“Jonah: A Strong-Willed Child Doesn’t Get His Way” by Rev. Cody Sandahl – June 26, 2016

Rev. Cody Sandahl
Rev. Cody Sandahl
"Jonah: A Strong-Willed Child Doesn't Get His Way" by Rev. Cody Sandahl - June 26, 2016
/

Introduction

This is our final week looking at the book of Jonah. Next week we’ll celebrate Independence Day and look at being a Christian citizen. Then two weeks from now we start a new series on the signs and wonders performed by Jesus.

For a quick recap of the Jonah’s story so far, he is told by God to go to Nineveh – capital of the Assyrian Empire – enemy of Israel – and to preach against their evil ways. Instead of going East to Nineveh, he goes West on a ship. But he can’t escape God, and he winds up getting tossed off the ship, swallowed by a fish, and *ahem* deposited back on the beach. Then God again tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, he obeys, preaches against their evil, and lo and behold the people of the great city repent and ask for God’s mercy. And so Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days…never happens. God granted them mercy. And that’s where we pick up in chapter 4.

Jonah 4

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Haven’t Gotten Your Way?

If you wanted the sermon teaser video this week you already heard this story. I was in college and I had the opportunity to start dating a girl that I really liked. But I’m a Christian, and Christians are supposed to check with God about things, right? So I decided to pray and ask God if I should date this girl. But to be clear, this was all for show. This was to check off the box and re-affirm what I had already decided. I wasn’t expecting an answer. In fact, I didn’t want an answer – I already knew the answer. But I prayed anyway. I lobbed up a quick inquiry to God and got ready to move on my merry way when I received a loud, booming, almost-audible reply: “NO!”

I was speechless and wide-eyed. But surely I had just imagined that, right? So I prayed again and before I could even finish my one sentence question I again received a reverberating, “NO!” I checked to see if my roommates were playing a trick on me, but no such luck. That wasn’t the answer I expected. It definitely wasn’t the answer I wanted. And in case you’re wondering, “God told me not to date you” didn’t go over well with the female in question, either. I probably should have just lied. That would’ve gone over better.

Have you ever received a surprising response from God? Have life’s events ever careened away from your desired path? If so, how did you respond? How did it affect your faith? How did your prayers sound – if you still prayed in those times?

I have to admit, Jonah gives me a lot of hope. Because he tried a lot of bad ideas when God surprised him. He tried running away. He tried manipulating God. In v4 he even flat out ignores God’s question. God says, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And Jonah just walks out of the city with nary a reply. Since God keeps talking to Jonah, I take from this that God is gracious with us and knows we aren’t always at our best when we’re surprised or angry.

In fact, we know that our first reaction when we’re surprised or startled is pretty much automatic. There are four basic reactions when our world goes from “OK” to “Not OK.” We can attack others, attack self, avoid, or withdraw. Jonah tries all four. He withdraws to Tarshish. He avoids God’s question. He attacks himself and wishes he were dead. He attacks God. But Jonah’s description of God is spot on, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah was furious that God would be so gracious to the citizens of Nineveh, but God was being just as gracious with Jonah as well.

When you’re surprised, when things go from “OK” to “Not OK,” how do you respond? Do you avoid? Do you withdraw? Do you attack others? Do you attack self? Whatever it is, that first reaction is pretty much hardwired into you. It’s not rational – it’s automatic. The difference between healthy and unhealthy is how long it takes you to get out of the hardwired script and regain your thoughts. And whatever your reaction is, Jonah tried all of them and still received grace from God. Know that God grants you that same grace, too.

Going Really Badly

But what about when things go really, really badly? Not just the small stuff – epically bad? What about when things seem hopeless?

To put Jonah’s anguish in context, keep in mind he’s not just upset that he looks like a fool now his prophecy didn’t happen. In Jonah’s time, Assyria was spreading like a virus. It was a malignant tumor marching inexorably toward the hapless kingdom of Israel. They needed a miracle. God blowing up the capital of the empire might suffice. But instead they’re spared.

Now Jonah has every reason to worry. About 40-50 years after he visits Nineveh, the Assyrians march in and take over Israel. Judah and Jerusalem survive, but the kingdom of Israel is conquered by these same Assyrians. Clearly their repentance and belief in God didn’t last long. I think Jonah is fully aware of what’s going on. If God cares about the people of Nineveh, not just the people of Israel; if God isn’t going to nuke the Assyrians to save the Israelites, then Jonah’s people are going to lose. There is much hand-wringing about this political cycle, but can you imagine if we were under the thumb of some other country? Jonah has every reason to feel defeated. In fact, he probably didn’t know this, but as Jonah sits outside of Nineveh whining to God, he’s starting a period of almost 200 years’ worth of bad news for the Jewish people. This is the start of one of their darkest hours – sorry darkest centuries!

Have you ever had things go down the tubes like that? Not just a few bad bounces, but months or years of trouble piling up? Have you ever felt like you’re trying to run up a steep gravely hill, slipping downward no matter how fast you run?

I met with a man this week who, after three years of bad luck and bad decisions found himself hopeless and homeless. I know a woman whose husband decided to do her a favor and leave now while she’s pregnant rather than later when the child would remember him. How nice of him. Or maybe a hopeless diagnosis. Or losing a house to foreclosure. Or a marriage falling apart. Or maybe even the sapping strain of a thousand paper cuts. How do you respond when things are going epically bad? Hopeless even?

I get asked this question about our son Charlie. How do we handle it when our son has had seizures for over two years with little chance of getting rid of them? How do we handle developmental delays? How do we handle the terrible side effects of the ineffective medications? How do we handle the constant march of bad news? As Jonah is laying there, overlooking the city that God won’t destroy to save Israel, cooking in the desert sun, tired, worn down, I get where he’s coming from.

Do you get where Jonah is coming from? Have you ever been so far beyond your ability to cope that you can’t even remember what it was like to be happy, or stable? Have you ever thought, like Jonah, “It is better for me to die than to live?”

The Bible takes up the question of how to respond in faith when life seems hopeless. Job goes there after his incredible suffering. Jonah goes there in this chapter. Paul talks about it toward the end of his life. The psalms address it. And the answer is remarkably consistent. Psalm 118 says, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” Paul writes in Philippians 1, “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain…I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Jonah tried to escape God in the sea but God rescued him with a fish. Jonah in this chapter tries to just give up and stop caring, but God reminds Jonah that God still cares.

In other words, good things happen. Bad things happen. But God says, “I am concerned for you through it all.” Just as God is concerned for Jonah even through his disobedience, God is concerned for you. Just as God is concerned for the Ninevites and their animals, God is concerned for you.

It might seem hopeless. God still cares. It might seem pointless. God can still go to work. It might seem better to die. Psalm 118 says, “I will not die but live.” We aren’t called to give up. We’re called to get up nevertheless and keep asking God to do something. Trust me, I understand how pointless that feels sometimes. But nevertheless that’s what faith looks like when there seems to be no hope.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, Jonah tried everything when his life seemed hopeless. He tried attacking others. He tried attacking himself. He tried avoiding it. He tried running away. Nothing worked. But God loved him and was concerned for him through it all. Concerned for a runaway prophet. Concerned for the capital of an evil empire and threat to God’s people. Concerned for you and me, too. Therefore, even if it feels hopeless, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” Amen.