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Today we begin a new series on the book of Jonah. Another short but fascinating Old Testament book. Unlike Ruth, where much of the scenes are quiet, pastoral scenes, Jonah is full of big epic things. Unlike Ruth, if we were to make a film adaptation of Jonah, we’d need a good special effects budget. But I hope when we read this story, you’ll see that it’s just as relatable. It speaks to us and challenges us in our daily lives, even though those lives are free from any encounters with giant fish.
When it comes to Jonah everyone thinks of the fish. The truth is this is not a story about a giant fish. The story of Jonah is traditionally read every year in synagogues at the time of Yom Kippur, that is the Day of Atonement. It’s a day when people are reminded of their sins and of God’s mercy. This story is about something much bigger by far than some giant fish, it’s really about God’s mercy and that is something that we all need, something we all must recon with.
Let’s read Jonah, chapter 1 now. [Click here to read Jonah 1]
Despite this being grouped in among the ‘prophets’ section of the Hebrew Bible the book of Jonah stands out for a few reasons. The focus is on the story of Jonah and what happened to him, instead of the content of his prophecy. Very little is actually written about what Jonah said, what his prophecy was. In fact we’re just told one sentence. Jonah eventually walks into the middle of this great city Nineveh and says ‘Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ That’s all we’re told, and for all we know that may have been all Jonah said.
Another way this story stands out among the prophets is that its prophet, Jonah, doesn’t come out of this looking great. He’s not the hero of the story and, as we go through this short series, I don’t want you to think “be like Jonah”. Very often the message is more “don’t be like Jonah”.
Right from the start we see Jonah doing the opposite of what you’d expect a prophet of the Lord to do.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’
(Jonah 1:1-2, NIV)
Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh. A mission from God! And so, you’d expect this prophet of God to go and do what God says. You’d expect Jonah to fearlessly speak God’s truth to sinful people. To be brave. To be faithful. Because God has told him to go and be his messenger.
But Jonah runs away. In fact, Jonah runs as far away as he can:
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
(Jonah 1:3, NIV)
We’re not sure where Tarshish was. There are a few suggestions: Tartesus in southern Spain, Carthage in Tunisia, and a town in Sardinia. Wherever it was it was in the opposite direction Jonah was called to go. Nineveh was to the east, Tarshish to the west. And if Tarshish was in southern Spain then it was as far away as it was possible for Jonah to sail to. Jonah is running away from his call and notice the phrase that’s repeated here: “from the Lord”. Jonah is fleeing to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Jonah is running away from God, (or at least he’s trying to). You don’t expect that from a prophet.
Here we begin to see that maybe Jonah has a small idea of God. I mean he knows deep down that God is the one who made all things and yet he’s operating in this moment as if God is some local, tribal deity that belongs to Israel and in Israel. Jonah thinks he’s getting further and further away from God as he sails away from Israel, further from the promised land, further from the temple. But God Almighty is right there, and he will not let Jonah run away from his mission.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
(Jonah 1:4, NIV)
Here on the sea we meet some other characters too. The sailors of this ship, caught up in this storm because of Jonah’s actions, are frightened and they call out to their pagan gods to save them. But none of these false gods can do anything to save them (v. 5). Meanwhile Jonah is sleeping, so they wake him up and tell him to call out to his god and maybe that will work. They’re desperate and they’re trying everything because they’re scared for their lives.
While these desperate sailors fear for their lives and call on false gods to save them, the one who knows the true God sleeps. In fact, this whole storm is because Jonah did not want to play his part in the mission to save pagans.
This is a little representation of what it’s like to ignore our calling. God called Jonah to preach to the pagans in Nineveh and he refused, and here he is sleeping while these pagans fear for their lives. God called the Israelites to be a people for his glory, to show the world what he is like, and are they sleeping on the job while the pagan world desperately calls out to false gods? Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and tell the world about him and make more disciples and today are we sleeping on the job while generation after generation of desperate people cry out in vain to false gods.
Let’s make it a bit more local. Are we — I mean me and you, Christian — sleeping on the job while our neighbours, our family, our friends and co-workers, look for salvation from false gods — from their jobs, their relationships, their money, their looks. We know the living God, we know salvation, we know true hope. We know the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have been saved by his sacrifice on our behalf, we know the way to peace with our Creator. We’re not meant to keep it to ourselves. I know I sleep on the job.
Let’s allow the words — from verse 6 — of the pagan captain of this ship to really sink in:
“How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god!”
(from Jonah 1:6, NIV)
Do you call on God on behalf of your neighbours? Do you pray for them? Do you love them? Let’s get up, call on our God, and take part in his mission.
I think we fall asleep on the job, we forget our mission and calling because we can fall into the trap of believing in what I call “decorative holiness”. I think this happened to Jonah, I think it happened to God’s Old Testament people Israel, and I think it can and does happen to churches and I know it happens to me from time to time.
We understand that we are holy, that God has set us apart. That’s what holy means: special, set apart. That’s the amazing, wonderful truth of the gospel! If you are a Christian, if you have faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on your behalf then you are holy! You are set apart, you are special. You are part of God’s holy people, you have been cleansed and forgiven of your sins and the Holy Spirit lives in you to make you more and more holy, to make you like Jesus. We understand that we’re holy, that we’ve been set apart and made special, but we can fall into the trap of thinking that God has set us apart just to have us, just to have this special people to just… be there, to be special, to be decorative like the good china that nobody ever eats off of, or the cushions that nobody sits on, or the decorative hand-towels that you are not allowed to dry your hands on.
We’re holy. But we are not merely decorative. Your holiness is not “decorative holiness”, it’s “functional holiness”. You’ve been set apart, made special, for a purpose, to do a job. Think of yourself less like the special china and more like an instrument in an orchestra or a special tool. We have a function. We have a role to play in God’s mission.
So, Jonah wakes up and they find out that he is the reason for this storm, because he was running away from God. The storm is continuing to rage and get even stronger. The solution is clear to Jonah: pick me up and throw me into the sea.
Has Jonah finally found some compassion for pagan people and now he’s willing to die so that they might live? If so, this is self-sacrificial love. The kind of love we need for mission. The kind of love we see brought to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who gave up his life so that we could be set free from sin and death.
Or is it the case that Jonah is so determined not to answer God’s call, that he would rather die or, risking death, allow God to punish him in the sea. It sounds a bit much, but there are some clues that this just might be the case further on in this story. In chapter two, Jonah’s psalm or prayer to God from the belly of the fish is conspicuously lacking in any repentance for running away from his mission. After he is vomited out by the fish, God calls Jonah again in chapter three and tell him again to go to Nineveh. And at the end of this, in chapter four, after Jonah has preached to Nineveh and the people all repent, Jonah is so angry and bitter that he just tells God to kill him.
When God called Jonah, Jonah knew that God was sending him to Nineveh as part of his plan to show mercy to this great pagan city. He didn’t want the people of Nineveh to experience God’s mercy and grace. Because God was his God. The God of his people, his race and his country. Why should those pagans be blessed by my God?!
Jonah has a small picture of God and his grace. But what this story shows us, what I hope you’ll see as we go through it, is that God is bigger than we can imagine, his grace and mercy and love are greater and more glorious than we can imagine.
Jonah’s idea of God is so tied to his people and his land that he thinks going far away from Israel is a way to flee from the presence of God. But God is not so small. God chose Israel to be his people, to reveal himself to them and to dwell amongst them, but he’s not confined there. God is the God of heaven and earth, the Creator and Sustainer of all things everywhere. This is a story about Jonah learning that lesson the hard way, so that we might learn it the easy way.
It’s plain that Jonah really disagrees with God showing mercy to the pagan people of Nineveh and really doesn’t want to go and be any part of this mercy mission. Would he rather die than see that happen? Is his hatred for the pagan nations so great? It’s not too difficult to imagine when we look at some of the hatred we see in the news and online. The grace and mercy of God shames and angers us human beings with all our hatred and prejudice.
This book is full of irony. Imagine reading this or hearing the story back in the day. If you were some kind of ancient Israelite-nationalist. You hear a story about an Israelite prophet of the Lord going to preach a warning to the pagans. After a while you’re going to feel a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable with this story. The only Israelite in it, the prophet who you thought would be a hero, is rebellious, disobedient, and selfish. Meanwhile, every pagan character you encounter is responsive to God. The sailors end up worshipping God, by the end of the story we read that the whole city of Nineveh, from its king to its cattle end up repenting. Jonah resents God’s mercy, but the pagans take it eagerly with both hands. But I’m running ahead. We’ll see more of that next week.
Look at your life and the people God has called you to. I don’t mean that you need to have heard a big booming voice from the clouds. God is sovereign. If you’re working in a place, or parenting a family, then that’s where God has put you. If you’re friends or neighbours with someone then this is someone God has brought into your life. Do they know God, or like the sailors do they grope around trying whatever might work whenever the storms of life come upon them? Do you pray for them? Are you ready to talk to them about how you know the God of heaven? Do you talk about God in your home, with your family? Are there people who you need to soften your heart towards, to wake up and pray for, to talk to about God and his mercy?
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s a day when we remember when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit to go and be Christ’s witnesses. On that day people from different countries, speaking different languages, got to hear and understand the message of the gospel. So today, let us pray for the mission of the church, the spread of the gospel and that God would continue to heal the divisions of our world by bringing us together in Christ. We remember that God is not just the God of people who look and sound like us, but God Almighty, the Creator of us all.
Our loving Heavenly Father, we thank you for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, your church. May He empower and embolden us for mission, beginning wherever we are right now.
Bless those who devote their lives to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Protect them and make their work fruitful. May many people all over this world hear and respond to the gospel in repentance and faith.
At Pentecost you brought brothers and sisters together from different places, different cultures, different languages. Lord, we ask your forgiveness for when the differences between us cause hatred, injustice and oppression. We ask you to heal us and make us whole, together with our brothers and sisters all over the world.
We pray for justice and peace in America. May those who grieve the death of George Floyd be comforted with just reforms in the systems of power in America. You hear those who mourn, their cries reach you. May they also reach those entrusted to lead and serve them. May your peace enter into this storm of rage and fear. Still our storms and bring us all closer together in respect, and even in love. Raise up just leaders who will speak for those who are not being listened to. As we see this situation may we also be reminded that we are not immune to such things. May we all strive here for a society that values all human beings equally and treats them fairly.
Once again we pray for an end to this Coronavirus pandemic.
We pray for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Comfort them, O God of all comfort.
We pray for the sick. Heal and strengthen them.
We pray for those who work to treat and care for the sick. Protect them and give them strength and skill.
We pray for those who work in labs to find and develop treatments and vaccines. Bless their efforts and may we have powerful medicines soon.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit, Lord. Help us today, and all days, to follow Jesus, in whose name we pray.