171008 Jonah 4:5-11

Last Updated on Monday, 09 October 2017 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Jonah 4:5-11
Theme: When It Comes To God, Expect The Unexpected

When I re-read the last verse of Jonah, were you at all surprised by the cliff-hanger ending? At the conclusion of four chapters, the book ends with an open-ended question. As far as I can remember, Jonah is the only book of the Bible that ends with a question. And along with Jonah, we are left to come up with the answer. For the average reader this abrupt ending might seem somewhat unusual, but by this time in his ministry Jonah probably wasn't surprised at all. Jonah had learned the hard way that when it came to his relationship with God, he should expect the unexpected.

It began at the beginning of Jonah when the Lord gave his prophet this command: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me" (1:2). Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and at the time Assyria was a world superpower located northeast of Israel. The Assyrians had a reputation for being as brutal as they were powerful. They annihilated their enemies and deported anyone who was left standing after the war was over, and Israel was on their short list of countries to be conquered.

And so we can understand why Jonah didn't expect the Lord to tell him to leave home and lay down the law in the backyard of his people's sworn enemy. We might even be able to understand why Jonah did what he did next. Instead of getting ready to make the journey into hostile territory to the east, he booked passage on the first ship he could find that was traveling to the west.

Jonah was aware that the Lord was watching his attempt to flee. And so he might have expected that a violent storm would come up out of nowhere. And Jonah might have expected that when the sailors decided to cast lots to see who was responsible for the storm that the lot fell to him. And when the sailors finally took Jonah's advice and threw him overboard to still the storm, he probably resigned himself to the fact that he would die in that watery grave...and no one would ever hear from the prophet again.

But Jonah did not expect, and no one, not you or me or anyone else, could have anticipated what happened next. "The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights" (1:17). During those three days Jonah had plenty of time to think. Sometime during those three days Jonah offered up a prayer that ends with a beautiful confession of faith: "Salvation comes from the LORD" (2:9). And after the three days were over the Lord commanded the sea creature he used to save Jonah to spit Jonah out safely onto dry land.

It would have made for a dramatic and happy ending, but for Jonah it was only the beginning. He had learned his lesson. He had an amazing story to tell. But if Jonah expected to go back home, if Jonah was hoping to put this not-so-impressive episode in his life behind him and move on, the Lord had a very different plan in mind. "The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 'Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you'" (3:1-2).

This time Jonah did not try to run away from God. He obeyed the Lord. He went to Nineveh. And it appears that he embraced his mission. His message was all fire and brimstone. He would have pounded on the pulpit if he had one. His words of warning for the Assyrian people were loud and clear: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" (3:4).

I wonder if Jonah derived some pleasure from delivering this message. The Assyrians were a godless, ruthless people who had harassed and oppressed God's chosen people. The children of Israel saw the armies of Assyria as a serious threat, but now the tables were turned. The Lord sent Jonah to threaten Nineveh with divine judgment. And I can picture God's prophet counting down those forty days, hoping and praying that his prophecy of doom and gloom would come true.

But then something happened, something unexpected, something that was nothing less than miraculous. "The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth...When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened" (3:5, 10).

What should have been a day of joy and thanksgiving, what should have been a cause for celebration, made Jonah's blood boil. He had tried to be a good soldier. He tried to do what the Lord told him to do. But he couldn't take it anymore, and so he took out his frustrations on God. He prayed: "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (4:2-3).

Do you see the irony here? Today's sermon theme is "When It Comes To God, Expect The Unexpected." And in our brief review of Jonah's life, we reviewed a handful of events that fit the description. But the underlying issue, Jonah's real problem with God, the reason he fled from God, the reason he didn't want to preach to the people of Nineveh, was something Jonah totally expected to happen.

Jonah believed the Lord to be a gracious and forgiving God (his own life was a perfect example). And he knew that if he went to Nineveh there was a good chance that the people would repent...and be spared...and continue to be a thorn in Israel's side. Jonah couldn't bear to see that happen, and so after he threw his little temper tantrum he went outside the city and made himself a makeshift shelter, still holding out hope that Nineveh would be overturned.

After Jonah said his piece, it was God's turn. But instead of directly addressing his pouting prophet, the Lord used an object lesson, and the object he used was a vine he caused to grow up over Jonah. The vine's leaves protected Jonah from the sun, and he was happy to have some shade. But just as quickly as the Lord provided the vine, he provided a worm the next morning that made the vine wither. And as the sun beat down on Jonah in the heat of the day, he again expressed his desire to die.

Maybe he was suffering from sunstroke. Maybe he was blinded by his hatred for his enemies. Maybe Jonah's anger with God made him miss the point of the vine illustration, and so God explained it to him (let me paraphrase): "Jonah, that plant was on this earth for less than twenty four hours. You didn't plant it. You didn't take care of it. Jonah, it's a plant! And yet you cared about it more than you care about the tens of thousands of people who live in Nineveh, people I created, people who have immortal souls, people who are in real danger of spending eternity in hell. Shouldn't I be concerned about all those people? Shouldn't you?"

The book of Jonah ends with this implied question, a question that is closely related to another question and what is perhaps the book's overarching question: Who deserves God's grace? Thinking about that question reminded me of a conversation I had with a prospect about a decade ago. She was very young in her faith, but she was also very perceptive. And she was connecting the dots about what it meant to be saved by grace.

She had a hard time accepting the fact that a person like Jeffrey Dahmer could do the terrible things he did and then repent of his sins and be forgiven and go to heaven. I told her that if heaven were reserved only for the good people, it would be a pretty empty place. I told her that with God there are no degrees of sin. Every sin we commit is terrible. Every sin deserves punishment. I told her that in the eyes of God I was just as wicked as Jeffrey Dahmer...and she was too. And I explained that my best answer to the question, "Who deserves God's grace?" is: no one. No one deserves God's grace. That's why it's called grace.

If there is a warning for us in this text, it is this: If a prophet of God could be confused about this question, so can we. If Jonah could be more concerned about his personal comfort than the eternal destiny of an entire city, so can we. If Jonah could be misled into thinking that his own clan was just a little bit better than everyone else, so can we.

Maybe this would be a good time for you to take your spiritual temperature. Let's say you confess that you are an unworthy recipient of God's undeserved love. Let's assume that you say all the right things about mission work and outreach. But what does your weekly schedule say? What does your bank account say? What would the God who knows the innermost thoughts of your heart say?

I can't speak for you, but I know one answer to the question: "Who deserves God's grace?" Not me. Instead of being kind and generous, I am callous and selfish. Like, Jonah, I resist God. I question God. Sometimes I dig in my heels and oppose God.

If you would treat your friend that way, you could almost predict what would happen. They would be upset with you. They would express their disappointment in you. They would have every right to condemn you, to abandon you, to cut you out of their life.

But not God. Instead of doing any of those things the God of all grace did something totally unexpected. Instead of raising his hand in anger, he opens his arms in love. Instead of giving us the punishment we deserve, he gave us a gift no human being deserves. God gave us his one and only Son. Jesus gave up his life on the cross to take away the sins of the world, Jonah's sins, your sins, my sins, every sin. And our living Savior sends us out into the world to share his love, to share the good news of sins forgiven, to share the only message that gives people hope for this life and the life to come.

God doesn't have to do it that way. He could communicate with individuals directly. He could enlist legions of angels to spread the good news. But instead God calls people, sinful people like Jonah, flawed human beings like you and me, to carry out this important work. An unlikely choice? Perhaps. But that's the way God works. What else would you expect? Amen.

Our Mission Statement:

Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.


Worship Schedule

8:00 A.M. & 10:30 A.M.

9:15 A.M. Bible Study for All Ages

Monday at 7:00 P.M.

Television Broadcast
Thursday at Noon & 7:00 P.M.
Sunday at 10:00 A.M.
on Charter Cable Station 985 or on-line


St. Matthew's Lutheran Church
818 West Wisconsin Avenue
Oconomowoc, WI 53066




© 2012. St. Matthew's Lutheran Church • Privacy Notice
Powered by Joomla 1.7 Templates