I preached from the text of Jonah 4 this past Sunday. The title of my sermon was “Adventure(s) in Missing the Point.” Here is a quick look at the Jonah 4.
In the story, once Jonah has gone to the city of Nineveh and preached to the people, they repent. In response, God repents from his resolve to destroy the city and demonstrates his grace and mercy to the repentant people of Nineveh. All should be well, the people of Nineveh have turned from their wicked ways and God gets to be God. But all isn’t well. Jonah is not well. In fact, we are told how this becomes very “displeasing” (v. 1) to Jonah and he becomes angry. The word “displeased” in Hebrew (ratzah) is the same word used to describe the “evil ways” of Nineveh (3.8, 10). The fact that the Hebrew writer uses the same word to describe Jonah’s displeasure as he does to describe the wickedness of Nineveh, says something about the nature of Jonah’s anger. Jonah is dead wrong!
Amazingly, in spite of his anger, Jonah is able to quote Israel’s fundamental belief about God, that God is “…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…” (v. 2, NRSV). In fact, Jonah even adds that God is “…ready to relent from punishing.” Yet even as Jonah is able to speak Israel’s fundamental belief in God, Jonah remains angry, so much that he would even rather die than live. How can someone recite the grace of God and yet be so consumed by and drawn to anything but God’s grace and mercy, so much that they would rather die than live.
Jonah ends with a question from God. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (v. 11, NRSV). It seems like a strange ending…very open-ended? Why? I believe the answer is found in the fact that God takes great care to mention both the number of people (‘adam) living in Nineveh and the animals. The use of the Hebrew word ‘adam (people) is significant because “… each adam is one of God’s creation and everything God has done throughout this story has been “aimed at vindicating his creation against the powers of death and destruction” (Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008, 160).
The question thus ends by pointing us, the readers, to the creative and redemptive mission of God…that God’s business is the restoration of life to its created intent. Yet that is not good enough for Jonah. Driven by a different agenda, he is overcome with anger at the sight of God exercising his grace and mercy. Jonah has pursued an adventure in missing the point? Is Jonah alone?
Have we ever missed what God’s creative and redemptive purpose is really about and pursued a different agenda?
I’m increasingly convinced that seeking to restore the New Testament church is an adventure in missing the point. In scripture, we are called to be followers of Jesus and not the church (1st century or any other century). While we learn a great deal from church history, if we would learn to live like Jesus we would be the church he envisioned…a church that shines its light throughout the world in expressions of God’s grace and mercy as it proclaims the gospel in word and deed. It doesn’t obsess over whether the church is singing with instruments or not, rather it is concerned with being the conduits of grace and mercy to a broken and lost world so that the people of the world can join in the songs of praise as well. It doesn’t obsess over whether the church can support a para-church ministry to orphans, unwedded mothers, and drug addicts, rather it seeks to heal them by the power of God so that they to can begin to experience the grace and mercy of the Kingdom among them. If such obsessions were so important to God then it seems God would have made them more clear. But God hasn’t. To continue such pursuits seems to be nothing more than another adventure in missing the point.
Will we learn a lesson from Jonah? The book of Jonah ends with the question from God? As I said, it leaves the book sort of open-ended. I believe it is so because it is awaiting a different ending to be played out. How will we act?