A City Worth Loving

“A City Worth Loving”

September 16, 2018

Pastor Lucas Bitter

Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)

 

Jonah 3-4

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

 4:1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5 Jonah had gone 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. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.”

9 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?”

First off, I just want to say congratulations on reading all the way to the end of Jonah.  (I mean, you didn’t really have a choice because I read it out loud to you, but still.)  Almost nobody reads past the part where Jonah gets swallowed and spit out by the fish.  And that’s too bad, because some of the most interesting stuff comes at the end of the book.  We’ve got:

  • A missionary who wants nothing to do with his mission field
  • An entire pagan city that repents all in one day
  • A missionary who throws a temper tantrum when people actually listen to his message.

What are we supposed to make of all this??

Well, let’s start with the missionary himself, a prophet named Jonah.  Jonah was clearly not a big fan of his mission field.  He didn’t start a Downtown Bible Study in Nineveh.  He didn’t do a bunch of demographic research in Nineveh, and work to convince his local mission board that this was the perfect spot to plant a new church.  Jonah had zero desire to go to Nineveh whatsoever.  It took him being swallowed and regurgitated by a fish just to finally get there.

Why was Jonah so reluctant?  Why didn’t he want to go to Nineveh?  Well, you might not have liked Nineveh either if you lived in Jonah’s time.

Nineveh was the capital city of a savage military state called Assyria.  The Assyrians were growing in power, and soon would be the dominant military force of the Ancient Near East.  When they conquered their enemies, they were known for horribly torturing any survivors of the battle.  Cutting off people’s arms and legs and ears and noses.  Flaying them.  Impaling them.  And when they got done with the army, they were known for splitting up families and deporting whole generations of people into captivity.  You did not want to fight the Assyrians and lose.  In addition to all this, the Assyrians also worshiped false gods.  They had a whole pantheon of different idols with names like Marduk, Ishtar, and Asshur, and the worship of these false gods included things like temple prostitution and even human sacrifice.

In 780 B.C., I don’t know that you could find a culture in the whole world that would be more foreign, and violent, and scary to Jonah than the people who lived in Nineveh.

So now this is actually making sense.  Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he was scared. .  .right?  Well, that’s what people think when they only read the first half of the book. . . .but thankfully you are a model Bible scholar.  You read all the way to the end.  And so you got the full story!

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”  Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going just one day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  “The Ninevites believed God! A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”  In fact, the king himself issued a decree.  “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Wow!  The whole city repents and believes God’s promise in just one day?  Are you kidding me?  This is, like, the greatest mission success the world has ever seen!  But how does Jonah react to all this?  He pouts.

“Jonah became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Aha.  So now we see it.  Jonah wasn’t afraid that the Ninevites would hurt him.  What was he afraid of?  He was afraid of God’s grace!  He was afraid of God’s mercy!  He was afraid that the Ninevites would become believers in the true God.  And Jonah didn’t want “those people” to be part of his spiritual family.

So how do we categorize all this?

Was Jonah a racist?  Probably.  The Assyrians looked different and acted different than the Jews he was used to hanging around with.

Was Jonah a nationalist?  Probably.  He didn’t want to help Assyria in any way that would endanger his own nation of Israel.

But more than anything else I think Jonah was, simply, self-righteous.  He looked at himself and he saw a basically good, obedient person (aside from that minor occasion where he fled from God, and had to be swallowed and puked back up by a huge fish.)  He looked at Israel and he saw a basically good, obedient nation (aside from that minor problem of idol worship which had been plaguing them for generations.)  But then he looked at the people of Nineveh – well known for their violence and corruption and bad morals and false gods – and he said “These are bad people!  Don’t you think that by this point they’ve disqualified themselves from the true God and from the promises of the Savior?

When Jonah looked at the world, he saw two groups: the good people, and the bad people.  And he thought God’s love should be distributed accordingly.

But there’s just one problem.  God doesn’t look at the world that way.  When God looks at the world, he doesn’t see two groups – he only sees one.  Spiritually speaking, we are all born bad people.  The Apostle Paul writes in Romans chapter 3, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.  As it is written: there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God.  They have all turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So Paul, the New Testament missionary, realized something that Jonah, the Old Testament missionary, didn’t.  All people, by nature, are equally sinful in the sight of God.  And all sins, by nature, are equally bad in the sight of God.  An Assyrian prostitute who sells her body in the temple of the Ishtar is no more or less sinful than any woman who fantasizes about sex outside of her marriage.  An Assyrian father who sacrifices his children to an idol called Marduk is no more or less sinful than a father who sacrifices his relationship with his children to the idol of his job.  An Assyrian soldier who delights in committing cruel and bloodthirsty acts of violence is no more or less sinful than a person who delights in gossiping about the sins and struggles of others.

In God’s eyes, we’re all the same.  We all have the same disease; it just shows up with different symptoms.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  And yet what did we read in our 2nd lesson?  “God. . . wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  God sent a “mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

What Jonah didn’t realize is that the promises of salvation are not limited to one nation, tribe, people, or language.  It’s not an exclusive club with membership limited to the “good people.”  God’s grace and forgiveness are intended for the whole world, and they always have been.

In order to help Jonah “get this,” God used a very unique object lesson.

Jonah had gone 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 leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant 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, “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?”

Do you get the point that God is making with this plant analogy?

Jonah was not a gardener.  He hadn’t tended that plant or pulled out weeds around it or poured any water on it.  He had invested zero time and energy in making it grow.  Jonah didn’t care about the plant, not really.  He was just using it.  And yet he got incredibly angry when it withered and died, because it would no longer give him shade.

But what if that plant had been tended by a gardener?  What if it had been lovingly nurtured and tenderly cared for over the space of weeks and months, with the gardener sweating in the heat and drenched by the rain and rejoicing every time the plant produced a new shoot or leaf?  What if after all that, the plant began to wither and die?  Now the gardener has a right to be frustrated, doesn’t he?  It’s his project!  He’s got skin in the game.

That’s how God felt about Nineveh.

Jonah didn’t know anything about Nineveh.  He hadn’t done anything to contribute to the growth of that city.  He didn’t know any of the people there. . . . But God knew every single person in that city.  God looked down at Nineveh and saw the full spectrum of human life: people being born, growing up, finding jobs, getting married, having children and grandchildren.  Experiencing tears and laughter, joy and sadness, love and heartbreak, sickness and health.   God saw a whole city full of people struggling through life completely unaware that there was a God who did not require prostitution and sacrifice and suffering and blood.  Completely unaware that there was a God who loved them so much that one day soon he would send his Son into the world to die on a cross and take away their sins.  When God looked down at Nineveh he didn’t just see one precious soul that he had cared deeply about their whole life long.  He saw 120,000 people, each one dear and precious to his heart and yet each one so lost that spiritually speaking, they could not even tell their right hand from their left.

How could God not be concerned about that great city?

I’d like to share a story from a former Seminary professor of mine.  He writes,

“A few summers back, my fishing partner and I were hiking through a beautiful stand of cedar trees on our way to a remote Wisconsin stream.  The warm sun and gentle breeze provided an aroma as pleasant as the scenery.  “Now this is God’s country,” my buddy exclaimed.  For some reason I felt the need to comment on his statement.  To be sure, God loves the deep woods he lovingly created for our enjoyment.  But why is this plot of land especially “God’s country?”  It’s mostly inhabited by deer, wild turkeys, and lucky for us, lots of trout that can’t tell the difference between a #12 Adams and a real mayfly.  But Jesus didn’t shed his blood to redeem wildlife.  He didn’t die to reconcile trees to God.  Since Jesus did redeem and reconcile the world of sinners to God, would it not be more appropriate to speak of Milwaukee’s inner city, where we both were serving congregations at that time, as “God’s country,” because the inner city has almost as many precious souls buzzing around as this countryside had mosquitoes?  Does not God look upon a city full of human beings with infinitely more tenderness and affection than even the most beautiful picnic site?”

Of course he does.

God has not called us to reach out with the message of the gospel to trees or animals or wide open spaces in nature.  He has called us to reach out with the message of the gospel to people.  Specifically, people who do not yet believe in Jesus.  And cities have more people-who-do-not-yet-believe-in-Jesus-per-square-inch than other places in the world.

Atlanta is no exception.  There are more people-who-do-not-yet-believe-in-Jesus-per-square-inch here than anywhere else in perhaps the whole Southeast.  God wants us to love this city.  But do we?

On the one hand, of course we do!  What’s not to love about Atlanta?  Beautiful weather, delicious food, vibrant culture, a great job market.  Parks, biking trails, professional sports, a low cost of living compared to other big cities.  The opportunity to enjoy everything I’ve just listed while still living in a tight-knit Intown neighborhood which reflects a combination of both new development and historic charm.  Atlanta is a pretty easy city to love right now.  But do we love it for the right reasons?

If we love our city because of the convenience, the culture, the food, the amenities, the weather, the job market, but we don’t love our city because of the people, then we’re not really loving it at all.  We’re just using it, like Jonah used the leafy plant.  We’re just concerned about what Atlanta can give to us.

But God is concerned with what we can give to Atlanta.  We live in a city of nearly 500,000 people.  It’s diverse in every way you can possibly think of.  Black people.  White people.  Old people.  Young people.  Gay people.  Straight people.  Rich people.  Poor people.  People who so are very different from one another in so many different ways – and yet they all have two things in common.

  • Like you and me, they were all born with the problem of sin.
  • Like you and me, God loves them with all of his heart and desperately wants them by his side in heaven. So he sent his Son into this world to be their Savior.

But like we said in our sermon last week, most people don’t know this.  They don’t know what Christianity is actually about.  They don’t know how God actually feels about them.  As Paul wrote in Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved – but how can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’”

That’s why we’re here in Atlanta.  To bring the good news of Jesus to mass amounts of people.  May God help us to love our city as much as he loves it.  Amen.