God's Compassion for the City
Text: Jonah 4
Today, my focus is on our heart towards the city. In other words, the question is: Are we living for the city? Or just using it for fun and career advancement?
Let’s look to God in prayer before we dive into the sermon.
During my B.Th. in Visakhapatnam, we used to go for outreach once in a month to different streets of the city and distribute tracts and do some street preaching. I remember sometime I used to be part of that. However, sometimes we used to go just because it was a requirement from the college and we were kind of forced to fulfill that. If I really think about it now, sometimes I didn’t really care or love people whom we were sharing or preaching the gospel itself.
Maybe you have been through similar situations. You end up helping your coworker or neighbor, but in your heart, you didn’t feel like doing it, or you were put in a situation where you had to do something – but it was not natural. Though you helped, your motive was not out of love but because you had to do it, so you did it.
That’s exactly what happened to Jonah. He hated the Ninevites. But he did not want to face another fish-swallowing. So he delivered God’s message (in chapter 3), and God used it to transform the whole city.
Of course, God can use people who do right things for wrong reasons. God can love through me even when I do not love through him! But the point of the book of Jonah is: that’s not good enough. The point of this book is to show us what kind of heart for the city, urban Christians or the followers of Christ are supposed to have. And the way God shows us what kind of heart we should have toward Imphal as a city is to show us his heart for the city. So today we will answer the question: How does God change our heart for the city? From being indifferent, uncaring or unloving to be able to love and serve the city.
If we look at previous chapters, we see God called the prophet Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh and to speak out against it. Nineveh was an Assyrian city, part of an empire known for its cruelty that had long threatened Israel. The last thing Jonah wanted for these particular people to experience the mercy and compassion of the God of Israel.
For example, it is just like God is telling us, we Indians to support, cheer and celebrate Pakistan’s cricket team.
Therefore he rejected the Lord’s call and tried to travel as far as he possibly could in the opposite direction from Nineveh! However after three days and three nights in the belly of the large fish, Jonah repented and went to Nineveh. He delivered a prophetic message against the city, just as the Lord has commanded. Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people of Nineveh repented, and the Lord relented from his plan to destroy them. Jonah learned that God is ready to show mercy to all who will turn their hearts to him (Jonah 3:6-10).
3:10 says, “…God relented of the disaster that he has said would do to them” that is “Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4) but God “did not do it” (3:10). In other words, the wicked got rid of their “evil” and God got rid of the “disaster” he had threatened. Now, the wicked are in harmony with God, but, what an irony, Jonah is not.
So how does God change our heart for the city? Let’s first look at
1. Jonah’s Reaction to God’s Compassion for the City
4:1 says, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly” even to the point where he said, “it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3, 8). Jonah’s heart was so unloving or uncompassionate towards the people of Nineveh that he challenged God that either you spare their lives or mine. I would rather die than see these people change or be blessed.
As a result, “he was angry” (4:1, 9). Ironically, the cause of Jonah’s anger was God’s compassionate nature (4:2; see also Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 145:8).
But in previous chapters, when Jonah received steadfast love, it filled him with thanksgiving (2:8). But when God extended the same love to the Ninevites, it filled Jonah with anger. In a similar way, Jonah was grateful that his “life” was brought up from the pit (2:6) and that his fainting “soul/life” was revived (2:7). But when God extends the same mercy to the Ninevites, Jonah wishes his life or soul to be taken.
Application: We all have people like the Ninevites in our lives. Though we may smile at them on the outside, we despise them on the inside. It could be someone in our family, neighborhood, or someone who works with us. It could be someone from another culture, race, tribe, language – they don’t believe what I believe, they are different from me, outside my comfort zone, how I was raised – so we hate them, despise them, don’t want anything to do with them – we avoid them, we have preconceived ideas about them, we have concluded they are arrogant, proud, they don’t deserve God’s love and mercy. If we are honest, we all have individuals or groups of people we despise like how Jonah despised the Ninevites.
My Example: My attitude towards my own people or Manipur. For many years I avoided coming back to Manipur and serving here.
Just like Jonah – we look the other way, we close our hands, our wallets, our time, we don’t extend our compassion or love.
Jonah knew God’s character and could quote the description of God from Exodus 34:6-7. Verse 2 “And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” But he thought that God should only show mercy to his own people, and not to the Gentiles. He had difficulty accepting that God has the right to do what he wants and to show mercy to whomever he wants (Ex. 33:19). He found this particularly difficult when the ones to whom God showed mercy were Israel’s enemies. Jonah did not understand the extent of God’s grace, love and compassion.
Let’s see how God reacts to Jonah’s uncompassionate heart…Point 2
2. God’s reaction to Jonah’s uncompassionate heart towards the city
In contrast to Jonah’s reaction or nature, God is still “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2).
Notice how God not only treats Nineveh with pity and mercy, but also treats his stiff-necked prophet that way too. He is slow to anger and ready to relent in his wrath toward Nineveh, and toward Jonah.
God did not strike Jonah dead for questioning him. Instead he gently asked, verse 4, “Do you do well to be angry?” or in other words, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is a technique God often uses. He raises questions in our minds to make us analyze our motives and heart idols.
Jonah, however, was unable to give any response to God’s question. Instead of re-evaluating his understanding of God and cooperating with God, Jonah retreated and became a spectator.
Verses 5-8: Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah built a small shelter on the east of the city and sat down there to watch whether God would listen to Jonah’s reason and destroy the city (5). So God has to set out to teach him a lesson – out of love and compassion for his prophet.
God caused some type of leafy plant to grow up next to the shelter Jonah was sitting in. It shaded him from the hot sun, and Jonah was grateful for it. But then God sent an insect that destroyed the plant (7). Left without shade in a hot wind and a blazing sun, Jonah suffered. Nothing was going as smoothly as he expected. Once again, he wished he was dead (8).
Verse 10 says, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor nor make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.” In other words, its life was brief, unlike Nineveh’s. God is saying no matter how distorted by sin—All these humans who for centuries have planned and organized and built have been people created in the image of God.
Again in verse 11: “And should I not pity Nineveh that great city in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” Yes, they were guilty. This ignorance does not make one innocent. It is owing to real corruption and sin.
The point for us in all this is that in spite of all the sin and rebellion and immorality and cynicism in our city, God pities Imphal; he has compassion on our city. He wants us to feel that compassion with him. I understand Imphal is full of crime, injustice, corruption, racism, pollution, traffic and so on. In spite of so many problems and sins, God loves this city and He wants us to do the same. Why?
If we read the entire book of Jonah, we see, three times Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, which God keeps calling “that great city” (1:1; 3:2; 4:11). God puts in front of Jonah the size of it. God’s reasoning is pretty transparent. Big cities are huge stockpiles of spiritually lost people. How can you not find yourself drawn to them?
Did you know that in 1800 about 2% of the world's population lived in cities, in 1900 it was about 12%, in 2013 the figure was around 52% and in 2050 a massive 70% of the world’s population will live in global cities?
The capital city Imphal is the most urbanized region in Manipur. According to the census of 2011, the urban population of Greater Imphal has increased drastically to 4.2 lakhs in comparison to 2.5 lakh as per the census of 2001. Imphal constitutes 42.13% of the total urban population in Manipur. The current metro area population of Imphal in 2020 was 576,000.
An urban missionary, Bill Krispin, writes, “The cities are places where there are more people than plants, and the countryside is the place where there are more plants than people. Since God loves people far more than plants, he must love the city more than the countryside.” That’s exactly the kind of logic God is using on Jonah here. I think this is solid theological logic. The apex of creation is, after all, the making of male and female in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).
3. The Gospel for the City
The entire world is like Nineveh. We are Ninevites, our cities are Nineveh and Jesus came to save us. Like Jonah and the Ninevites, we need to be saved from God’s judgment against our sin. Sin and death is not a storm we can row ourselves away from or ignore.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has provided a way of salvation. Jesus threw himself into the storm of God’s wrath so that you and I might be saved. When Jesus sank to the depths of death on our behalf, he made it possible for us to arrive safely on the shore of eternity. That is not only good news for us; it’s also good news for those around us. Jesus did not just come to preach but also to give His life as ransom for us because He loves us.
Jesus is strikingly different from Jonah. He humbly followed His Father’s will and shared His heart for rebels–enough to give His life to save us. Jesus’ mission is to go to another place—a place where He would be rejected and despised, slaughtered and sacrificed by His people’s bitter enemies. Unlike Jonah’s initial response, Jesus said yes.
If you find yourself like Jonah, you are not alone. We can easily become exhausted in our evangelism and our heart toward unbelievers–but don’t forget that God’s slowness to anger and amazing grace extends to you as well. Let’s repent of our Jonah-like attitudes and ask God for His heart for the world and cities and for the strength to carry out the ministry He has given us.
There were three options presented to the Israelites regarding how they should handle moving to a pagan city in Jeremiah 29: 1-14:
1. The Babylonians were saying – Move into the city and assimilate, become like the city
2. The false prophets were saying – Don’t move into the city and despise the city and use the city for your gain
3. But God through Jeremiah says – Move into the city and love, serve and resist the city – don’t let the city shape you
One of the reasons why I moved to Imphal – One of the very best ways to reach the far parts of Manipur is to reach our own city. You can’t reach the city from the villages, but you can reach the villages from the city. Cities are like a giant heart – drawing people in and sending them out. Students come to cities to attend school, and then they graduate and move out. Singles meet in the city, get married, and move out to the suburbs when children are born. In each case, the movement is from the center outward. As a result, a church that thrives in the city will create a community whose members will spread naturally throughout the adjoining region and into other great cities. In other words, one of the best ways to reach a region and country is to reach your own city.
The need is great, as is the cost – ministry in city centers is considerably more expensive than it is away from the urban core. But the church can no longer ignore the profound and irreversible changes occurring in the world today.
If Christians want to reach the unreached, we must go to the cities.
To reach the rising generations, we must go to the cities.
To have any impact for Christ on the creation culture, we must go to the cities.
To serve the poor, we must go to the cities.
Colin Smith shares a prayer that we can make ours today:
“Lord, make me less like Jonah and more like Jesus. Save me from being the kind of person who cares more about my comfort, my reputation, and my success than I do about the people You are calling me to serve. Help me to keep all of my dreams on Your altar and be ready at all times to respond with faith and obedience to Your call.”
Friends, let’s ask God by his Holy Spirit to impart his love and compassion for the people of our city.
And let’s ask the Holy Spirit to show us specific ways that our life can positively impact the city of Imphal.