“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city?” —Jonah 4:11
Jesus, community, mission – in that order – that’s Immanuel Church. Every church should be like that, because it’s biblical. It has authority and beauty. It’s obvious and simple. First comes Jesus. If you have given yourself to him, the Bible says you are his slave. In the New Testament, the usual translation is “servant,” like Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” But the literal translation is “slaves.” He gave himself up for you; now you belong to him. He died for you; now you live for him. For you, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Other people are thinking, “For me, to live is to get by with as little trouble as possible.” But we know we’re better off as slaves of Jesus than as slaves of ourselves. He is first in our lives. He is the immovable center around which everything else adjusts. We do what he tells us to do. We don’t do what he tells us not to do. We are not volunteers; we are willing and grateful slaves. Away with clipboards asking us to sign up as volunteers! Let’s not inadvertently communicate that we’re begging anyone to help poor Jesus out. When we became Christians, we did what slaves back in the Old Testament used to do. When a slave could go free but loved his master and knew he was better off under his master than on his own, he went down to the tabernacle and the priest pierced his ear and from then on he wore an ear-ring to symbolize his glad service to his good master. That’s how we feel. We resonate with the old hymn:
I love, I love my Master, I will not go out free
For He is my Redeemer, He paid the price for me
I would not leave His service, it is so sweet and blest
And in the weariest moments He gives the truest rest
If you are your own master, you have no rest, no control, you don’t know what’s going to happen even one minute from now, you can never forgive yourself, you do not understand yourself, you cannot make yourself happy. So we hurl ourselves at Jesus as our gracious Lord. He is now the immovable center, and we’re grateful.
Then we commit to community. We love one another. We speak well of one another and of our church. We pray for one another. We don’t stand aloof. We don’t live the typical hyper-individualistic lifestyle. We get involved with one another. You need a few other people who know what’s going on in your life, a few other people who know what you’re facing, what you’re doing day by day, so that they can check in with you and be praying for you and rejoicing over you. We don’t just slip into worship and then get out quickly. We deliberately choose to move toward one another, because Jesus is not just saving individuals, he’s building his community. The Bible says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). His dying love for us is why we have community groups at 9:00 every Sunday. It’s how Jesus helps us to stop feeling distant, it’s how we open our hearts to one another. We must not stand at a distance or be superior or above community. I’m responsible for you. You’re responsible for me. We’re in this together. Community is not an optional extra. It has the authority of Jesus. If you’re not active in community, you are active in self-centeredness. And if you are giving yourself away for Jesus’ sake, he is living through you.
Jesus, community, mission. Let’s think about mission now. Why mission? Because Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Jesus came into this world on mission. He has sent us into his world on mission. Are we living on mission, or are we running away, like Jonah? Here’s what we need to know. Jesus + community + mission = obedient Christianity. Jesus + community – mission = defective Christianity. Which Christianity are you living week by week? Jesus + community + mission, or Jesus + community – mission? And Jesus + community – mission is the common pattern in American churches today. We like Jesus. We like hanging out with each other. But we’re too busy for mission, because our lives are not arranged around Jesus + community + mission. And if we do move toward mission, our first thought is to feed the homeless, which is a good missional thing to do, but not the first missional thing to do. The first and most obvious thought for every one of us should be to talk about Jesus to our own family and friends and neighbors and colleagues, to pray for them, to serve them, to move toward them with his love. That’s why he put us where we are. You and I are missionaries – primarily to the people in our lives already. Are we living on mission? If not, then our Christianity isn’t really Jesus + community, it’s just community, because we’re disobeying Jesus. A non-missional life is a Jesus-issue. He said, “As the Father sent me, even so I am sending you.” Are we living like people sent by Jesus on his mission of love, or are we living more like Jonah? Do we need to go into some repentance and change the way we live? Jesus + community – mission is not of Jesus. He cannot bless it. But he will bless the faith and repentance that get us moving toward the people right around us with his love. And I don’t think the devil much cares if our Christianity is Jesus + community, as long as we keep quiet about it so that it doesn’t spread. The devil doesn’t mind if we’re functionally equivalent to the Amish – a holy huddle off by ourselves. But the biggest barrier to mission is not the devil, not the world, not secularism, not postmodernism, not consumerism, not the hard financial times. The biggest barrier is inside our own hearts, as we see here in Jonah chapter 4. So I have two purposes today. One, for us to see God’s heart for our city and to probe into our own hearts to see whether God is predominant there or Jonah. Two, for us to choose practical next steps for every one of us as we go on mission. We all want to obey the call. Let’s make it practical.
God’s heart, our hearts
I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. —Jonah 4:2
Nineveh has repented, and Jonah is furious. Why? Because Nineveh was a bad city. One historian I read called the Assyrians “the Nazis of the ancient Near East.” They impaled their prisoners of war, they blinded them, they cut off their hands, they cut off their lips, they heaped up piles of their skulls. And they glorified it all as heroism. Jonah wanted God to nuke those people. But God forgave them. And Jonah saw it coming. That’s what he’s saying in verses 2-3: “I knew it! I knew you’d do it. It’s why I ran away. You’re just like this. You always have been. It’s what you said to Moses back in Exodus 34. I memorized it in my catechism as a boy: ‘What is the glory of God?’ ‘The glory of God is, The Lord, the Lord, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ Merciful to them? I can’t live in a universe like this! Let me die.”
What is Jonah doing here? He is quoting Exodus 34, one of Israel’s great confessions of faith about the glory of God, he’s throwing it back into God’s teeth as an accusation. And – get this – God does not smack him down! God is as merciful to Jonah as he is to Nineveh, even when Jonah, unlike Nineveh, feels no need for mercy. So here’s our first insight into God’s heart: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love to our own city. Do we see the risen Christ as loving toward Nashville, and does that vision thrill us or concern us?
Jonah was angry. And I think there’s more anger inside us than we might notice. There are a lot of people I don’t like. And as I look out on the world, as I drive around town and my thoughts wander in their most natural way, I don’t even scale people from one to ten. It’s simpler. It’s binary. It’s the good guys versus the bad guys. For example, I don’t like people who play golf. Why? They’re snobs. They make me feel excluded. And that can’t be right. After all, the whole universe should be arranged around me, right? I don’t people in airports. They slow me down. They get in the way. They make me stand in lines. I don’t like Oakland Raiders fans. I don’t like people who drive hybrid vehicles. I don’t like people who drive the speed limit. I don’t like people who complain, because then they can’t listen while I’m complaining. I don’t like people who like bands I don’t know anything about, like Coldplay. And if good things happen to all those obviously bad people, it bugs me. But I’m a loving man! I’m a Christian! I’m all for world peace! So was Jonah.
How does God respond to Jonah’s angry heart? He doesn’t respond in anger. God reasons with him. He calmly says to Jonah in verse 4, “Do you do well to be angry?” But Jonah doesn’t even give God the courtesy of a reply. He turns on his heel and stalks off. Still, God pursues him. God appoints a plant to shade Jonah while the prophet waits for God to wise up and change his mind and blast Nineveh. But still God pursues him. God appoints a worm to attack the plant, and it withers. Then God appoints a scorching east wind to give Jonah a sunburn. And the prophet’s final words in the book are: “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (verse 9). But still God pursues him. He keeps reasoning with Jonah. In fact, the book closes with God asking Jonah a question. Notice this. God in heaven is asking little Jonah a question – about God. “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” In other words, God says, “Jonah, you feel so right in the way you angrily divide up the world between people I ought to love and people I ought to destroy. You feel angry now, as if something has been taken from you. You grieve over this little plant that just died. I care about that plant too. But something else that moves me is all those people down there in that big city, people who don’t know their spiritual right hand from their left. If you care about your plant, is it okay if I care about those animals down there in Nineveh? You pity yourself, but what about all those people? You’re so sure of yourself, Jonah. So help me out here. Advise me. What should I feel? Am I wrong to pity Nineveh? Is your anger wiser than my compassion? Is my mercy toward sinners offensive, or is it my glory? Jonah, should God look more like you, or should you look more like God? Tell me, Jonah, what kind of person should I be? And what are the implications of that for you?” And the curtain closes.
We don’t know how Jonah answered that question. But I have a hunch. My hunch is that the Creator God who has all the forces of nature at his command, from a little plant and a tiny worm and a scorching east wind, the Sovereign God who has more ways of confronting Jonah than Jonah has ways of evading God, the Savior God who can awaken the hearts of a pagan city from the king on down – I think that great God finally got through to Jonah. I think that the great Pursuer of our hearts won Jonah’s heart, and Jonah wrote this book to tell us how God taught him to love more people than he had ever loved before. Here’s our second insight into the heart of God: God loves every single individual in Nashville, Tennessee. He even loves the pets. We must never pass anyone by thinking, “They don’t count. They don’t qualify.” If we allow ourselves to think like that, our minds will whittle down the number of people qualified for the love of God until there are only a very few left. We’re going after everyone in Nashville, Tennessee, because God loves every single person in this city. I know we don’t hate the people around us, the way Jonah did. But do we love them the way God does? Who will take responsibility for the spiritual future of Nashville? Who will stop blaming and start loving, one person at a time? Who will embrace the heart of God that everyone in this city will start living for Jesus + community + mission, because that alone is the love of God come down upon us?
Your danger and mine is not atheism. Your danger and mine is Christian lives with vague purpose and rare risk and little fruit but we such busy-ness that we always have an excuse? But the Bible says, “The saying is trustworthy, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16). Paul does not say, “I was the foremost sinner.” He says, “I am the foremost.” Paul saw himself as a continuing but forgiven first-degree sinner. And that is not a concession he’s reluctantly willing to make. He finds there the meaning of his life and his inspiration for living on mission. He sees himself not as a superior person but as a living proof of how patient Jesus is. And Jesus is still today a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster for you and for me and for our city. What should we do about that?
Our next steps
The key to the book of Jonah is willingness. Jonah (I’m pretty sure) became willing, because of who God is. Are you willing to rearrange your lifestyle around a new, immovable center – Jesus + community + mission? If so, here are five ways to make your commitment actionable.
One, draw up a list of two or three unbelievers among your friends and acquaintances, write their names down, keep that slip of paper in your Bible, and pray for them every day.
Two, invite those friends over for dinner and have a blast together. Everyone wants to be included and welcomed. Christ invited you in. Okay, now you know what to do. And as the evening is drawing to an end, say, “Great to have you guys over. Thanks for coming. Mind if I pray for you as you go?”
Three, get involved in a cause that benefits our city. It may not benefit our church. But we are not asking our city to come serve us. We are willing to serve them. Let them see it.
Four, talk to your unbelieving friends about your sins and weaknesses and how God is forgiving you, helping you, being kind to you. Humble yourself, and exalt him. Proud, successful, victorious Christians are a turn-off. Weak Christians make the gospel more real.
Five, bring your friends to church. Jesus is building a new community, and your friends can be a part of it. Wouldn’t that thrill you?
You might be the closest your friends get to the love of God. That’s a high calling. If you are willing to play that role in their lives, God will be with you and you will be amazed at what only he can do.