Jonah 4:5-11 “Thankful for God’s Unfairness”
Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance. Amen.
“That’s not fair!” Don’t you hate hearing those words? It’s the worst argument. But come on. Let’s be honest. You’ve said them enough times in your life. I guarantee that you said it when you were little. But I’m guessing you’ve said those words since then as well. Maybe at work you feel like you haven’t been treated good enough. Or maybe you were watching a football game and can’t believe how terribly the refs are doing their jobs. We have this sense of fairness built into us. We want to see justice. We want to see equity. We want to see people getting what they deserve. Especially when it comes to us. Fairness for others? Sometimes we care. But mostly for ourselves. You want to know who else cares about fairness? God does. But God sees fairness in a much different way than we do. In fact, it’s the common theme that runs throughout our readings for today. Especially our sermon text.
You see, there is a reason that Jonah is so grumpy in the lesson for today. He is this great prophet of the One True God. He has devoted his life to warning people about their sins. He has proclaimed forgiveness and peace. Dedicated to serving God. A life of seeing first-hand in how God rescues the lost. But don’t think that Jonah’s life has been easy. There were plenty of times when Jonah knew that he had to share a very unpopular message. As simple as it would have been for Jonah to keep the message to himself, he always proclaimed God’s warnings as well as his mercy. There is no question that Jonah is dedicated. But just recently Jonah found himself struggling with his job. Turns out that God told Jonah to proclaim a warning to an enemy of Israel. He was supposed to go to Nineveh. But Jonah didn’t want to go. He hated the Ninevites. These people were evil! These people were pagans. These people kept fighting against Israel. How is that fair? Those terrible Ninevites earned nothing but God’s wrath and punishment. They deserved destruction. That’s fair. That’s justice. At least, that’s how Jonah saw things. And you know what? He is absolutely correct. That’s what the Ninevites deserved.
Now, we know all about Jonah’s attempt to run away from what God told him to do. As far as we know, this is the first time Jonah has ever refused to share God’s message. But we know how God changed Jonah’s mind with a big fish. And so Jonah walked the streets of Nineveh proclaiming “40 more days and Nineveh will be overthrown…” After he tells everyone in the city that warning he goes up onto a hill that overlooked the city. He’s hoping to watch God destroy those terrible people. He builds a small shelter and he sits and waits. He reminds me of the Grinch. After he tries to steal Christmas by taking all of the decorations, and food, and presents from the Whos down in Whoville the Grinch goes up on the mountain to listen to all of the cry and complain when they woke up to their Christmas being ruined. Did I just compare Jonah to the Grinch? Yes. Yes I did. But, just like the Grinch, things don’t go exactly the way that Jonah imagined they would. The Ninevites listened to God’s warning and his word Worked. The Ninevites repented. And God forgave them.
How did Jonah react? He threw a temper tantrum. “It’s not fair!” When he learns that God isn’t going to destroy Nineveh he complains about God’s mercy! He is angry about God’s love! So God teaches his servant a lesson. He makes a plant to grow up and give some shade to Jonah. That’ nice. But then God takes it all away: he kills the plant and makes a hot wind and the sun to pummel poor Jonah. And his response? “It’s not fair!”
I’m not sure if I can argue with Jonah. “It’s not fair.” Look how often bad people get away with crimes and sins. It wasn’t fair that Nineveh was so wicked and then God just forgave them. “It’s not fair.” But maybe this is a good time to think about how big God mercy is? Who did Jesus die for? All people, right? But who does that include? Aren’t there some people that we consider so evil that they can’t be saved? We think back through history and see tyrants and murderers. Their names can’t be spoken without people remembering the terrible things they did. “It’s not fair that God would forgive them!” Can I be completely honest with you? There are some crimes, some evil things that I really have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that God forgives those things. Certain men and women who have done such vile and disgusting things to other people. How can God forgive them? These evil people chose to live in rebellion to God, but if God brings them to faith even at the last moment of their life, they are saved? Maybe you feel the same way. “It’s not fair.” But then it turns out that I am I really so different from Jonah. Are you like Jonah, questioning how God can forgive people for their terrible sins? Where does it stop? If it’s up to us to decide who God shouldn’t forgive: who is on the list? Who from history shouldn’t be forgiven? What sins shouldn’t be forgiven? How about our enemies? Should they be forgiven? Do we want God to punish everyone who has ever said mean things to us? Every person who has ever hurt someone else? Every person who has ever told a lie or been mean or said an unkind word? How about holding people responsible for their every actions, their every word, their every thought? That would be fair. That would be justice. Instead, God wants them to hear about his promises of forgiveness? That’s not fair! It’s not right! I demand justice! But before we go demanding God to punish instead of showing mercy we need to realize that we’re just like Jonah. We sit on our high hill waiting for God to destroy all of those wicked and evil people, forgetting that we deserve to be down there with the rest of the sinners.
Do you want to hear something that is really not fair? There once was this guy who was on trial. He was accused of crimes he didn’t commit and the judges were more concerned with public opinion than truth. This man had done nothing wrong and yet he carried sin with him. Not his sin, but the sins of the whole world. This innocent and perfect man, God from eternity but also true man, wanted to do this. Because he loved all of his people, he picked up the world’s sins and carried all of them. The Bible is very clear: he didn’t just carry some of them. He didn’t just die for the really good, or the pretty good people. He didn’t leave some sins behind when he went to the cross. He died for the sins of the whole world. Each and every one of them. He died for the vile. He died for the evil. He died for each and every sinner. He died for us. Do you think that’s fair? That the innocent died for the guilty? That the perfect died for the sinners? “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Romans 9:14-16) Thanks be to God that he comes to rescue sinners. Even us who struggle with understanding his perfect and complete mercy.
Jonah didn’t get it. Not at first. “But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11)
Jonah was so upset when that plant died. But he was cheering for a whole city filled with men and women and children and animals to be destroyed. He didn’t think it was fair that God could forgive. And honestly, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that God forgave the Ninevites. And it wasn’t fair that he forgave Jonah either. And it certainly isn’t fair that God forgives us. But that’s the mercy of God. There is a whole city, a whole country, a whole world of sinners out there who don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. And yet, God has forgiven their sins. But they are still dying in unbelief, never knowing the peace of God. Never knowing that God has paid the price of their sins. Dying in unbelief and not knowing the name of the one who saves. And so, instead of being bitter Jonah’s, let’s remember the mercy of God. The mercy that forgave us our sins. The mercy that caused him to work faith in our hearts. The mercy that moves us to bring his message of forgiveness to the world. And let’s celebrate when each and every unbeliever is brought to faith because we know the truth: God has not given us what we deserve, but instead he has been amazingly and lovingly unfair. Because of God’s unfairness we have received his mercy and forgiveness. Amen.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. Amen.