Return to Sermon Archive
Wideness of God’s Mercy
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,
2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
When I was a young man just out of military service, I got a job and I wanted to buy a new car. I had never bought anything on credit and I had no credit rating, so the bank would not lend me the money. But I had a rich uncle, and I asked him to cosign the loan. He did that, and I got the money and the car and, in the course of time, I paid the loan off. I moved out of town for a few years. When I came back and saw my uncle again, I thanked him for helping me get that loan.
He said with some emotion, “I am glad that you got that loan when you did, because I would never cosign another loan.”
It turned out that after he cosigned my loan, another person came to him, another relative, and asked him to cosign a much larger loan—which he did. The relative then defaulted on the loan, and my uncle had to pay back every penny. As he said, it only takes one mistake to convince you not to cosign loans.
Some things we have only one chance to get right. What if, after I finish preaching this morning, I say, "Folks, I think I can do better. Why don’t we all stay an extra twenty minutes and let me preach this message again? How many of you would stay? I am not asking for a show of hands. Since we came in two vehicles this morning, my wife might even leave.
You expect me to get it right the first time. If I don’t, you shake my hand at the door and say, “It was just good to be in the Lord’s house today”—which is always a good thing to say when you did not particularly like the sermon. But the point is: There are many situations in life where we have only one chance, then we say, “You had your shot, you blew it, and that’s all there is to it.”
God Gives Another Chance
The good news, and this is really good news, the good news is that God does not work that way. There is a wideness to the mercy of God that will give us another chance.
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. Instead, Jonah got on a boat headed for Tarshish, which is in the other direction. But out at sea, a storm came up. The boat began to break up. The sailors discovered that they had a backslidden preacher onboard and to appease God, they tossed him overboard. You know what happens next. Everyone has heard this part of the story. A big fish came along and swallowed Jonah, and three days later, that same fish puked up Jonah onto dry ground. That is a gross way to put it, but that is basically what the Bible says.
Then we come to one of the most encouraging verses in scripture. Chapter 3, verse 1, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” Jonah got a second chance from God—even though he did not deserve it. There is an old saying: “Grace is when God gives us what we don't deserve; Mercy is when God does not give us what we do deserve.” Perhaps the old saying simplifies things too much. You can’t really separate grace and mercy, but the basic point rings true. “Mercy is when God doesn't give us what we do deserve.”
Fortunately, Mercy is one of the major characteristics of God. Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), author of Don Quixote, says “Among the attributes of God, though they are all equal, mercy shines with even more brilliancy than justice.”
“There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy.” I love that the sound of that. These are the opening words to Frederick W. Faber’s Hymn. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea.” Faber stresses the astonishing, incredible extent of the mercy of God. God’s mercy is his defining characteristic. William Blake wrote: “Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell, There God is dwelling too” (Songs of Innocence). Blake ties Mercy, love, and Pity together, and they are tied together, a God of love is certainly a God of mercy and pity.
Jonah received God’s mercy. He received a second chance. Initially God said, "Go to Nineveh;" Jonah said, "No." Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and the archenemy of Israel. Jonah hated the people of Nineveh. The Assyrians had been beating up on the Israelites for a long time. Thus, rather than carry God’s word to them, Jonah ran away. God could have given up on Jonah then. You might say that God should have given up on Jonah. After all, he had his chance, but God gave him another chance.
That is the wideness of the mercy of God for Jonah and for us. It is God’s nature to give another chance. God forgives and lets us try again. If you default on a loan, your uncle and your bank might not give you a second chance, but God will. Here is the basic principle. This is what Cervantes was saying and what Faber was saying: God’s mercy is greater than our sin. Whatever we have done, whatever our sin or sins, God’s mercy is greater than that. We can be forgiven, and we can have another chance.
Repeatedly throughout scripture we see how God was able to use people even after they committed "major" sins. Abraham tried to get his wife to commit adultery, and God used Abraham. Moses committed murder, and God used him. King David committed adultery and murder, and God used him again. You may be thinking today, I am not a very good person, God can have no use for me. If there is one thing the Bible tells us God is good at, it is this: God is good at taking not so good people and using them for his purposes. God can use you where you are right now in the building of his kingdom. God can use you in the work of this church. All you need to do is turn back to God.
An interesting thing happened to me along these lines. When I was in high school, I was very rebellious against God, and against all authority. I declared that I was an atheist. I argued loudly and emphatically against God. Years later, when I met some of my old high school classmates again, I thought they would be flabergasted to learn that I was in the ministry. They were not. They said that they thought at the time that I was pretty much going in that direction though I was having some problems figuring it out. I was apparently the last person to figure out what everybody else already realized. I was like Jonah. I rebelled against God. God gave me another chance
Finally, Jonah went to Nineveh and did as he was supposed to do. He walked through the streets and proclaimed the word of God. In v4, Jonah preached: “"Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Notice that Jonah does not say that if you repent God might change his mind about this. Jonah’s preaching is a straightforward prophecy of utter doom and destruction. That is what Jonah wanted to happen. He wanted Nineveh destroyed. But apparently the people of Nineveh understood something of the mercy of God. We read that the people believed Jonah, and they began to fast and mourn. And the king proclaimed a total fast and ordered all the people to search their hearts, saying in v8-9, “And they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And the king was right. V10 tells us that “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Jonah did not preach repentance, but the people repented and were saved from certain destruction. This was the last thing Jonah wanted. He wanted to see Nineveh burn (from a safe distance) Instead, Nineveh was rejoicing in the wideness of God’s mercy. That made Jonah really angry. He could not accept that the God who had shown mercy to him, would also extend that same mercy to wicked Assyrians.
The movie Amistad (1997), directed by Steven Spielberg, was a simplified version of a true story involving the Spanish ship La Amistad, which is Spanish for friendship, which is ironic because La Amistad was a slave ship. In 1839, African slaves seized the ship as it was sailing along the coast of Cuba. The Africans wanted to return to Africa, but were unable to navigate the ship, and wound up being captured by the US Navy off the coast of New York. There followed one of the most famous court cases in American history. In 1841, the court found that the initial kidnapping of the slaves from Africa had been illegal, and that they were not legally slaves but free. This decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and the Africans were returned home in 1842.
In the movie, there is a dramatic scene in which the leader of the Africans, Cinque, makes a plea in the courtroom. In broken English he says, “Give us free. Give us free. Give us free. Give us free. Give us free.” It is a great scene, and we all can sympathize with Cinque. After all, no one wants to be a slave; no one should be a slave, but that was not Cinque’s reasoning at all.
According to some fragmentary reports, after Cinque and the other Africans were freed in 1842, they all went back to Africa, and Cinque used his knowledge of Spanish and English to became a slavetrader. The freed slave became a slave trader. So when Cinque said “Give us free,” he was not condemning slavery, he was not saying no person should be a slave, he was saying that he and the other Africans in that courtroom did not want to be slaves. He had no problem with people owning people, but he did not want to be owned, he wanted to be an owner.
Jonah is a lot like that. Jonah had no problem with receiving God’s mercy, but Jonah did not want God establishing a system whereby he extended that mercy to everyone.
Mercy Not Reputation
In 4:2, Jonah said to God, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knows that God is willing to change his mind and forgive. And now God has gone and forgiven those people and that makes Jonah so mad he cannot stand it.
We read in v5 that the angry and frustrated prophet “went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.” Apparently he still had hopes that God would change his mind again and destroy the city.
I should note that some commentators say that Jonah was enraged at least in part because God’s change of heart meant that people would think that Jonah was a false prophet. Jonah has said Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days, and God did intend to destroy the city, but when the people repented, God changed his mind and that made Jonah appear to be a false prophet. Jonah then was angry because he was concerned about what people would say about Jonah. He was not at all concerned about what happened to the multitudes of people who lived in Nineveh.
So God tries to teach Jonah one last lesson. As he sat in his booth brooding over events, a bush came up and made a shade over him, and, like all desert dwellers, Jonah loved that shade. But the bush died and the sun beat down on the head of the prophet and Jonah moaned miserably, "It is better for me to die than to live" (8).
Then God said to Jonah, "Should you be angry about the bush?" Jonah said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
Then, in the concluding verses of the book, the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush.” “ And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?" (v10-11).
God said, Aren’t the lives of all those people more important than your reputation as a prophet? God said, Jonah, how can you not be pleased that I changed my mind, and did not destroy a great city, and spared all those people? Isn’t it better to save life than to kill? Isn’t it better to have mercy even at the expense of your reputation, even at the expense of my reputation. That is what is implied here.
Jonah said that God told him that the city would be destroyed, but the city was not destroyed. What does that do to God’s reputation? God says, in effect, I do not care. God says that I do not care if people think I’m changeable and inconsistent. I do not care if people think I am a wimp who does not follow up on his threats. God says, I do not care about that selfish egotistical stuff, I would rather have mercy. As I said, that is the good news for us. That is the wideness of God’s mercy. And those of us who are sinners, all of us, we say, thanks be to God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 8/22/05