Monday, August 24, 2009

Jonah 3: Resenting the Grace of God

This is the third of 3 sermons I preached on the book of Jonah - it might be my last post for a few weeks as I'm heading out on vacation:

I would hazard a guess that all of us are familiar with the fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes – the story of the wealthy Emperor who is so infatuated with himself, and so gullible, that he purchases the very newest and best fashion ensemble – even though he can’t see it. And of course, there are no clothes at all – but he’s so full of himself that he can’t see what everyone else can see – he’s naked, and it’s not a good thing. Well, this morning we return to Jonah for one final time – and in many ways, Jonah is much like that Emperor. First, he was so focused on himself that he wasn’t going to obey God. But he soon realized that running from God isn’t a profitable endeavour and we saw that even in our running and disobedience, God can still be praised – but what is more, God doesn’t leave us alone, but comes after us and saves us. Last week, we saw how obedience, even a little, can be used by God to turn others hearts toward him – because behind it all, we serve a living God. Today, we pick up the story after God has decided to spare Nineveh – and we turn our attention back to Jonah…

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. [remember, in chapter 3, the last thing that has happened is that God did not bring on Nineveh the threatened destruction] He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate god, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in it shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “it would be better for me to die than live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
(Jonah 4:1-11)

If you’ve got children, had children, or have even seen children, you can probably recognize this scene, right? Heck, we’ve all been children, and we’ve all lived out this scene, right? It’s a giant pity party, starring… (trumpets) – Jonah! The entire final chapter of this story, a story that has told of a catastrophic storm on the sea, a prophet in the belly of a giant fish, the beautiful poetry he wrote in there, and the repentance of an entire wicked city in the blink of an eye – ends with a man, the title character, sitting around and whining. How anti-climatic. Well, before we roll our eyes and dismiss this chapter, lets dissect a few points first.

One thing we should note off the bat is fairly important. We’ve already talked about the prophetic formula, found throughout the Bible – “The Word of God appeared to X, go to Y and say Z – And X, went to Y and said Z” – well, another component to the role of the prophet is the whole idea that there are false prophets, those who would claim to speak on behalf of God and yet their words were nothing more than something they themselves had conjured up. We have many who do the same today. That’s actually why preaching is such an interesting component to the role of a pastor – who’s to say what I say is necessarily the “Word of God”? Well, for a prophet, the community developed a litmus test – a way to tell if a prophet truly spoke the Word of the Lord, or was simply on their own – and it’s documented all throughout the Bible. You could tell a prophet was for real… if what they promised actually came true. If a prophet gave advice to a king to go into battle, because the Hand of the Lord was with them, and they won, you’d know they were a true prophet of God. If a prophet proclaimed doom and gloom that never happened, you’d know they were a false prophet. Based on these facts, we can at least extend a little grace to Jonah. See, he’s spent all this time proclaiming God’s judgment on Nineveh, only to have God decide he’s not going to follow through. Now Jonah – by all accounts – looks like a false prophet, a fraud, a liar. I mean, God’s gracious act toward Nineveh has just made Jonah look like a fool – who wouldn’t be disappointed? Truth be told, as a prophet, his entire livelihood is shot – who’s going to believe anything he has to say anymore? He really would be better off dead.
But another point that must be looked at is that since Jonah knew God, since Jonah knew of God’s compassion and grace, his abundant love – doesn’t it make sense that Jonah should’ve been a little more careful with his message? I mean, seriously! Here we have a God who is able to create a storm on the sea, find a giant fish to harbor a man for 3 days – and spit him back out no worse for wear, and bring upon the destruction of an entire city – yet is known to be compassionate – maybe a little nuance would’ve been nice? Maybe a little more than five words would’ve been good. Maybe a little bit of that gracious side should’ve been shared with Nineveh – maybe then Jonah wouldn’t look like a liar.

My dad was telling be about a “preacher” recently who he hears on the radio – someone who’s all anger and rage, all indignation and finger-pointing – and it’s sad to say that that’s just one among many who say they’re followers of Jesus, and yet spent more time name-calling and brow-beating than they ever do talking about the gracious, slow-to-anger, abounding-in-love God – who’s not just found in the New Testament – but the God who is the same throughout the Scriptures. Jonah, might have found himself in a different predicament if he’d shared the truth that God is waiting, wanting, hoping, pleading with us to turn to him so that we won’t have to face the full affects of our sin.

Interestingly enough though, Jonah didn’t put these two things together – he was stuck… focusing on himself. So, God tries giving him a practical example of why he was being silly with his fit pitching, pitty-party, woe-is-me antics. And that’s the vine – which grows and provides shade for Jonah – in the midst of his complaining pitty-party – shielding him from the hot sun. But the next day, that worm comes out and kills the vine, kills the grace – and Jonah complains even louder. God tries to explain to him, that this vine & this worm – they’re representing his situation. He tries to provide an object lesson for Jonah, so that he could understand the big picture, so that he could understand how God feels. Jonah was concerned about a living vine – God was concerned about a living people. Jonah didn’t want the vine to die because it was shielding him from the hot sun – God didn’t want the city to die… because God is a compassionate God!
But what we have here my friends… is a failure to communicate. God’s not able to get through to Jonah – that worm of resentment has wriggled its way into Jonah’s heart and is poisoning his mind. It’s poisoning his thoughts and he’s unable to understand the simple fact that just because God is gracious with someone else – it doesn’t mean that somehow, you’ve lost out! And, from out perspective, the outside observers, we can see that. We know how silly it looks for Jonah to holding a pitty-party over a vine, but he cares not a second for a city of 120 thousand people. He’s camped outside, hoping it’ll be destroyed, he’s waiting for it to happen so he can be proved right. How does that saying go – “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” – Is that Dr. Phil? Anyway, we see this kind of thing happen all the time, don’t we? I’ve got 2 kids, and I’m sure you’ve seen this scene played out too – the second one of them picks up a toy, the other wants that toy immediately. It doesn’t matter how many other toys are in the bin, or scattered around the room. “You gave that toy to him? Then that’s the toy, I want!” And as outside observers, we recognize how crazy that sounds, how absurd… but when we’re in the middle of it…

Recently, I discovered that my younger sister had been blessed by my parents’ generosity on her way to College – with something I never received a dozen years ago when I went to college. And I have to admit, my first reaction was a little bit of envy – ok, maybe a lot of envy. But the problem with that reaction? It shows us who our focus is on – it’s on me! What did you do for me? Am I going to get something? And that kind of attitude poisons our relationships, it poisons our outlook, it poisons our lives, until like that vine, we end up shriveled up and dead.
Now, there’s an antedote for that poison. There’s a cure for that worm of resentment that wriggles its way into our lives, making us unable to enjoy the grace of God. But it’s not anything we can take, it’s not anything we do – it’s something that needs to be done for us.

CS Lewis, in one of the books in his Chronicles of Narnia series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” tells the story of a young boy named Eustace. He’s the cousin of Edmund and Lucy and he accompanied the two of them on their third trip to Narnia – but the problem with Eustace is that he’s a rotten, know-it-all boy who complains about everything. While on this voyage, they wind up on an island, where Eustace wonders off by himself, finds a pile of treasure, decides to keep it for himself – and somehow, as he slept, becomes an ugly dragon. All of the ugliness that had been on the inside, seems to make its way out to manifest itself on his outside. After a number of days, he finds that he no longer wants to be the rotten, mean boy he’d been – but he’s a dragon now, and dragons aren’t very good at speaking or writing, so he can’t apologize and he can’t get his friends to help – and that’s when he meets Aslan.

Aslan, the great lion, tells Eustace to remove his clothes and bathe in this water – which Eustace realizes means shedding his skin, kind of like a snake – and yet no matter how many times he does it, he can’t seem to remove it all. That’s when Aslan speaks up
– “You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been…Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water…
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes…”

God wants us to wear new clothes too – but in order to do that, sometimes he needs to remove the bitterness and resentment we have in us that poison our souls. We need to die to that self – and live as the compassionate, gracious & loving people we were always meant to be – the kind of people who reflect a compassionate, gracious & loving God. Because in the end, resenting God’s grace, when it’s pour out onto someone else is not only silly – it’s down right deadly. Let God remove it from your heart – so you can live the life of freedom he has created for you...

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