In a recent message, we heard Pastor Dave make the statement that – “People need love when they least deserve it.” I want to change one word in that statement and present it like this:‘People need compassion when they least deserve it.’ Here is the question: ‘Who within your circle of relationships is right now in need of compassion?’
We have been bounced around a bit this July in terms of the themes of the messages. But we don’t set the direction or course of the wind of the Spirit; ours is to hoist the sail and pull up the anchor and go with it. This morning brings us to yet another focus. And before we look at the scriptural text I want to make a statement, followed by a question.
This particular emphasis came to me this week from what might seem to be a bit of a strange source scripturally. I want us to go to the book of Jonah. Count backwards from Matthew eight books and you will be there, or if it helps, it is page 789 in my Bible.
This book consist of four chapters, and takes up no more than two pages in the Divine library. When people here the name Jonah the first thought (and regrettably the only thought) is the great fish. And yet in this tiny book we have an unrivalled snapshot of the heart of the Father God toward sinful, broken, hurting and helpless humanity. We have a snapshot of the core disposition of the Almighty God toward people who deserve nothing but judgement. Before getting to that let’s take a quick overview of the book.
Many years ago, J. Sidlow Baxter organised the book in the three following ways:
Chapter 1 – Jonah & the storm.
Chapter 2 - Jonah & the fish.
Chapter 3 – Jonah & the city.
Chapter 4 – Jonah & the Lord.
Chapter 1 – Jonah’s disobedience.
Chapter 2 – Jonah’s preservation.
Chapter 3 - Jonah’s proclamation.
Chapter 4 – Jonah’s correction.
Chapter 1 – Fleeing from God.
Chapter 2 – Praying to God.
Chapter 3 – Speaking for God.
Chapter 4 – Learning of God.
The next thing we need to understand is the nature of the book. We know that Jonah was a prophet, and yet the book that bears his name is not a prophetic utterance; in fact it is not an utterance at all in the sense of a proclamation or message preached. The nature of the book isautobiographical – meaning it is the prophet’s personal story of his experience with God.
And this is important: The first three chapters contain the main body of the story, while the last chapter contains the interpretation of that story. That interpretation is vital because in it we find what the entire book is about. And what it is about is the disposition or attitude of the heart of the Father God regarding repentant man.
What we need to take away from this is the understanding that each of us has a story – or more properly each of is a story. Beyond that, God speaks through our story, and He doesn’t just speak to us but to all who “read” our story.
We have looked at the organisation of the book and the nature of the book. We need to consider now the purpose of the book.
First of all what the purpose is not. The book is not about the fish, the storm, the rebellious prophet, the gourd, the worm that ate the gourd, the hot east wind nor the city repenting. These are all vital components in bringing us to the purpose of the book; but they are not the purpose.
In these details we see the sovereignty of God, the disciplines of God, and the strong and patient dealings of God. But the book is written to establish one core fact concerning the nature, the attitude or disposition of God. That core reality is expressed in five words in the form of a question: Jonah 4:11 – “Should I not have compassion?”
Whatever else you may or may not see in this book, if you do not arrive at an overwhelming consciousness of the pity or compassion of God you have missed the whole purpose of the book.
To arrive at that view we need to look at the prophet. If we hope to understand Jonah we need to find the answer to a single question: ‘Why did he disobey the command of God to go preach repentance to Nineveh?’ My Sunday school teacher taught me that he disobeyed because he was afraid of the Ninevehites. The truth, however, is much more sinister than that. Jonah disobeyed God because of what he knew was true of God. And here is what he knew: Jonah 4:2 – “… I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and One who relents concerning calamity.”
Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented at his preaching God would meet them in compassion and grant them mercy and kindness. He did not want God to forgive Nineveh. He wanted judgement. He wanted God to “get them” and get them good. That of course, revealed the heart of Jonah. He was bitter, narrow, a bigot, exclusive in his attitude and arrogant in his outlook. But before coming down to harshly in our judgement of him let’s be reminded of a few facts concerning Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, which was the rising world power at that time. It was prophetically destined to become the instrument of God’s discipline regarding Israel – Jonah’s own people. The excavated ruins of Nineveh reveal a people of unprecedented cruelty. I don’t want to be overly graphic here but we do need to see who it was Jonah was called to preach to.
History reveals they were unsparing in their slaughters of their enemies. They would literally blanket their garrisons with the corpses of their victims. They took particular delight in removing the tongues of their victims while still alive. The walls of their cities were wallpapered with the skins of those they defeated. And a favourite practice was pinning their enemies to the ground by driving a stake through them at the base of the chest.
This is what Jonah knew of the people he was to call to repentance. This was a people least worthy of compassion. And yet, in relation to this people, God asked His prophet: “Should I not have compassion?” Little wonder it required such a process to get Jonah to a place of obedience.
That process unfolds around five major activities of Deity. 1) Jon. 1:4 – The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea. 2) Jon. 1:17 – The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah. 3)Jon. 4:6 – The Lord God appointed a plant. 4) Jon. 4:7 – But God appointed a worm. 5) Jon. 4:8 – God appointed a scorching east wind.
If you think that obedience is difficult, just ask Jonah about the cost of disobedience.
In chapter three we see the outcome of God’s disciplines. Jonah obeys and preaches God’s message in the streets of the city. The city repents, and from the king to the cattle everyone is covered with sackcloth, and fasts and mourns. God responds to their repentance, and the Bible says: ‘God saw their deeds.’ That is important, and tells us that repentance is more than an attitude – it is an attitude that produces action.
In chapter four we have Jonah’s reaction to God’s response to the repentance of Nineveh. It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. In fact he was absolutely livid with anger. In verse 3 we see the absolute insanity of Jonah’s anger and pride: “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”
Jonah then climbs a high hill east of the city. He prepares a shelter of shrub branches to protect himself from the scorching sun. From here he watches the city and still hopes that God will pour out judgement. God causes a very leafy plant to grow up behind Jonah and it provides much needed shade. Jonah is pleased with God’s provision and sits under it the entire night. But with the morning, God appointed a worm to destroy the plant. And with all of Jonah’s shade gone God then appoints a withering east wind to blow over him. His anger now reaches a feverish (no pun intended) pitch and we read: ‘He begged with all his soul to die.’
And right at that point of vulnerability (and only God knows where that point is for each of us) God broke in with the critical point of the entire experience. Vs.10:Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant…” And with the word ‘compassion’ God exposes what this entire exercise was all about.
In essence this is what God said: “Jonah – if you can have compassion upon a dying plant in which you have absolutely nothing invested, should not I, the God of the universe and Creator of all things, should not I have compassion upon man in whom I have invested my very image and glory – even when they have become so messed up that they don’t know their right hand from the left spiritually?”
Beyond the life and times of Jonah, Christ would come and fulfil the prophetic picture presented in the story of Jonah. This Christ would meet and look out upon multitudes of those who least deserved compassion as judged by religion. And time and again we read that this Christ was moved with compassion. And out of that compassion He engaged the broken – those who did not know their right hand from their left hand spiritually – and brought healing and order into their lives.
Compassion shines best not among those who think they deserve it – but rather among those who know they don’t deserve it at all.
So let’s bring it down to where we are. All I can tell you is what I know to be true in my “gut” –“Nineveh” is coming to our door: those who least deserve compassion. For the most part I think we all tend to categorise sin – categorise human need. Here then is the challenge: Think of what is to you the worst possible case scenario of sin, failure, brokenness – of human weakness and frailty. Ask yourself the question: Is my heart prepared to extend compassion within the context of that need?
That question is not intended to generate guilt or condemnation. It’s intended to generate anhonest assessment of the heart. Of course, none of us will finally know where we are with this until God says: “I want you to go to Nineveh.”
Then we will either find a “Jonah heart” or the heart of Father God. But even if we find a“Jonah heart” we need not despair because this same God who shows compassion to Nineveh also extends that compassion to Jonahs when they least deserve it.