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The Scandal Of Grace

Rev. Philip Miller | November 20, 2022

Selected highlights from this sermon

Following Jonah’s call, his disobedience, a hurricane and being swallowed by a great fish, Jonah repents and is recommissioned to preach to the Ninevites. And this time, he obeys. He cries out judgment against Nineveh and the whole city responds in repentance, crying out to God for mercy.

Chapter three ends with this beautiful crescendo: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”

So, when we turn to chapter four, we’re expecting triumph. But what we find is quite the opposite. Instead of applause, we find anger. Instead of rejoicing, there’s rejection. Instead of gratitude, we get griping.

It’s a shocking ending—one of the most shocking in all the Bible—but it again highlights God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people.

Today we come to the fourth and final chapter in the book of Jonah. It’s been quite a journey. You’ll remember it began when God called Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the capital city in the Assyrian Empire, the most feared terrorist nation of the ancient world, the sworn enemies of Israel. And Jonah received his orders and then flatly disobeyed, didn’t he? He ran three thousand miles in the opposite direction aboard a ship to Tarshish.

And just when he thought he had gotten away on the sea, God hurled a great storm to stop him in his tracks. Jonah’s response was, “Just throw me in the sea. Make me a sin offering to make atonement to the wrath of God.” But in God’s great mercy, He sent a giant fish to rescue Jonah from the watery grave to swallow him whole. And after three days of misery Jonah finally repents.

His stubbornness yields and he calls out for the mercy of God. And in response, God causes the fish to vomit him up on the shore and recommissions him to go preach against Nineveh. And this time Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh, cries out in judgment, and to everyone’s surprise the whole city responds in widespread repentance, crying out to the mercy of God. And chapter 3 ends with this beautiful crescendo. Verse 10: “When God saw all that they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He said He would do to them, and He did not do it.”

What a magnificent moment, revival in Nineveh. Right? A marvelous display of the mercy of God! Repentance throughout the city! The angels in heaven are rejoicing. The Lord’s will has been accomplished, and so when we turn the page to chapter four, we are expecting to see Jonah standing there going, “Amen! Bravos! Standing Ovation! Yeah God!” And what we find is just the opposite. Don’t we? Instead of applause we find anger. Instead of rejoicing there is rejection. Instead of gratitude, he’s griping. Happy thanksgiving everybody! Right?

It’s a shocking ending, one of the most shocking twists, unexpected moments in all of the Bible and yet in this moment again we are going to see God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people. God’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people!

Grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Jonah 4, the whole chapter, you’ll find today’s reading on page 775 in the pew Bible there if you want to grab that. Seven-seven-five! We’re going to be in Jonah, chapter 4, verses 1 down to 11.

Today we’re going to see three things:

  • The indignation of Jonah,
  • The instruction of the plants, and
  • The intention of God.

The indignation of Jonah, the instruction plant, the intention of God. That’s our plan for this morning.

Would you bow your heads?

Let’s bow. Let’s pray to our Lord.

Father, you give us stories like this to help us see ourselves. Father, I pray in this moment when we gather around your Word, this wouldn’t be about Jonah and his problems, but that we would see our hearts, see where we’ve gone astray, and see your heart for this great city. Help us we pray in Christ’s name.

And everybody said, “Amen.” Amen.

So, first of all the indignation of Jonah, the indignation of Jonah! Chapter 4, verse 1, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said…” (By the way, this is not a model prayer. Okay?) “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. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Whew!) And the Lord said, ‘Do you do well to be angry?’”

Wow! Pause there or a moment. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The moment God’s anger subsides is the moment that Jonah’s anger erupts. Because Jonah has found God’s grace to be scandalous, literally in Hebrew it says it “displeased him exceedingly” it is literally, it was evil to him. What God did in extending mercy and grace to Nineveh was evil to Jonah. Why? Well, at one level it’s because Jonah just can’t stand the Ninevites. Right? I mean, after all they are enemies. They are terrorists. They are brutal. They are evil. This is well-documented by historians that the Assyrian Empire was horrible. They skinned their enemies alive. They hoisted them on pikes and left them in the desert to die. They would put fishhooks in their cheeks and haul their enemies off. These were brutal people. They were geopolitical bullies of the Ancient World. And Jonah says, “Look, they don’t deserve an ounce of mercy and grace, not after what they’ve done.”

But it goes even deeper than that, Jonah’s problem here. Look at verse 2. “Oh Lord, is this not 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 gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, relenting from disaster.” You can just hear him saying, “I knew it. I knew it. I knew it all along. You always do this stuff, God. Just the slightest whiff of repentance and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give you a second chance.’ Why do you have to be so gracious? Why do you have to be so merciful, so slow to anger, abounding in love, eager to relent from disaster? You’re a pushover, God. That’s why I fled to Tarshish. I was afraid you’d do this. And sure enough, you did. I was right to run, after all.”

Whew! This is incredible, isn’t it? Amazing! Do you see what he’s doing? He’s repenting of his repentance. He’s reverting to the renegade. He’s recommitting to his rebellion. He thinks he’s in the right and God’s in the wrong. This is a formal complaint of accusation leveled at heaven. “This is a gross miscarriage of justice, God. You let your mercy triumph over justice, and I won’t stand for it. You’re going to let those people live. Just kill me now. I’d rather die than see this scandal of grace unfold.”

It’s astonishing. Jonah just spews this acrid, corrosive, venomous hostility right in God’s face. And notice his anger is directed not just at God’s choice. It’s directed at God’s character. Jonah is mad because God is acting like Himself. Jonah cannot stand who God really is. Jonah wants a God of karma, not grace. That’s what’s going on. Jonah wants a God more like him because if Jonah were God, Nineveh would bleed. The Assyrians would suffer, the wicked would pay. Jonah wants a God of karma where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Karma! Jonah’s like, “That’s what I want. That’s how it ought to be, but if you, God, if you’re going to be all gracious, just kill me now. I’d rather die than live in a universe where there’s unrelenting grace for undeserving people.

It's amazing, isn’t it, how quickly Jonah forgot just how undeserving a person he is, isn’t it? It’s amazing. It’s just been days since the whale and all of that. It’s remarkable how soon Jonah forgets that he owes his very life to the unrelenting grace of God.

See, what’s happened here is Jonah has tasted grace, just enough of it to know it’s beautiful, but not enough that it had swept him up. He has not fully realized that God’s salvation is always by grace alone from beginning to end. Jonah still thinks he has a moral leg up on the Ninevites. He thinks he deserves the mercy and grace of God because he’s been relatively good. And the Ninevites don’t deserve the mercy and grace of God because they’ve been relatively bad. And Jonah has not yet fully realized that all of his righteousness is but filthy rags before a holy God; that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; that there is no one righteous, no, not one. Both Jonah and the Ninevites stand morally bankrupt before God. They’re utterly undeserving of His mercy and grace. And for Jonah and the Ninevites their only hope lies in the grace of God, doesn’t it? It’s their only hope. Friends, grace is our only hope. Grace is our only hope. When it comes to God, no amount of goodness will ever get us in, and no amount of badness can ever keep us out because as Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “It is by grace that ye have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that nobody gets to boast.

Friends, grace is our only hope. The good news of the Gospel is that though we are far more sinful than we ever dared realize, in Jesus Christ, we are far more loved than we ever dared hope. And if the world runs on karma, we are all doomed. But thank God this world is full of His grace, His relentless grace. (applause)

And notice it’s God’s grace again that pursues Jonah, doesn’t it? “Do you do well to be angry?” What is that question? It’s grace. It’s a gracious question. What do we expect of a guy who has mouthed off to God like this, that God is just like zap, and there’s a little greasy spot where he was standing? Right? I mean that’s what we would expect, but not our God, our God is gracious and merciful, He’ss slow to anger, He’s abounding in steadfast love, He’s quick to relent from disaster, and He says, “Do you do well to be angry?” What a beautiful question. He gives more grace. Amen? He gives more grace.

Well, that’s enough of the indignation of Jonah. Let’s set that aside for a moment. Let’s turn to the instruction of the plan, the instruction of the plan.

Remember Jonah’s last statement to God was an ultimatum. “If you’re going to let them live, kill me. God, you’re going to have to choose here. Kill them or kill me. That’s your choice, God.” And God decides not to play the game. You can’t tell God what to do.

Verse 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.” 

“All right God, I’m going to sit here and I’m going to wait. It’s them or me. Somebody dies. Fire from heaven; bring it on.” (chuckles) Which one will God pick? Who will he kill? To whom will He have mercy?

Verse 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. 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.’ (this guy!) 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.’”

Some of you have teenagers. Right? You know what this is like. This is amazing to me. Jonah spits in the face of God and in response, God gives him a little plant, a little shade plant to keep him comfortable. See, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you, He wasn’t just describing some ethical principal. He’s describing the very heart and nature of God. This is what God is like. He loves His enemies. He does good to those who persecute Him.

Now notice Jonah here is exceedingly glad because of the plant. In verse 1 he was exceedingly displeased because God spared Nineveh. It was evil to him. It was wrong in the universe, but now, now he’s exceedingly glad because of the plant. Things are right in the universe once more. Why this rollercoaster of emotion? What’s going on? Well, the plant is more than just a plant to Jonah. He sees this plant as a sign that God is taking his side. He put the ultimatum down, and instead of killing Jonah, He’s given Jonah a nice little shady plant. And so that means that God is for him, which means there’s a little bit of justice, Jonah thinks, in the world. God’s rewarding good people, him, with a good thing, this plant, and maybe if God gives good things to good people, He’ll give bad things to bad people. Maybe karma wins after all. And he sits down waiting for the barbeque. Right?

But then, the next day God sends a worm that gnaws way into the plant so that it dies. And God stirs up a scorching wind and turned up the heat on Jonah. By the way have you noticed how everything in this book obeys God—the wind, the hurricane, the locks, the sailors, the sea, the fish, the Ninevites, the plant, the worm, the heat front! Everything, that is, except Jonah. Jonah’s the one guy that won’t listen to God.

So, in the blistering heat now, Jonah is utterly miserable, and he says, “It’s etter for me to die than to live.” This guy is so overly dramatic. Right? This is crazy. He’s got a death wish. He’s always throwing himself in the sea, throwing himself on his sword. Look at this crazy guy. Dramatic! Drama, drama, drama! “Do you do well with the anger for the plant?” God says.

Now if Jonah was thinking, which he’s not—He’s reacting, he’s not thoughtful—he would recognize that this question is very similar to the question that God asked him earlier. “Do you do well to be angry? Right? But he’s so angry he just reacts. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And do you see how patient God is with Jonah here? Jonah is petulant, volatile, erratic, and God is so calm, measured, consistent, self-controlled. It’s amazing to me.

And I think the way God responds to this sort of ultimatum by growing a plant and then taking it away is nothing short of brilliant, because God is giving Jonah space for heart examination. That’s what He’s doing. He’s giving him space for heart examination. He’s shading him, He’s helping him to deescalate, sort of get his brain back.

Now, Jonah ends up...He doesn’t do much self-reflection here, but nonetheless God is giving him space to think, to calm down, to examine his own heart. Because there are two lessons that Jonah needs to learn here with this plant. We’re going to look at the first one now, and the second one in the next point.

The first lesson is this. God is a God of grace, not karma. God is a God of grace, not karma. Listen...when Jonah mouthed off at God, God gave him a shade plant. That’s grace. That’s not karma. That’s grace. And when God takes the plant away, what did Jonah do to deserve the plant being taken away? He was asleep. Nothing! It’s as if God is saying to Jonah, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (That’s Exodus 33:19, by the way.) I’m a God of grace, not karma.”

A god of karma you can control. You can manipulate. Be good, get good. Be bad, get bad. You control the input so you can control the outcomes. That’s karma. You’re in control. But Jonah, I’m a God of grace, not karma. I don’t play by your rules. You can’t control Me. You can’t manipulate Me. Your self-righteousness will never earn My favor, and your unrighteousness will never undo My grace. My salvation is Mine alone. It comes by grace alone, as a gift, Jonah, and I freely give it whenever I want. So, turn from your sin, Jonah, and you will discover my grace. Turn from your self-righteousness, Jonah, and you will discover my mercy. Turn from yourself, and you will discover I am enough.” Because, friends, it’s not just sin that’s deadly. Self-righteousness is deadly too. Self-righteousness is deadly.

Friends, we’ve said this before, but there are two ways to reject God. We can reject God like the Ninevites did by being very, very bad. And our sin separates us from God, and we’re too dirty to enter into His holy presence. And like the Ninevites, when we sin, we are to repent and turn from our sin and come home to the mercy and grace of God. But we can also reject God by being like Jonah, by being self-righteous, by being really, really good. And self-righteousness separates us from God as well. It makes us too proud to beg for mercy, which is the only way we can come to God. And so, like Jonah, when we’re full of self-righteousness, we are to turn from our self-righteousness and fall on the mercy and grace of God because God is a God of grace, friends, not karma. That’s the first lesson of the plant. The first lesson!

Now, the second lesson concerns the intention of God, the intention of God. Look at verse 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. 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?’”

That’s an interesting end. God says, “Jonah, look how big your emotions were about that tiny little plant. You cared about that plant because it was valuable to you. You enjoyed its shade, and you saw its beauty. You prized its life, and when it was taken away you grieved its loss, didn’t you? Your world would never be the same without the plant. And yet, Jonah, it was just a plant. You were hardly invested in it. You didn’t plant it. You didn’t water it. You didn’t cultivate it. You didn’t fertilize it. You didn’t trim it. You did nothing. Just showed up and it went away. But should I not pity Nineveh, that great city of which there were about 120,000 people that do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? Jonah, this city is full of image bearers, made by me. I gave them life and breath and everything else, and even though they have run far from me and broken my heart, and done evil in my sight, I cannot stop pursuing them in love and compassion because they are my long-lost children.

They don’t even know their right hand from their left. This is a common idiom used of toddlers. You have toddlers like, “Which one is this? Is this right or left.” Right? That’s the picture. They don’t know. They just don’t know. They don’t know which way is up. They don’t have a clear moral compass. They’re confused. They’re walking through life doing the best they know how, and it’s a mess, and they’re full of sin and brokenness, and it’s tragic, but I love them.” And when God sees His lost children, little toddlers, ignorant, not innocent, but ignorant, God’s heart is drawn in compassion for them, and God longs to forgive them “for they know not what they do.”

And not only does God see a city full of lost children, He also sees much cattle. (laughs) This is so weird, isn’t it? And the cattle! Why the cattle? Why does he… Does this surprise you that God would care about the cattle? What’s up with the cattle?

Remember, Jonah was just upset about the destruction of a plant. Right? He didn’t give a lick about the city, but he cared about the plant, and God is pointing out that Jonah didn’t even once consider the amount of animal suffering that would occur if the city were to be destroyed. He didn’t even care about the dogs, the cats, the cattle. Like, “if I brought judgment on all those human beings, the animals would suffer too. And you don’t even care?”Jesus says a sparrow doesn’t even fall to the ground unless the Lord takes notice of it. God cares for the cattle too. And so, here’s the lingering question. The book ends. It doesn’t resolve. It just… It’s lingering here. “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 own so much cattle? Should I not?”

And don’t you see this is an invitation? It’s an invitation God is inviting Jonah to share his heart for the city. God invites Jonah to share His heart for the city. What would he do?

I’m reminded of another man 700 years later who would stand on another hill overlooking another city filled with another group of enemies; but instead of anger, this man is weeping. Instead of calling down compassion, or calling down condemnation, this man cries out in compassion. “Oh, Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, how I would have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not wiling.”

This is Jesus in Matthew 23. Notice the word Jesus uses for the people in this city: “Children, children. They don’t know their right hand from their left. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And notice the imagery that Jesus chooses for Himself. He says, “I’m like a mother hen, I’m like a chicken.” (laughs) Jesus blows your world up every so often, doesn’t He? I’m like, “Jesus, you’re pretty cool. Why don’t you pick a better verb, like “be an eagle” or something? Come on. Right? Cool talons!

Why does Jesus pick a chicken? Why? Because when the fox comes, all the chicken can do is throw its own body into the mouth of a predator to protect the chicks. The hen who lays down her life for her young. And don’t you see, friends, Jesus is the Jonah who should have been.

Instead of waiting around, wanting to die so that...rather than see his enemies be saved, Jesus laid down his life to save His enemies. On the cross Jesus became sin for us and He threw His body into the open jaws of death so that He might shelter us forever under His wings of righteousness, that we who were once enemies of God, estranged from Him, might have our lives now hidden in Christ because of His grace.

Now, if you’re wondering about Jonah, I do think he finally turned the corner. After all, he wrote us this story. And even though the book bears his name, Jonah goes out of his way to write himself as a fool, doesn’t he? He does not look good in this narrative. He messes up at every turn. He is not the hero of the story. God is the hero of the story, and Jonah wants us to make sure we understand that. Which means that Jonah got it. He finally got it. He saw his self-righteousness. He realized his sinfulness. He finally understood that God’s salvation is by grace alone. That’s why he writes himself the way he does. Because when you live in grace, friends, it means there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to hide, and there’s nothing to prove. You can take your sinful life of self-righteousness and hold it up as a trophy of the grace of God because that’s all that matters. And the way Jonah writes this story shows us that he learned in the end to finally live in the grace of God for himself. And he learned to share God’s heart of grace for a city that was chock full of his enemies.

And now Jonah shares his story with us, with you and me, and he’s inviting us to live in God’s grace for ourselves. And he’s inviting us to share God’s heart of grace for a city chock full of enemies. The lingering question for Jonah and for us is this: Should we not pity this great city? Should we not pity this great city?

Friends, like Jonah, we have been called to a great city. Not Nineveh, Chicago. Some of you live far out and maybe you’re not called to this city, but you’re called to a culture that in many ways has rejected God and has run in the other direction. And it might feel like the world is full...the world you’re called to reach is full of enemies—political enemies, economic enemies, moral enemies. How do we share God’s heart for this great city?

You see the question? “How do we share God’s heart for this great city?” Quickly as we wrap up, three don’ts and three dos. Okay? Three don’ts and three dos all from this story.

Number one, don’t run the other way. Don’t run the other way. Don’t retreat, don’t escape, don’t isolate, don’t form a little Christian bubble and stay away from the big bad world. Jonah tried that. It did not go well. We are sent into the city, into the culture, into the group of people rejecting God, on mission from God. That’s where we’re sent. Right? You don’t run away.

Secondly, don’t call down condemnation. Don’t stand outside the city and just hope God fries it. Friends, we never… Listen. We never give up on people because people are never beyond the grace of God. We never give up on people (applause) because people are never beyond the grace of God.

Third, don’t make it “us versus them.” Don’t make it “us versus them.” Jonah did this. He said, “God, it’s me or Nineveh. Either you’re gonna get me, or you’re gonna get them. The godly versus the ungodly. It’s a war. We gotta win this one, God. Bring it down on the bad people, defend the godly people. It’s us versus them.

Friends, listen. God loves all the people of this great city. He longs to see all of His lost children come home to find in the mercy and grace of God. There are no exceptions. God longs to see all of His lost children come home. And they may not look like you, vote like you, act like you, behave like you, but God loves them. Don’t make it “us versus them.” (applause)

So, three don’ts! Here’s three dos.

Do serve with sacrificial love. Do serve with sacrificial love. Friends, Jesus wept with compassion over the city, didn’t He? And He entered into the city to serve and sacrifice at great personal risk for Himself. And He gave himself away for others. And He says, “Come, follow Me.”

Secondly, do speak truth and grace. Do speak truth and grace. Jonah was all truth, nor grace. Right? But grace and truth came in Jesus Christ, both at once, John 1:17. Truth without grace is harsh. Grace without truth is sentimental. But grace and truth together are redemptive.

Third, the third do, is do keep the Gospel central. Do keep the Gospel central. Friends, it is so easy these days to get distracted, to make secondary things the main thing of our lives. The whole world is out there trying to tell you the point of your life is to build your career. The point of your life is to survive inflation and economic posturing so that you can outlive a recession. The goal of your life is politics and getting the right people in office you can finally have whatever it is that you think you want. The goal of life is to build a nest egg and take care of your family so your kids can have a better life than you had.

Listen, all of these things are good things, and they are important things, but they’re not ultimate things. The ultimate thing, the most important thing we are called to in this life is the mission of God, the message of the Gospel to redeem a lost world one soul at a time as people come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. (applause) We are ambassadors for Jesus Christ. We are sent out on mission into this great city, and we’ve got to keep our focus.

The Gospel is the main thing, and we’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing, Amen? Because, friends, God is unrelenting in His grace for undeserving people. It’s our only hope before God, and it’s the only hope for this great city.

So, let’s go share the Gospel, love like Jesus, and give ourselves away. It’s the only thing that has ever changed the world, and we get to be a part of it. Praise the Lord!

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to live in grace. Help us to be conduits of grace. Father, forgive us for self-righteousness. Forgive us for our sin. Forgive us for the ways we twist the Gospel and turn it into something that’s for us and not for others. Father, the Gospel of grace is really scandalous. People have always criticized you for being too merciful and gracious, for eating with sinners and tax collectors, for welcoming home prodigal sons who don’t deserve to come home. But Father, that’s our only hope. It’s the only chance we have. And having experienced your mercy and grace in Jesus Christ, how can we hold it back for ourselves, and not share this good news with this great city that you love? Help us to share your heart to be your people on mission in this great city.

We love you. Help us, we pray for Jesus’ sake, Amen. Amen.

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