Jonah, the reluctant prophet
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Do you have a favourite book of the Bible? I do. It’s the Book of Jonah.
So I want to talk about Jonah, the most reluctant prophet ever. The Book of Jonah is only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a great satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.
I don’t mind saying that the first time I read it in one sitting I found it to be hilarious. I laughed out loud. Don’t worry if you do too—it is meant to be funny!
The story begins with the word of God to Jonah:
Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
Seems straightforward enough. God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh, which was situated on the edge of modern-day Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq and the site of much of the fighting in that unfortunate country. Jonah was to cry out against Nineveh because of its wickedness.
What problem could Jonah have with that? The most obvious objection he might have had was that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the superpower of the time. And Assyria was the enemy of Israel. Perhaps we might assume that Jonah thought he may be killed by his enemies?
Nice try, but Jonah’s real problem was somewhere else. We’ll come to it soon.
Jonah has an immediate response to the word of God to him: he bolts. When I was a kid in the UK, we talked about going to Timbuktu as a metaphor of the remotest and most inaccessible place you could possibly get to. What you did in Jonah’s day when you wanted to go where no one would find you was go to Tarshish. And that’s what Jonah did. We don’t know where Tarshish was; the most likely location seems to be a place in the south of Spain.
Jonah never does get to Tarshish. Instead, while he’s asleep on the boat, a great storm threatens to wreck it. They ship’s company determines that it’s all Jonah’s fault, and they reluctantly toss him overboard. The storm subsides.
There is deep irony in the story so far. Jonah doesn’t want to be a witness for God, yet he finds himself witnessing—and to a group of heathens who are very caring—a bunch of really nice guys, in fact. Mind you, I think that his witness is full of pride (1.9):
I am a Hebrew… I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.
Which to me implies: ‘I worship the true God, and you don’t.’
Despite Jonah’s tone, the sailors don’t want to toss him overboard, and try their best to save him. When they finally give in and throw him into the drink, and the storm calms down, they give thanks—but not to their old gods. They give thanks to the one true God (1.16):
Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
Chalk up a boatload of converts! So far, Jonah is a very successful evangelist—though a very unwilling evangelist indeed!
We all know the next bit in the story: Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he sings a psalm. But the real question is: does he repent? Does he do what God asks with a willing heart?
Well, the word of God comes to Jonah again, and this time he goes in God’s direction: towards Nineveh. So far, so good.
We read that ‘Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.’ Not quite right; excavations have shown it to be a city of less than 8 square kilometres. I’d suggest that you’d be walking at a pretty leisurely pace to take three days to walk that. Perhaps the Assyrians had spread rumours that Nineveh was that huge, and the folk of Hicksville, Israel believed them. Whatever the case, this is surely a signal that we are not to take this story as literally true; in fact, most biblical scholars are convinced that it was always meant as a short story which told the ways of God.
Anyway, back to Nineveh: Jonah walks a day’s journey into this ‘super-colossal’ city, this ‘megalopolis’ of the ancient world, and proclaims his message (3.4): ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
Now, that’s a message Jonah can get his teeth into! In forty days’ time, Nineveh, you’ll be toast!
Here’s another irony, and the real reason Jonah tried to run away from God (3.5):
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
The king also put on sackcloth, the sign of grief and repentance; even the very beasts were covered with sackcloth. As the king said,
Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.
The Ninevites didn’t even presume that God would forgive them; they left it in God’s sovereign hands.
And God goes and changes his mind. Jonah was furious. I mean, you can almost hear him say, ‘God, I knew you’d do that!’ Chapter four begins like this:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’
Jonah didn’t get on the next steamer to Tarshish because he was afraid of what the Assyrians would do to him if he went to Nineveh. No, he tried to get away because he knew what God was likely to do. He realised that he served ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’ And he didn’t want his enemies to find the mercy of the living God. He preferred a god of his own imaginings who would ‘smite’ his enemies and bring them down.
Sometimes that’s what we want too. In another placement, I was once castigated for not ‘denouncing’ homosexuality from the pulpit. Part of the reason I don’t do that is that it is essential to major on God’s grace in the pulpit. God’s grace extends to all—even to the Jonahs, the ‘good’ people who want others to be denounced. They too can be saved!
Jonah’s sulk goes on to the very end of the book. When the Ninevites turn to God, he takes a position outside the city to see what will happen. Perhaps he thought they might still get what was coming to them! God causes a bush to grow and give him shade, but then God makes the bush die. Jonah is very put out by the death of the bush, and the loss of his shade, but God says to him (4.9):
Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And [Jonah] said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
And that’s how the book ends. Jonah, the most fantastically successful evangelist in the whole world, is still outside Nineveh, and still sulking.
Jonah may sulk, but he gives us plenty to smile about. Beyond the ironies of the book, another irony emerges. Jonah is a kind of ‘opposite’ of Jesus and the disciples.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew. Immediately they leave their nets and follow him. God calls Jonah, and what does he do?—he tries to go to the ends of the earth to avoid the call. And we can contrast the obedience of Jesus to the disobedience of Jonah. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union says, in paragraph 3:
Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain.
Finally—at long last!—there was a human being who responded to God in humility, obedience and trust. All of which were lacking in Jonah.
The reason this is so ironic is that despite Jonah’s desire to run, despite his lack of humility, obedience and trust, despite everything about Jonah, God works through him. When God speaks, things happen, sometimes in spite of the way God’s people behave.
There is a deep judgement in this—Jonah stands naked and ashamed before the throne of God. In chapter 4, it is clear that Jonah knows God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And Jonah is still not ready to turn back.
But there is also a deep grace in this—despite Jonah’s worst efforts, God’s word goes out in mercy and restoration. And we can hope that the judgement that falls on Jonah is one which leads him to finally delight in the mercy and grace of God, and be ready to share that with others—even those he hates.
Perhaps we might be able to identify with aspects of Jonah’s character.
Maybe we think there are people who are too bad to come to Christ, people who have to change first.
Maybe there are people we can’t forgive, and we don’t want to help them to come to Christ.
Perhaps we’re just always running away, or finding excuses not to do what God wants.
Perhaps we feel that the unimportant things in life are central.
Wherever we are similar to Jonah, we can expect that same judgement—and, hopefully, that same grace—to come to us.
This year, we have the grace of being called anew to live as God’s people here at Centenary Uniting Church. Will we respond like Andrew and Peter, or like Jonah?
I was serious when I suggested you go home and read this book in one sitting. Like I said at the start, you’ll be rewarded. Amen.