When we lived in Napier as a family we’ve gone down to the fish hook festival that Ngati Kahungunu put on to mark Waitangi day, the kids really love the fireworks display. This year we got all-rugged up and went and sat on the Westshore side of the Ahuriri harbour to watch the fireworks. We got there early to get a good spot. It was hard waiting with the children because they were so excited about the possibility of this wonderful display. They were bouncing round and full of chatter. Then at 9 o’clock we watched the pyrotechnicians (if that’s what you call people who set off fireworks) flick the switch and ‘boom’. It was a great display full of noise and amazing colours, it even had that element of danger as one of the fireworks didn’t go the way it was supposed to it seemed to head straight towards us.
I wonder how we would have felt if the pyrotechnicians had come along at 9:00 O’clock and instead of flicking the switch had disconnected the wires leading out to the barge in the middle of the harbour. AS they were doing it over the public address system the message came. “We have changed our mind there won’t be any fireworks display tonight’. I know I’d be rather angry I mean we’d kept the kids up to watch it. The kids would be grumpy all the way home in the van. They’d advertised it, they probably got government funding for it. But I hadn’t paid to come along, I hadn’t earned the display by being a great citizen of New Zealand it wasn’t mine by right. It was a gift from Nagti Kahangunu. What right would I have of being angry? Trivial you might say?
Jonah had gone out of Nineveh and sat down to watch the fireworks, to be on hand when God destroyed the great city of Nineveh. It was a long wait forty days God had said and so Jonah sat out there and waited. But God changed his mind, he saw the reaction of the people of the great city and he heard their prayers and did not send any calamity.
Jonah’s reaction was that he got angry with God. He cries out to God ‘Right from the beginning he had resisted coming to Nineveh the capital city of his countries greatest enemy because he just knew that God is gracious quick to bless and slow to anger and that God would be consistent to his nature and show them mercy. Damn it. And he did. No fire and brimstone from heaven like with Sodom and Gomorrah, They would have deserved it God, no invading army no great dust storm from out of the south. No earthquake, flood or plague of frogs even, you could at least have sent an infestation of fleas or head lice but no. Only God’s compassion and grace and that makes Jonah so angry he wished he was dead.
God’s response to Jonah is ‘Jonah what right do you have to be angry?’ Lets face it God was only acting in a manner consistent with his very character. He was doing the very thing that makes him a good and righteous God. The way Jonah described God was a creed of Israel, a reason for praising God: “ God is slow to chide and quick to bless’. It echoed the very basis that Israel had for hope in the midst of their own disobedience. It’s pretty much word for word what the prophet Joel says in Joel 2:12-14.
Even now declares the Lord
Return to me with all your heart
With fasting and weeping and mourning
Rend your heart and not your garments
Return to the LORD your God
For he is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in love
And he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows he may relent
And leave behind a blessing
This was the character of God that Jonah had experienced with the whale and a second call to go to Nineveh.
If this chapter was a movie there may well be the sound of eerie music and then a wavering of the screen, the tell tale sign of heading into a flash back. Because the rest of the chapter seems to take place while Jonah is out in the desert waiting for God to destroy the city.
He sets up a little shelter and waits and sees what God would do. Now God causes a vine to grow up over his shelter and give him some respite from the sun. This may not seem such an amazing thing or us but in the desert heat of the near east again it was a sign that God cared for Jonah, he keeps him alive. Then God sends a worm to attack the plant just as he has sent the whale. Both great and small obey the LORD. The worm attacks the plant and as the sun comes up a scorching wind blows across the desert and the vine withers and dies. Jonah is left to the full force of a fierce and scorching desert day, the wind, the heat and the sun. Just to give you an idea of how harsh that can be, in some Muslim countries the judicial system is lenient on people who commit crimes during the wind known as the sirocco because it is so fierce it can affect peoples behaviour and drive them to do crazy things. Jonah suffers the full extent of the elements. Perhaps a foretaste of what he had wished on his enemies.
Jonah is so angry at the demise of the vine he just wants to die. Maybe we can be angry at God grace. Why should Nineveh be saved and yet Israel your people be oppressed by them? There are many reasons why we get angry at God. I mean God how could that person get better and this person die. How could innocent people and animals suffer and die at the hands of evil people and natural disasters. Come on God why do these things always happen to me, not that other person. The psalms and wisdom literature of the Old Testament are full of these cries of his people.
God asks Jonah why is he angry at the plant dying? Now on Wednesday morning before I first preached on this passage, a man I swim with told me that out his way there had been helicopters and wind machines going from the middle of the night. The winegrowers were furiously trying to save their grapes and fruit from an unseasonal frost that could have been disastrous to them. You could imagine they could quite rightly get upset. They had planted and tended the vines, invested time money and energy into this year’s crop and there is an unseasonal cold snap and it’s all gone. Maybe they would have the right to shake their fist at heaven. But as God says to Jonah he hadn’t cultivate this plant or weeded it or tended it he had simply benefited from the shade it provided. How could he be upset at its demise and so uncaring about the demise of a city? Yes it was the capital city of his enemies but there were well over one hundred thousand innocents in the city, how could he wish their demise and destruction. Not to mention many animals, animals whose only crime it seemed was that Assyrians owned them. He had used the fate of the bush as an object lesson for Jonah. It is a challenge for us as well.
God’s compassion is big enough that it reaches out to all people.
How big is our compassion?
God’s compassion reaches out not only to Israel but to their enemies as well.
What boundaries do we place on our compassion? Are there racial boundaries? socio-economic boundaries? The boundary fence of a prison? The boundary fence of the gated communities that are growing around our suburb? The boundary that it’s someone else while some of our people suffer.
God’s compassion was big enough for the great city.
How big is our compassion?
Right from the beginning of the book there is an ambiguity in how we are to view Nineveh. God’s initial concern for the city could have been that it was doing great evil, it was Israel’s enemy, or it could be that it was facing great trouble. It is seen as a great city, this can mean great size and population or reflect its prominence in the world order or it can have the meaning of being important to God.
Can we see God’s call to show his compassion to the whole city? Or are we content to think like Jonah did of that God’s care and compassion was limited to him as an individual or to his chosen people. I was shocked by an acquaintance who mentioned that God loved the local church and died for the local church and I had to recheck my theology and hear again that most commonly quoted but oft misheard verse John 3:16 for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’. Perhaps we need to add and God loved it so much that he is sending out his loved local church into the city with his message to show and tell them of his love.
God’s compassion is big enough that he was willing to send his servant into that city.
How big is our compassion?
All the way through the book Jonah was very uncomfortable with what God had called him to do. He tried to run away. He sat down and waited for the end to come for Nineveh. But he went and did what God had told him to.
What comfort zones are we prepared to step out of even reluctantly so that the people of the city will hear, will respond and not only stop doing evil but will come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I can’t help but think that the church can be like that shelter outside the city where we gather and wait for things to end.
God’s compassion was big enough to be extended to Jonah
How big is our compassion
God’s compassion and patience was shown to Jonah again and again, even in explaining things too him in the object lesson of the withered vine yet at the end of the book he is still the closed off, bigoted person that he was at the beginning. He knows God’s love and compassion he has experienced it again and again, it’s a gift… But at the end of the book he is still angry with God, angry that God is not like him.
How much are we moved and do we change as we experience the love and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. You know there are many valid reasons to be angry at God. There are many valid reasons not to want to show compassion on other people. But the reality is that just as we have been shown God’s grace we need to be moved to be more like God. It’s not that God becomes more like us, sharing our likes and dislikes our biases rather we become more like his Son Jesus: That we show love to our enemies and to all people because that is what God is like. Can we step beyond our boundaries to the boundless compassion of God.