At 17 I left home because I felt I didn’t fit in, but really, I was running from God and church because I thought God was unfair. It took a navy chaplain to call me back to God and the church. Jonah seems like a pretty simple story, and at its heart, it is: God calls Jonah, Jonah hates the Ninevites so much he runs away, God makes Jonah go to Nineveh anyway and the Ninevites repent while Jonah has a hissy fit. God’s plan happens even though Jonah resists. But there are many layers in this story about Jonah and us, about God and his relationship to all people, and how Jesus is revealed over and over again.
There’s a lot of crazy stuff in this story of Jonah, beginning with the Lord coming to Jonah and telling him to go to Nineveh and preach against it. Jonah’s the only prophet ever called to go outside of Israel to the capital city of one of the cruelest empires ever. Assyria was extremely vicious and gory, cruel and obscene to their enemies. Israel’s one of their conquered nations and the Assyrians demanded heavy tribute payments that kept Israel poor and hurting. Even God says its wickedness has come up before me; the Bible’s way of saying that the people were being cruelly oppressed and crying for mercy and relief. God responds to such cries because he’s a compassionate God. The prophet Nahum also prophesied that God was going to destroy Nineveh, so why send Jonah?
Why not simply punish Nineveh? It doesn’t make sense to send Jonah. Jonah’s a Jewish patriot. In 2 Kings 14 Jonah supported King Jeroboam’s military campaign to extend Israel’s borders, “Jeroboam was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” Going to Nineveh feels like a betrayal to his country, so Jonah heads in the opposite direction, heading west instead of east to Nineveh. This is huge because the sea is a place of chaos to the Jews, a place to be feared. Nineveh probably won’t listen to a Jewish prophet anyway and it could cost him his life. The sea isn’t any greater threat than Israel’s enemies. Why send a prophet unless God’s open to giving them a chance to repent and willing to forgive them? It’s crazy to give God’s people’s greatest oppressor an opportunity to escape punishment for the pain and suffering they’re causing.
Haven’t we often wondered why God doesn’t punish people who do wrong? Tim Keller writes, “Jonah doubts the goodness, wisdom and justice of God,” because Jonah senses that by sending him, God is opening the door to grace and mercy for the Ninevites, and that’s just not right or just in Jonah’s eyes. When we face painful times, don’t we sometimes doubt what God is doing, doubt that God knows best and can make good happen out of bad, as Paul writes in Romans 8. How often do we trust our own wisdom over God’s, believing God is holding out on us, like Adam and Eve did eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Can God really be merciful and still be just and faithful? These are hard questions and often we can’t understand why God does what he does, it takes faith and deep trust because these are theological and heart problems.
Jonah runs, but you can’t escape God. The Lord sends a great storm, a word-play on Nineveh being a great city. Both are dangerous places for Jonah. As Tim Keller says, our actions have consequences, sin has storms attached to it. Sometimes God acts and punishes directly, other times he allows the natural consequences of sin play out. Not all out storms are a direct result of our sin; for the sailors, the storm is a result of Jonah’s sin; God acting directly in the storm. The lots they cast to figure out who’s to blame for this God-strength storm point straight to Jonah.
Jonah cares nothing for the sailors’ safety, putting them at risk of God’s anger by getting on their ship, and yet here they are, doing everything they can to save his life. They turn to their gods to help them while Jonah is silent before God. The sailors are open to Jonah’s God even though Jonah is silent. Jonah refuses to use his faith for the common good even though they’re all in the same boat, all created in the image of God. A private faith has no public good; that’s still true today.
Life storms can be times when faith is grown, when trust, hope, patience, humility and other spiritual fruit can be developed in ways that times of calmness and peace can’t. In the storm, the sailors turn to Jonah’s God. Jonah refuses to go to pagans with God’s message, and here God uses even Jonah’s stubborn disobedience to lead pagans to himself. In this storm, even Jonah’s heart is transformed as he recognizes them as men together with him in the same situation instead of just gentiles. Jonah begins to take responsibility for the storm they’re in, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” It’s the same with us, when we start to see the people around us as people with stories and lives so similar to our own, we begin to connect deeper to them and our hearts become more open to being transformed by the Holy Spirit to care about them and wanting them to know Jesus because Jesus is the only way to God.
Jonah acts to save the sailors, telling them to cast him overboard and God will save them. Jonah’s a small reflection of Jesus who entered into the storm of sin to save us. In the darkness of sin’s storm, Jesus goes to the cross. He enters the darkness of sin into a time of tragedy, loss, and injustice to satisfy God’s justice, to pay the price and take the punishment for our sin on himself so that we can be right with God again. In the middle of that storm of sin, that time of darkness and despair, God’s mercy is at work, offering us forgiveness and pardon, satisfying the justice and faithfulness God demands because of our sin. In Jesus, justice and mercy come together.
The sailors finally throw Jonah overboard, but only after doing everything they could to save him. They sacrifice the one for the many, just like the high priest advises the Sanhedrin to do with Jesus hundreds of years later. Jesus uses what the sailors do to Jonah to respond to the religious leader who are asking for a miraculous sign from him, Matthew 12, “He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.”
Jesus points ahead to his death on the cross for our sin, using Jonah as an image of what death feels like. Jesus comes and preaches a message of repentance, offering an invitation to come back to God. Jesus gives up his life so that we can experience forgiveness and new life that is shaped by the grace and love of Jesus, a life that is dedicated to helping others come to know Jesus and his grace and forgiveness, the power that comes from the Holy Spirit to change the places we live to look more like the kingdom of heaven where people flourish, becoming the people God has created us to be, a kingdom where everyone is welcomed in, where friends and enemies sit together at Jesus’ table.
Jonah is thrown overboard, the sea grows calm, the anger of God seen in the storm is turned aside. God provides a large fish to swallow Jonah. The pagan sailors sacrifice to Jonah’s God in fear and trembling. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” These pagan sailors have been shown who God is, the very thing Jonah is called to be doing to Nineveh, and he does God’s will anyway, even against though he was running away from it. God, in his grace, continues to draw people to him, even in our resistance. What is preventing you from telling others who you believe in, from inviting them to come to Bethel with you? The people of Lacombe are waiting for your invitation to come to get to know Jesus with you? Why would you be afraid to invite them?