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The Second Extreme: Contempt for the Lost

To both experience and celebrate God's grace, we must allow him to swallow us whole.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "How Christians Should Relate to the Culture Around Them". See series.


I've got good news, bad news, and hard news.

The good news: The best argument for God is the church. Everyday, God becomes accessible to a hurting world through the people of God. In our simple acts of compassion and servanthood, in our worship and ministry of the Word, through our breaking of bread, we make the invisible God visible. "No one has ever seen God," the apostle John writes in 1 John 4:12, "but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us." Even when we're at our worst, the church still stands as a powerful testimony of a God who will not let us go until he blesses us. There is not one period in history you can point to and say, "The church offered nothing to the world then. It lacked even the faintest ember of light." We've always given something.

The bad news: The worst argument for God is the church. Everyday, God becomes more remote to a cynical world because of the people of God. In our foolish acts of self-righteousness and self-indulgence, in our judgment and smugness, through our breaking of trust, we obscure God. "If anyone says, 'I love God,'" John continues, "yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, who he has not seen." Even when we're at our best, the church is still marred by hypocrisy, apathy, and false piety. There is not a single period in history you can point to and say, "Yes! There it is! The church in all its fullness, exactly as God intended it." We've always fallen short.

The hard news: The only real argument for God is the church. Put aside all philosophical defenses and well-oiled apologetics. Such things can convince the mind, but only the church, walking in the light, can win the heart. God does not have a "Plan B." He does not have a backup strategy for making himself known among the nations. It's the church or bust. There is not a single period in history you can point to and say, "The church wasn't the main embodiment of God's presence in the world." We've always been all there is.

The church lives between the splendor of God's intent and the spectacle of our own shortcomings.

Paul speaks of God's intent for the church in Ephesians 3:10-11: "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord."

God's intent is for all his rich and varied wisdom to be clearly seen. The church's life is meant to be a heart-stopping drama staged on a cosmic scale—a grand opera, dazzling both a natural and supernatural audience. God wants us to wow the whole creation.

Too often, though, the reality is we're the laughingstock. The church is not grand opera; it's often burlesque theatre.

But don't you want to live out God's intentions for you? Isn't there part of you that wants to have all God wants to give—no matter what it costs or where it leads? Don't you want to be able to say, "I'm what God intended! I'm what he had in mind when he made me and called me and knitted me into this body. I'm the fulfillment of his purposes."

Whenever he's called in to help a church in crisis, consultant Eddie Gibbs has two questions for church leaders to ask themselves: Does God or the world need more Christians like me? Does God or the world need more churches like mine?

Don't you want to be a peculiar people? The phrase is Peter's, from the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."

In Greek, the original phrase means "a purchased possession"—something that uniquely belongs to God, acquired at great cost. You can only account for it in light of God's ownership. We are holy oddities—sacred misfits. You can't make heads or tails of us unless you bring God into the equation.

But we're going to look at one way to not be peculiar. We're going to look at the life of Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet who wanted nothing to do with God.

Jonah—his name means "dove." Ironic, isn't it? Jonah's name doesn't fit, but he never applies for a name change. Biblically, the dove was a sign of hope and newness. Noah sent a dove out to see if the waters had receded from the earth. Solomon compares his beloved's beauty to that of a dove. The Psalms and the Prophets speak of the dove's swiftness. Doves were offered to God as sacrifices. In the New Testament, the dove is one of the principal symbols of the Holy Spirit—a gentle, graceful bearer of Good News from a distant country. Jesus instructed his followers to be "innocent as doves." In modern times, Noah's dove, with an olive branch in its mouth that indicates a storm's end, has become an icon of peace.

Hope. Renewal. Grace. Beauty. Innocence. Spirit. Swiftness. Sacrifice. Good News. Peace. Jonah is none of this. Jonah's no dove! He's a hawk, a vulture. Jonah's a harbinger of judgment, a conjurer of despair, and a herald of bad news. He's a scrappy, noisy, scavenging crow!

And that's just the point.

Jonah is a prophet that wants nothing to do with God. He's an evangelist who wants nothing to do with the lost—except to see them punished and banished. He's a dove in name only.

Jonah is a portrait of the people of God who have lost the heart of God. He's a picture of a Christian who is Christian in name only—not in character, conduct, or conviction. He is an example of what happens to many Christians and many churches; we get turned in on ourselves, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, and happy to let the world go to hell. Jonah avoids sinners. When that's no longer possible, he crusades against them, picketing their towns. He first tries to ignore their existence, then he protests against them, and then he seeks to annihilate them altogether. Jonah looks out on lost humanity and says, "Don't bother me. But if you do, I have one wish—that you rot in your sins!"

If I had to identify the primary question that drives the Book of Jonah, it's this: Will Jonah ever learn to be a dove, not just in name but also in essence? And that's the question the church must continually wrestle with: Will we ever learn to be Christian, not just in name but also in essence?

Jonah rejects God's word.

The Book of Jonah begins with a miracle. Look at the opening verse: "The word of the Lord came to Jonah." Jonah resents and resists the word of the Lord, finding it to be a mighty inconvenience; but the word comes anyway. The miracle is that the word of the Lord still breaks in on those who have long given up listening for it or attending to it; it still comes to those who have not hungered and thirsted for it for years—if ever!

The word that comes to Jonah is stern and unbending: Go. Jonah is to proclaim the Word of the Lord to Nineveh.

We know a fair amount about Nineveh. It was the capital of Assyria in 8th century BC. The Assyrians, as both a political and social force, were evildoers of a most virulent kind. Nineveh was the seat of power for one of the cruelest, most bloodthirsty nations that ever inhabited earth. Assyria's brutality was legendary and much feared throughout the ancient world. In other words, Jonah is called to go to the enemy.

But the crucial thing is how God sees this enemy. First of all, he sees they are wicked. In fact, their wickedness has "come up before" God and reached a tipping point in heaven. God's had enough; he's going to act. But notice the second thing God sees in Nineveh—she is a "great city." Her greatness is not just in sheer physical size. The Hebrew word used in the text suggests more than magnitude; it suggests magnificence or prestige. It speaks of importance and weightiness. Nineveh's greatness is her potential—if only she turned from her wickedness.

I've stood in some of the cosmopolitan cities of the world—Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Nairobi, Dallas, New York, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, and many more. In every one, I had to concur with God that it was a great and wicked city. The cities are electric, vital, and creative—at every turn you feel them tingling with life. Yet these cities are decadent, rotted, and corrupted—with every step you sense toxic seepage.

For my son's 13th birthday, we spent a night in Vancouver. We walked the streets of the city until midnight. We felt its pulsing energy. We also felt its spasmodic degeneracy. We saw the city's beauty and its blemishes, its festivity and debauchery, and its wealth and its squalor. It was a great and wicked city.

Unless we see people, towns, cities, cultures, civilizations, neighbors, and strangers as God sees them, we will never experience God's heart for them. If all we see is greatness, we'll miss the lostness and brokenness and desperate need for God. If all we see is wickedness, we'll miss the potential, the greatness, and the dreams God has for such places.

Jonah runs away from God.

Jonah only sees Nineveh's wickedness and never her greatness, so he runs away; he rejects God's word. He is called to something too hard, so he flees.

This is where the story gets interesting. Jonah doesn't just flee the call of God or sidestep his assignment; he tries to escape God's presence. Look at verse 3: "But Jonah ran away from the Lord." Jonah is more than disobedient; he's an apostate! He's practically an atheist! Jonah wants to live as though God does not exist—or at least as if God has no claim on him.

Those who have a "Jonah heart" want God's blessing but want nothing to do with either God's purposes or presence. Jonah is not a worshiper—he avoids God's presence. He's also not a follower—he avoids God's call, shunning God's will. Jonah is merely a consumer.

This Jonah heart is in each of us. Let me at least speak for myself. I face a constant temptation to demand God's blessing but avoid obedience and worship. And since this behavior is seen in pastors, maybe it's part of your makeup, too. Entire church communities can have a desire to seek God's blessing, but not his face or his kingdom. Entire churches are sometimes preoccupied only with "what's in it for them." Entire churches are tempted to be consumers but not worshipers or followers. When that happens, everyone is impoverished. The church, which is to be the very body of Christ in the world, becomes just another country club, bored and snobbish and flabby. The world that so desperately needs the gospel of Christ is left to stew in its own juices. When a church craves God's blessing but shuns his presence and shirks his will, it has lost God's heart.

Let's finish the story. Jonah flees, but he doesn't get every far. He books passage on a ship bound for Tarshish—a city at the edge of the known world. He's trying his best to get as far away as he possibly can, but God pursues Jonah with a violent storm. The sailors on the boat force Jonah to confess his identity, and they discover that he's the source of the trouble. At Jonah's request, they throw him into the sea. Knowing he is bound to drown, Jonah finally seeks God's aid. God soon sends a sea beast to swallow Jonah whole. Three days later, the sea beast spews him up on the shore.

Jonah, duly chastised, heads to Nineveh and does his duty. He preaches fire and brimstone and then goes and camps on the outskirts of Nineveh, waiting for God's wrath to fall on the city and its people.

But something strange takes place. The king of Nineveh hears Jonah's message, and he's cut to the quick. He dons sackcloth and ashes and calls on the city to fast, pray, repent, and trust God's mercy. The entire city turns to God, and God shows mercy.

And Jonah couldn't be more miserable.

Let's listen to the final chapter of Jonah:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."
But the LORD replied, "Have you any right to be angry?"
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."
But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?"
"I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die."
But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

Recognizing the "Jonah syndrome"

As seen throughout the book—and most notably in the final chapter—here are the full-blown symptoms of what I would call "the Jonah syndrome:"

  • You seek God's blessing, but not his presence or his kingdom; you're a consumer, not a worshipper or a follower.
  • You ignore lost people, and when that's no longer tenable, you scorn and resent them.
  • You're self-righteous and proud.
  • You confess, witness, or obey only when forced to or when the pain of not doing so exceeds the pain of doing it.
  • You pray only when you're in trouble and only about your own problems and predicaments.
  • If you're obedient, it is in a grudging, stingy, and unimaginative way; you bitterly do the minimum required.
  • You would rather die than die to self.
  • Your happiness is directly tied to getting your own way, not seeing God get his way.
  • You're consumed with your own comfort and angry when it is threatened or removed.
  • You want to see judgment—vengeance, really—for those you don't like.
  • You gladly receive God's grace but don't extend it to others or celebrate when God extends it to them.
  • Your loyalty is to your own kind or to your cherished traditions rather than to the kingdom of God.
  • You're preoccupied with your own rights and indifferent to God's rights.
  • You see culture's wickedness but are blind to its greatness.

Jonah stands in a long tradition. He is a representative of a class of people we meet in the pages of Scripture, in the drama of life, and in the pews of our churches. He is a "refuser of festivities." He misses the grace of God and lets bitterness take root, defiling many. Like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he won't join the party; he won't live in grace. God is involved in an extravagant, surprising, mercy-drenched business—seeking and saving those who are lost, throwing feasts once they're found—but Jonah and his ilk sit on the sidelines and sulk about how hard God is on them and how soft he is on everyone else. They stew about things taken away, things that have never been granted, and things they never wanted others to have that God's given to them without measure.

Do you test positive for any of the listed symptoms? Are you a refuser of festivities—one who misses grace? As I prepared this sermon, the Spirit brought conviction to me: "Mark, that's you. You love comfort; you get sulky and angry when it's taken away. You'd rather soak up grace than pour it out."

For a long time, when preachers spoke on the story of Jonah, their central point was usually to convince the congregation that a sea beast—a whale or giant squid or some other Leviathan—could swallow a man whole. The point was to demonstrate a man could live for three days in the belly of a fish and still walk away. I don't think that's the main point. I think it's this: Can an individual—can a church—be swallowed whole by God? Can we be so caught up in the presence and the purposes of God that we would rather pursue his rights than our own—that we would rather see his kingdom come than our own comfort preserved? Can we seek his face, his kingdom, and his righteousness first and not fail to join the party when these things are fulfilled? Can we ever be more concerned for a great, wicked city than for our own leisure, pleasure, and comfort? Can we ever have the heart of God?


In C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, a selfish little girl named Jill asks the great lion Aslan—the story's Christ figure—if he eats girls. Aslan responds, "I have swallowed boys and girls, men and women, kings and kingdoms."

The question is not, "Did a whale swallow Jonah?" It's, "Did God?"

And here's an even more interesting question: Has he swallowed you?

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Jonah was a prophet who wanted nothing to do with God.

II. Jonah rejects God's word.

III. Jonah runs away from God.

IV. Recognizing the "Jonah syndrome"