God's Great Compassion

Jonah 4:11: "And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city…?" (RSV)

This is a story about God's compassion and a man's righteous indignation,
and the classic struggle between them.
God plays Himself – the Patient One.
Jonah is His inpatient prophet.

The conflict erupts over the question of God's Nineveh policy.
Should God take the hard line against the godless, atheistic, and violent Nineveh?
Should God use His first strike capability and destroy the violent city?
Or should He wait, and hold back the divine holocaust, and give the city a chance?

What will it be, a policy of gracious compassion or a policy of impatient indignation?
Whose side are you on?
Let us watch the Lord and His prophet in the interactions on the momentous issue
of God's response to the violent city.

There are two encounters in the story. (Jonah 3, 4)
First, there is God's encounter with the city itself.
Second, there is God's encounter with Jonah.

Here God defends his Nineveh policy of compassionate patience against Jonah's first strike
which is indignation.
There are two scenes, there is God and the city, and there is God and the prophet.

God and the City

The city is Nineveh.
It is a great city in the style of the ancient world.
Like every city of every age, it is a mixture of curse and blessing, of the worst and the best
of all possible worlds.
It is the center of culture.
It has the best schools.
It has the best hospitals.
It has the best theaters.
It has the best music.
It is a great place to live.

And here we will also find the loneliest people, the craziest lifestyles, the most corrupt politics,
the most blatant immoralities, and, above all, the worst violence – a terrible place to live.
In the Bible, this civilized city is a puzzle.
On the one hand, the city is a godless place.
If you want to find God, you must take a hike to the mountains or trip to the desert.

And yet, when inspired fantasy projects the city as God's own place, as the center
of His holy presence, His home,
Jerusalem is the holy city, the city of God.
So the city can be either place: ultimate god-forsaken Sodom or an ultimate God renewed Jerusalem.

Nineveh is the ultimate in the culture of God forsakeness.
It is an atheistic cauldron of violence.
God cannot stomach the violence.
God cannot suffer humanity's dehumanizing brutality.

We are not told what sort of violence infuriates God the most.
Is it the violence of an economic system against the poor?
Is it military violence?
Or is it just the violence of the crooks and gangs on the street?

Maybe it is all of them lumped together, including the violence of some husbands against their wives,
making Nineveh the symbol of a violent civilization.

Jonah was as serious about Nineveh's violence as God was.
So God sent the prophet to the city to announce that He, the Lord, was finished with it.
The indignant prophet, with a spoonful of violence in his own self-righteous heart,
goes to the task smacking his lips with delight.

We must remember that Jonah had set out once before to do that.
But you recall that he suspected that God would turn out to be a soft-hearted push-over in the crunch,
and would copout when the time came to push the red button.
Remember, at that time, a great fish came between him and Nineveh.

Now at this time he is there.
He is preaching damnation with fire in his belly.
He lets the city know what God is going to do.
He is going to waste the city, wipe it out, and burn it down.

God is angry, and He is not going to put up with it anymore.
So in 40 days – God will send His terrible swift sword and a fiery whirlwind against Nineveh.
There is no way out – Nineveh will be finished.

Jonah proclaimed the message with a dry eye – no tears flow down his cheeks as he predicted
the doom of Nineveh.
They deserved it.
This godless atheistic people of the East had it coming.
And I guess he had a point.
And we notice that God never argued with Jonah about the faults of Nineveh.
And the Lord is not defending or excusing the violence of the city.

So Jonah proclaimed the doom for 39 days, and then stepped aside to watch the mushroom cloud
descend on Nineveh the 40th day.
The awful day came, and nothing special happened.
The sun rose, the kids went out to play, men went to work – the holocaust had been postponed.

What had happened?
Two amazing things happen.

One happened in the city.
The other came from God.
The city changed, and God called off the judgment.
And 120,000 human beings lived to see another day.

The city changed.
This is perhaps the most incredible change of all.
This great city of sin was converted.
It began with ordinary people – they repented of their violence.
They saw how self-destructive and how sinful they were.
They repented, and turned their hearts to God.

This spread from family the family – husband put away violence against their wives,
entire neighborhoods repented – city officials, and finally, the royal palace itself repented.

The King of Nineveh led the nation in a pageant of penance.
He established a new royal policy against violence.
The city changed from top to bottom.

We must take a moment and let that incredible fact sink in!
For it shows us what is possible in any city – our city, Washington DC, New York City, Moscow, etc.

if we do not believe a city can change, we do not believe in the presence and the power of God.

Then, Notice God's Compassion to a City That Repented.

One day God had said that Nineveh's clock had run out.
And then after their repentance, God said:
"Let Nineveh live, that women give birth to babies, that young men and young women dream
the dreams of the future, and let life continue
."

The purpose of the heart of God is to seek and save the lost, to heal the hurt,
to reconcile the alienated, to liberate the captives, and to recreate the world to a Kingdom of peace.
God is not willing that any should perish, and this is the unchanging intent of His heart of grace.

God And The Prophet

Take a look at Jonah.
He is not happy – in fact he is miserable.
Jonah is standing in the wings with egg all over his face.
He is seething mad.
Most of all, he is hopping mad at God.

And he has two reasons for his anger.
First, he is furious because God made a fool out of him in front of the whole city.
What a way to treat a prophet!
God ordered him to proclaim to one and all that disaster is on its way, and there are no loopholes,
and no escape clauses.
The city will be destroyed on June 21, 981 B.C. or thereabouts

What happens?
Nothing!
Zero!

God made Jonah looked like the fellow who promised his cult disciples they would
all be raptured into the sky on June 21, A.D. 1981.
Or like the prophets who told us that California would slide into the ocean in August 1969.

This is no way to support the collapsible ego of an insecure preacher.
So Jonah is sore; God had punctured his prophet's pride.

But his anger goes deeper.
It has to do with the kind of world we live in, and the sort of God that we have to live with.
Jonah wants a world where the bad guys always get what's coming to them, and to get it
before the third act is over.
John believes in the justice of the quick execution; and to answer violence with violence,
and give the devil what's coming to him at once.

When no cloud of destruction broke over Nineveh on the 40th day, the moral seams
of the universe came apart.
How could a just God not face up to His duties?
How could you trust a God who who lets compassion get the upper hand
over the desired judgment?
So what does a morally outraged prophet do when God's compassion turns back instant annihilation?

Jonah retires to the country – that's what he does.
He never liked the city anyway.
He might as well just quit.

Now comes the encounter between God and His prophet.
God explains His new Nineveh policy to the man who has been His chief spokesman for the old policy.
So God visits Jonah.

God speaks first: "Jonah, I'm getting some bad vibrations from you.
You are really upset
."

Jonah: "After what you pulled on me, I'm outraged.
I am so hurt that I wish I was dead
."

God: "Alright, Jonah. Let us talk about it."

Jonah: "Oh, yes, I want to talk about it.
I knew that you were soft.
I was afraid that you would get compassionate on me.
I should have followed my first instinct, and stayed away from Nineveh
."

Jonah had learned anything – he is not listening.
Maybe he needs another object lesson that will get his attention.

The vine comes on the scene.
A magnificent vine grows up overnight and gives a tired prophet some beautiful shade.
What a wonderful vine!

But then, the worm comes.
It is a huge and hungry worm.
And the worm destroys the vine.
Some worm it is!

Now Jonah is wild.
A hot wind is blowing, the sun is beating on his head.
God has made his point.
So God comes to Jonah again.

God: "Jonah, we have felt your rage all the way up in heaven."

Jonah, "Well I know where I stand with you, Lord.
When it finally comes down to now is this:
I do want to live in this kind of world.
I want out!
I would rather die!
Things are never going to be right again
."

God: "It was the vine, wasn't it, Jonah.
You felt something for the vine.
You let that beautiful vine get to you.
Well, if you can feel that about a vine…
Should I, not pity Nineveh that great city, on which there are more than 120,000 people
who do not know their right hand from their left
?"

Are we getting the picture now?
Jonah saw only wickedness; God saw people.
God saw weak and needy people.

Jonah saw the evil, and was indignant.
God saw people and was compassionate.

Therein lay the conflict.
It is still the same today.

Morally indignant people have a compulsion to divide all people into friends or enemies;
good guys and bad guys, and want instant judgment and execution for the enemies and the bad guys.

God sees the human race as people, all of whom are part good and part evil,
and God is willing to give them all a chance to repent "because he is not willing that any should perish."
But the Jonahs of the world say, "They are so evil, so hopelessly evil."

God replies, "Yes, but consider the children.
If you cannot have compassion for the wicked of the world what about the little ones
?"
No child has to be born in a country ruled by a dictator.
No child ever earned the right to be born in a land of freedom.
No baby ever chose to be born in the getto.

Some years ago, I was in a college class studying the history of China.
A Korean professor was teaching the college class, and he asked a question about how to deal with dictators.
A pastor of one of the largest churches in that large city answered,
"I would just go over there and bomb them all."
I couldn't believe what I heard, the class was shocked, and the teacher was speechless.
This was a christian university.

What about children, Jonah?
If you want violent leaders to get what's coming to them, what do the little children
have coming to them?
When Nineveh goes up in flames, the children will burn with it.
Remember the children!

It is here that we see God's way with sinful people, and His way with us.
It is the answer to the age-old question: "Why does God let human history go on
when everything seems so wrong in it
?"
Why does He wait so long before He burns it all up in the great judgment of the ages?

Simon Peter explained why God took so long.
In 2 Peter 3:9 he wrote, "God is not willing that any should perish,
but that all should come to repentance
."
Compassion moves the heart of God to put up with things for the sake of people.

God puts up with loose ends, and with the hardness of people's hearts,
and with a world full of wrongness, always to give people a chance to turn to Him.
Compassion does not rush into judgment.
Compassion patiently waits for new day – a tomorrow when things can change.

We need a dose of God's compassion in our world today.
We must see more than the evil of an alien enemy.
We must look through God's eyes, and see people in need of God.

For 2000 years, Christian eyes has been focused on Jesus Christ as the final solution
to human violence.
We have been looking ever since.
We look to the day when we will beat all our nuclear weapons into plowshares.
We look for the day when we will all learn war no more.
We look for the day when we will put away the belief that violence is the answer to our problems.

We know the final answer is coming in God's own time, so let us restrain our indignation,
drink the spirit of patience, and turn to our compassionate God.
Let us, as Christians, who have learned compassion first-hand from the cross of Christ
be compassionate to a world that needs God.

God's compassionate patience is also the answer to our personal impatience.
From the control center of our worried lives, God's patience often looks like cold indifference.
To us, it seems that He takes too long.
But God will not be rushed.

Neither should we be rushed, especially when it comes to closing down, and giving up
on the nasty problems that we want solved now.
We should not give up too quickly when everything goes wrong.
We should not give up too quickly on a troubled marriage.
We should not give up too quickly on troubled children.
We should not give up too quickly on our troubled selves.
We should not demand that everything be made all right today.

Give God time, as He has also given us time.
The conclusion of the matter is that God gives us grace to imitate His patience.

We have a choice.
Will we be the Jonahs of the world who demand instant and violent solutions to our problems?
Or will we be pleased that God takes His time, and works in His wise time.
He can show us that things can get to be all right tomorrow even though everything
seems incredibly wrong today.

God Is In Control!

"This is not how it should be.
This is not how it could be.
This is how it is.
And our God is in control.

This is not how it will be
When we finally will see.
We'll see with our own eyes.
He was always in control.

And we'll sing holy, holy, holy is our God.
And we will finally, really understand what it means.
So we'll sing holy, holy, holy is our God.
While we're waiting for that day.

We're waiting for that day.
We'll keep on waiting for that day.
And we will rise.
Our God is in control." -- Steven Curtis Chapman


Sermon adapted from several sources by Dr. Harold L. White