City: Jonah 4



And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  (Luke 19:41-45 ESV)





Tonight we will finish our study of Jonah. We are going to move through a rich climax and then finish the story. Don’t you love it when you finish a story and reach that page that says, “The End”? Tonight we will find ourselves at the end. Now, like most stories, once we have experienced all that the author wants us to experience we will be left with a question. After all is said and done we will have to ask ourselves, “What is this story really about.” When its all said and done, we find that this story, that we might call ‘Jonah’, or ‘Jonah and the Whale’, is really about neither.


You may already know this but in order for a story to be complete it must have a protagonist and an antagonist. The story is really – mostly about the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is the one who is fighting for the good. He is pro – or for – the good. The antagonist is against the good. As we have been studying this story, who do you think is the protagonist and who is the antagonist? Jonah is obviously not a protagonist. He is not for the good. In fact he is angry about the good. He doesn’t want the good. He is the antagonist. And we will see in this last chapter that God is the one with the last word. He is protagonist. He is fighting for the good, and he is fighting against Jonah – the antagonist.


So, this story is not about Jonah, it not about a whale, it is about God. Incidentally, the entire Bible is a story about God – and this story is just a mini story within that grand story and our mini story reflects the grand story. Scholars refer to the grand story as the meta narrative – which is really just a fancy way of saying “The Big Story”. Our entire children’s curriculum is centered on that meta narrative. Our kids should be familiar with it as “The Big God Story.”


I strongly believe that we could call that story “The Mission of God”, or “THE MISSIO DEI” – because the grand story is really about a God who has always been on a mission to save people who are far from him. The missionary character of God is revealed in the fact that he is always sending and that he even leaves his own culture to enter into our culture in order to save you and me. And in the story he’s sending Jonah and he’s sending a storm and he’s sending a fish and he’s sending a tree. He’s always sending.


So, tonight, when we finish this story and when we ask ourselves, what is the story really about, it will be clear that it is about the God who is on a mission to save. In fact, this story is 4 chapters longs and it pivots perfectly right in the middle at chapter 2:9. Jonah says, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” Our God is a god who saves. Tonight we are going to see that God saves Jonah from his discomfort and he saves a city full of lost people who do not know their left hand from their right. God saves Jonah and he saves the city.




Last week we left Jonah. He was furious with God, so God asked him a question. “Is it good for you to be angry?” Jonah never really answered that question. Instead he goes up on this hill and makes a little tent for himself to sit and watch to see how this story is going to end. He does not yet realize that he is the antagonist in this story. The story is not going to end until the protagonist finishes the fight. So God sets up an elaborate argument. God, the  protagonist is building an argument against Jonah the antagonist. And the argument is an unbelievable home run. God uses an a fortiori argument – which is an argument that moves from small to great. An a fortiori argument typically ends with, “If this little thing, then how much more this big thing.” Jesus was fond of this kind of argument. For instance, we see it frequently in the sermon an the mount. Jesus says, “If you give good gifts, being a mere man, how much more will God give good gifts.” And, “If God cares for the birds of the air, how much more will he care for you?”


God builds this argument by sending a tree to grow up to shade Jonah, then he sends a worm to kill that tree, and finally he sends a bitter hot wind to make Jonah miss that tree. When Jonah gets upset about the tree, God launches his argument, “If you care about a tree, then how much more should I care about an entire city full of lost people.”


Okay, so now that we see the flow of this argument, I want us to see something very important. We already know what this argument is about. God is using it to prove that if this little thing can become so very important to Jonah, then how much more should big things be important. That is obvious, right. So now with that in mind, lets read verse 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. – Jonah 4:6


I can’t help but think that this is not purposefully ironic. God sends the plant to save him from his discomfort. The God of salvation saves Jonah from discomfort. I guess you can say, at least I think that we can, that after he destroys the plant and turns up the heat that he also saves Jonah from his comfort. Some of us need to be saved from our discomfort (and that will be a wonderful sermon for another day) but most of us need to be saved from our comfort.


I think you might know where I’m going with this so I’ll just ask the question. Who is the real antagonist of this story? Really? I kind of tricked you a little bit when I said that Jonah is the antagonist, because, we have been constantly establishing in the study that we are Jonah. You are Jonah. — Are we not like Jonah? Are we not exceedingly happy over our own comfort? This story ends in a such a way that it is clear that God is turning the table and asking you and me, the reader, this question. If you are so concerned over your own comfort, then how much more should you be concerned with the lost and the city? Timothy Keller says,


“The antagonist is the religious moral people, who believe in God and who obey his commandments. It’s us! It’s city disdaining, city-phobic, religious, moral, good people. ” 


There is no doubt in my mind that we are condemned in this argument. American Evangelicals are fat, lazy and, it would seem, completely unconcerned with those things that concern God. He is the protagonist. He is for the good of the city. He is for the good of the lost who do not know their left hand from their right. And he is trying to convince you and me, the antagonists, that those things are far greater, far more important than our comfort. People are more important than things – and yet, here we sit 3-4 thousand years later and we still haven’t learned.


Discussion #1

What needs to change in the American Church – no wait, in you, before you are more concerned for people than your own comfort?


We might need to actually pray that God will save us from our comforts. This reminds me of one of my favorite angry songs from Rich Mullins entitled “Save Me”. In it he says:


Save me from the slick pop sounds 

Laid down in virgin vinyl grooves 

Save me from any woman who would be turned 

On to the aftershave I use 

Save me from trendy religion that makes 

Cheap cliches out of timeless truths 

Lord save me 


God loves Jonah. He saves him from his discomfort. But he is also turning up the heat. He is not going to let Jonah become a fat, happy, comfortable, religious person. He wants Jonah to see how silly his priorities really are.



Well, the thrust of this argument is that if Jonah is that concerned for his own comfort then how much more should he be concerned for the city. The plant, being a very small thing, so small it was only alive for 24 hours, and the city being an ancient capital filled with 120,000 lost people who are so lost that they do not even know their right hand from their left hand.

The overwhelming weight of this argument is on the city. How much more should we be concerned for entire cities filled with lost people.


The Hebrew word used here for concerned is a very strong kind of concern. It literally means that he was moved to compassion – or moved to pity. He loves the city.


Are we that moved and that concerned for St. Louis? The gateway to the west? The city that has topped the charts in brutal crime for many years. Are we concerned for that city? One could argue with the growth of the suburban sprawl and the great white flight that we are not. In fact, that argument suggests we are indeed more concerned with our comfort. Now, before we go too far, before it sounds like I think we should all sell our houses and move to the city, lets pause for a second and let me develop an argument for the city – then we will talk about the burbs.


God is the protagonist arguing for the good of the city and I believe that we must be concerned for our city. Did you notice how many times God says “that great city” in these 4 short chapters? At the very opening he says go to that great city. In Chapter 3 God repeats his call to go to the great city – and then the narrater adds that it was an exceedingly great city. Finally, in the very last verse God again says that he is concerned for that great city and he even elaborates it’s greatness by stating that it has 120,000 people and many cattle.


And what is up with that? The whole book ends with cattle. This last word is “cattle”. What does that mean? Well, it might mean that God is a Texan… or … it means that this city is not just great because it has many people. After all, the suburbs have many people too. And there are thousands of people who live in rural communities. Cities are great because cities have great influence. The word translated “great” literally means large and important. That is why translators use the word great instead of big. God is concerned for cities and we should be too – because the city is important.


When I was in seminary I read a book that had a tremendous effect on me. Rodney

Stark wrote a book entitled The Cities of God. In it he documents how Christianity spread through great cities like Athens, and Corinth, and Antioch and eventually influenced the greatest city – Rome. He says,


“All ambitious missionary movements are, or soon become, urban. If the goal is to ‘make disciples of all nations’, missionaries need to go where there are many potential converts, which is precisely what Paul did. His missionary journeys took him to major cities such as Antioch, Corinth, and Athens, with only occasional visits to smaller communities such as Iconium and Laodicea. No mention is made of him preaching in the countryside.”  


God is concerned with cities because it is from the city that we get the pinnacle of art, and literature and education and politics and the list could go on and on. If we want to change the world, we must first influence culture, and we do that in the city.


“You’re one of the bearers of the gospel so what are you going to do with it? You don’t take that message with you to some little comfortable corner of the world. How dare you. In the village you reach individuals but in the city you reach the culture. In the village you might reach the artist, but if you want to reach the art world its in city. In the village you might reach the lawyer but if you want to reach the legal profession its in the city.” ~ Keller


“There is no biblical warrant that says that every Christian is called to live in the city. But the church institutionally is called by God to give a great, if not the greatest, part of its metabolism, its power, its resources and its concern to the city. God calls us to the city.” ~ Keller


Discussion #2

What must we do to begin to be concerned for St. Louis. How can we start now to influence this great city? What can (will) you do?


We must be concerned with the city. But I also do not believe that we need to abandon suburbia. Obviously – I am planting a church in the suburbs. The amazing thing about suburbia is that almost everyone of us in this room can go home tonight, walk out into your front lawn, and you can look to your left and then to your right, and with your naked eye see 50 or more houses – all with the same size yard. They may even use the same fertilizer. In most cases those houses are exactly like yours – with the exact same floor plan. And so we have hundreds of people, who all look the same on the outside, they may look like they have it all together, like their living the good life, yet spiritually – they do not know their left hand from their right. Suburbia definitely has its own challenges. In many ways, I believe the challenges are even greater and more difficult because they are all candy coated and shrink wrapped. This is why we have a host of television series’ like Weeds and Desperate House Wives. Because there is an overwhelming dissatisfaction that the promise of suburbia is a lie. The good life is not really all that good. Our dissatisfaction in the burbs is rooted in the lie that life is easier here. Comfort does not equal happiness.


When I began dreaming about a church plant called MISSIODEI, I originally wanted to go to the city. Part of that was because of Stark’s book. I wanted to influence culture. And as Kelly and I were praying – about where we should go –  it became clear that this church plant did not need to be our only church plant. It became clear to me that suburban evangelicals need to be lead to have a heart for the city. Suburban churches need to be more concerned for the city than for our own comfort. And so, for that reason, and because missio dei literally means the sending of God, it became increasingly clear to me that we must plant lots of churches and that we should send church plants into the city. That we should reach both those people who are a lot like me in the suburbs and then send folks into the city to influence culture.



There is a scene from the Gospels that has often haunted me. Jesus has just left a parade in his honor. People were singing Hosanna and they laid palm branches down for him to walk upon. The Pharisees rebuked him and encouraged him to silence the people because they were worshiping him. He responded that he could not silence them, and if they were silenced, the rocks themselves would cry out in worship. By the way, that was a quote from a story in the OT were God said that he could raise up servants from rocks if no one else would serve him. After Jesus left that scene he went up on hill outside the city. Like Jonah he was overlooking the city. And on that hillside he began to weep. Mark tells us that he wept over the city – and he uses a Greek word which means he was weeping audibly in a loud voice. So literally, he was wailing over that city.


“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Matthew 23:37 


That scene haunts me because I think it would be one of the most painful things to hear my LORD weeping like that. Like, when I was a kid, I rarely heard my dad cry. The few times I did hear him cry, it caused in me uncontrollable emotion. I would just cry because he was crying. I didn’t know why he was crying, but if my dad was crying something must have been horribly wrong, so I just cried too, without even knowing why. Can you imagine Jesus crying. Jesus Christ, weeping, wailing over the city. He is deeply concerned for the city.


And that haunts me, because at the end of this story in Jonah, God leaves us on the hillside, over looking the city, with this question, “Should we not be more concerned for the city than for our comfort?”


The question leaves the reader engaged, unable to be aloof. This masterful short story ends in a way that entails application. It is primarily the reader on whom God’s final words land, the reader who is left to ponder their meaning, the reader must decide what action to take next.”  ~ Bryan Estelle



“Just 100 cities account for 30% of the world’s economy, and almost all its innovation.” ~ Foreign-Policy Magazine, 2010


“In cities, you have more Image of God per square inch them anywhere else in the world.”  ~Timothy Keller