For those of you who would rather hear the whole Sunday School lesson as one 47 minute lecture, you can find it at my home church's web site. FWIW, I commend all the sermons there for your edification.
Sure: I have a healthy fear of the Lord in terms of His right and ability to judge me, and in that I know I am still without any merit before Him as a sinner. But what's actually really scary, really gut-turning to me about God is that He's going to ask me to do something which I will hate to do and would refuse to do because it offends me.
You know: it would be great if God would ask me to write a book. God can’t offend me by asking me to write a book. But what if God asks me to evangelize someone at work – a client, for example, who leads a godless lifestyle – and give him the Gospel whether or not I get to keep my job after I do it? What if God asks me to make friends with people who live in the trailer park near my house because they are all lost, all people too lowly to be reached out to because frankly, they are messy?
So look: in Jonah I see a guy who is like me. He wants to be a minister to God the way he wants to minister to people and not necessarily the way God wants him to minister to people, and not necessarily to the people God wants him to minister to. And he's serious about it. He's a prophet to Israel, darn it! He's not going to Nineveh -- Nineveh?! where the King of Assyria lives?!? -- and tell them that God is planning to judge them! God ought to judge them! They're sinners! Let them die in their sin! Look at all the beer cans in their trash, and can't you smell that cigarette smoke?
But there’s more to it than this. It is not only that God may ask me to do something which offends me: God himself may do something that offends me. That is: His way will not be my way. What God intends to do probably doesn’t look like what I have planned in my Outlook calendar. And the problem comes to a head when there has to be a reconciliation.
It’s easy to teach our children the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know. The Bible tells me so.” It’s another thing entirely to remember that God’s love is not like my native idea of love which has a very small circle, and lets very few people in.
That speaks to how Jonah preaches to the Ninevites when he actually goes: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Jonah does not say, "Judgment is coming so repent", but only, "Judgment is coming". God's judgment. Because He didn't want the Ninevites to get any bright ideas. God told him to tell them they are under judgment, and that's it: that's all he’s going to do. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" That way he can be faithful, and he doesn’t have to worry because God going to deliver judgment. He said so.
But God does something else here which Jonah says he knew all along was God’s intention: God spares the Ninevites.
That’s Jonah's complaint to God: "Let me die, because I know you show steadfast love." Listen: Jonah's complaint was not, "God, you promised to smite the evildoer, and you squelched -- you broke your promise! Now that I know God is a promise breaker to Israel, I just want to die!" It was, "I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That's why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were full of love, and grace, and mercy, and patience, and ready to forgive!"
Jonah’s complaint is not about the lack of God’s justice. It’s about the overwhelming size of His love, and to whom He is willing to show it.