Jonah & The Compassionate God

We had technical difficulties recording the sermon on Jonah 4 on December 23rd. Here is the manuscript.

Speaking on writing his book, Christians in the Age of Outrage Ed Stetzer states,

“it seemed like the world was on fire. Everywhere I looked, I saw anger—anger towards Christians, anger by Christians, anger by Christians towards Christians. People whom I respected as voices of patience and forbearance were being ignored or sucked into the hostility. 

Everyone was intimately aware of how others were being angry towards them or their community, but shockingly ignorant of how they were displaying the same level of vitriol towards others.

What I realized as I was researching and writing was that this was a discipleship problem. We are entering a new age—one defined by polarization and tribalism amplified by new technology and online platforms.”

And that’s why we decided to walk through Jonah this month. That’s why on the Sunday before Christmas we aren’t looking at Luke 1 but Jonah 4. Anger is all around us in this age and if we’d be honest this morning so often it’s in us. 

Where does it come from? How will we address it? How is a baby 2,000 years ago better than anger management? We start off with Jonah being angry at God for God being God. Let’s look at Jonah 4:1-4.

[1] But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. [2] 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. [3] Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [4] And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Up to this point God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.

He ran the other way and jumped on a ship.

God hurled a great storm threatening to break the ship.

Jonah knows it’s his fault. 

The sailors throw Jonah overboard.

A large fish swallows Jonah.

Jonah prays a prayer of thanksgiving.

The fish spits him up on dry land.

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach to them.

Jonah goes to Nineveh this time.

He preaches a five word sermon of destruction.

The whole city repents.

And God relents of destroying the city.

And that’s where we are today. We’re at Jonah’s response to God relenting of destroying the city. He’s greatly displeased and furious. Jonah wanted God to crush his enemies. Jonah wanted the terrorist state of Assyria to get what they deserved for their brutal cruelty. Jonah wanted justice. God shows mercy. And Jonah hates it. And now his motivation for fleeing from God and going down to Joppa and down into the ship and even being willing to go down into the sea is finally revealed.

“O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

Anger essentially equates to “I’m against that.”

Jonah is angry. So what is Jonah against? Who God is and what God does.

He’s saying, “God, I know who you are and I don’t like it.”

“I don’t like who you are.”

“I’m against you being gracious and compassionate to my enemies.”

“God, you should do what I please.”

Which is crazy because the sailors in the boat and the king of Nineveh in this adventure both state, “Who knows? God does as he pleases.” They recognize the sovereignty of God but Jonah doesn’t. Jonah knows God is gracious and merciful but Jonah doesn’t submit to God’s glorious freedom to do as he pleases. Jonah actually thinks God should do as Jonah pleases. God should bow to his will. But God takes great delight in showing mercy. The God of the Bible, the God of the Israelites takes pleasure in being gracious. The God of the Bible is wonderfully slow to anger. He doesn’t fly off the handle. He is long suffering. He is patient. 

He is overflowing with love. 

He’s known as love because he’s always been loving. He didn’t create us so he could have someone to love. The Father has always had the Son and he’s always powerfully and intensely loved the Son in the Spirit. And that love so overflowed the Trinity created everything. This is the God of the Bible, not the God of our imagination.

Jonah knows this because this is how God revealed himself to Moses after God rescued the Israelites from slavery. Moses asked God to show him his glory so God tucked Moses in a cleft of a mountain to protect him and God passed before Moses and declared to Moses, 

“The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, 7 maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. -- Exodus 34:6-7 (CSB)

In response, Moses kneels low and worships God. Jonah knows this truth and recites it back to God but he doesn’t bow and worship he gets up and runs away. And then after being disciplined into obedience his heart is revealed here. Jonah’s angry in response to God acting in line with his character. And Jonah takes his anger to God. 

Now it’s interesting that Jonah leaves off God punishing the guilty from Ex. 34:7. There are a lot of speculation of why but it seems because he’s good with that aspect of God. Jonah loves that God is just and will punish those who deserve it. Also Jonah loves that God is gracious and merciful and loving…towards him. The rub is does Jonah or God dictate who will receive judgment and who will receive mercy. Jonah wants to make the call. He hates the Ninevites and wants God to crush them. 

As Jonah takes his anger to God I want to challenge something I’ve heard in Community Group conversations. It’s the encouragement to others to vent their anger to God. “Be honest with your anger, he can handle it. Don’t be afraid to tell him exactly what you think and feel. Many psalms portray anger at God, so if godly people have let out their rage at him, you can as well. Say it like you feel it.” 

The problem with that is the anger at God that is frequently communicated in small group gatherings or counseling is almost always sinful anger. It overflows with malice and mistrust toward God. It firmly embraces and proclaims lies about what he is like. It rationalizes self-destructive and sinful behaviors. So you don’t need to vent your sinful anger to God in order to deal with it, you need to repent of it. You need to understand the demands, the false beliefs, the self-righteousness that produces that sinful anger and drives it. 

David Powlison in his phenomenal book Good & Angry states,

“There is no psalm that encourages the venting of hostile anger. In the ‘anger’ psalms, without exception, what breathes through is an attitude of faith. Yes, there is true upset, complaint, hurt, and dismay. We can reverently call it righteous anger because it yearn’s for God’s glory and the well-being o his people. It yearns to have God eliminate the suffering we currently experience. The intensity of the complaint arises from the intensity of the faith. But it contains no cursing, bitterness, no lies, no scorn or hostile belittling, no blasphemies.

The psalmists are dismayed because they know and trust that God is good, because they love him, and because they struggle to reconcile his promises with their present struggle. The psalmists move toward God in honest faith, wrestling with their circumstances. But people angry at God shove him away. The psalmists want God’s glory and want evil to go away; they groan and complain in their faith. And typically, they have an awareness of guilt and sin; they recognize that suffering in general is somehow deserved, even though they may hate the evil intents of those who bring it.”

The Bile teaches us to express our pain to God with a cry of faith not a roar of blasphemous rage. 

If you want more help there are many Psalms in the 30s and 50s that give voice to honest distress. Maybe start with 55, 56, and 57.

In response to Jonah’s prayer of anger, God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

So when I mentioned sinful anger earlier you must know that not all anger is sinful. If anger is, “I’m against that.” Then it’s good and right to be against injustice, suffering, sin, the devil, people stealing God’s glory, heresy, death, and so much more. I’ve been furious at death multiple times in my life. So to be more nuanced there is righteous anger and unrighteous anger. And you can express your anger righteously and unrighteously. 

Which means I can have righteous anger for another kid harming one of my kids but if I take vengeance and harm that kid I’ve expressed it unrighteously. 

It’s good that I’m against that. No dad of the year awards if I sit back and let other kids bully mine. But will my expression be constructive or destructive?

So God’s question shoots at Jonah’s heart and ours this morning. As you consider your anger is it righteous or unrighteous? And are you expressing it righteously or unrighteously? 

To be honest there’s many of us who are familiar with anger. It’s an old friend. Whether it looks like apathy, ongoing irritation, fits of rage, angry outbursts, or destructive words. 

And you may hate your anger but it continues because greater than your hate of your anger is your anger at what is interrupting what you love. Your more against what is interrupting what you love. Deeper than you being against your anger is you being against what disrupts your idolatry. 

If an unexpected event changes your plans and you love control or comfort then you’ll lash out because your against your idolatry being disrupted.

If you’re heading to a meeting and you get struck in traffic and you start grumbling and complaining or yelling or burning with rage you can understand what’s going on in your heart. Anger is a great signal for our idolatry. 

Maybe you think, “I want to get where I want to go when I want to get there.” That’s plain old pride. You are the center of the Department of Transportation and the cosmos. 

Or maybe, “What will the people think of me? I was late once before.” That’s fear of man.

Or maybe, “I need the money this sales call was going to provide. Or I need the love this person is sure to give me.” I need or I must have is a good sign that we’ve turned a good thing into a God thing. Our desires have become inordinate. We can’t live without that. 

That’s Jonah. He can’t live without the Ninevites getting what they deserved. He can’t live with a God who doesn’t do as Jonah pleases. A God who doesn’t serve Jonah’s pride but expects and is worthy of Jonah serving and submitting to him. 

One more, parents, I think so much of our anger at our children is not because we’re against their sin but because they’re disrupting our sinful worship of pleasure, people, and power. 

So much so we’re mad at their mistakes, accidents, that they think differently than us, and their slowness to learn. They should have figured this out. I know how to do this and I showed them how to do it. Good grief. 

When you’re worshipping Jesus you see your kids mistakes and even sin not as disruptions but as opportunities to shepherd and love them. The reality is when you’re worshipping people’s approval, your pleasure, and your power anything your kids does that interferes with your idolatry deserves wrath. 

Is it right for you to be angry? As you continue to wrestle with that question let’s see Jonah’s response. Verse 5-9.

[5] 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. [6] 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. [7] But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. [8] 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.” [9] But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” 

Jonah doesn’t respond to God’s question. He sits outside the city in anger to see what’s going to happen. God appoints a plant to rescue him from his trouble. Just as Jonah said, God is gracious and compassionate.” Even in Jonah’s anger. God is gracious and compassionate. Jonah is greatly pleased. He goes to sleep extremely happy with this shade. But then God appoints a worm to attack the plant. God is again pursuing Jonah and his heart. Jonah keeps running away literally and metaphorically and God keeps going after him. Jonah obeyed in chapter 3 but God wants Jonah’s trust, affection, and obedience. God wants Jonah’s worship. God appointed a scorching east wind and the sun beats down on Jonah’s head. And Jonah repeats, “it’s better to die.”

All week this has made me think of The Wedding Singer with Adam Sandler. His character gets left at the altar and he writes a song that starts really soft and then drastically turns to, “Somebody please kill me. I want to die.” 

God questions again: Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?

God is working and pursuing and coming after Jonah’s heart. We have a pursuing God. He getting at your heart this morning. He’s questioning your anger and skepticism and doubts and unbelief. He’s meeting you where your at but he does not plan on leaving you there. He’s wooing you to delight in him above everything else. To know and believe and feel that he is the Lord the Lord a God compassionate and gracious, abounding in steadfast love.

Jonah answers God this time in verse 9.

And [Jonah] said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”

Yes, my anger is justified. And throwing a tantrum is justified. And wanting to die is justified.

[10] 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. [11] 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?” 

You care for a plant which you didn’t labor or grow and it lasted a short time.

Do you see what’s going on Jonah? “I relented of the disaster because I cared for those 120k people who are spiritually blind and morally confused. I have deep compassion for them, people who are made in my image and have dignity, value, and worth.”

And it sinks deeper. Jonah doesn’t actually care about the plant, just what it gave him, did for him. God actually cares about his people. Jonah’s care is selfish. God’s care is self-giving. He gives himself for others. He pours out and genuinely cares about who they are and what happens to them. 

Jonah’s anger is unrighteous. It reveals his idolatry. 

Pride believes the thousands of commercials a day you see that says we’re all here for you. Everything exist for you. We’re here to cater to your wants and desires. I’d call that the idol of pleasure. The god of self. Or maybe you measure your meaning by how many things you have going on, or by the number of people who report to you, or by popularity, or by how many follow you on Instagram. I’d call that the idol of power. Or maybe you avoid pain and pursue approval at the expense of revering God as ultimate. I’d call that the idol of people. You’re more concerned with how people see you. Your fearful of losing their acceptance.

And like Jonah this pride, this arrogance shows up in how we view and relate to others, particularly outsiders and those different than us. For Christians this means a disdain for non-Christians acting like non-Christians. And for having different views than us. The truth is, we’re not against them. Our war is not with flesh and blood. But against sin and death and the devil. Our war is FOR non-Christians not against them. We want them to meet Jesus! We’re for them.

That’s looking at this with the angle on non-Christians. What about the angle of those of different ethnicities, cultures, and nations. Pride joyfully feeds on superiority towards others. It’s how we get sexism, racism, and nationalism. My [whatever] is better than theirs. Mine is the standard and there’s doesn’t match up. 

Sexism, racism, and nationalism cannot coexist in your heart with gospel-ism. Will you find your deepest identity in your gender, your ethnicity, your country, or the cross? Are you worshipping yourself or the One who was sent by the Father to the earth. The One who joyfully said yes to the Father and came to us the first time. He didn’t flee to Tarshish. He ran to us. Humbled himself and was born to dwell among us. He moved into our neighborhood. Into our world full of us who are cruel and angry and against him and against his rule and reign over us. He graciously and mercifully comes to us, his enemies, not with hate in his eyes or seeking our destruction but abounding, overflowing with love.

The most repeated emotion we see of Jesus in the gospels is compassion. “He saw the crowds, and had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

This word means entrails and describes Jesus’ gut-wrenching tenderness towards people who desperately need him. 

And his compassion drives him to the cross which is how justice and mercy kiss. We deserve to be demolished. We’re entitled to punishment. But Jesus takes the wrath we deserve and gives us mercy. It’s diverted to him. 

The beauty of Christmas is God comes low because we’re full of pride. 

We’re aching to be gods judging and looking down on others. 

So Christmas is the confrontational truth that we are trashy gods so the true God compassionately comes to us to show mercy. 

So yes, Christmas calls us to be generous as God didn’t withhold his only Son from us. 

But it also calls us to be merciful because that’s who he is to us. 

And it calls us to go the nations because God is not the God of America. He’s the God of the cosmos and if he comes to us then we’re free to go to the nations.