God Gives Mercy (Jonah)

In Sermons, The Whole Story, Year 2024 by harvest.admin

Resource by Eric Weiner

If you have a Bible, I invite you to open to the book of Jonah. It’s right between Obadiah and Micah if that’s helpful for you. Just by association, when people hear Jonah, they think that’s the guy who gets eaten by a whale. Which, BTW, is not as impossible as it sounds. Don’t do this right now, but go Google “man swallowed by whale” and be amazed. Seriously, I saw a story from 2021 about a US lobster diver who claims to have spent like 30 seconds in a humpback whale. I imagine that’s a life-changing experience that I personally would not like to have. 

And while being eaten by a fish makes for a great story, it’s not the main point of the book of Jonah. The message of Jonah is that God desires for mercy to spread to all the peoples of the earth. That’s his mission. Today, that’s what he wants to mobilize his church to do. God’s great act in human history is to extend mercy to people who deserve none.

And let me just warn you from the start that Jonah can be an uncomfortable story because it teaches us that those “closest” to God can actually be the ones who are most spiritually distant and resistant to Him. We’re going to get into that more in just a moment.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 

So first, let’s orient ourselves to this book by understanding the main actors involved. 

  1. Jonah – We don’t really know a whole lot about Jonah. The fish guy, right? And you’d think, since he has a book of the Bible named after him that this is a guy we should listen to. But Jonah is surprisingly awful. He spends more time being angry and running from God than he does serving him. And one big reason for that is Jonah’s priorities are out of order. Because he places his political and national interests before his commitments to the Lord. 
  1. Nineveh – was a big city in Assyria. The Assyrians were known as one of the cruelest empires of the ancient world. Literally, they would boast about their military victories in horrifying detail. We’re talking about burning cities to the ground. Cutting off the limbs of their enemies, making a mockery of the dead. They were a modern-day terrorist state. And, oh BTW, Assyria was the nation that would later conquer Israel and bring them into exile.

IOW – Israelites weren’t applying for visas to visit Assyria. In modern day terms, this would be like God calling an Israeli to go minister to Hamas. Who thinks that’s a good idea?

  1. The Lord – this is the covenant-keeping God. As we see throughout the book, He’s the one who is sovereign over all things. And He is a God who’s eager to extend his compassion and forgiveness to those who least deserve it. That is who He is, which is good news for us because it means there’s hope for even the worst of sinners. 

Now, some of you here this morning may be thinking, I know some pretty sinful people. Maybe when you hear a convicting message you think to yourself, “I know some people who need to hear that!” But most of us need to learn the lesson Jonah was so resistant to hear. We need to learn to cry out: Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on ME a sinner. 

So here’s the plot: The Lord is calling his prophet Jonah to go preach a message of mercy and grace to a people Jonah hates and who he knows don’t deserve it. So what does he do? 

[3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

Jonah is the Lord’s prophet, yes, but is it even fair to call someone a prophet who doesn’t listen when God appoints him to speak? And what are prophets for if not to go and tell God’s message to others? 

Literally, everything God calls Jonah to do, he does the opposite. The Lord tells Jonah to go east to Nineveh, so Jonah hires a crew of sailors to take him west of the Mediterranean. He tells Jonah to deliver a message that would turn people back to God. Instead, Jonah tries to travel far away from God. God tells him to rise up, so Jonah goes down. 

Down to Joppa. Down into the boat. Down into the inner part of the boat. And eventually down into the depths of the sea. 

See, Jonah is being confronted with the reality that (1) God by nature is a sending God.We need to come to terms with that ourselves. He calls all of us to play a role in his mission. God wants us to serve him in carrying out his missionary call here and now. 

God often calls us out of our places of comfort and security so that we will find our comfort and security in him and so that we’ll do bold things in His Name. 

In this instance, God was calling Jonah to leave his homeland to enter into an urban, cross-cultural context where the wickedness of the people was well-documented and where there was no direct benefit for himself. Jonah was to seek the good of others at his own expense. And you ask, why would God ask him to do that? 

Because it expresses to others who God is. We see this in Christ. He enters our context. He draws near to his enemies and offers them mercy at his own generous expense because he loves us and has a vested interest in us.

And so as we minister in a cross-cultural context, it’s important for us to recognize that it’s difficult to preach mercy to people that we either don’t like or who we assume we’re better than. Any feelings of superiority stop us from carrying out the mission of God in our own hearts, let alone those he’s called us to serve. And we need to test our hearts on that. 

2. We live in a world that God bends toward His purposes. 

Things are going his way. But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? When you’re in the midst of the storms of life, it doesn’t feel like God’s purposes are being accomplished. When you’re dealing with the consequences of sin, it doesn’t feel like God’s purposes are being accomplished. 

When you look at the state of the church in Malaysia, it doesn’t feel like God’s purposes are being accomplished in our city. Just think about this: Some estimate that 3% of our city consists of Bible-believing, church-attending, evangelical Christians. But that percentage is only decreasing because as the population continues to grow, the witness of the church isn’t growing at the same rate. 

And there are all sorts of reasons that make it difficult to make Christ known in this great city. 

  1. Busyness of life
  2. Social pressures & family expectations
  3. Economic challenges
  4. Racial divisions
  5. Legal boundaries around religious practice

I mean, you name it. But the story of Jonah presents us with a world that’s filled with all sorts of practical obstacles that turn in surprising ways toward people receiving God’s mercy. In Kuala Lumpur, I feel like you could go 10 different ways to get to the same place. Similarly, in the story of Jonah, it feels like every road leads to God’s mercy. And this should give us great confidence in pursuing God’s mission in our own lives because there’s a lot of grace even when we feel like failures. 

Just look at this: 

  1. The pagan sailors encounter God’s mercy. Like how does that happen? In chapter 1, God appoints Jonah to preach mercy to the Gentiles in Nineveh. But Jonah doesn’t want to do it. He runs away. Now, does that sound like the beginning to a story that ends with non-Christians turning to worship God? But as Jonah hires sailors to take him to Tarshish, God appoints a wind that causes a storm that brings them all to their knees. These guys exhaust every trick of the sailor trade before they settle on the conclusion that they are no match for the chaos of the stormy sea. They are at the mercy of God. 

Jonah didn’t want mercy for Gentile Assyrians, so God used Jonah’s disobedience to bring mercy to pagan sailors.

After they hurled Jonah into the sea, [16] Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” They turned and worshipped the LORD. 

  1. Jonah hits rock bottom. Or at least we thought he did. Jonah convinces the sailors to toss him into the sea. At first, they resisted because they didn’t want Jonah to perish. Imagine that, Jonah! You’d think that’d be the heartbeat of Jonah because that’s the heartbeat of God. He desires that no man should perish. But Jonah recognized that this storm was under orders. It was God’s judgment for HIS sin. Let’s face it, all sin has a storm attached to it.

Sin causes chaos in our lives that can bleed into the lives of those around us. But God can use the consequences of our sin to bring judgment, and he can use judgment to open us up to our need for mercy. Jonah was supposed to be proclaiming God’s mercy to others, but it’s almost like God was using the sailors to teach Jonah what he should be doing.

Jonah being tossed into the sea is like a death. In chapter 2, Jonah prays a prayer of repentance where he talks about being in “the belly of Sheol.” He was cast deep “into the heart of the seas.” “Weeds were wrapped about [Jonah’s] head.” Let me translate that for you. Jonah’s saying, “I thought I was a dead man!”  

Jonah deserved death, but God desired compassion. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “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 God appoints the fish to save Jonah’s life. Jonah gets mercy. 

  1. The radical repentance of Nineveh. Given the conditions, it sounded highly improbable. In chapter 3, God gives Jonah a second chance to preach his message of mercy to the Ninevites. And you would think, at this point, that Jonah is a changed man. 

You often hear stories of people who have near-death experiences who come away with a renewed appreciation for life. People who receive God’s mercy should have a renewed appreciation for God’s compassion. But not Jonah. His bias is strong. He still believes God should be merciful to him, but not to them. 

Listen, Jonah 3:3 tells us that the city is so big that it would take 3 days to walk through. [4] – So “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” Meaning he didn’t even make it to the city center before delivering his message. And notice, his gospel presentation. 

There’s no call to repentance. No future hope. No coming salvation. Just warning and condemnation. The whole sermon’s like five words. This doesn’t sound like a guy who wants to see a revival in the city. But God uses this message to disrupt Nineveh into a city-wide act of repentance. 

[6] – The Ninevites take on a posture of humility – they clothe themselves sackcloth and ashes.

[7-8] – The king issues a city-wide decree to fast and pray. To acknowledge sin and draw near to the presence of God.

[9] – They entrust their fate to the God who judges fairly. 

[9] –“Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 

We live in a world that’s bending to accomplish God’s purposes because we live in a world where God controls all things. Even the sailors and storms obey him. Even the creatures of the sea and the vegetation of the desert obey him. Even the wicked Assyrian King, who has no moral compass, yields to the divine will of God. 

God can even use a selfish, unwilling, nationalist prophet to accomplish his missionary goals. He can change even Jonah’s heart because God overcomes unwilling sinners with what Sally Lloyd-Jones calls God’s never-stopping, never-giving-up, unbreaking, always and forever love. 

Finally, the story of Jonah teaches us that: (3) We all need God’s mercy.  

Every single one of us. Mercy is at the very heart of God. It’s what he desires for us. But listen, if you think God accepts you based on your religious activity, you will not be merciful. And you won’t be used by God to minister mercy to others. 

What’s funny about the story of Jonah is that the person you most expect to understand mercy is the one who is most resistant to it. The pagan sailors get it. The wicked Assyrians get it. But the prophet of God ends up being the one who has the furthest to go. 

See, religious people have such a hard time with mercy because it doesn’t fit into their religious system. Religion says, my acceptance is based on my performance. But mercy says, “I will have compassion for those who deserve none.” 

So when God relents toward the people of Nineveh, [4:1] – we learn that “…it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” See, God’s mercy for Nineveh makes Jonah miserable. And it’s at this point in the story that we learn what’s wrong with Jonah’s heart. 

Michael Card wrote a book attempting to explain the biblical word, Hesed. In the English, you might see this word translated as loving-kindness, loyal love, and even MERCY. 

For example, in Psalm 23:6, David says, “Surely goodness and hesed (mercy) shall follow me all the days of my life…” 

This same word shows up in Jonah 2:8 when Jonah prays: “Those who pay regard to vain idols

    forsake their hope of hesed (steadfast love).” And again in 4:2. Jonah knew that God would be gracious and merciful, that he would be “slow to anger and abounding in hesed (steadfast love)…

Card defines hesed as “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” 

Why was Jonah so displeased with God? Because he hasn’t let God’s mercy really change him. See, Jonah thinks he has a claim to God’s riches, which is why he gets angry when God gives it away.

The Lord says to Jonah, [4:10-11] “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. 11 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?”

God is assuming the best about Nineveh. He’s saying they are so evil and blind and don’t have a clue how to change any of that. Most people would distance themselves from people like that. They would think they’re not worth it. But God is a God of compassion. 

And real compassion means being able to look at someone trapped in sin, feel genuine sorrow about their troubled position, and still commit to serving them in hopes that they’ll change. And if the gospel is true there’s real substance to that hope. 

God is grieving over this city and the question He asks Jonah is: Why aren’t you? Harvest, do you grieve over the lostness in our city? Are you moved with compassion? And desire to see people receive God’s mercy? 

Jonah is the least responsive person to God’s mercy in the whole book. He needs his heart changed just as much as everyone else. 

One of the most difficult realities for a religious person to accept is that God would be gracious toward someone who does not deserve it. One of the greatest obstacles to genuine faith for the religiously devout is grace. Religion teaches you that you’re good according to your works. 

But Christianity teaches that goodness is a unique characteristic of God that is entirely lacking in sinful people. The only way for people to be capable of any good at all is for God to live within you. He must join himself to you. And if he has not joined himself to you, then you stand in opposition to him. And that is Jonah. 

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have some Jonah in us. 

Jonah is like the older brother in the prodigal son story. Do you remember this? The father in the story of the prodigal son has two sons, BTW. What older brother wants to sit in the shadow of his reckless younger brother? 

As the story goes, the younger son is the wayward one. He’s the one who says to his father – “I’m done with you, and I’m done with this family. Give me my inheritance and let me be on my way.” 

But the older brother stays. Never has a bad word to say about his father. Works hard. Does what he’s told. He’s outwardly obedient. But when the younger brother returns and his father is excessive in his kindness to him, the older brother is filled with anger. 

“I’ve been loyal to you all this time and you’re going to throw a party for the son who disgraced you?!”

But when you think you’ve been good all your life, you never experience conviction of sin. You never feel a need to change. Why would you? You’re the good one. You think you don’t need God’s mercy because you don’t need God. And while you think you’ve been physically close, you’ve always been spiritually distant. 

If that’s you this morning, I want you to hear God’s message of mercy to you. All this year we’ve been saying, our sin is exceedingly great. We reject God. We try to mask our need for mercy by our works. But your works are as good as the sailors trying to fight their way out of the storm. You can’t steer yourself out of the judgment of God. But if you’ll come to your knees.

If like the Ninevites, you’ll surrender your future to the will of God, you too can experience his hesed, his loving-kindness and mercy. The one who owes you nothing pays the debt for your sin, adopts you as his child, and gifts you with the firstborn son’s inheritance.

The final verse in the song His Mercy is More celebrates the fullest expression of God’s kindness toward us through the giving of His Son. The final verse says:

“What riches of kindness He lavished on us

His blood was the payment, His life was the cost

We stood ‘neath a debt we could never afford

Our sins they are many, His mercy is more”

Church, we have come to know the kindness of God through the appearance of His Son Jesus Christ. And as Jonah spent three days in the depths of the sea so that no sailor might perish. Jesus was cast three days in the depths of hell. He died in our place to pay the debt we could never afford. And he rose again so that no man might perish but receive God’s mercy. 

And so I say to you this morning, open your hands because our God comes offering mercy to you. He wants to use you to extend his mercy to those who don’t deserve it. And neither do you. Won’t you receive it?

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