Jonah – a Community talk


  • Read: the whole book of Jonah (it’s only 4 chapters!)

    In the book of Jonah we read about three encounters between Jonah and the LORD. Jonah is called to go to Ninevah, he is then called to Ninevah again and then after he goes and preaches, God challenges him again over his heart attitude.

    Each encounter confronts something different in Jonah and each prompts a different result from this most reluctant prophet.

    The first encounter confronts Jonah’s prejudice. Jonah is a prophet, a ‘Hebrew’, part of God’s chosen people and God decides to send him to Ninevah. Without going into too much detail, Ninevah was the Assyrian capital and it’s occupants were famous for being merciless bloodthirsty warriors. The Ninevites had plenty of blood on their hands and Jonah wanted to make sure they didn’t have his blood on their hands, so he high tails it down to the port.

    Tarshish was an ancient port in Spain, the farthest limit of the Mediterranean Sea. If Jonah was going to get away from Ninevah, he was willing to travel to the ends of the Earth to do so.

    Jonah’s response to his first encounter with God was deliberate rebellion. The interesting thing, I feel, is that Jonah was in no doubt as to what God demanded of him. It wasn’t that he was uncertain about the call. He was a prophet and he knew what God’s voice sounded like. It wasn’t that he heard the call and made a half-hearted attempt to fulfil it. It wasn’t even that he began eagerly walking to Ninevah, but grew disillusioned and gave up. No, this was an out and out rejection of God’s call.

    The challenge to us, as individual followers of Jesus and as a a community of believers, is how will we react when we hear God’s call. What is God calling us and our Church to do, to preach, to proclaim, to be? Following Jesus means we are to live out the Kingdom, to proclaim its reality through what we say and do. We are citizens of that Kingdom and we are to live as citizens of that Kingdom, confronting the curse of sin we see in human sickness, in poverty, in the disregard for the poor, in emotional distress and in spiritual blindness. Our call is not for success as seen by some worldly Christians obsessed with filling pews and counting the congregation; instead it is for the success of Heaven, marked only by how obedient we have been in following the call.

    These are the calls to action; these are the calls of the Kingdom and the story of Jonah warns us to listen and obey.

    Jonah’s second encounter with God confronts his behaviour and it begins at sea.

    The sailors on Jonah’s boat were no mugs. Every sailor is superstitious. If you don’t respect the sea, then the sea will claim you. And even if you do respect the sea, the sea might still claim you. We may have lengthened the odds with our 21st century technology, but the ocean is untameable.

    Sailors have always cried out to the gods and the guys on Jonah’s ship were no different. But their gods didn’t answer them and they knew there was something freakishly out of the ordinary about this storm. Someone somewhere has ticked off somebody important. Jonah knew it was him – and knew his rebellious behaviour was going to be responsible for this ship going down.

    The sailors worked out that Jonah was to blame and eventually threw him overboard. The idea was that if they got rid of the idiot who had angered his god and then set off on a sea voyage, then maybe this god, this LORD, would spare them. As to what happened to Jonah, well if his deity was this angry with him, then perhaps he was better off dead. When Jonah was then swallowed by a giant fish, he probably assumed that was it.

    This second confrontation with God prompts repentance from Jonah. He seems to have spent the first couple of days in the fish not quite believing that he was still alive. Then he gets around to praying. Or maybe, considering the eloquence of this prayer, he spent the first two days practicing. Whatever the case, he meant it.

    And he knew that he was dealing with a God who could do anything – even save him. The “yawning jaws of death” (well, he had just been swallowed), yes the LORD could save him from them. Down “at the very roots of the mountains”, “locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead”, the LORD could hear him.

    At times in my life I can empathise with Jonah. In ‘wilderness periods’ where nothing much seems to be happening and the months run into each other and it all just seems like a slow haul to eventual death and sweet oblivion, I feel “locked out of life”. It is amazing, but God does hear the prayers from the dark prisons we find ourselves in.

    And then the fish spit Jonah out onto a beach.

    He must have hoped that that was that. There he was, smelling faintly of fish interior – a unique aroma I’m sure – and remembering that he had promised to sacrifice to the LORD. Where else could you do that except in the Temple in Jerusalem? Time to go home. Now if he could only find someone to give him directions, he’d set right off.

    But this encounter with the Almighty was not over and God reminded him gently about Ninevah. Jonah’s heart must have sank, but knowing that he was blacklisted from every passenger vessel in the area, he had no choice but to go. So, he finally obeys the call. He goes to Ninevah and warns the people there that they have angered the LORD.

    It would appear that Jonah was a huge success. The people took his words to heart and repented. Sack-cloth and ashes became the new black, forget the Atkins diet, even the animals were ordered to fast. Repentance was the order of the day and God didn’t even have to send a huge fish to swallow the Ninevites to make it happen.

    It is easy to make the point that God doesn’t put up with disobedience from his people, but the real truth of this encounter is that if God wants something done, it will get done. One way or another Jonah was going to Ninevah. He could have gone straight there, but instead decided to test God and took what turned out to be an interesting detour.

    Jonah’s third encounter with God comes when God confronts his attitude. The interesting thing about Jonah’s success was that instead of delighting about how the Ninevites responded, Jonah becomes bitter instead. He issues the most amazing complaint to God, accusing him of doing exactly what he expected, showing mercy to these scumbags who deserved nothing more than to be wiped off the face of the planet.

    What did Jonah lose here? He was sent to preach a warning of destruction – but instead he witnessed God’s mercy. He expected God to smite these idol worshipping ignorant pagans – instead God was moved to pity. In the process, Jonah lost several things. He lost his dignity, knowing that he was a prophet whose dire warnings did not come true. He lost his sense of superiority because God honoured the penance of these non-chosen people, these non-Jews. And he lost his temper. “I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people. Just kill me now!”

    God’s answer comes across as puzzled, but in fact his question is cutting. “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” Jonah knows it isn’t right, he shouldn’t be angry that God has shown mercy, he shouldn’t be irate that God is “slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love”. But at this point he is stuck in a foreign land and now it seems the LORD is getting sarcastic with him. So he goes off in a huff and sits there waiting for God to destroy the city after all.

    Jonah had been through a lot and God takes pity on him so provides him with some shelter, but to prove a point then takes it away. When Jonah grieves the loss of a plant, but still can’t bring himself to celebrate the salvation of a city, he receives a revelation of God’s character and a reminder of his place in the great scheme of things.

    “You feel sorry about that plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only short lived. But Ninevah has over 120 000 people who don’t know their right hands from their left. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

    On that note we leave the story of Jonah. It would be nice to know whether he made it back to Jerusalem, we presume he did because we have the story in the Bible. I can imagine him being known as the prophet who’s prophecies didn’t come true, people nudging him in the pub and asking him when God’s wrath was going to fall on Ninevah. Hopefully his revelation of the LORD’s mercy would have humbled him a bit. And I’d wager he never ate a nice fish supper again.

    God’s gentleness in dealing with Jonah after he was obedient is a reminder to us that even when we do God’s will, we can still have the wrong heart attitude. We can still be looking for God to work one way, when in fact God has chosen a different route. We could have done all that God has asked us to do and yet be angry with him if it appears that God hasn’t come through on his side of the deal.
    Are we angry about the plant and missing the glory that is the city we were called to save?

    To reiterate:
    3 Encounters.
    1 – A call. The result: Jonah’s rebellion
    2 – A supernatural storm, a trip in a fish and a second call. The result: Repentance and obedience.
    3 – A gentle lesson taught using a plant and an unanswerable question. The result: A revelation of God’s character.

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