Below is the manuscript from Sunday's intro sermon from Jonah. You can get the audio here.
We Are Jonah (Jonah 1-4) | 01.22.17| Kevin P. Larson
Several years back, I got ready to hop into a car and head to Dan and Lori Glosson’s wedding. That’s about the time my daughter Melia, quite small at the time, proceeded to burst into tears. She was genuinely concerned for my safety. She cried out in fear, “Daddy, why are you going to Kansas?!?!” She was concerned I wouldn’t come back alive. It’s then that I realized I’d maybe taken the rivalry a bit too far.
See, I grew up right on the Missouri-Kansas border. My family was made up of long-time Missourians and Mizzou sports fans. I unfortunately found myself right in the middle of the Kansas City news market, which featured and favored the University of Kansas. I grew up to hate all things Jayhawk, all things Kansas - not just the sports teams, but the state itself. I remember for a geography class - I think back in 8th grade - planning a vacation for an assignment. I traveled all over the country, but I took care to never step one foot in that sunflower state to the west.
Now, I can just imagine this being told to my 8th grade self: “Someday you’re going to plant a church.” That would have brought puzzled looks in and of itself. “And you’re going to do it in Lawrence, Kansas.” That would have resulted in a scowl and a fit of protest. Kansas?! No way! I hope one of their tornadoes wipes them out! Out of the question!
Obviously, the Lord took me here to Columbia instead. And since that time, I’ve matured just a bit. But I’ve also read the book of Jonah. And that’s basically what the prophet here is dealing with. Except he isn’t preaching in the peaceful, American midwest. And we’re not talking about sports! This is more like Billy Graham being sent to do a revival in Syria. It’s like a Rabbi standing up to Nazis in 1930s Berlin.
Who scares you? Who offends you? Who’s different from you? Who can’t you stand? Who do you look down upon? Who would you rather see judged than forgiven? Now imagine that you’ve been tasked with carrying a message to those people. And not just any message - but a hard message. How do you think you’d respond? What do you think you would do? Now that’s the prophet Jonah’s situation. That Israelite is called to go preach to the city of Nineveh.
We’ll spend eleven weeks this winter and spring looking at his response together. We’ll call this series “Pursued by Grace,” and I think you’ll see why as I introduce the book for us this morning. But, first, who is this guy Jonah? He’s a prophet of the living God. Now the only other time we hear about him is in the book of Second Kings. Let’s look at that briefly as we start.
2Kings 14:23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. 26 For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. 27 But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. 28 Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam and all that he did, and his might, how he fought, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel?
Did you catch Jonah the prophet in there? He’s in the 8th century B.C. He’s a prophet to the northern kingdom, Israel. He’s on the right side of the line - from a town near Nazareth, actually. God tells him there to approach his people’s king - another of the wicked ones, I might add - and let him know that things would be looking up for them. Their territory would expand. It would be restored once again. And it all comes to pass. Those are the only other words in the Bible about this guy Jonah.
Now here, in the book that bears his name, he’s got a harder job. This time he gets to go to his enemies, the pagan, barbarian Assyrians, and tell them to repent. Nineveh is near modern Mosul, around 40 miles east of Syria. It’s a tough audience. It’s a hard message. But it’s what God commands him to do. And in this short book we get to see how he responds. And it’s not pretty. But these 48 verses are both convicting and encouraging. We are far too much like Jonah, for sure. But if God can use someone like him, maybe there’s hope for us, too.
Before I jump into it, though, one quick thing: many scholars have said this book isn’t historical. They’ve questioned many things, but none more than the thought of a man spending a weekend in a big fish. So they’ve called this an allegory or a parable. But here’s all I’m going to say about it. It’s in the form of history. Either you believe in a God who created all we see or not. Either you believe in a God who raises the dead or you don’t. Can God protect one of His prophets in the belly of a whale? I don’t see any reason why not. And, we’ll get to this soon, but Jesus thought Jonah was a real dude. And for me, that settles it. This is historical narrative, plain and simple. Yet, it’s narrative that carries a message. We’ll spend many weeks diving into that message.
Now I think probably the best way to read this book is in seven episodes. Think of it as a Netflix series that you need to keep watching. And as one that you might just have to watch again to catch things you may have missed.
As we walk through those seven episodes, the first thing we see is Jonah’s sin. In episode one, verses 1-3 of chapter 1, the Lord tells the prophet to go preach to Nineveh. What does Jonah do? He runs. He boards a ship in the exact opposite direction of where the Lord wants him to go. He won’t preach to those wicked, barbaric people. He tries to flee God’s presence. He rebels.
In episode two, in verses 4 through 16 of chapter 1, a massive storm hits the sea. The ship’s crew is freaking out. Where’s Jonah? Fast asleep. Oblivious. Unconcerned. Now this book is filled with ironies - enough to make Alanis Morissette proud, or maybe a little confused. He’s asleep while these pagan sailors are praying. They wake him up. Jonah spouts out to them a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo, but they’re the ones fearing God in this picture. They’re far more concerned about Jonah than he is with them. They become instruments of the prophet’s judgment. He gets tossed into the sea. He is disciplined by God. You just can’t run from the Lord of heaven.
In episode three, in verses 17 of chapter one through 10 of chapter two, we find Jonah in the belly of the big fish. There, and only then, does he start praying. He praises God for rescuing him. Now I don’t want to say the guy isn’t sincere. But the attitude inside the whale certainly doesn’t last long.
Episode four is clearly a repeat of the first. You’d be disappointed if that was in your Netflix queue. But there is a twist. In verses 1 through 3 of chapter 3, the Lord gives stubborn Jonah the exact same orders all over again. We’re not sure what’s going on inside of him, but he does get up and go. It might be reluctant still. We’re not sure. But this time he obeys.
In episode five, Jonah preaches and people respond. That’s verses 4 through 10 of chapter 3. The Ninevites believe. The little guys. The high-ups. They all repent. Jonah essentially preaches, “Repent or perish.” They all fall on their knees. Therefore, the Lord doesn’t destroy them. Now I remember back many years ago getting let go by a used computer store. That was one of the low points in my single days. The problem was that I didn’t believe in the product, in the message. Again, we don’t get much insight into Jonah’s heart in this section, but he may have been grumbling all the way. Regardless, God still uses him. But, again, it’s ironic: the pagans have softer hearts than the prophet.
In episode six, in verses 1-4 of chapter four, we see the guy’s true colors again. He’s hacked. He blesses God when he gets rescued. He curses God when his enemies do. He throws a fit like a little kid. “I want to die already.” The Lord rebukes him. “Seriously, you’re really angry about this?”
In episode seven, in verses 5-11 of chapter four, we see him at his worst. He sets up camp outside of the city. He sits and waits for God to do what he thinks is right - to take them out. He fusses when a plant that provides shade dies. He whines when the wind and sun blow hot on his face. He again cries out, “Kill me already. Now!” The Lord has to rebuke the pathetic dude: “You seriously care more about plants than people? Really?”
Throughout the book, we see Jonah’s sin on full display. His stubborn disobedience. His arrogant hatred. Jonah’s a rebel. He’s a racist. And he’s a coward. He won’t do what God says. He will not love those people. He’s all about self-preservation. Again, that’s pretty convicting, huh? We’re like Jonah. But, pretty encouraging, also, right? Maybe there’s hope.
Don’t we act like this, also? Of course. We’ve run from things we knew God wanted us to do. We’ve turned from people we knew He wanted us to serve. We’ve shied away from hard conversations. We’ve crossed over to the other side of the street. We’ve profiled people unfairly in our heads. We’ve run from God over and over. We’ve experienced His discipline time and time again.
If not for God’s grace, I’d no doubt be prosecuted for road rage. When people do something stupid, I go off. I want them help responsible. When I drive like a fool, it’s no big deal. I was just in a hurry. It was no big deal. You see, we want to be judged by our intentions. We want others judged by their actions. We want judgment for others. We want forgiveness for us.
Why We Run
Now, why do we act like this? Like Jonah, we forget the forgiveness we’ve received. We fail to remember what the Lord has done for us. Now on first reading, it seems like the prophet is the main character of the story. But really it’s God, right? His character and works shine throughout this book. But we see this further as we zoom out and see the Lord as the true author of this story.
We’re not sure who actually penned the book. It was likely Jonah himself. Who else would know all the details? Who else would cast a prophet in this light other than the man himself? What we do know, though, is that the Lord inspired it. Jonah is a part of what’s called the Minor Prophets, the last 12 books of the Old Testament. They’re not minor in that they’re less important. They’re called minor because they’re short. In each, God uses one of His prophets to speak to His people in an effort to wake them up. Here God uses Jonah - again more in narrative form - to call His people to repentance. But before that even, He reminds them - He reminds us - of what the Lord has done.
Let’s walk through those episodes again, taking a different angle. The second thing we can clearly see is God’s grace. Back in episode one, in chapter 1, verses 1-3, the Lord calls out to the prophet. He chooses to make Jonah a part of His plan. He graciously invites his messenger to be a part of an exciting work that He is about to do. That’s grace. Yet, once again, Jonah runs.
Back in episode two, in verses 4 through 16 of chapter 1, God clearly could have moved on. Right? He could have let Jonah have his way. But He doesn’t. The Lord comes after Him. He rocks that boat with a massive storm. He doesn’t let Jonah have what He wants. It simply isn’t God’s best for him.
The Lord disciplines His son. He lets the prophet learn a hard lesson as he gets thrown out of that boat. Yet in the midst of all of that, the Lord is clearly doing some kind of work in the sailors. God’s grace is for them, also.
Episode three again: verses 17 of chapter one through 10 of chapter two. God could have justly let him drown. That’s certainly what Jonah deserves. But the Lord again commands nature out of love for Jonah. He tells that fish to gobble him up. And God graciously keeps His servant alive and gives Him a quiet spot where He can search His heart and repent of His sin.
Here we see what many call the mountaintop of the book, verse 9: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” He alone saves. And by grace alone.
In episode four, in verses 1 through 3 of chapter 3, the Lord gives Jonah a second chance. What grace! He doesn’t write Him off. He puts His rebellious servant back on the job when he clearly could have just gotten someone else.
Back in episode five again, the Ninevites, those small and great, respond to Jonah’s preaching again. God works in their hearts. He brings them to repentance. In chapter 1, the sailors. Here, the people in the Assyrian capital. God is showing grace to people far from Him, to those outside of His people. And, again, he’s doing it through this punkface named Jonah. The Lord uses Him! That’s verses 4 through 10 of chapter 3.
In episode six, in chapter 4, verses 1-4, we hear of God’s grace through Jonah’s lips. He speaks of God’s character in a way that reminds us of how the Lord described himself to Moses back in Exodus. Jonah says, in verse 2, “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Of course, Jonah’s heart isn’t in a good place here. He’s actually mad about it. But the Lord graciously tries to reason with the prophet. He doesn’t choose to strike him dead right then and there.
In the last episode, number seven, in verses 5-11 of chapter four, the Lord graciously provides Jonah some shade. But he doesn’t just spoil his kid here. He kindly teaches him a lesson. He disciplines him again, killing off the plant with a worm. This reveals Jonah’s heart, as does the wind and heat. But again, God doesn’t take Jonah out. He gently talks to his prophet, pointing out His sin. He asks him, “Why shouldn’t I show grace to all these people?” And, of course, we also hear Him saying, “Why shouldn’t I treat them as I’ve treated you?”
And that’s the point we need to see here. God’s grace is on display. We see His kindness to the sailors and to the Ninevites. But we also see it shown so clearly to Jonah. The Lord pours out His loving kindness upon the prophet. He wields His sovereign power over nature to show Jonah that mercy.
Haven’t we experienced this grace, also? In life and breath and food and laughter? In what’s called common grace? We welcome children into the world. We take walks in the woods in October. We have times in work that we genuinely enjoy. We share hugs with people we love. And so much of the time, we take it all for granted.
Also, so many of us have experienced special grace. We’ve been brought to salvation in Christ. We’ve been welcomed into His body. We have the joy of the gospel. We experience the blessings of community. And yes, we take all of that for granted, too. We forget our need to share it with those around us. We get completely confused and end up looking down our noses.
Many have said that the message of Jonah would be quite different if it ended after chapter 3. It’d just end as an awesome story about mission. About how God wants to reach the world, how He wants us to reach those different from us or despised by us.
But it doesn’t end that way, and that means the message isn’t just about them. It’s about us. It’s about Jonah, about Israel. And now, about the church. About you and me. How do we answer God’s final question? The one in verse 11. There’s a lesson you and I have to learn. Graciously pursue those around you as the Lord of grace has pursued you.
Throughout the book, Jonah just doesn’t seem to get it. Or just doesn’t want to. He wants grace shown to him. He doesn’t just want it shown to them. Or then again, maybe he eventually does.
The fact the book ends the way it does may indicate that Jonah is the author. But it may even suggest something further. That Jonah ends up answering the final question in the affirmative. That the prophet embraces God’s message to him and ends up living a life of grace.
How We Must Change
So what do we do with this book? How must we change? We’ll spend the next 3 months or so digging into that, but I want to answer that question from three angles today as we begin. I also want to take the time to talk more about our vision as a church.
First, let’s talk culture. If you look at American culture today, there is so much us-them talk. There is so much hatred spewed everywhere. People looking down on other people. Folks thinking they can say whatever they want. Our country might be more divided than it has ever been.
Jonah’s heart and his actions are not right. And people are selling - and we’re buying - this idea that hatred is ok. That going off on each other is fine. It’s coming from the right and from the left. Yes, this is people telling refugees to go home. But it’s also calling people in small town America morons. We have to be a light. We have to stand out against this madness.
Jonah is also so applicable to church culture today. So many rightly see the church as a bunch of self-righteous, judgmental jerks. For too long, God’s people have vacated the culture. They’ve stood on its outskirts, hurling stones and praying for fire to come down from heaven. But if God has come down and rescued us, how can we not look at those around us with compassion? The book of Jonah isn’t written to the irreligious - the Ninevites. It’s written to the religious - those like Jonah. God wants us to reach those around us - not fear them, and certainly not hate them.
Second, let’s talk contexts. As I read Jonah, I think of three concentric circles that need to be in the forefront of our mind and hearts. First, we have our neighbors. We should be open to those we see as different from us and those we might be tempted to despise. The refugee in the grocery story wearing the hijab. The coworker that keeps dogging you behind your back. The panhandler that you know is ripping people off. The guy next door living the immoral lifestyle. You’ve been pursued by grace. Are you pursuing them, as well? Let’s be known as people who don’t want our neighbors’ destruction but their blessing.
Second, we have our city. Jonah is sent to Nineveh, again the capital of the Assyrian Empire. There are two key words that occur numerous times in the book of Jonah. They’re “great,” which sometimes refers to size and other times to significance. The other is “evil,” which sometimes means exactly that, but often refers more to calamity or trouble.
We see both in Jonah 1:2 where Jonah’s told to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” Now some cities are big, and even more are significant. Our community falls in the latter category. God has us placed in a growing city with an influential university. God cares about the city. It’s significant to Him. It should be to us, also.
But all cities, and ours is no exception, have all sorts of evil and trouble. The Lord has us here to speak into that, to step into that, to proclaim Jesus in word and deed, to make a difference. The Lord cares about cities like ours, and so should we. It’s where the people are. It’s where culture is made. It’s where people are more open to the gospel. It’s where that gospel message best spreads. Let’s continue to be a family here who is known for loving and serving our city.
Third, we have the nations. Nineveh wasn’t just a city. It was a pagan city. It was outside of Israel. It was one of the nations that Israel was called to bless. That was the calling the Lord gave to Abraham. It’s the calling that’s given to us, the church. And we’re no doubt Gentiles, too. Jonah teaches us that the Lord’s not just the Lord of Israel. He’s the Lord of the earth.
We’ve been given Matthew 28:18-20, to go and make disciples of all nations. We’re to hear the call in Acts 1:8 and go from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. We’re meant to sacrifice to get to those nations. Let’s be known as a church that trains up and sends people to the hard places - like Japan, like North Africa.
Third, let’s talk community. What do we want our church to be known for? What type of family do we want to become? We talk a lot here about being a gospel community on mission. Let me restate it this way: we’re a community shaped by the gospel and sent out on mission.
Let’s take the gospel part first. If we really get what Jesus came to do, if it truly has revolutionized our hearts, our faces should glow with the beauty of the gospel. We should be humble. We should be joyful. And that should make us look at those around us differently. It might even change our posts on Facebook.
Take mission second. If this gospel has shaped our hearts, we should be the most welcoming and most forgiving people on the planet. The Lord has brought us into His family. He’s pardoned all our sins. How can we not extend that to those around us? Again, Jonah is all about self-preservation in this book. Shouldn’t we rather be people of self-sacrifice, given the fact that Christ sacrificed Himself for us?
Karis family, what kind of people do we want to be known as? What type of activity do we want to be known for? Let’s be a community that is profoundly shaped by the gospel and sent lovingly on mission.
A former professor of mine talks about something his boys once told his wife while driving town. They said, “Mom, where are all the idiots?” She replied, “What do you mean? Idiots?” One of them responded, “When dad drives, we see all kinds of idiots. Why don’t we with you?” Friends, we all have those people we look down upon, those people we get really angry about. Proud, religious people are the worst with this. But you do, too, even if you don’t consider yourself a person of faith. You probably just can’t stand Republicans or refugees or environmentalists or CEOs. Jesus calls us to something better. To be a part of His work. As with Jonah, to be a part of something pretty epic. Will we turn from all that hate and anger and join in with Him?
Jonah leaves us with a couple of really hard questions. This is what your Father is like; do you look and act like Him? Will you love your enemies, given that God has loved you?
We all want a God like that, whether or not we’d admit it. We all want that love, that grace, that forgiveness - even if we would say we’re the furthest thing from religious.
But it’s really hard for us to believe it’s possible. It’s even harder to try to give that to those around us. Unbeliever, you need help. You need Jesus.
Believer, we deserved to be judged. We were forgiven. Yet we want to see those around us condemned. A little too ironic. Yeah, I really do think. Karis, if the glory of the gospel of Jesus has truly penetrated our hearts, we will want those around us to experience His mercy. We will graciously pursue those around us as the Lord has pursued us.
And we’ll look more and more like our Lord Jesus. That man looked over the city of Jerusalem, the home of religious people, and wept. The Father sent Him, and He obeyed. He came to people quite unlike Himself. He drew near to the irreligious. He was a friend of sinners. He proclaimed good news. He was thrown overboard, in our place, to save us. He spent three days in a dark place and was resurrected to life. Jesus is full of grace.
But we’re sinners. Every fall during Yom Kippur, the Jews still read the book of Jonah. They emphasize their need for repentance. And they say, over and over, “We are Jonah.” We are Jonah, church. Stubbornly disobedient. Arrogantly hateful. Yet the Lord still pursues us. With His loving kindness. With His sovereign power. Let us repent of our sins, our lack of joy in the gospel. Let’s pursue those around us with patience and zeal. As Paul Tripp puts it, “The people who give grace best are the ones who know they need it most.” Karis, graciously pursue those around you as the Lord has pursued you.