JONAH: Swallowing the Story    Jonah 4:5-11 

We’re jumping into Jonah 4, if you have your Bible, you can flip there, swipe there, click there, however you want to get there this morning.  It’s the final message in the series of Jonah as we continue to journey towards the cross and the resurrection.  We’ve been utilizing this book of Jonah to lead us to Easter.  We’ve been saying, throughout this series, that part of our goal has been to rescue Jonah from Veggie Tales and the flannel board.  We often view this as a kids’ story.   If you’ve been coming over the last few weeks, I hope you realize, by this point, this is certainly applicable to kids, but it’s no kids’ story, is it?  There’s a lot of depth, and a lot of beauty, and a lot of subtlety and nuance, and sort of hints and winks and nods in the book of Jonah.  It’s intended for adults.

The story of Jonah is the story of a resentful prophet who encounters a relentless God.  In week one, we said Jonah could be split in half.  The first half of Jonah gives us one message and the second half of Jonah builds on that and gives us another message.  In the first half of Jonah, Jonah shows us what it’s like to run from God through outright, willful disobedience, doesn’t he?  Jonah is a prophet of God and gets a call from God.  He’s told to go and preach against Nineveh, that their wickedness has risen up before God. God’s calling him to go to Nineveh, which is about 500 plus miles east of where he was.  Jonah hops on a ship and heads to Tarshish.  Jonah is outright disobedient and saying to God, “God, I know what you’ve asked me to do, but thanks but no thanks.”  You’ll remember that we were wondering throughout the entire first few chapters of Jonah, why is Jonah running, and the narrator strings us along and doesn’t give us the answer until we get to chapter 4.  Jonah said to God, “I knew it! I knew you were slow to anger.  I knew you’re merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  I knew it! My worst nightmare’s come true.  That’s what you’re like.”  In his disobedience, we see that God pursued Jonah through a storm, through a fish that vomited him out onto dry ground.

That’s one way to run from God, but there’s another way to run from God also.  You can run from God outside the walls of the church, say no thank you, God, I’ll do things my way.  Or you can run from God inside the walls of the church.  You can run from Him by saying, okay, God, here’s the deal.  If I do all the right things, and if I accomplish all the right religious duties, then you and I will be good, right?  And if we’re good that means you have to do what I say you should do.  For Jonah, in his disobedience he ran, but in his obedience he was running also.  We’re going to see that God doesn’t let him get off that easily.  He continues to pursue Jonah even in that disobedience—in the church, religious disobedience.  But instead of sending a fish and a storm, this time he sends a story.

Reminded me of a story I heard a while back about a guy by the name of Kyle MacDonald.  He did this experiment.  You may have done a similar experiment in Youth Group, called “Bigger, Better.”  You start with something small and go door-to-door in a neighborhood and you ask them….hey, I’ve got this pen, do you have anything bigger, better?  You get whatever they give you that’s bigger or better.  Eventually, we’ve had people come back with couches and washing machines and stuff like that.  Kyle MacDonald tried the same thing online.  He started with a red paperclip.  He traded that red paperclip for a fish pen, eventually, a year later, he traded a role in a movie, which someone had given him, for a house!  BIGGER.  BETTER.

Here’s the thing with “Bigger, Better.”  Whatever you’re trading you have to give up.  You can’t hold onto both. You can’t say I want the house AND the movie role.  You’ve got to give one up, in order to receive the bigger and the better.  I’m convinced that there are some things that you and I are holding onto this morning that Jesus says I’ve got something bigger and better for you.  I’ve got something that would transform your life, if you would receive it.  It’s the very same thing he wants Jonah to wrap his heart and his mind around.  I’ve got something bigger, better, but in order to get you to move in that direction, you’re going to have to open your hands.  In order to get Jonah to open his hands, God sends him a story.

Jonah 4.  We’re picking up in verse 5 and I’m going to read this entire section because it’s all one thought.  It’s one movement, it’s one story that God is going to tell through Jonah’s life.  He’s going to invite him into a situation.  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.  Now the Lord God appointed a plant {You’re going to see throughout this passage of Scripture, God’s going to appoint a plant, a worm, a wind, and He’s going to appoint a point.  He wants to make a point with Jonah.  He’s been appointing things all throughout the book of Jonah.  God appointed Jonah to go and share his message.  God appointed a wind that came up and a storm that raged.  God appointed a fish.  God’s been appointing all throughout the book of Jonah, and we’re going to see him continue to do that as he tells a story through Jonah’s life.}  …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.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.  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.”  But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”  And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”  {Ryan’s version was Jonah said, “You better be believe it!  I’m ticked off!}  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.  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 the left, and also much cattle?”

So turn the page and keep going.  How many of you did?  Wait, what???  That’s the ending??  God giving a shout out to cattle?  That’s the ending.  That’s the point.  Remember we said back when we started the series that there’s a lot of debate as to whether or not Jonah is intended to be read as history or whether Jonah’s intended to be read as parable.  What we said at that point is that you can choose either way to read Jonah, but don’t miss this….don’t miss the fact that Jonah is clearly intended to be read as prophetic.  It throws the ball back in our court to say okay, what are we going to do with this story?  How are we going to wrestle with the Prophet Jonah?  What are we going to do with some of the things we hold onto that are just maybe a little bit too small?  What do we do with this invitation God gives us…..I’ve got something bigger and I’ve got something better.

What was too small for Jonah was the lens through which he viewed the world.  The way that he saw the story that God was telling.  The way that he saw the grace that God had.  The way that he saw the love that God had for the people around him.  For Jonah, and maybe for you and for me…..we’ve grown up in a context, haven’t we?  We’ve grown up and have had a certain view of life, probably for a lot of our life.  We were born into a certain family.  We were born with certain privileges.  We were born with certain things to our name.  Maybe we had two parents at home, maybe we didn’t, but we were all born with a set of circumstances {listen to me here} that shaped the way that we see the world around us.  Jonah was too.  What God is not so gently saying to Jonah is the perspective you have on the world, Jonah, is not quite accurate.  Ours might not be either, right?  Our perspective might be…I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve had and people around me should work hard too.  If you’re suffering and you’re down a little bit, it’s because you’re not working hard enough.  Why can’t you be a little bit more like me?!  So we look at the world and it’s everybody’s fault if they’re not as good as we are.

Jonah looks at Nineveh and he sees people that are unlike him, completely unlike him.  Different god.  Different approach to life.  He can’t seem to step into a Ninevite’s shoes and walk a mile in them to see where they’re coming from.  He can’t imagine their upbringing.  He can’t imagine what their life might have been like.  He can’t imagine getting fed pagan religion from day one.  Will you look up at me for just a moment?  I’m pretty passionate about this.  I think it’s easy to look at people and come up with a story as to why they’re not in the same place that we are.  Whether it’s in their beliefs or in their economic situation.  You name it.  A ton of different ways.  What if we started to adopt this view:  If I had grown up the way they’d grown up, if I’d had the experiences they had, if I’d walked through the things they’d walked through, I’d probably do and believe exactly what they do and believe.  But what if we started there?

Jonah can’t start there, so God has to come and has to tell him a story.  The story is meant to make Jonah as uncomfortable as we might be right now.  It’s meant to paint him a picture of the very last thing that Jonah wants to see, and it’s this one big word….and the word is….are you ready for it?….t’s what this entire section is all about….the word is…..grace.  Jonah, your calling as a prophet?  Grace.  Jonah, your placement in Israel?  Grace.  Jonah, that storm that came?  Grace.  Jonah, the fish that swallowed you?  Grace.  Jonah, the second chance that you got?  Grace.  Jonah, the way I treated you in your disobedience?  Grace.  Jonah, the way that I love you?  Grace.  Jonah, the very breath that you just took?  Grace.  It’s ALL grace.  It’s all grace, from top to bottom.  I love the way that Dallas Willard said it: “Grace is God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot do on our own.”

Oftentimes we think that grace is simply what saves us and what gets us in the door of Christianity, but the truth of the matter is, friends, is that grace is the very thing that carries us the entire way.  Jonah can’t see it.  It’s often hard for us to see it too, because we have to admit that there are things that we cannot do on our own.  A lot of us assume that God’s grace is inactive in our lives, because we assume we’re way better than we actually are.  We think it’s us.  Lean in.  We forget that every good and perfect thing in our life is a gift from God. (James 1:17) EVERYTHING.

Jonah is blind to God’s blessing.  Here’s the truth of the matter, friends, you and I…whatever we end up putting into our life….the story we tell ourselves, is the story we tell.  Whatever we put into our lives eventually comes out of our life.  My mom used to have this saying that drove me crazy, because she wanted me to get rid of some music that she didn’t think aligned with the way of Jesus, and she was probably right.  Her saying was, “Garbage in, garbage out.”  I’d go, “Oh, I hate that, Mom, stop it!”  Garbage in, garbage out.  {Ryan used a gumball machine to illustrate.}  Gratitude in, gratitude out.  The narrative that I’ve got to perform in order to be loved… you start projecting on everyone around you.  I’ve made it on my own…..make it on your own.  I’m forgiven….forgive.  I’ve been given grace….I give grace.  You want to know what’s going in?  Look at what’s going out.  What God wants to say to Jonah is Jonah, if you (we) accept grace personally—and you should, because it’s all around you, it’s the very breath you took—-we must be willing to extend it universally.

Jesus tells a story of this king, this master, who has a servant that owes him $6 billion. (From Matthew 18:23-35)  The servant is unable to pay the master, imagine that?  The master comes to him and says, “I’m going to forgive all the debt that you owe me.  Go in peace.”  That same servant has a servant of his own, who owes him $12,000.  Which is more—$6 billion or $12,000?  The servant says to his servant, “If you can’t pay me back, you’re going to jail.  In fact, you’re going to jail until you’re able to pay me every last dime.”  Jesus tells this story and the punchline is this:  Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  To get what you receive, you’ve got to be willing to give.

God is pressing on Jonah’s life about some ways that he’s out of line, about some ways that he doesn’t love justice and mercy and faithfulness—the very three things that Jesus would say, centuries later, are the weightier things of the law. (Mt. 23:23)  Jonah’s not there.  Jonah doesn’t love it.  So God starts to tell him this story, and he wants to give him a bigger and better….hey, Jonah, let me put something bigger, better in your life so that something bigger and better can come out of your life.  Let’s dig in just a little bit to see what that looks like in this passage.

Jonah 4:5 — Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city {There’s a subtle wink and nod from the narrator.  When we read east of the city, we’re probably intended to think oh, east of Eden, right?   East of paradise.  Jonah’s walked from the west, all the way through the city.  He’s east of the city, but not just geographically, but spiritually also.  He’s a little off.  A lot of bit off.}  and made a booth for himself there.  He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.  Question:  What’s he hoping becomes of the city?  Have you ever gotten early to a fireworks show and put down your blanket and got out your cooler and popcorn and you just waited?  That’s what Jonah’s doing.  He’s waiting for the same thing……fireworks!  He wants a front row seat for Nineveh getting absolutely demolished.  He wanted the same thing that the disciples suggested to Jesus after they walked through a Samaritan town.  The Samaritan town didn’t accept Jesus, didn’t invite him in.  The disciples said to him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  {They’re just echoing Elijah, right?  They’re going biblical on the city.  Jonah wants to see some Sodom and Gomorrah action.}  But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56)   He’s like, boys, come on, that’s not our way.  That’s not who we are.  That’s not what we do.  What if we started to trust that our flourishing, your flourishing, is connected to the successof others, not to their demise.

Jonah has this narrative in his head, a really small narrative, a really tired narrative.  If my enemy loses, then I win.  There’s two ways for me to go up a few rungs on the ladder.   One is to actually go up a few rungs on the ladder; the other is for the person in front of me to slip back a little.  That’s what he believes and that’s what starts to come out of his life.  What if we started to have a different, better story?  What if we started to, along with the Apostle Paul, say, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood…” {Do you have an enemy?  Absolutely!  Yes, you do.  The powers of spiritual darkness that are very present in our world. But look up at me for just a second.  You have never laid eyes on a human enemy.  EVER!  At least according to the Scriptures.  You can decide if you want to be a disciple of the way of Jesus or not, but if you’re a disciple, you do not wrestle against flesh and blood.}  …but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)  

So, if we can get ahold of grace…..if that’s the story that gets in us and the story that eventually starts to get out of us, how might that free us from looking at people as the enemy and somebody to be jumped over, rather than saying, oh, I want your success?  How does that work?  Here’s the thing:  Grace puts us all in the same boat, doesn’t it?  The only entrance into the kingdom of God is a place of need, it’s a place of dependency.  No one beats their chest into the kingdom.  No!  We come saying: Lord, I need you, oh, I need You // Every hour I need You // My one defense, my righteousness // Oh God, how I need you.

What if we also had in our mind…..what if grace freed us to believe that if God is for us, who can be against us?  AND, if God is for us, who can we be against?  What if it was both?  What if those were two sides to the same coin?  If we accept grace for ourselves, we’ve got to be willing to give it to other people.  We’ve already said, “I didn’t get what I deserved, so why then should I want other people to get what they deserve?”  It doesn’t work that way.  If we accept grace personally, we must extend it universally.

I love the way this came out in the darkest of situations in June of 2015.  There was a man named Dylann Roof, a white supremacist filled with hate, who walked into an all-black church prayer meeting.  They welcomed him with opened arms.  He proceeded to shoot and kill nine of the congregation members.  It was shocking!  But what was more shocking was what followed.  You may have heard the story.  At his trial, family member after family member stood up and said, “We forgive you.  You’ve taken something dear to us, but we forgive you.”  One person was quoted—a sister of one of the people that was killed—as saying, “I acknowledge that I am very angry, but we have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.  I pray God for your soul.”  Forgiveness in, forgiveness out.

Our situation may not be that dire.  It may be.  You may have been abused.  You may have been taken advantage of and you’re just holding on to how can I get back at that person.   I can tell you, the way that that person keeps getting back at you is by you holding onto it.  What if grace started to free us?  What if grace started to free us from thinking how we could get back at that neighbor that just parks in front of our yard, every single time.  What if grace started to free us from thinking about how we could just edge that person along in the line at Starbucks or Solid Grounds…..Order a little bit quicker, please Jesus, right?  Did you just see the menu when you got up to the front?  What if grace started to free us from thinking about revenge for that ex that broke our heart and shoved it in our face?

What if our flourishing was connected to the success of others, rather than the demise?  I’ll tell you what would happen.  A scarcity mindset—there’s only so much to go around?  Gone!  Competition mindset?  Gone!  Comparison mindset?  Gone!  You know what starts to awaken in us when we receive this kind of grace?  We become people who are just passionate, ubiquitous encouragers.  I love that Teresa, in our Communications Team, put out this little picture on Instagram that said, “Take the next 60 seconds to pray for someone going through a tough time.”  Man, that hit me at exactly the right moment.  I looked at that and knew the person.  What if we became those kinds of encouragers?  Where we didn’t celebrate other people’s mishaps, and other people’s sin, and the way other people took a step back, but we actually came alongside and said, “My success is actually tied to yours; we’re in the same boat.”  If you get better, so do I.  So do WE.  I think Us vs. Them is pretty tired, don’t you?  What if this week you made it a point to encourage people?

Here’s how the story goes on (Jonah 4:6-9):  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’s like, hey, God, finally we’re on the same page.  God, finally you’re on my page!  I’m uncomfortable and you’ve appointed something to take away the discomfort.  Thank you!  Finally being all Yahweh-ish for me, right?} So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind,  {God is breaking Jonah down physically, so that his eyes start to open spiritually.  He’s getting him to this place where he’s going to be willing to finally, finally, finally hear Yahweh.}  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.”  But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”  {Does this sound familiar: Do you do well to be angry?  Last week, we talked about our misconceptions about who God is, that picture of God we have in our mind that often isn’t totally accurate or totally right.  Last week was about how Jonah was wrong about God, this week is about how Jonah is wrong about everyone around him.  But God’s question is still the same.  It’s pastoral.  It’s a counselor coming alongside him…..Jonah, how’s that working out for you?}  And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”  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.

How long did Jonah have the plant?  One day, essentially.  God’s saying to him:  Hey, Jonah, you’ve developed a co-dependent relationship on this plant.  You have an affection for this plant.  In one day.  There’s all these people, Jonah, that you can’t seem to gain an affection for.  Jonah, you knew that plant for one day, but how long, Jonah, have I known Nineveh?!  Jonah, let’s talk about what you did to make that plant grow.  Tell me about how you tilled the ground.  Tell me about how you put fertilizer on it.  Tell me about how you planted the seed.  Tell me about how you watered it.  Tell me about how you caused it to grow, Jonah, I’ll wait.  A lot of people wrestle with this plant growing up overnight.  It was Miracle-Gro, okay?  Jonah, tell me what you did.  Oh!  Nothing!  Jonah, tell me why that plant was so important to you.  It was hot, and it helped.

You can imagine God maybe saying to Jonah, okay, Jonah, now I get it.  The way that we determine whether or not something has value, is whether or not it’s beneficial to you.  Is that right?  Is that the way you want me to run the universe, Jonah?  If it has value to ME, then I keep it around, if not, the fire reigns down.  Jonah, is that how we should live?  Jonah, is that how we should do?  Jonah, even your own reasoning breaks down.  God says to him, like, hey, Jonah, that plant….you grew to love that plant in ONE day.  How much more valuable are animals than plants?  What about the cows?  And then….how much more valuable than the animals are the crown jewel of my creation?  God sort of pins him in.  Jonah’s affection is tied to productivity, it’s tied utility, it’s tied to being beneficial.  I think he probably thinks that about God, too, right?  What we put in—I’m beneficial if I produce—is what we get out.

I think God, not so subtly, wants to say to Jonah, what if….what if, Jonah….what if, South Fellowship, we affirm that the valueof people is based on inherent worth, not personal benefit.  What if the way that we viewed the world, the parts of it that we love and the parts of it that we lament, the people we agree with and the people we disagree with…..what if we had the truth in the back of our mind—that Jesus is life and his invitation to us is to hold out that life to every single person because you have never met somebody who doesn’t carry the image of God on their life!  Can you imagine Jonah going, “I’ve got a question about THIS.  Even Nineveh?  Even brutal Nineveh?  Even violent Nineveh?  Even socially unjust Nineveh?  Even they have worth to you, Yahweh? This is what I was worried about.”  You can just imagine God saying back to Jonah, “Even them.”

My son Reid loves to build these magnet towers, so he puts a number of magnets together.  He’ll stack them on our coffee table, then he’ll stand back and admire his work.  Luckily, this only happens every day.  One of his siblings will walk by and “accidentally” nudge the coffee table, and it just goes down.  I look at it and go, “It’s just some magnets.”  It’s just a Nineveh.  Who cares?  He does.  Why?  Because he built it.  He’s invested in it.  God’s looking at Jonah going, “I’m invested in it.”  Oh yeah, they don’t know their right hand from their left.  They are wrong.  They’re sinful.  They’re evil.  I have judged them.  I’m calling them to repentance.  I want them to let go of their violence, but in the midst of all of that, I love them and I’m for them.  What if when we embrace the kingdom of God, we realize that we have to get on board with what God views as his most valuable possession?  You know what that is?  People.  It’s His inheritance.  It’s who He gave his Son for, that we’ll celebrate next week.

What Jonah missed is that Israel wasn’t loved more than others, they were chosen to hold the love of God out to others!  Read Genesis 12.  It’s the story of God from the very beginning.  No one….no one….look up at me for a moment, friends…..NO ONE is expendable!  You’ve never laid eyes on a mere mortal, according to C.S. Lewis.  This should affect the way that we view the world.  It should affect the way that we view abortion.  It should affect the way that we view health care.  It should affect the way that we view immigration.  It should affect the way that we view education.  Because those just aren’t policies, there are people that are attached to those.  People are important to God.  If our relationship with Jesus doesn’t change our relationship with other people, can I just gently press on you and suggest that maybe, just maybe, we just don’t have a relationship with Jesus.

I don’t know what it looks like for you this week.  Maybe it looks like slowing down a little bit.  Maybe that’s your practice.  Maybe a practice for this week to affirm the value of all people is to look people in the eye—people that annoy you, people that are too slow for you, people that are in your way.  Maybe it’s to make a really awkward phone call, or text message, or an awkward visit to your neighbor to invite him to come to Resurrection Sunday with you.  It’s going to be a celebration.  You don’t want to miss it, and you don’t want them to miss it either.  I don’t know what it looks like for you, but will you ask Jesus, because I think he might have some ideas.

And should I not 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?   It ends and we go, man, God loves him some cattle!  Not a vegetarian evidently.  Should I not pity, should I not have compassion for Nineveh?  It’s like God was saying, I was only doing for Nineveh what you insisted what was right to do for the plant!  Like, Jonah, be consistent.  They don’t know their right hand from their left is similar to when the people are nailing the nails into Jesus’s hand and his prayer is:  Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)  They aren’t innocent, they’re ignorant.

In week one, I suggested that this book, the arch of this book, is compassionate irony.  That’s the point.  In verse 8, listen to what Jonah says:  It is better for me to die than to live.  I think, ironically, he’s right.  He’s right.  But what Jonah needs to die to is his pride.  What Jonah needs to die to is his privilege.  What Jonah needs to die to is his particularism.  What Jonah needs to die to is his perspective.  Jonah, it’s all grace and your view is way too small.  That’s what Jonah needs to die to.  Maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need to die to also.  Embracing God’s will……when we pray “Thy kingdom come, YOUR. WILL. BE. DONE…..that means we embody God’s compassion.

Yeah, this wasn’t a journey that ended with Jonah, was it?  It’s a journey that presses on us.  It’s a journey that Jesus called people to live out at every turn.  He got in trouble with hanging out with the Ninevite types, didn’t he?  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  {Those are the people we’re trying to avoid.  That’s Nineveh!}  But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  {Compassion, that we would look at the world differently.} For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:11-13)   Let’s go learn what that means.  Let’s swallow that story and let’s let it get out of us.