himself.

Does Jonah change? We don’t know.

The book of Jonah doesn’t end with a happily ever after or a resolution of any kind. There is no bright ribbon on the wrapping, rather we have a scruffy ending, an abrupt ending, one that finishes with a question and in doing so draws us as the listeners right into the story.

We are invited to see ourselves like Jonah. We are invited to take out his name from the story and replace our own name with his. What if we were to do that? What might God say to us? How might we be challenged to see God’s mercy clearly and accept it?

We don’t know what happened to Jonah, perhaps he walked away in a sulk, shaking his fist at God? We might hope he gave in, got on his knees and accepted God’s mercy. But the fact that we don’t know is a wonderful invitation – we are called to participate in this story. It is a story about all of us and how we see God and understand God.

 

So how do we view God? When we think of God, who is God to us? There are all kinds of images we might have for God…some  perceived as positive, some negative. The Bible uses all kinds of images to describe God. God is described as a Shepherd, a rock, Creator, a lover, a King, a Mother Hen.

How we view God matters.

Jonah admits that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – a wonderful picture of who God is. But the thing is Jonah doesn’t like this picture because it doesn’t suit him. In the case of his enemies he would rather a vindictive, punishing, bloodthirsty god – the god of Richard Dawkins perhaps rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But God persists and seeks to reorient Jonah’s view with a lesson in mercy.

How might God want to reorient our view too?

Perhaps we have had an image of God that has kept us at a distance form God, worrying that he won’t accept us or love us. But this is simply not true of the God presented to us in the Bible.

Perhaps we have a view that God love us very much but not those awful people out there who do bad things. Again, this is a very unbiblical concept of God.

Jonah sets our eyes square on a God of mercy and love.

One of the best places we can go as Christians time and time again to get a clear view of God is to look at Jesus.

Brad Jersak puts it succinctly saying:

“To look at Jesus—especially on the Cross, says 1 John—is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is love (1 John 4:8). I’ve come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology.”
Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel

And when we look at Jesus we see love and compassion.

In Luke chapter 13 Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and again in Luke 19 we see that Jesus looks at the city and as he sees it he weeps over it. He has a compassion for the people. Jesus not only weeps, he does so much more. As Tim Keller puts it:

“Jesus is the prophet Jonah should have been. Yet of course, he is infinitely more than that. Jesus did not merely weep for us, he died for us.”

On the cross Jesus illustrates the merciful self-giving love of God that is poured out for us and for all people.

The good news of the Gospel is that God so loves the world he gave his only Son, his love is expressed in Jesus.

When we get a grip on this mercy and this love, when we let it speak to our lives and when we absorb in our hearts – we will change.

How we view God will affect how we view others.

I will quote Tim Keller once again because he makes such a beautiful point on this. He says:

“There are many people who have no idea what they should be living for, or the meaning of their lives, nor have they any guide to tell right from wrong. God looks down at people in that kind of spiritual fog, that spiritual stupidity, and he doesn’t say, “You idiots.” When we look at people who have brought trouble into their lives by their own foolishness, we say things like “Serves them right” or we mock them on social media: “What kind of imbecile says something like this?” When we see people of the other political party defeated, we just gloat. This is all a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from the partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. Real compassion, the voluntary attachment of our heart to others, means the sadness of their condition makes us sad; it affects us. That is deeply uncomfortable, but it is the character of compassion.” (Tim Keller)

In Jonah we see the character of God’s compassion and we are invited to share it. This is what the book really is all about.

Jesus challenges us to accept God’s grace and mercy for ourselves and for others. He tells a parable about people who come to work in a vineyard. Some work all day, some half a day, some a few hours, and some barely clock in before the day ends – yet they are all given the same pay. Of course, this leads to great complaining. And the vineyard owner responds by saying:

 “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:15-16)

And St Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus exhorts them saying: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32).

 

So, as we come to the end of our series on Jonah may we delight in God’s loving mercy and may we receive the challenge to share it abundantly with others. Amen.

Josh Taylor