“The Misplaced Passion of Spectator Religion” (Jonah 4 sermon)

On this Father’s Day, many of us are remembering our dads — whether they are still with us, or like my dad, have gone on to be with the Lord. I can remember my father sitting in his recliner, watching tv or reading a book. The recliner is almost a recognized symbol of a Dad in the home. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: especially for a man who works hard outside his home. Home can and should be a place where a man can put up his feet and rest from his labors, and be “at home.” 

But one thing the recliner should NOT symbolize, is our walk with the Lord. Christianity was never intended to be a “spectator sport” — the “La-z-boy” should not be the defining symbol of our faith — although unfortunately it has become that for way too many of us. 

In our daily Bible  reading in the Book of Jonah last week we find a picture of such a man; whose passions were misplaced, because he let his walk with the Lord deteriorate into a “spectator religion”. And unfortunately, this misguided man looks uncomfortably similar to us in too many ways! 

Many of us are familiar with the basic story of the Book of Jonah: God told him in Chapter 1 to go and preach to the City of Nineveh, but Jonah ran from that call; taking a ship in the opposite direction. God brought a great storm on the sea, and the sailors discovered Jonah’s guilt and threw him overboard. But instead of drowning, a great fish swallowed him, and in the belly of that fish Jonah came face to face with God, and with his sin; and he repented, and recommitted his life to obey God. So the fish throws Jonah up onto the shore, and God tells Jonah again to go to Nineveh and preach, and this time he does. And when he does, Chapter 3 says the people there  actually repented, and turned back to God, and God spares the city.

Now, you’d think that this could be the happy ending to the story, but surprisingly, it is not. Chapter 4 shows us the “ugly rest of the story” of Jonah. Instead of being happy with the revival, it says that Jonah was “greatly displeased.” He didn’t want to see Nineveh repent; he had wanted to see them judged. Nineveh had been a violent conqueror; he wanted to see them “get their due,” and he was disappointed when that didn’t happen. So this brings us to our focus passage for today, where we see“The Misplaced Passion of Spectator Religion.” 


I.  The Role of the Spectator

Verse 5 says that Jonah sat down “until he could see what would happen in the city.” Did you catch that? What was Jonah going to do here? He wasn’t going to “do” anything, was he? He was going to SIT there, and “see what would happen.” He wasn’t going to preach any more. He wasn’t going to minister. He wasn’t going to serve in any way. He was going to “pull up a good seat” and watch whatever was going to unfold.  Jonah had adopted the role of the SPECTATOR. 

And he is not the only one ever to have taken on that role. One of the most striking verses to me in the story of Jesus’ arrest in Matthew 26, is where it says in :58 “But Peter was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome.” Here again, just like Jonah, Peter “sat down” “to SEE the outcome.” He was just going to watch. He didn’t intend to DO anything about it one way or the other. He was entirely a spectator. 

And honestly, too many of us in the church today are just like those men. We have become “spectators.” Some of us have always been spectators; some of us, like Jonah, used to serve, but have stopped, and have now “pulled up a seat” to just “see what will happen.” They have become spectators in the church and in the work of the Kingdom of God. 

Have you become a “spectator”? Ask yourself today: “What is my role in the church?” How am I serving to further the Kingdom of God in the world? As you look at our church, as you look at what is going on here in Burke County, in our country, and in our world, what are you DOING about it? What is your ministry? What action are you taking? Or have you just adopted the role of the “spectator”? Like Jonah, you’re not serving, or you’ve stopped serving, and now just like him, you’re just “sitting down until you can see what will happen”? Many of us would have to admit that just like Jonah, we’ve taken on the role of the spectator.  

Unfortunately over the years many leaders in the church itself have cultivated this false dichotomy: the “clergy/laity” divide: you “common folks” just leave the ministry to us; you just come once a week, and sit and learn and give, and we’ll call you a “good Christian.” Whether we’ve purposefully done it or not, we’ve basically trained people over the years just to be good, “spectator Christians” and think that’s good enough. 

But we need to understand that Christianity was never intended to be a “spectator sport.” We read earlier in our Bible readings in Exodus where Moses, burdened down with all the responsibilities of the people, said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets …”. He thought it would be optimal if ALL of God’s people were actively participating in the work. And that actually came to pass in the New Testament:

When God saw that we had all sinned, and that because of that, none of us would ever deserve to go to heaven to be with Him; God the Son Himself came down to Earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to pay for our sins, and rose again to be our Living Savior, so that whoever would call on Him might be saved. And the moment we ask Him to take over our lives, He sends His Holy Spirit into our heart to “seal” us as belonging to Him. And when the Spirit comes into our lives, He gives us gifts — special abilities with which we are to serve Him. And ALL of us have these gifts. I Corinthians 12:7 says: “To EACH ONE is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 

So the Bible makes it clear that God has given EVERY ONE of His people gifts, with which they are to serve Him. The role of the pastors and other  ministers in the church is NOT to personally DO all the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip the SAINTS for the work of the service.” ALL of God’s people are to be ministering. ALL of GOD’s people are to be serving. Just coming to church for an hour a week (or even 2 or 3) and sitting and listening and going home until next week, is NOT being a good Christian. It may be “traditional” Christianity, but it is not Biblical Christianity. It is “spectator religion”, which is not Christianity at all.

How do you know if you’ve become a “spectator” in the church? There are some give-away signs: 

— Worshipers come to church to GIVE their worship to God. 

— Followers of Jesus come to church to hear God’s word and to RESPOND to what He says to them. 

— But Spectators come to watch. So they EVALUATE, criticize, and critique what they are watching.

So: when you leave a service, what is your response? 

— If you’re a worshiper, you respond with joy, because you were able to give to the Lord: your brought your songs and your prayers and your offerings and service to the Lord, so you rejoice! 

— If you are a follower of the Lord, you come away with a challenge to DO something that the Lord showed you, that you are going to take action on. 

— But if you are a spectator, you come away with an “evaluation” of what went on; you come away with a “critique”: “Well, the temperature in there wasn’t right; the music wasn’t what I wanted; the pastor was a bit off today”; “I didn’t get anything out of it.” See, those kinds of responses are typical of the spectator. You “evaluate the show.” You didn’t come to give your worship; you didn’t come to change your life; you came to be entertained. Those kinds of responses are a giveaway that like Jonah you’ve become a participant in “spectator Christianity.”


II. The Comfort of the Spectator

After Jonah “sat down” and became a spectator, God planned a little “episode” that would reveal Jonah’s heart — and the heart of all “spectators” as well. Verse 6 says that the Lord God appointed a plant to grow up and give Jonah shade. And notice the end of the verse says: “and Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.”  

This wording is so important, and so revealing: “Jonah was EXTREMELY HAPPY about the plant.” He had been so “put out” by what God had done by having mercy on the people of Nineveh; verse 1 says he was “greatly displeased.” But now Jonah was EXTREMELY happy! What was the difference? Now he was comfortable. Now he was sitting there; in the shade; he got a “good seat.” The “spectator” was comfortable. And this is what’s important to the spectator: his comfort. Not what God might be doing in people’s lives; not in His ministry of mercy — but in his own comfort.  

This is so revealing. When you are a spectator, the most important thing to you is your own comfort. You aren’t really there to DO anything; you are just watching. So you want to be comfortable while you are watching, and being entertained. Think of the best sports arenas you have been in: what do they have? They have comfortable seats, with arm rests on the chairs, and cupholders, and large video screens, and all the food and drinks you want available nearby — because comfort is what is important to the spectator. Comfort is everything to the spectator; for that is their whole focus: they are just there to watch, so they want to be comfortable doing it. 

Now a participant has a different mindset, don’t they? Spectators in a football game only care about the comfort of their seat. An actual player in the game isn’t focused on comfort; he wears very uncomfortable shoulder pads, and tight-fitting helmet, and so on, because he is not focused on comfort, but on competing, and winning the game. 

Same with a military person; they aren’t focused on comfort, but in accomplishing the mission they have been given. 

I love to visit World War II warships, like the battleship U.S.S. Alabama in Mobile Bay. I can remember being on board one of those ships, and looking at the bunks where the sailors slept. They were SO restrictive: each bunk only had about 18” of space until the next one was stacked on top of it. Now a spectator would be going, “That doesn’t look very comfortable!” NO ONE would want to vacation on that kind of a ship, would they? But it’s not a cruise ship, is it? It is not made for comfort. It is a warship. 

As we’ve said before, this is exactly the kind of mindset we need to get into in the church. Too many of God’s people in the American church — whether they would say it or not — regard the church as a “cruise ship” that is supposed to be here for our comfort:

— we expect the temperature in the building to be comfortable for US

— we want seats that are comfortable

— we want songs that we are comfortable with and that suit our tastes

— we want a length of service that we are comfortable with

And so on … Many Americans have basically bought into “La-z-boy” Christianity, where comfort is the most important thing to us. 

Think about it: many of the concerns that modern American Christians have with the church, have to do with our own comfort. And it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, we have become “spectator Christians.” And spectators are only concerned about their own comfort.

When “spectator Christianity” takes hold, then like Jonah, “shade plants” become important to us: our own personal comforts and conveniences. Because comfort is what is most important to the spectator.


III. The Misplaced Passion of the Spectator

In the next verses we see what happens when the spectator loses the comfort that he loves so much. The Bible says that God Himself had appointed this plant to grow up over Jonah. But He did it to teach him a lesson. In :7 God then appointed the worm to kill the plant, and He took the plant away. And He did all that to reveal Jonah’s own heart to him. What it revealed was that Jonah’s passion was for this PLANT, this comfort, instead of the people that God had called him to minister to. 

These verses really reveal the passion of Jonah’s heart. As we saw, :6 said that “Jonah was EXTREMELY HAPPY about the PLANT.” His joy was in the comfort that he got from this plant. Not in the revival; not in the repentance and salvation of the people of Nineveh; he was extremely happy about the comfort he got from the plant.

And then, when God caused the worm to kill the plant, it says the sun beat down on Jonah, and he got angry. God asked him if he had a right to be angry, and in :9 Jonah says, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death”! “Angry even to death” means he was REALLY angry; so angry he could die. He was so mad, that he had lost this plant, which had given him such comfort. Jonah was PASSIONATE about this plant; which is really to say, he was passionate about his OWN COMFORT. 

So God confronted Jonah in :10. He said: “You had compassion on the PLANT … which came up overnight and perished overnight — should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great CITY, which has 120,000 PEOPLE, who do not know their right hand from their left … ?”. He’s saying, Jonah, think about what you are doing. You are so passionate about this perishable PLANT, just because it gives you comfort, and you don’t even care about hundreds of thousands of PEOPLE, whether they live or die or have eternal salvation?

This is the misplaced passion of the spectator: it is not that they don’t care about ANYTHING; they are often very passionate, but they are passionate about the wrong things. They are passionate about temporary things; they are passionate about their own “shade;” they are passionate about their own comfort; instead of being passionate about GOD and His MISSION and the PEOPLE God so loves! 

This calls for soul-searching from each one of us today: have we become “spectator Christians,” who aren’t really involved in the mission God has called us to, who are only concerned about our own comforts, and get more upset about when these things are taken away, than we do over the fact that people are lost or hurting or in need? 

The Bible says our passion is supposed to be for the people God loves. For the mission of God to reach and disciple and care for them.

We just read this week where Amos prophesied: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion … yet they have not GRIEVED over the ruin of Jacob.” Amos said that one of the sins of the people was that they were not grieving over what was happening to others. We are not supposed to be “at ease.” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We are supposed to MOURN over our sins and the sins of others. We should mourn for the sins of our land. We are to mourn for the lost. That is where our passion is supposed to be. 

Paul said in Romans 10:1 “My heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” This was Paul’s PASSION. He wanted to see people saved. He didn’t care about his own comfort. He told the Corinthians in II Corinthians 11 that he was “often in danger. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep … in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” See, Paul was no spectator. His passion was for God and His mission and the people his heart had a desire to reach, and he passionately sacrificed his comfort, for the sake of the mission. 

But those of us who are spectators pervert that, and become passionate about our comforts instead. Our “shade plants” — whatever make us comfortable — become all important to us. And like Jonah, when our little “shade plants” and comforts get taken away, we become as upset about the loss of our comfort, as we SHOULD have been over the people we are supposed to be passionate about, who are lost and hurting.

If you wonder if that’s really true, think about it:

What do you think would cause the bigger uproar in this church: 

— if the air conditioning went out and we didn’t fix it?

— or if we knew that there were children within a mile of this church who don’t know Jesus?

What would we be more upset about?

— if we replaced all the worship center seating with foldable metal chairs?

— or that we knew there were senior adults who are at home, who felt abandoned and alone?

— Would we be more passionate about losing “our” Sunday School classroom?

— Or would we be able to see past that and rejoice because we are more passionate about being able to bring more people in to hear the word of God?

I remember talking with an older relative of mine years ago, who was serving in a church in Florida. She was talking about all the new kids who were coming in to their church — but she wasn’t excited about  it; no, she was COMPLAINING about it: “Do you know what kind of mess they made in the pews? Do you know how much toilet paper they used?!” I’m like, “seriously? You’re reaching kids and families, but you’re upset because they’re messy?!

See, what bothers us, gives us away, doesn’t it? Our passions reveal where our heart really is.

In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities he tells of the Marquis St. Evremonde, who is an extremely rich man who left a party and sped his carriage through the streets of Paris. It was entertaining to him to watch the peasants dive out of the way, as his driver raced their carriage through the narrow streets of the city. But suddenly there was a thud, and the carriage stopped. People were screaming and crying. His carriage had hit a child. The Marquis was upset also: “Why is he making that abominable noise?” And: “How do I know what injury you have done to my horses?” He tossed out a gold coin to the child’s father, and sped away. 

The passions of the Marquis St. Evremonde were grostequely misplaced, weren’t they? He cared more about his horses, and his own personal comfort and entertainment, than he did a maimed and dying child. But before we shake our heads at him, let’s make sure that we don’t see ourselves in his reflection. What really bothers YOU? What are YOU passionate about? The Kingdom of God and the people God loves? Or your own possessions and comforts?  Like St. Evremonde, like Jonah, do you have “the misplaced passion of spectator religion”? 

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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