“Whose Side Are You On?” A Sermon on Jonah 4

This is the text of my sermon at Cottage Church on August 25, 2013. The text was Jonah chapter 4. While not entirely happy with it, I hope there are some helpful thoughts.

Tennis star John McEnroe was the king of trantrum-throwing. When he thought an umpire’s call was wrong, he really let go. ‘Are you serious?! Everyone in the stadium could see that was in, and you call it out!’

Tantrums aren’t pretty – especially when they’re thrown by full-grown adults. There are two sides to the kind of tantrum John McEnroe throws in the video above. Firstly, he’s sure he’s right – and he isn’t willing to listen to anyone else’s opinion. Secondly, he’s unable to do anything about it – he’s not in control. He responds furiously.

While we might not have exploded with that kind of public rage, the anger that comes from being sure we’re right and not being able to do anything about it is a pretty common experience. You’ve almost certainly entertained private thoughts like these:

I know better than they ever could!

I can’t believe they’re getting away with that!

If I was in charge, things would be different!

This is the kind of rage Jonah gives reign to in the final chapter of the book. Like McEnroe, and like our own private thoughts, there are two aspects to his anger: he’s sure he knows best, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it.

Whose side are you on?

At the heart of Jonah’s anger with God is the question ‘Whose side are you on?’ The people of Nineveh are Jonah’s people’s mortal enemies. Why would the God of Israel have mercy on them? Shouldn’t he be the sworn enemy of Jonah’s people’s enemy?

Of course, God is on Jonah’s side. He’s proved it again and again. He didn’t destroy him when he sailed for Tarshish. He didn’t let him drown at sea. He didn’t revoke Jonah’s prophetic calling. Rather, he sustained him miraculously, persevering with his intransigent prophet and reinstating his calling to take the Lord’s message to Nineveh.

But God is also on the side of Jonah’s enemies. And that’s what Jonah can’t stomach. Jonah wants his enemies to get what’s coming to them. In Jonah’s mind, for God to be for Israel he cannot be for Nineveh. In Jonah’s mind, for God to be his God he must be against what he is against.

The reason God is on the side of the people of Nineveh because he made them. God says to Jonah: “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left,as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10). Jonah cared about the plant that wasn’t his creation. God cares about Jonah’s enemies because, like Jonah and like the plant, he made them: they are his creation. God is for both Israel and Nineveh because the people and animals of both cities are his creatures.

Jonah’s out-of-control anger

We don’t know how Jonah responded to God’s explanation; the book ends with the question he poses to Jonah. But we do know that God invited Jonah to stop and reflect on his anger. God’s question “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) opens up the possibility of another way. It’s an invitation to think differently. But Jonah chooses to persist in his anger.

The strength of Jonah’s anger is the result of his being out of control. “I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God!” (Jonah 4:2). He begs God not to show compassion. “If I were running the show,” Jonah believes, “Nineveh wouldn’t be receiving this opportunity to repent.” But Jonah can’t control God’s compassion, nor can he convince God that his anger is demands a different response. Jonah is categorically out of control. That’s what makes him so mad.

When Jonah gives reign to his out-of-control anger, it begins to control him. Despite God giving him the opportunity to get a grip – twice! – he lets his anger have the final say. This kind of anger leads to extreme bitterness. When you give reign to that kind of anger, you start to see every little thing as an affront to your own control. And so Jonah has another pathetic tantrum about the plant. He didn’t grow the plant, or even ask for it – but when it’s gone, he once again rages at the perceived injustice of not being in control.

How often do we let such anger reign in our lives? How often do we respond to the many things we can’t control by raging at the injustice of not being little gods over our own circumstances?

Jesus Christ and our attitude to our enemies

Jonah’s anger festers because he wants the people of Nineveh to get what they deserve. He doesn’t want them to receive the mercy of God. God’s mercy is for God’s people, and Jonah wants God to show him that he’s on his side, not on the side of Nineveh.

The irony, of course, is that Jonah is a recipient of God’s mercy, too. The mercy Jonah despises when shown to his enemies is the same mercy shown to him again and again – but he has taken it for granted. Jonah has forgotten that he is in precisely the same position as the people of Nineveh: he has walked away from God, only to be welcomed back at God’s initiative. He was swallowed by a giant fish, for goodness’ sake! You’d think it would be hard experience for Jonah to forget. But he forgets the mercy God has shown to him, and in doing so forgets the fundamental similarity between himself and the people of Nineveh.

We’ve probably all been swallowed by a big fish at one time or another – metaphorically speaking, of course. We’ve probably all experienced a moment that we know we could not have survived without the grace of God. We’ve probably all experienced a moment when God showed us his mercy and compassion in a new way. We’ve probably all experienced a moment that we know we did not deserve and that we never could have imagined.

How easily we forget those moments once they’ve passed.

When we forget those experiences we forget that we’re in the same boat as Jonah and as those we think of as our enemies. In the letter to the Romans (5:8-10), Paul writes:

God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!’

Unlike Jonah, Jesus went gladly to his enemies on God’s behalf, proclaiming that reconciliation with God is possible. Not only did he die for his enemies, he also prayed for them as he hung on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). Jesus recognised that his enemies, like the people of Nineveh, did not ‘know their right from their left,’ (Jonah 4:11). And he loved them.

We all were once like Jonah and the people of Nineveh: God’s enemies, rebels against the true king of the earth, not knowing our right from our left. Despite that, God is on our side. But he is also on the side of our enemies, who need the same grace we have received in Christ. Jonah wanted to know whose side God was on: his, or Nineveh’s? When God asks Jonah if his anger is right, he is posing the same question back to Jonah: “Whose side are you on?”

To be a Christian means to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Loving our enemies, as Jonah failed to do, means being on their side. Being on the side of those we are tempted to think of and treat as our enemies os what it means to be on God’s side. He is for our enemies, because they, like us, are his creatures.

When we forget this, we fall easily into anger and bitterness, deluding ourselves that far from not knowing our right from our left, we both know what is right and are in control. The secret to avoiding the kind of anger and bitterness that festers and that alienates us from other creatures is to remember that without God’s action for us in Jesus we can’t know our right from our left.

If there’s one thing the story of Jonah should teach us, it’s that we must always remember that we are nothing more and nothing less than those who have received the mercy of God. Those who we are tempted to call our enemies are likewise creatures of the true and living God, to whom he longs to show the same compassion. God is on our side, and he is on their side, too. To be on God’s side means that we also need to be on their side. We put ourselves on their side by praying that they might come to know God in Christ, who “is our peace, who made both [Jew and Gentile] one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). We put ourselves on their side by loving them as he has loved us. We put ourselves on their side by rejoicing in the truth that the same mercy granted to us, formerly enemies of God, is also on offer to them.

Whose side are you on? Let’s pray that God’s Spirit might help us learn to see our enemies as fellow-creatures, co-recipients of the mercies of God. Let’s pray that we might learn to pray for them, and to declare to them in word and deed the wonderful news that God is, through Christ, reconciling the world to himself (Colossians 1:20).

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