Sermon: The Heart of God

Father, we lift up our hearts to you, asking that you would shape us by your word to trust you completely and that you would lead our hearts to beat like yours for the nations. Amen.

If we were writing the book of Jonah, we might have wanted to end it with chapter 3. That was the climax of the story. From the beginning, God called to Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh. After fleeing, being swallowed by the fish and vomited out on shore, Jonah goes to Nineveh. He preaches God’s word and, beyond all human expectations, the whole city of Nineveh responds with repentance and faith. Jonah preaches to the nations, the nations respond and Nineveh is saved. Praise God! Roll credits.

But though everything so far has been building up to Jonah preaching to Nineveh, that is not the end of the story. While Nineveh is saved, there is still work to be done in Jonah himself.

I invite you to turn with me to Jonah, chapter 4, as we finish up the story this morning. Jonah is in the Old Testament. Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum. Jonah 4, beginning in verse 1. As always you are invited leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The LORD God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort, so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attached the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor 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?”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Chapter 4 of Jonah is no longer really about Nineveh itself, but about Jonah’s heart. After all that has happened, does Jonah have a heart that beats like the heart of God? Does Jonah care about what God cares about? Will he be a man after God’s own heart? As we study the end of the book of Jonah, we will be confronted with the same question: Are we filled with concern for what God is concerned about? 

Jonah preached, Nineveh repented, and God did not destroy them. But the very next thing we hear is that this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry. Jonah considered God deciding not to destroy Nineveh, God choosing to show mercy, to be a great evil. God turned away from his anger and showed mercy and this mercy causes Jonah himself to burn with anger. He has just delivered what is likely the most successful sermon ever preached and he is burning with anger. Jonah is angry because it worked. It worked, but not in the way that Jonah wanted.

Jonah prays and confronts God, “O LORD, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah says, “I knew it.” I knew it. I know the kind of God you are. You forgive, LORD. You show mercy, Father. You are always ready to turn from punishing to show grace, God. That’s why I didn’t want to go to Nineveh. I didn’t want to go, because I knew you’d forgive them and it makes me sick. Don’t you know anything about these people? Don’t you know what they have done? What they revel in? Don’t you know what they value? Oh and this repentance is only a phase. Watch, next week they’ll be out doing it again. You want to show them mercy! They don’t deserve mercy. Then Jonah confesses that he would rather die than live and see Nineveh receive the mercy of God.

Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. The very character of God praised throughout the Bible is the same character Jonah now throws back in God’s face because of who God chooses to show mercy to.

Jonah is angry about the mercy and grace of God because God shows it to Nineveh. God shows it to ‘them’ – the wicked, the enemy, the undeserving.

It is easy to say that we long to see everyone saved, everyone come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, until ‘they’ begin to believe. It is easy and Christian-sounding to express our desire for the Ninevehs of the world to be reached by the gospel, as long as they don’t have to sit next to me on Sunday. It is easy to say that we want our church to grow and even to reach unbelievers as long as they look like us, talk like us, act like us. As long as they are not ‘them.’

Jonah’s anger at the mercy of God confronts us with a question: Who would we not want sitting next to us on Sunday morning? What hairstyle or lifestyle, what identity or ethnicity, what past sin or present struggle, if that person came and said, “I am turning from my sin and placing all my trust in Jesus Christ” would we still not want them here?

Who would we not want sitting next to us on Sunday morning? Which is a way of saying, “Who do we not want God showing mercy to?”

Do you all know who Justin Bieber is? A couple years ago, he became a Christian. He was baptized and everything. Now going from pop icon to disciple of Jesus is a challenging transition. But a guy I know was trying to help a church imagine the challenges of discipleship by giving the example of what would it look like if Justin Bieber started attending your church. And one of the elders of this congregation said, “Not in my church.” Not in my church. A new believer who has heard the gospel, but doesn’t know his right hand from his left as far as following God. Not in my church.

Who would we not want sitting next to us on Sunday morning?

I was part of a conversation where a church was being asked to consider partnering with another congregation in its own denomination to share some ministries. One member of the congregation said to me, “I would rather our church die than partner with them.”

Who would we not want sitting next to us on a Sunday morning?

Jonah is angry because the mercy of God went out to ‘them.’ He becomes angry because his sharing of God’s Word actually succeeds in turning Nineveh from their sin toward God. We need to examine our hearts this morning to see if we have a ‘them’ that we would not want in the church with us. Maybe it is an individual person you simply would not want to be a part of the body of Christ. A perhaps it is a whole class of people that, even if they genuinely repented and put their faith in Christ, you would not want here. Whoever it is, whether they live across the street or across an ocean, acknowledging the Jonah-like tendency in our hearts should grieve us. It should cause us to seek the mercy of God for ourselves and for them.

The Lord responds to Jonah’s tirade by asking a simple question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Is your anger at my mercy justified? Jonah doesn’t answer, but instead goes outside the city to sit and watch what will happen. Perhaps he hopes that God will change his mind again and Jonah will get to watch the city fall.

The same grace and mercy Jonah detests when God shows it to Nineveh, the same slowness to anger and abundance in steadfast love, God now shows to Jonah. Again and again, God has been patient with his servant. When he ran, God drew him back. When he was sinking beneath the waves, God raised him up. Now, when he is angry and sullen, God still does not give up on him, but seeks to restore his heart.

God gives Jonah -and us – a living parable. God acts through bush and worm, shade and sun to reveal Jonah’s heart and then call him to have a heart like the LORD.

Jonah has set himself up outside the city to watch what will happen. God appoints a bush to grow up and give Jonah shade. We do not know for certain what type of plant this was, only that it grew quickly, gave shade, and yet was quite fragile. In the hot sun, the shade the plant provides pleases Jonah. We are told the plant was made to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort

Shade is a biblical picture for shelter and relief. When traveling through the hot wilderness, a plant that gives shade is a special gift. Resting in the shade gives you just enough strength for the next part of the journey. In multiple places God compares himself to shade in the desert, providing his people with shelter from the heat and relief from the scorching sun. In psalm 121, the LORD is “the shade at your right hand.”

So when God appoints a bush to give shade to Jonah, we are being given a living picture of what God promises to give his people – shelter, relief, rest, protection. But the bush also is to ‘save him from his discomfort.’ Honestly, this is a pretty weak translation. Literally, it says that the bush was given to ‘save him from his evil’ or to ‘deliver him from evil.’ That is salvation language – save him from evil. Thus, the bush that comes up over Jonah not only is a picture of all the this-worldly blessings God has given to Jonah, but is an image of his salvation.

In the bush that comes up over Jonah, we have a living picture of the salvation and blessing of God for Jonah. It says that Jonah was very happy about the bush. This is the only time in the book we hear that Jonah is happy, when he feels the shade the bush provides.

This is understandable. On a literal level, Jonah is happy about the shade from the hot sun. But he is also happy about God’s mercy and salvation toward him. We should find joy and happiness in God’s mercy toward us and all the physical signs of his blessing.

The other thing about the plant, which God points out, is that it is a free gift. Jonah did nothing to earn it. Jonah did nothing to make it grow. Jonah did nothing to deserve it or even take care of it. It was a free gift of a gracious God. The bush comes from a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah is happy as long those blessings come down on him. Jonah is given an image of his salvation, of his own story of receiving the mercy of God and he is happy. But when he saw the mercy of God given to Nineveh, he is enraged.

The book of Jonah has been one story of redemption after another, each bigger than the last. In the first chapter, the pagan sailors lives are in danger, but God rescues them by plunging Jonah into the sea and the storm stops. God saves the undeserving. In the second chapter, Jonah himself is sinking into the land of death, but is raised up by the power of God, swallowed into exile in the fish, and vomited out on the short. God saves the undeserving. In the third chapter, Jonah preaches to Nineveh and the whole city turns from evil toward God and God does not destroy them. God saves the undeserving.

There is a consistency to God’s character throughout Jonah. God is at work to save. Jonah is happy enough about this when he is the one being saved. But as soon as the salvation turns toward others, or as soon as the mercy of God toward others comes with a cost to Jonah, he is angry enough he would rather die than see God save ‘them.’

The bush is there to remind Jonah – and us – that we are all recipients of a salvation we did not earn and do not deserve. Jonah wants to separate himself from Nineveh, as if he is somehow different. Yes, Jonah grew up in the people of God. Yes, he is marked as part of the covenant people. But Jonah is as much saved by grace as the Ninevites are. Jonah is just as dependent upon the mercy of God as those he despises. The bush should teach Jonah humility, not pride, for the same mercy he hates to see given to Nineveh, is the very mercy he depended upon as he was sinking beneath the waves.

But then the living parable takes a turn. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attached the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

The bush withers and dies. God sets a worm to attack it, the shade is removed, and the sun strikes Jonah. I don’t think the loss of the bush symbolizes a loss of salvation, but the loss of the outward blessings of God. When they are lost, Jonah despairs and again asks for death.

Now Jonah is angry again and God asks the same question, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah finally responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor 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?”

The ending of the book reveals Jonah’s heart. Jonah has concern for a bush, but no concern for Nineveh. Jonah has concern for something he did not earn and did not deserve, but no concern for the great many lost in Nineveh.

Ultimately, Jonah’s greatest concern is revealed to be himself. Jonah’s concern for the bush is not about the bush, but about the blessings the bush gave him.

God’s concern is different. God is concerned about Jonah, but also about Nineveh. God’s heart is for the people who already belong to him, but also for those who do not yet believe.

The book of Jonah ends with a question. By ending with a question, it invites all of us who hear it to respond. Should not God be concerned with the Nineveh’s of this world, of our city? Should God not be concerned about those who know nothing of the gospel and nothing of walking in the ways of God? Should God not be concerned for and patient with those who already belong to him, but also show mercy to the nations?

Do we have the heart of God?

When we began looking at Jonah, I promised that though we would see much of ourselves in this story, Jonah was about the character of God. God saves the undeserving again and again throughout Jonah. God is consistent in showing mercy through judgment. After a whole book seeing the heart of God for the world, we must ask if our hearts beat as the Lord’s does?

Who does God want sitting next to you on Sunday morning? Does your heart beat for the lost like the LORD’s does? Our answer will begin when we say the creed and pray the prayers and sing the songs. Our answer will continue not only with our lips but with our lives as we go from this place to all the places God will send us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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