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A Tale of Two Cities

Halim Suh    /    Sep 21, 2008


Halim Suh teaches on Jonah 4:1-11

Series: A Church For The City (2008)


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Sermon Transcript

We are to be a church that seeks the universal flourishing of the city of Austin. The Bible is clear on this, but there are barriers. One main problem is our own heart.

Our hearts are prone to wonder away from God. When it comes to being a church that is for the city we don’t have an instructional problem. It’s not that we don’t know how to be a church for the city. It’s that we have a motivational problem. When we play out all the implications for our church actually being a church for our city, and contemplate all it would require of us, many of us simply just don’t want to do it.

We don’t have a how-to problem of the mind. We have a want-to problem of the heart.

With this in mind, I want us to look at two people, Jonah and Abraham. Their stories are familiar to most of ours, but I want you to see a few things and then ask yourself whether you have the heart of Jonah or of Abraham.

The Heart of Jonah

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1:1-3 (ESV)

God called Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh, but he refused. In fact, he ran in the opposite direction. God brought about a storm in order to bring Jonah back. In order to save their own lives, the sailors threw Jonah overboard. As he was drowning, God, in His mercy, sent a great fish that swallowed Jonah whole. He was in the belly of the great whale for three days, and then the fish spit him out onto dry land. Jonah ended up going to Nineveh for three days to preach that in forty days Nineveh would be overthrown. After he preached, he escaped from the city, sat on a hill and looked upon Nineveh waiting for the fireworks. He wanted Nineveh destroyed.

To his surprise, all of Nineveh repented and God saved the city. Jonah was angry.

…And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” Jonah 4:9b (ESV)

We read this story and we’re tempted to think something is wrong with this guy. He’s supposed to be a prophet of God? What kind of man of God is he that he hates to see people repent and be saved? Before we start dogging on Jonah, you need to know something about Nineveh.

God didn’t call Nineveh wicked for no reason. The Ninevites were people that mastered human torture, how to skin an entire person and yet keep them alive for the longest amount of time, inflicting as much pain as possible. They killed men, women, and children, and displayed their dismembered body parts on their walls and spears to intimidate all those who would stand against them. Just imagine the most barbaric bloodthirsty type of people and you will start to have an idea of what Nineveh was like.

It was the city of Assyria, which was the up and coming super power at the time. They were conquering people in horrific ways and Israel was next.

Jonah looked upon the evil of Nineveh and the hatred in his heart towards them would not let in the compassion God had towards them.

The call Jonah received from God was one that was emotionally impossible to accept. It’s as if there was a serial child killer and they were planning on your child being next. What would you say if God told you to go to that person and share the gospel with him so that he may be forgiven of all of his sins? Not only that, but he would spend eternity with you in heaven. What would you do? It may be a command just too emotionally impossible to obey.

I don’t think we really have a clue of how hard it’s going to be in obeying the command of God to be a church for our city. If left to our own hearts’ ability to forgive, to have compassion, and to love, it’s a command we will sooner or later disobey and reject.

The Heart of Abraham

Abraham faced a similar predicament.

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Genesis 18:20-26 (ESV)

God was about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah. There were only a few people who existed that could match the evil of Nineveh. Sodom and Gomorrah was one of them. Yet the heart of Abraham produced a different response to the revelation of the impending judgment of God upon a wicked city.

Abraham had a different response than Jonah, not because he had more knowledge of God than Jonah did. Jonah and Abraham both had an orthodox view of God. They both saw He was just, demanding payment for the sins of the wicked cities. They also both saw He was forgiving and merciful. It wasn’t that Jonah didn’t know the gracious side of God that he wanted Nineveh destroyed. In fact, he confesses it very openly.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 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. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 3:10-4:3 (ESV)

Both Jonah and Abraham knew God was gracious and willing to forgive, but Jonah lacked something Abraham had.

Jonah didn’t lack a how-to of the mind; he lacked a want-to of the heart.

He lacked the want-to, because he lacked a heart of brokenness, of compassion, and a love for wicked people.

Having A Want-To Problem Of The Heart

It’s going to be real easy being broken for the single mom that’s working three jobs to feed her kids. But it’s going to be real difficult to be broken for the husband that left his wife and children so he didn’t have to deal with the responsibility. But they both live in this city.

It’s going to real easy being broken over children that are abused. But it’s going to be real difficult to be broken over the parents that abuse them. But they both live in this city.

It’s going to real easy being broken over the poor and oppressed. But it’s going to real difficult to be broken over the Westlake family that lives in a house bigger than yours. But they both live in this city.

If our problem is a want-to problem and not a how-to, it means we can be a church that has perfect theology and knows all the attributes of God, but completely misses it when it comes to living it out.

We can know all the how-tos of being a church that is for our city and still fail at it.

Jonah knew all the right things about God. He knew God’s willingness to forgive. He experienced it himself in the stormy waters. But when God was willing to forgive the Ninevites, he didn’t want it to happen. He lacked compassion for Nineveh. Abraham on the other hand desperately wanted God to forgive Sodom and Gomorrah.

Mere head knowledge of God produces a believing, but only a cold believing. A believing that says, “Yes I suppose it’s possible God could save the entire city of Austin, but He probably won’t.”

Correct theology when coupled with a heart of compassion and brokenness for the wicked produces a white-hot believing that embraces and grasps at the mercies of God and not simply think of it as something that’s possible.

The Bible says even the demons believe and shudder. Jonah shuddered at the revelation of the will of God that said He would forgive and save Nineveh.

Does your believing cause you to shudder at the will of God or does it cause you to embrace and grasp at the will of God?

The practical way of seeing the difference is prayer.

The Difference In How You Pray

The difference is in the way I pray for my son Malachi’s salvation versus the way I pray for my aunts’ salvation.

I have four aunts who all live in Korea. None of them are believers. I’ve had a few opportunities to share the gospel with them, but they’re just not convinced. Do I want my aunts to be saved? Sure I do. But if I were to be honest with you, I think about their salvation as just in the realm of possibility. If God did save them, that would be great. But the fact they’re not and if they were to die right now, they would most definitely face the eternal wrath of God. Sadly, this doesn’t keep me up late at night. Sure, I’ve said some prayers for them, but one of those cold, unfeeling prayers. I’ve never wept for them. My heart has never been stirred to intercede for the behalf.

On the other hand, I find myself often going into my son Malachi’s room at night while he’s sleeping, kneeling by his crib, and begging God that He would save him. I beg Him that He would draw him to Himself at an early age. You better believe if Malachi gets older and he’s still not a believer, I’m going to weep in my prayers for him. I’m going to fast and do whatever I could think of to share the gospel with him.

Do you see the difference?

Do you want Austin saved? Do you want Austin saved in the way I want my aunts to be saved or in the way I want Malachi to be saved? Who are the people in your life that you are simply tossing up cold prayers for? Who are the people in your life that you are weeping in prayer for? Let’s pray for Austin like that.

Profaning The Work Of The Cross

How we feel towards the wicked is a great indicator of what we truly think about the cross. When we feel towards the wicked the way Jonah felt towards Nineveh, we’ll find ourselves sharing the gospel. Not because we desire their salvation, but just in order to ease our guilty conscience.

We’ll share the gospel, because if we don’t, we’ll feel bad.

Jonah went to Nineveh because God forced his hand. He didn’t want to go there. Jonah wanted justice, not the guilty to go unpunished or the wicked to be forgiven. He didn’t want evil people to prosper. He wanted justice.

Abraham wanted justice too, but he also wanted something more. He wanted something greater than justice; he wanted mercy, mercy for the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He wanted it so bad he was willing to sacrifice himself. Look at the way Abraham is making his request.

And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” Genesis 18:26-32 (ESV)

We may not be able to pick up on this very well, because of the way we flippantly pray sometimes, but Abraham had such a holy view of God that he thought God could at any minute grow tired of his requests and strike him dead. Abraham is risking his very life every time he makes his request before God. He risked himself because he loved his neighbor as himself. He was risking his life because he considered them better than himself.

What are we risking for the city of Austin? Would you be willing to risk you job? Your health? What about your money? Your retirement? Your comfort? Your marriage or even your children?

This is exactly what God is telling us to do when He says, “Throw your lot in with the city, because in the city shalom, you will find your shalom.”

Jonah looked upon all the wicked people of Nineveh and he didn’t want them to be saved.

Who do you not want to be saved? What about that registered sex offender down the street? Would you like to invite him over for dinner at your house so you can share the gospel with him? Who are the people in our lives we couldn’t care less about them being saved?

The major barrier to being a church for our city is our own heart. Our hearts, if we took an honest look at them, have some ugly things in them. We’re going to have to deal with this, because left undealt with, we will find ourselves profaning the work of the cross.

God would be just in sending all the wicked to hell, all the racists, pedophiles, and murderers. That would be justice. This justice is what Jonah wanted and it’s what we want.

But something greater than justice was demonstrated on the cross. That something greater was mercy.

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13 (ESV)

Mercy triumphs over judgment because it was more costly. Justice condemns forever all the guilty that refuse to bow their knee before God. But mercy triumphs over judgment, because mercy condemned once and for all the only One who was able to fully satisfy the wrath of God against sin. This mercy was more costly than justice, because the One who was able to bear it was innocent.

The problem is we think there’s justice in the cross of Jesus when it applies to us, but not when it applies to the people we think are truly sinful.

What does your affection toward the lost and the wicked of this city say about your view of the cross? Do you thin the cross is powerful enough to save pseudo-sinners like yourself, but not powerful enough to save the truly wicked of this city? In your affection toward the lost, what are you saying about the power of the cross? What are you saying about the mercy of the cross?

Ultimately God Is Sovereign

The irony about comparing Jonah and Abraham is in looking at the outcome of their actions. We’ve been talking about needing to have the heart of Abraham and not Jonah. But what was the outcome of Nineveh and of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Though Jonah was obstinate and disobedient, God used him to save the entire city of Nineveh, one hundred and twenty thousand people, including their cattle. Nineveh was not a myth; an entire city was actually saved!

Though Abraham portrayed the perfect picture of someone who has compassion and love for the lost, even for the very wicked of the city, God ended up annihilating Sodom and Gomorrah.

What are we to make of this?

God is sovereign over salvation. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

…declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose. Isaiah 46:10 (ESV)

God can do all things. No purpose of His will can be thwarted; not even by his disobedient children. What we see through Jonah is that on our worst day, we can’t thwart the will of God. What we see through Abraham is that on our best day, we can’t thwart it either.

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. Romans 9:15-16 (ESV)

Salvation didn’t depend on Abraham who willed Sodom and Gomorrah saved. Salvation didn’t depend on Jonah who ran so Nineveh wouldn’t be saved. Salvation depended on God and God alone who had mercy.

Salvation is solely dependent upon the sovereignty, pleasure, and will of God and not upon man’s wisdom or efforts. We cannot manipulate God into doing anything that’s apart from His will.

The Takeaways

As we’ve been addressing the ugly sin in our own hearts, you may be tempted to think you’re a greater sinner than you ever dared to believe. How can you play a role in being a church that’s for our city?

When you’re tempted to think this way, remember one thing. God used Jonah to save the entire city of Nineveh. God’s power is not dependent upon your purity. God can and often chooses to use broken vessels like us so He Himself will get the glory. Pray He will be merciful to you to change your heart, but do not limit the power of God to use you, a broken vessel, to do amazing things. God can use you to save an entire city.

Through Abraham we’ve learned God has made a way for salvation where previously it was impossible. Why did Abraham stop asking? Why did he ask God to save the city on account of the fifty that was righteous? Then asked on account of the forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and then ten that was righteous? Why did he stop there? What if he would have asked God if he would save the city on account of one?

God would have saved the city on account of one that is righteous. But I think Abraham realized something in his conversing with God. He realized there wasn’t one, not even one who was righteous.

“None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:10-12 (ESV)

Salvation was impossible because there wasn’t even one that was righteous. Even concerning the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah said, “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem. Look around and consider. Search her squares…If you can find one person…I will forgive the city.”

This one person would ultimately not be found for another six hundred years. This one was not among us, so God Himself became man to dwell among us. S that He Himself would become the one person He required to save the city. This one righteous was Christ Jesus. That’s why we call Him our Savior.

Jesus didn’t simply come to save individuals; He came to save cities. Because this Christ has come we’re able to pick up where Abraham left off and to request something of God that Abraham couldn’t. We can say, “Father, on account of one person that is righteous, Jesus, will you save the city of Austin?”

Our God is mighty to save the city of Austin, because Christ has been mighty to become the one righteous person that cities need in order to be saved.