Jonah 4: Why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh?
Let’s see: one shade tree killed by a worm verses 120,000 poor ignorant people repenting and being saved from destruction. Which should receive the greatest response? It’s a no-brainer, right? Not for Jonah. He retreats a safe distance from Nineveh to watch the fireworks of its destruction. When the Lord provides a miraculous shade plant for him it calms him down and he feels good about things for the first time in days. Then, overnight, the plant’s dead and Jonah’s mood dies with it. At this point the Lord decides it’s time for this pitiful man to change his attitude. If the short life cycle of a shade plant can cause Jonah to go through such a mood swing doesn’t it make sense that the Almighty change his thinking about a city full of repentant people? Of course it does. Like Jonah, I tend to get all wound up about stuff that isn’t worth a hill of beans: getting my own way in some unimportant thing, or the World Series, or buying some new gadget. If my team wins, I’m in a good mood and if they don’t…well, I’m not a happy camper. Meanwhile, God is focused on people. He’s already judged sin, and he very much wants people to let him change their lives so he can change their eternity. I really need to get on the same page as God.
Take Away: The Lord is focused on people.
Why Jonah Runs
Jonah 4: I knew you were sheer grace and mercy.
Jonah runs because he understands what God’s all about and because his heart doesn’t beat with God’s heart. He knows that in spite of the message of condemnation and destruction the Lord gives him to preach that the very reason he’s sent to Nineveh is that God doesn’t want to destroy that city at all. Here are the things Jonah knows about God: his attitude toward lost people is one of grace; he delights in being merciful, he’s not easily angered; and he’s rich in love toward the lost. Jonah also knows that when it comes to judgment God always stands ready to change his mind. Since Jonah knows these things about God and since he’s so out of sync with God, he’d rather be dead than be instrumental in God’s extending mercy to his enemies. Also, Jonah knows that many of his countrymen agree with him. Once people find out that Jonah went to Nineveh to warn them and that he’s instrumental in God’s deciding not to destroy them his life won’t be worth a plug nickel. It’s a miserable thing to be filled with hate and to be used as an instrument of God’s love. I see here that God loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them. If he has to use a hard-hearted prophet and a big fish to do it, then that’s what he’ll do. If I’m going to be a partner with God in what he’s doing in this world, I’m going to have to allow him to love people with that kind of abandon through me.
Take Away: The Lord loves the lost to the point that he’ll do almost anything to reach them.
God’s man isn’t much like God
Jonah 4: Jonah was furious.
The heart of the book of Jonah isn’t the first part with the oft-repeated big fish story. Instead, it’s the last part. It’s here that we find the motor that drives the story. When the reluctant prophet gives in and goes to Nineveh he does so in fear, not that he’ll fail, but that he’ll succeed. Jonah is nationalistic to the core and he’d like nothing better than for the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, to be destroyed. Still, with all his failings, Jonah knows a thing or two about God. The priests and other religious leaders of his country may promote a doctrine of Israel having a corner on the Almighty, but Jonah understands that God has compassion on all people. Israel may be the chosen people but that means God wants to use them to bless all the nations on earth, not that God loves them and hates all others. When Jonah runs from God, refusing to go to Nineveh he does so because he understands these things. He understands them, but he doesn’t agree with them. Now that his mission to Nineveh is a success Jonah’s angry with the Lord, not only for sparing his enemies when they repent, but for using him to bring it to pass. In spite of his unique understanding of God, Jonah isn’t much like God at all.
Take Away: God is love.
The God of whatever happens
Jonah 3: God…did change his mind about them.
What an interesting statement! God intends to do one thing, but then, in response to what they do, he changes his mind and does something else. This view of God challenges our thinking about who he is and how he works in this world. The Lord’s willing to be influenced by what we say and do. Of course, in this case, this is what he wanted to have happen. Had God only wanted to destroy them we’d have no story of Jonah and the big fish. Instead, we’d have another Sodom and Gomorrah story about fire and brimstone wiping out a sinful city. The reluctant prophet is sent on this mission exactly because God wants their lives to change. This is a classic Old Testament prophet situation. The prophet says, “If you do this, God’s going to do that…if you do that, God’s going to do this.” The Lord’s message to Nineveh is that, because of their sin, destruction is coming. However, even though it’s unspoken, they’re also being given a choice. If sin is bringing destruction, repentance will bring life. When the people of Nineveh make the right choice God is happy to change his mind. This kind of thinking opens up all kinds of possibilities for us. When I pray, asking for God’s intervention in some matter, I’m not just going through a spiritual discipline. Rather, I’m actually being allowed to influence God! My standing in this world is much more than my traveling some predetermined path to some predetermined conclusion. I’m a partner with God who’s allowing me to work with him in changing the world. Here’s a view of a God who’s never at a loss; who always knows what he’ll do in response to what I do of my own free will. Such a view doesn’t make God less. Instead, it makes him more. He’s God whatever happens.
Take Away: As his people we’re partners with the Lord who allows us to work with him in changing the world.
The perfect man for the job
Jonah 3: In forty days Nineveh will be smashed!
Jonah’s message focuses on judgment. After all, he’s preaching to the enemies of Israel. I imagine old Jonah preached some “hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons that would rival that of American preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. Jonah, in fact, preaches this sermon of condemnation and destruction in a spirit of victory and joy. Jonah tells them God’s going to get them and his attitude is that he can hardly wait for that to happen. I think it’s that attitude rather than what he says that creates a “scared straight” result to his ministry. Here’s one of their sworn enemies boldly working his way through their city joyfully proclaiming that God’s about to destroy them all. Jonah does such a good job of preaching his sermon that it has an undesired (for him) result: people listen! I can’t help but find it interesting that Jonah’s the perfect man for this job, not because he shares God’s compassion on this wicked city, but because he doesn’t.
Take Away: The Lord has a way of picking the perfect (if unlikely) people for doing his work.
About as low as you can go
Jonah 2: My prayer got through to you.
When he’s thrown into the stormy sea he’s sure he’s a gonner. Then this huge fish shows up, mouth open wide, and Jonah thinks this is certainly the end. Now, in the darkness, trying to get the sea weed off of his face he realizes he’s still alive. This isn’t Star Trek and he didn’t go “boldly” but Jonah finds himself “where no man has gone before.” In this predicament Jonah wonders if prayers from the inside of a fish at the bottom of the sea can possibly reach heaven. Since he has no other choice he begins to cry out to the God he fled. Years earlier the suffering Job heard the Lord promise that he visited the “springs of the sea.” Now Jonah becomes the first human being to put that statement to a literal test. Later he reports, “My prayer got through….” Now, I’ve never been deep under water in the belly of a fish. I tried scuba once but I stayed pretty close to the surface so I’ll just have to take Jonah’s testimony at face value. However, I’ve been in some situations in which I felt distant from God and I wondered if my prayers could ever get through – but they did! In this passage I find hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from God and have messed up so many times that they’re gonners. Today I see that the Lord hears prayers, even from the depths of the sea.
Take Away: There’s hope for every person who thinks they’re so far from the Lord that there’s no hope for them.
That big fish
Jonah 1: Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights.
Not long ago I read that a new species of jellyfish has been found at the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Think of it, after all the serious exploration and all the visits of tourists there exists a creature that no one has ever spotted before, or at least no one who recognized that this is a unique creature. When the sailors reluctantly toss Jonah into the water neither he nor they have any idea of what God has in store for this reluctant prophet. God sends a big fish to swallow him whole. Now, it may be that this is a whale that has a birth defect that traps air in its stomach. It may be that this is a “Designer model” of fish – one of a kind and made for this specific purpose. Folks who laugh at this story and discard it as impossible ignore all the “impossibilities” of life, stuff we take for granted that if they weren’t right in front of us we’d declare to be fantasy. The story of Jonah may be a fable started in another culture and appropriated by God’s people as a platform for teaching us about God. On the other hand, it may be “just the facts” retold generation to generation to teach us about God. Either way the end result is the same. I think I’ll just let the story stand as factual and get on to what I’m supposed to learn from it.
Take Away: Every day and all around us we encounter “impossibilities” that might be called “ordinary miracles.”
The grace that goes before
Jonah 1: Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.
They make their living on the water but the sailors have never seen a storm like this. This storm, they fearfully conclude, has supernatural power. These sailors have no knowledge of God but when Jonah tells them that the God he serves is the Maker of the sea it scares them to death. Jonah bravely accepts his responsibility in all this and tells them to save themselves by throwing him overboard. These idol worshipping, superstitious, and desperate men won’t do it. One has to wonder why Jonah needs to be “thrown” at all. He can abandon ship with or without their help. However, I’ll leave that for another day, and focus in on these pagan sailors. Even though Jonah tells them that tossing him into the sea will save their lives, they row all the harder, trying to escape the storm. One of John Wesley’s doctrines is called “prevenient grace.” The “pre” part of the word is the clue to its meaning. It might be called “the grace that goes before.” That is, before I ever think of God he’s already working in my life. Human beings are created in God’s image and, even though that image is soiled and stained, it remains. It’s prevenient grace that enables a sinner to show God-like compassion on others. It’s prevenient grace that enables us to respond to God’s love as he offers us a relationship with himself. In this case, we see prevenient grace at work in the lives of these heathen sailors who risk their own lives in an attempt to save a person who confesses that their predicament is his fault.
Take Away: Before we ever think of the Lord he’s already working in our lives.
The hardest work of all
Jonah 1: He was sound asleep.
We don’t know anything about Jonah’s background. It may be that he’s been a prophet for years, faithfully preaching God’s messages to his people. On the other hand, this may be Jonah’s first encounter with God. He may have been an average fellow just minding his own business who heard the Voice of God. Either way, the mission he’s given isn’t one he wants. Nineveh is the capital of the hated and feared Assyrian empire. There’s nothing Jonah or any of his fellow countrymen would like better than to see Nineveh destroyed. Just a few pages over in our Bibles we find ourselves in the book of Nahum. That short book of the Bible is all about God’s promised destruction of this same city. Now, that’s the sermon Jonah wants to preach. Instead, God calls him to call them to repent that they might be spared. Jonah doesn’t want the job so he flees Israel and, he supposes, the presence of the Lord by hopping a boat headed in the opposite direction. Once aboard, he heads for the deepest, most out-of-the-way spot he can find and falls fast asleep. I’ve only been out on rough seas one time so my experience is very limited. Still, I can say with confidence that such a time and place isn’t a good one for a nap. In fact, the only possibility of falling into a sound sleep in that circumstance is exhaustion. I think Jonah has wrestled with his call to preach to Israel’s enemies to the point that he’s not slept for days and is operating on the ragged edge of collapse. People think that doing what God wants is too hard or that it won’t satisfy their lives. To their chagrin they discover that refusing God is even harder and that whatever they do instead fails to satisfy. Running from God is hard work.
Take Away: Disobeying the Lord is hard work.
The biggest fish story ever
Jonah 1: One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah.
As I finish my quick read of little-known Obadiah, I turn the page to find myself on very familiar ground. After all, everybody has heard of Jonah and the “whale.” This is surely one of the top five stories of the Old Testament and people who’ve never read the Bible or attended church know about this “fish story.” A few years ago I was teaching a church membership class and this story came up. The teens in the class wanted to know if Christians have to believe as literally true stories like Noah and the Ark and Jonah and the “whale.” Had the question been asked by some fine fundamentalists I’ve known I would have thought I was being set up for the old trap that sounds something like this: “If you don’t believe in a literal six day creation how can you believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus?” That question, by the way, ignores the clear teachings of the Bible which says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). Note that Paul doesn’t add, “Also, you have to believe every statement in the Old Testament is literal.” I’m not required to believe in a literal six day Creation to be saved, but I do have to believe “God raised him from the dead.” Anyway, back to the teens in the membership class. I told them that I believe the Lord created all things and that sending a big flood or making a big fish capable of doing what the book of Jonah says it did would be a simple thing for such a Creator. However, the purpose of stores like this is to tell us something about God and ourselves and that it’s a bigger mistake to read the story, believing every word while missing the lesson than it is to read the story and “get it” while doubting that it’s literal. So, “big fish” or not, I’m supposed to come away from the Book of Jonah knowing more about God and his work in this world than I knew before. That’s still my goal as I start through this story once again.
Take Away: The Bible tells us the story of God and us. It has no interest in answering every scientific question or providing for us fodder for religious debates.