Pity in the Lives of the Rescued
June 18, 2017 Series: Jonah and the Rescue of Rebels
Passage: Jonah 4:1–11, 2 Peter 3:8–9, Genesis 1:24–31, Psalm 139:1–16, Matthew 6:25–30
So we’ve spent a lot of time in Jonah, right? It’s a really great story. But it’s also a really sharp story. It’s hard to read Jonah and feel okay, to feel like you’re good. So as we read together, after every passage, after every break in the story, we’ve found ourselves wanting. Do you know what I mean? We watched as Jonah ran away from his mission of mercy and we saw it for what it was - an act of hatred, an act of prejudice, an act of ingratitude - and we noticed how our own refusal to broadcast the gospel to our coworkers and our neighbors and our community is, in itself, an act of hatred, of prejudice, of ingratitude. We saw that we’ve been given a great commision, and like Jonah we’ve ran the other direction. We head for Spain, though there are people to whom we’ve been called.
We spent some time exploring who Jonah was, and we found that he and his people have received mercy after mercy after mercy. They are a people defined by the firsthand experience of the mercy of God. And Jonah was the messenger of that mercy. He saw the mercy of God unfold, to pardon a people who had broken their relationship with God and hadn’t done anything to make it right again. He proclaimed the mercy of God to undeserving Israel. That’s who he is. And yet. And yet when he saw a people in need of mercy, all he could see was their sin. He didn’t want God’s mercy then. Mercy was okay for the people of Israel, but not for the people of Nineveh. Destroy them, they’ve earned it - says this messenger of mercy. He had forgotten. He had forgotten who he was, and what he’d been given.
Remember the story of the debtors, that Jesus told? I told you last month that the first debtor was forgiven a 10,000 talents - a huge amount of money. I looked it up this week, and a conservative estimate of the modern value of 10,000 talents is 7.4 billion dollars. That’s conservative. So this guys is forgiven 7 billion dollars, just like that. Because the King had pity. And he runs out into the street and bumps into his buddy, who owes him roughly $11,000. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of money. But next to 7 billion dollars, it’s nothing. A trifle. And yet this guy wraps his hands around his neck and screams, “Pay what you owe!”
That’s a picture of Jonah. And that’s a picture of you. I see myself in that picture. I see myself hating ISIS, and wanted that people destroyed. I hate them without praying for their souls. These are real men, and real women, and real children. But the debt they owe me, that debt is nothing compared to the debt I bore before the King of Kings. And my debt has been lifted, forgiven, forgotten.
So we’ve watched as Jonah does what Jonah does, and we see that Jonah looks an awful lot like us. And we’ve repented. Because I don’t want to be that way. That’s not the right way to live, to behave, to relate to others.
Nearly everything we’ve seen in Jonah - up to this point - seems to revolve around Jonah’s actions - how Jonah ran from God, how Jonah hated the people of Nineveh, how Jonah wanted their destruction. Look at Jonah running. Look at Jonah hating. Look at Jonah drowning. Look at Jonah complaining. And if you weren’t paying close attention, you might think that this is a book about Jonah.
But here, at the very end of our story, the story turns.
Have you ever watched a movie that, just at the end, so dramatically shifts the narrative that it reshapes your understanding of everything that’s just occurred - so that you’re left stunned? Think “The Usual Suspects,” or “Inception” or “The Book of Eli.” The last moments of these stories redefine the stories themselves, teach you that you’ve been reading them all backwards. They force you to start at the beginning, and to see what you should have always been seeing.
The last words of the book of Jonah are paradigm shifting, perspective shattering words. Because the last words teach us that this book is a book about God. Not Jonah. Not the people of Nineveh. The book of Jonah is a book about the pity and mercy of God. And once you catch this, once you see what God is saying about himself, and about the plant and about the people, you’re going to need to start from the beginning, and behold the great grace, the great pity, the great mercy of God.
And that revelation, more than any recognition of your own Jonah-likeness, is going to change and shape your life forever.
So let’s get started. Turn to Jonah 4.
Jonah 4:5 - End
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 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.” 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?”
Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. Jonah has just preached fire and brimstone over the people of Nineveh. “40 days,” he says. And then he leaves, climbs a hill, and waits to watch the city burn.
And God is there, watching and waiting. He’s decided not to destroy this city, because the people in it have repented. Because God is good and kind and merciful, and slow to anger, and quick to forgive. And this could be the end of the story, but it’s not.
God causes a plant to grow, to give shade to Jonah in the heat of the sun. And Jonah is happy about this plant.
And then God sends a worm, to destroy the plant overnight.
And then God send a scorching wind, to make Jonah miserable.
He’s pushing, is what’s fascinating about this part of the story. God is pushing Jonah toward a revelation. He won’t leave Jonah alone in his sin, just like he wouldn’t leave Nineveh alone in their sin. He’s pushing, even though it means pain. Because the love of God is big enough to use deep pain and deep sorrow to teach his people about his mercy and his kindness and his love and his worth.
Jonah’s angry (again). And he wants to die (again). And so he asks God to kill him (again).
And here, God repeats himself. “Do you do well to be angry?”
Last time God asked Jonah this question, he didn’t answer. But this time, he fires back. “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
Now look, and watch carefully, because this is where the story turns.
“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?”
Should I not pity Nineveh?
What we’ve just seen is an argument. God is explaining himself to Jonah, justifying his decision to have pity on the city of Nineveh. Now before we dive deep, can we take a moment to behold the breathtaking love of God, who stoops down to explain himself to this awful man, step by step? Think about it for a moment. If you were God, is there anything that would keep you from smiting Jonah, right in this moment, or a hundred times before?! What kind of patience is this, and love, and mercy, and kindness? He stoops down, and he takes time, and he explains himself to his son. What a father! Oh, that I would be such a father!
But we need to keep moving, so what I’d like to do is to break down this argument, and to tease it out. Because I want to understand precisely the motives of the pity of God. And I want to adopt those motives.
Okay, so look once more.
You pity the plant.
- You did not labor for it.
- You did not make it grow.
- Which came into being in a day, and perished in a night.
So I want to stop here, because this much is very clear from the text. Jonah is angry because he pitied the plant. He’s angry because this plant has been destroyed.
And God seems to suggest that his pity is inappropriately placed. On what grounds?
You did not labor for it.
You did not cause it to grow.
It grew in a day and perished overnight.
Why shouldn’t Jonah pity the plant? Because he did not work to give it life. Because he did not work to sustain it’s life. And because it was here and gone again in a day.
Now, think about Nineveh.
Who is Nineveh’s maker? Who created Nineveh? Who labored to give them life?
And who labored to sustain Nineveh?
How long, how many days and weeks and years and centuries and mellenia has God been sustaining Nineveh, this great city?
I want to quickly read through a few texts, because I want to give three dimensions to a very simple but profound idea. I want to prove to you that the pity of God is grounded in the work of God. And what is that work? To make good things for good reasons. The pity of God is grounded in the work of God - to make good things for good reasons.
Let me repeat that, because I think it’s important. The pity of God is grounded in the work of God to create good things and to sustain good things for good purposes. He gives pity to men and to creatures and to cities and to nations because they are his masterpieces, whom he’s worked to fashion out of the dust, whom he’s sustained by his power and his kindness and his grace, for his own good purposes. God’s pity is God-centered, and God’s pity is given to God’s creatures because they are God’s work.
Hopefully all of that will make sense in a minute. Turn with me to Genesis 1.
Genesis 1:24 - 2:7
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Okay, so I wanted to start here because the creation narrative is one of the most important texts in the Bible and we’ve all heard it so many times that it’s importance hardly registers anymore. Notice a few things here.
The major takeaway is that God is the maker of all beasts and of men. They are the product of his imagination. Almost like a sculptor crafts an image out of rock, except that this sculptor had no rock to work with, because there was no such things as rocks, or images, or anything. Because God made everything from nothing.
So God crafts all these creatures from his imagination. They are works of art. They are masterpieces, and he’s proud of them.
How do I know that he’s proud of them? Because as soon as he finishes, he says, “This is good.” And after making all the fishes, and all the birds, and all the cattle, and all the dogs, and all the people, he stops. And what does he say? “This is very good.”
Now before we move on from his passage, I want to point out that God relates to men and to beasts in two ways.
- First, He is their maker.
- Second, He is their sustainer.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”
He makes them, and he gives them work, and he teaches them about their food. God is at work to create, and he’s at work to sustain. Not just the lives of men, but also the lives of creatures. Making and sustaining. And this isn’t just a one-time deal. Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” He is ever at work, Making and Sustaining.
Making and sustaining. God is always at work Making and sustaining.
Let’s keep moving. Take a look with me at Psalm 139.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Okay, so the reason I chose this text is because of it’s articulate explanation of the work of God in the making of people, in the sustaining of people, in the active, every day care of people. This is a passage that revolves around God’s work to create and sustain that involves every aspect of this man’s experience.
You know what I’m doing, you know when I move to and fro, you know what I’m thinking, you know what I’m about to say. You are there when I’m in the heights. You are there when I’m at the depths. You are there with me, and I can’t go somewhere without you being there with me. You have written my days. And you were intricately involved in my creation.
“For you formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Making and sustaining. Not a man alive that hasn’t been intricately woven together by God. He is the author of life, and he makes men and beasts, and every living thing. And as soon as they draw breath, he is sustaining. They can’t go to the depths without him. They can’t ascend the heights without him. He is there, providing and protecting and sustaining. Not a sparrow falls without the Father’s say so.
Making and sustaining. Every person, every city, every nation. God is at work, making and sustaining.
Let’s look at one more passage. Turn with me to 2 Peter 3.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance
So the church is always watching, always waiting for the return of Jesus. And there are some - the wolves - who will mock the people of God. “Where is this Jesus?” They want to believe that Christ’s delay is about God’s powerlessness. But Christ’s delay is not about powerlessness. Christ’s delay is about God’s pity. God doesn’t want any to perish, but desires for all to reach repentance.
The delay of God to usher in the new age, with an end to all sorrow - the delay of God to usher in the final and forever Kingdom of Jesus - that delay is dictated by his pity. He doesn’t want any to perish. He wants all to reach repentance.
Look, I’m just as reformed as you are. And we can get into this later, if you’d like, but all means all.
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the LORD God, and not rather that he turn from his way and live?”
God’s desire to see his creation flourish, and God’s desire to rescue his people and demonstrate his nature and renew all things, are not mutually exclusive. Look, when God creates, he does so with care, and with attention, skillfully and artfully. When God creates, that thing is a masterpiece. And he intricately weaves it together and he grows it up and he sustains it. God is a breathtaking artist, and his art is priceless. He is intimately involved in the birth, and life, and death, of all things everywhere. And everything he does is strikingly beautiful. And for that thing to be ruined in a hopeless act of rebellion is a tragedy.
So there’s this show called “Doctor Who.” Don’t make fun of me, I’m a nerd. So this show is about a guy who can move back and forth through time. And he brings friends and visits people and eras and they have adventures. So anyway, in this one episode the Doctor and his friends visit Vincent Van Gogh. And it’s a great episode with a spectacular adventure, but there’s this one moment that, I think, is especially profound.
So these guys have become friends with Vincent Van Gogh, and they’re at his house asking him questions. There are paintings everywhere, and they are priceless (because they’re Van Gogh paintings), but Vincent doesn’t know this because they’re not going to have any value at all until years after his death. So Van Gogh tells the Doctor that he’s seen a monster. And the Doctor and his friends ask Vincent Van Gogh to describe this monster. But Van Gogh says, “Look, I’ll just show you.” And he picks up this amazing, beautiful painting of a sunflower and he brushes over it with white paint.
And as soon as he reaches out for the paintbrush and dips it in the white paint, the Doctor and his friends shout, “NO!” And they jump forward and reach out, but it’s too late. The painting is ruined.
They jumped and they shouted and they reached out because that painting was priceless. Everything Van Gogh painted was priceless. And to paint over that thing was a tragedy.
That, I think, is a picture of what happens when the creatures of God are ruined in rebellion. God has labored for that person, for that city, for that nation. He has labored. He wove each person in their mother’s womb, he was intimately involved in their birth, he fostered their growth. Wherever they were, he was there. He provided for them food and shelter. They are sustained by his power. And he does it all to broadcast his love, and his care, and his kindness, and his strength, and his glory. That’s what that masterpiece does. It broadcasts his glory. And to lose that masterpiece is an unspeakable tragedy.
You pity the plant.
- You didn’t labor for it.
- You didn’t cause it to grow.
- It was here in a day and perished overnight.
Should I not pity Nineveh?
- That great city, which I labored for.
- That great city, which I caused to grow.
- That great city, in which I have sustained 120,000 humans and many cattle.
That, I think, is the point of the passage. Look at you, Jonah, throwing a fit about a plant, for which you didn’t labor, which you didn’t cause to grow, which sprung up in a day and died overnight. Shouldn’t I pity Nineveh? Look at that great city - I wove together every one of those 120,000 souls. I have preserved them, generation after generation. I have given them good gifts, and I have sustained their growth. They are great because I’ve given greatness to them. Should I not pity them, my breathtakingly beautiful work? Should I not pity those whom I have created for my glory? Should I not work to restore those whom I have sustained? Is not my work worth your pity?
Okay, so wear that perspective and take a few steps back.
What is the book of Jonah about? Or better yet, what do Israel, Jonah, Nineveh, the storm, the sailors, the fish, the waters, the shore, and the plant have in common? They are beneficiaries of and actors in the stunning work of God to create good things and to sustain good things for the good purposes of proclaiming his kindness and love and power. This last statement - this reminder that God chose to pity Nineveh because every soul within and every creature without was the work of his labor, his sustaining hands - radically shifts the direction of the narrative. In a moment you see it - every scene in this story is a shadow of God’s meticulous orchestration to rescue a people who exists only because he created and sustained them. His influence is everywhere, and his work to keep that which was his, to preserve this people from tragic ruin - that’s what sent the prophet, the storm, the fish, the vomit, the proclamation, the pity, and the pardon. The book of Jonah is about the pity of God, the moving compassion of God to preserve that for which he has worked and sustained.
The book of Jonah is a microcosm of the gospel. God creates a people, and he sustains them, and they rebel against him, and he sends a prophet, and they repent, and he pardons, all to preserve the message of his kindness, and mercy, and love, and glory.
God’s pity is God-centered. He pities in order to proclaim his nature, he protects and preserves his work in order to teach his people about his personality. He pities because he has labored, he pities because he has sustained, he pities to preserve the great work of his hands.
What’s your pity like?
I want to push you here because I think we’re on the threshold of something profound, of a real paradigm shift. God’s emotions toward his creation are God-centered. God has meticulously worked to intricately handcraft masterpieces that broadcast his kindness and his love and his power and his glory. And he will not stand by as they destroy themselves. The love and care and power and creativity of God are ever on display in his work. And for that work to destroy itself in act of rebellion is tragic.
That’s how we should think about everything.
Your coworkers, your news anchors, your cashier, the guy in the car next to you at the intersection. That guy is the masterpiece of God. He has been intricately woven, he has been sustained. And he is ever broadcasting the love and power of God. For that guy to be destroyed in a hopeless act of suicidal rebellion is tragic.
Don’t pity your iPhone. You dropped that thing in the toilet and it ruined your week. Look, that thing was here and gone in a day. Don’t pity your car. So someone dinged your door in the parking lot. That thing was here and gone in a day.
I want to read you something that C.S. Lewis wrote.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”
It’s time we begin to think about our world for what it really is. We spend way too much of our time occupied with trifles. We spend way too much of our time obsessing with work, and with our stuff, and with our homes, and with our hobbies. Too much time. Look, these things are here and gone in a moment. And we are surrounded by men and women who will last forever. They will last forever. We are surrounded by God’s masterpieces, who will forever wear his glory or forever be objects of his wrath. Where is your pity?
But don’t get me wrong. This passage is not about you. This passage is about God. Don’t get caught up in your own shortsightedness. When you walk away today, I want you to be thinking about the overwhelming beauty of God’s love, God’s kindness, God’s care, God’s pity.
Take a moment and consider the powerful display of God’s love that is the book of Jonah. Everything is orchestrated to rescue God’s people. God sends prophets, and storms, and waves, and fish, and shores, and preaching, and repentance, and plants, and worms, and scorching heat. He does it all to preserve and to protect his people. Behold the love of God, behold the pity of God.
I want to do something a bit different today. Usually, at the end of these passages, I’ve asked a lot of tough questions. I’ve asked you whether you, like Jonah, had run, or had forgotten, or had harbored a heart of anger. But that isn’t enough today.
I want to take a moment and thank God for his pity. Because ultimately this story is about your redemption. He has orchestrated all things to work for your redemption. That storm you’ve encountered was sent to rescue God’s people. That scorching heat outside, that was sent to preserve his people. Everything is orchestrated to protect and preserve the masterpiece of God, his people.
And for that, we should be thankful.