Sermon: Jonah

MAIN IDEA: God’s sovereign and compassionate grace bends the strongest of wills and melts the most calloused of hearts.

Jonah by Nikki Loy

The prophet, Jonah, if you can imagine him, sits at his desk weeping the tears of a forgiven sinner. He has been broken by God’s sovereignty over his life and he has been melted by God’s loving kindness. His story is one of complete collapse in the face of his sovereign and merciful God. He has had his hard will broken and his cold heart won.

The Lord has upended him, called him from his home to break him, to realign his will and melt his heart. God’s sovereign grace has broken his will. Jonah shook his fist at God’s command and, when God should have let him die, instead God saved him. God has revealed the extent of his compassion and Jonah has found his own capacity for mercy sadly lacking. Jonah has seen how far short he has fallen and yet how God’s power and kindness are more than enough to bring him to repentance.

He is a man with a message for his people and his message is his story.

The message of Jonah was to a comfortable nation. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had enjoyed the rule of Jeroboam II. The economy was good, Israel’s enemy, Assyria, was temporarily subdued, and their lands extended almost as far as David’s kingdom. They were enjoying the comfortable life.

Yet with such material comfort came spiritual poverty. The king, according to the record, did evil in the sight of the Lord. The people had turned against Yahweh and to idols. They had forgotten their God. Even while they paid lip service to Yahweh, their hearts were far from him. And as they turned from Yahweh their wills bent against their God and their hearts became out of alignment with the heart of God.

The book of Jonah begins with a description of Jonah. We don’t know much about him except that he was prepared, or so he thought, to speak for Yahweh whenever asked. He would have been preparing for this moment. Perhaps he had in mind what it might be like to speak to his people. He would stand upon the steps of some part of the city or write an eloquent treatise.

Yet, when it comes to it, he fails. Instead, Jonah discovers just how spiritually impoverished he is. Surely he is better than the rest of Israel. Surely he has the advantage. But no, Jonah’s spiritual poverty is just as bad as his people’s and it will take an act of God to change him.

The command of God came to Jonah. He was to bring a message to a particular group of people. In this case, Jonah is asked to go to Nineveh, a great city within the boundaries of Assyria, the enemy of Israel. We can imagine Jonah’s expectations for prophet hood being smashed. “What? To those people? Are you serious? No, I will not go. I will not do it.” And in a flash Jonah can see his own will, a will turned from God’s will and to his own. When it came to it. He couldn’t obey God.

So, Jonah, unlike any other prophet, disobeys the Lord and attempts to flee to Tarshish.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. 

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” 

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. 

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 

And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1)

A disobedient prophet like Jonah should be discarded. He should be passed over. A better and more useful prophet should be found. This one is no use. He has disobeyed the Lord. How can we trust him?

God’s surprise deliverance of Jonah is unexpected because everything points the other way. He flees from God, sleeps the sleep of disobedience in the belly of the boat, recites a creed that he does not live according to, and desires death.

When we disobey God we do what Jonah does. We flee from God’s presence. Bible reading becomes difficult. Every passage appears to have one point – do as you are told. We find ways to avoid fellowship. Being with believers living in obedience is uncomfortable. We just want out.

We sleep the sleep of the disobedient. We find a belly of a boat someplace and drown out the outside world. We drown out our conscience with the voices of affirmation. And we go wherever we can get it. A recent tweet by a homosexual marriage advocate reveals this kind of attempt to get away from the presence of the Lord. After receiving an award from a foundation supporting cultural diversity her tweet said, “positive moments like this drown out my relentless critics.”

Sometimes one should listen to the critic – he might be right. But we too seek to drown out the noise of our pressing consciences with affirmation from others. We do it on Facebook no less than we do it by eliciting complements from friends. We put an alternative spin on events that makes what we are doing or not doing not our fault or justified or noble. And we look for the nod, the look of approval in our friend’s eye. It is not God’s approval, but we think we can live off it for a while.

Sometimes we flee to the comfort of wealth. We feed ourselves on things, material distractions. The feeling of a new car, a new laptop, a new guitar, or some new clothes provides temporary relief from our divine nag.

Sometimes we look to other worlds, worlds of the imagination – movies, books, or our dreams. If we imagine hard enough then maybe it will all go away. Some turn to chemical help for an enhanced imagination – free your mind and the rest will follow, we think. We’d be wrong.

It turns out that there is nowhere to flee. As Jonah discovers, God has a way of getting to us wherever we may flee. He is perpetually present. As David writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139). Jonah is abruptly awoken from his sleep to be faced with reality – God is not pleased.

In the noise of the storm, Jonah is the first to be chosen to confess his religion so that his god might be appeased. He makes his confession even while he acts against it. We do that too. We confess something we know to be true while our life runs in the opposite direction. We feel the discord – what we do doesn’t match what we just said.

The sailors, in contrast, match what they say with what they do. They are polytheists who desire to appease any god that might be causing such a severe storm. When they are sure it is Jonah’s God they throw him overboard. And their attitude was consistent with their action – they feared the Lord and they offered a sacrifice to Him. Their hearts were in better, more obedient shape, than the prophet.

Meanwhile, Jonah is about to get his wish – death. He is drowning in the sea. It is not clear that Jonah wants death for some self-less reason that might save his fellow passengers. It is rather that he sees no way out but death. He is undone. He has disobeyed. There is only one way forward – to die.

Isn’t this our reaction when we are living in disobedience and we find that there is no escape? When we are awoken from our sleep, our attempt to drown out the voice of our conscience, we just want it all to be over. “Kill me now, Lord,” we cry. We come to the end of our coping ability and ask to be relived of duty, to be taken out of the game. We ask for it all to be over. We cannot carry our guilt for sin or our burden for our disobedience. It may not even be a sin. I mean not an obvious breach of a moral law. It may, like Jonah, be something that you know God wants you to do, but that you avoid. And sometimes we cannot even make it right. Even if we wanted to, we can’t obey. We cannot make it right – the opportunity has passed, there is no way to undo what is done or to do what one was told. And we are hopeless. Our disobedience, we think, deserves death.

Yet it is at this point that God’s grace is so surprising – he delivers us when we least expect it and when we least deserve it. The disobedient prophet should be discarded into the deep. Instead God sends a fish to swallow the bedraggled prophet and delivers him from death.

Is your will bent against God this morning? God’s grace to you who find yourselves out of favor with God is rescue. He will preserve you better in his provision than in your ship of flight. Awake, those who sleep the sleep of the disobedient! Face your sin head on and abandon yourself to his provision. The cross of Christ awaits your visit. He will extend his hand to you as you confess your helplessness before him. In Christ your sin rests. In him is room for the penitent serial disobeyer. Cast yourself on him. He cares for you.

This is the message to Israel – God preserves a disobedient nation because of his covenant, his grace. Jonah’s prayer inside the fish reflects the amazing delivery of God. It also reflects the deliverance of God for the Israelites who follow the pattern of the prophet. They too are preserved while in disobedience. As they are now – Jews are preserved as a remnant despite their disobedience. This story is reflected in the prayer of Jonah in the fish:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2)

Jonah returns to when he had come. He is back on dry land. Parched by the salt of the ocean and bleached by the acid of the fish’s stomach, Jonah again hears the command of the Lord. A should-be-discarded prophet is given another shot. And this time he obeys. He does as he is told.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 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; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” 

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. 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. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 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.” 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.” And the Lord said, “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. 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 3-4)

Again the story takes an unexpected turn. Instead of joy at the repentance of Nineveh, Jonah expresses his anger to God. His will may have been bent back in shape by the waves, but his heart is calloused. His heart is out of line with his Lord.

Jonah visits the city with the message God has given him – in 40 days the city of Nineveh will be destroyed. At least, thinks Jonah, Nineveh will be given its just deserts. God’s people, Israel, will be preserved through the destruction of Assyria. God, after all, as the fish has just shown me, preserves and has grace on his own people. Yet Jonah has encountered such a grace from the Lord he is beginning to fear that such grace will extend a hand to his enemies. Yet he hopes it will not be so.

And his fears are realized. The people of Nineveh repent. The repentance is total – from the greatest king to the smallest child the city turns from sin and displays an abandon to the consequences of their sin. They can only hope in the Lord for deliverance. And believe me, they did not deserve any favors. Apart from being Assyrians—non-Israelites—the Assyrians were violent and evil. They were so evil, the text will tell us, that they could not even distinguish between good and evil.

Isn’t this like our culture today? A culture that has become unhinged from any semblance of moral vision – where good is exchanged for evil, where desire trumps service, where love means sexual lust, where we rejoice in pride and mock the humble, where murder of innocent children is a clinical process, where prejudices once worked against are allowed full reign, left unchecked and unrestrained. Sin, born in wrongful desires, gives birth to death. And death is all around us.

And such a culture is given clear warning. Turn from your sinful ways or reap the consequences. Perhaps, as Jonah walked the mile into the depths of the city he may have felt a similar indignation. How could a people be so evil? How could they reject God’s moral law in such an overt way? Can they not see how evil they are? His message of impending doom was of just desserts, a message about what happens when one leads a life of wickedness.

Jonah’s disapproval of God’s relent from judgment is ironic because only days before he himself had been the recipient of that same deliverance. His just desserts were remitted, revoked and, instead, he found himself saved miraculously, delivered from the death he thought himself to deserve.

Again Jonah flees from God. Not physically, but in heart. His heart flees from God’s heart.

Again we hear the discordant creed. We hear him proclaim that God is gracious, that he has favor on those who do not deserve it; that he is merciful. God stoops to help the weak; he has compassion on people. He proclaims that God is slow to anger, that God will have more patience than we think is warranted. He is filled with divine love, covenant love, never giving up love. Yet Jonah’s heart is filled with the opposite – his anger with his enemy and with his God display his displeasure with those characteristics.

And again he expresses his preference for death. If I cannot be right, he thinks, then I cannot live with it.

His sleep, again, is in the protection of a plant provided by God. This time, however, it is God, not sailors, who wake him from his slumber to teach him, and the reader, the Israelite and us, a lesson about his heart.

Are we angrier about the loss of our comfort, our vision of a perfect neighborhood, our vision of society as we would have it? Or are we filled with compassion for a lost world, a world teaming with creatures made by God who are in desperate need of the good news about Jesus?

Is our creed—our declaration of the merciful nature of God—in discord with our contempt for lost people? May God teach us to follow him on His mission to both warn and to call for repentance of sinners. And may we not resent his mercy when they, like us, find themselves awakened to the greatness of their own sin, of their deserved death? May we welcome the repentant sinner with as much fervor as we proclaimed their judgment?

Obedience is more than merely acting on a command; it requires a wholehearted agreement with the motives of the one who commands. Our obedience is incomplete without the acquiescence of our affections. Jonah felt more compassion for his plant than for the massive city of God’s creatures – man and, as God points out, cows (must be Nineveh, Texas).

Like the older brother of the parable of the prodigal son, Jonah sits away from the city hoping to see it get its just deserts. He is like the ungrateful servant who, having been forgiven his own debt, carries on to demand full payment from the one who owes him.

We also suffer the same sin as Jonah. We sometimes sit in a shelter and watch our culture decay. But we sometimes watch and offer the occasional criticism. We rightly proclaim that God is angry at sin. We find ourselves longing to see evil people get what they deserve. But God also wants us to be those who carry the message of grace, God’s unexpected grace. That God can redeem the most hopeless sinner, just as he redeems the most hopeless prophet. The good news of grace for our world is found in the compassionate nature of our God through the sending of his Son to die for our sins, the sins of the world.

Are we those who not only obey God with our actions, but obey him with our hearts? Do our hearts unite with his compassion for those lost in sin? Grace is underserved favor, a divine delight in those who are least deserving. And it is unexpected, sometimes mystifying. The question is: will we oppose his grace by disobeying him and disagreeing with him or will we follow his call and take joy in the repenting sinner, no matter what his background, who finds his way to the arms of grace?

The writer rests his pen on the desk. His last page signed with the tear of a forgiven sinner. He has not shouted at his people; who is he to shout? No, a sovereign and gracious God has cured him from a callous heart. He can but write his story and accompany it with a prayer that Israel will, like him, come to have their wills bent by the sovereignty of God and their hearts melted by his mercy.

This morning we might find ourselves in any of the places Jonah found himself. We may be living in apathetic comfort, materially wealthy yet spiritually poor. May the Lord, this morning, interrupt your comfort with his call?

You find yourself with a will bent against your king and a heart that is cold to your savior. May you join with the people of the city of Nineveh. Repent and come to your savior with sorrow.

You may find yourself in disobedience. You have taken flight. This morning you have been awoken from your sleep of disobedience to a warning. And he says to you: Repent. Come to him and find sanctuary at the cross. You are not outside his control; nor has your flight been far enough to escape his presence. Come to him with a sorrowful heart and rest in his mercy. Then obey him. Subject your will to his and follow his way not your own.

Perhaps, this morning, you find within yourself a hardened heart. Your heart is cold to his loving kindness. You act right on the outside, but your heart beats with cold blood. You say words, but your heart is far from him. Come to his throne and let his grace and mercy and faithfulness melt you. Let his character bring repentance and may you join the prophet in his tears.

Perhaps, you have not yet become a Christian. You find yourself, this morning, identifying with the Ninevites. Your sin has come up before you and you realize your hopeless position. You find yourself under his wrath, his judgment. If that is you this morning, then come to the Lord Jesus. Come with sorrow for your sin and turn from your wicked ways in repentance. He delights in this and will replace your sadness with joy. Christ has taken your sin and your shame with him to the cross. By his suffering the death you deserve for your sin he has paid the price. You can be free of the wrath of God and live, instead, under his pleasure.

If you think you are too bad, too unforgiveable, too disobedient, then think again. None of the rebels of the story found themselves beyond God’s reach. Your will too far bent? You heart too far? Your evil too great? None of these are a match for the comprehensive sovereignty of God and his matchless grace. Christ has died for you, the worst of sinners, and he loves you. Come to him and believe in him and he will save you. He will deliver you from death.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.