Monday, April 09, 2012

Sermon on Jonah 4:1-11 for Good Friday, Jonah: The Survivor Series: Part 8: "The Answer"

The final sermon in the Lenten series adapted from Dr. Reed Lessing's series on Jonah the prophet. Dr. Lessing is professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. 

Once Robert Ingersoll, a famous atheist, delivered a dramatic challenge in a speech attacking the belief in God. He took out his watch and challenged God to prove that He exists and is almighty by striking Ingersoll dead within five minutes! First there was silence, then people became uneasy. Some left the hall, unable to take the nervous strain of the occasion, and one woman fainted. At the end of the allotted time, the atheist sneered, “See! There is no God. I am still very much alive!” After the lecture a young fellow said to a Christian lady, “Well, Ingersoll certainly proved something tonight!” Her reply was memorable. “Yes he did,” she said. “He proved God isn’t taking orders from atheists tonight.” How true!
God doesn’t take orders from anyone, even Jonah. God’s mercy, shown to the Assyrians frustrated Jonah to the point that he asks for death. If God is not going to give the Ninevites the judgment they deserve, he might as well die (370-74; 399-407). There are times we want to die. It’s an ugly example of self-pitying. Our thoughts can become so dark and self-absorbed that we don’t care about anything else. There’s also the fact that our sins mean we deserve to die. We’re so much like pitiful Jonah. In the middle of Jonah’s pleas to die, God grants new provisions for his life, in the form of the shade plant and the worm—which aim to teach him a life-saving lesson, and to save him from his evil, unforgiving heart (394-99). They awaken in Jonah a sense of pity. Pity for a tiny, fragile, passing thing. A pity that turned to ugly self-pity when the plant was taken away from him. What are the objects of our pity? What are the trivial things that make us miserable when they are taken away, so that our sight is blurred and our hearts are kept from true pity for fellow human beings, of far greater worth? God would stir pity in our hearts as well—no, far more than pity—compassion that wills to action and love. What are the objects of God’s pity? Of His compassion? Of His love?
God ignores Jonah’s pitiful pleas for death, but he does ask his prophet a rhetorical question that must have “shocked him out of his mind” and should shock us as well when we reflect on our own self-pitying (408). “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?” Then the narrative just ends!
We never learn Jonah’s answer, and the reason is that the LORD is not only posing the question to him back then, he is also asking us right now, “Shall I have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh?” And further: shall I have compassion on the sinners? And shall I have compassion on those you count as your enemies? Our answer is a nervous, shifting, “well maybe.” More to the point, the question is: “Shall I have compassion on you?” So what does the LORD do? He sends the answer. In Matthew 12:41 Jesus announces “One greater than Jonah is here.” And the narrative left off in Jonah begins anew in the life of Jesus! Jesus comes to give a sinful and wicked generation one great sign that they might believe in Him.
Jesus, the prophet greater than Jonah “looks over the great city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and weeps over it for their unwillingness to turn to Him (Lk. 19:41). He weeps for it as Jonah did not. Jesus hangs from the cross, looks down on a sinful world, and has compassion for us saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The Jonah narrative is a plea to us, to look together with Jesus at the world, to “‘see it through God’s eyes, and let his vision of mercy overcome [our] natural inclination toward revenge.’” To enlarge our heart to have compassion for others as Christ has for us...“Every person you see is someone Christ died to save” (394).
Compassion marked Jesus’ ministry. Jesus talked publicly with women, socialized with sinners, exorcized demons, healed the lame, and gave sight to the blind. Matthew 9:36 describes him with these words, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion – the Greek comes from the word splanknizomai – meaning he had a spleen, a gut, a heart for the people, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 15:32, “He called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people.’” His heart was open to the suffering and needs of the people around Him. He was moved from the depth of His ‘guts’ to love them, to love us! However unlovely we can at times become.
And who can fathom God’s willingness from before the creation of the world, to plan the birth of Judas, make iron for the nails, plant trees for the wood, and orchestrate all the events that led Pilate to Judea, Caiaphas to Jerusalem, and the crowds to repeatedly cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” That God steered all the events of creation and history to this astonishing and heart-wrenching climax—where Jesus would hang under judgment for sins that the world had committed. That God should bear the brutal assault of evil, and answer back only with love. That evil would exhaust all its hideous force in fury against Jesus—and be swallowed whole by the inexhaustible love of God.
Who can fathom the depths of God’s love, that He grants us every living breath we take, even in full knowledge of the sins and the wrongs that we have committed and will commit before we draw our last breath. He knows the grief it caused His Son. But still greater is the love that forgives us our sin and saves us from its depths. God asked: “Shall the LORD have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh?” The question echoes also to us: “Shall the LORD have compassion on a sinner like you? Like me?” Whatever answer Jonah gave, and whatever answer we give just now; the LORD’S final, definitive answer is proclaimed with his whole heart and written in Jesus Christ’s own blood on the cross. Jesus is the Father’s “yes” to compassion, yes to love, yes to full forgiveness; yes, yes, yes, a thousand times and forever yes! This is Good Friday and because of Jesus’ compassionate “yes” we survive the folly of our sin! In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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