Jonah’s Backstory

Jonah 3.1–5, 10
Mark 1.14–20

The LORD is nothing if not persistent, always ready to begin again. But this time things should be different. For Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a man buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead. — Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2279-2282). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Often, I find when I’m at the funeral of an older person that they had a very interesting backstory over their long life. I think, I wish I’d known about that before. I would have loved to have heard more about that!

But it’s too late.

People are much more interesting when you know their backstory. All you have to do is ask questions! It’s a great way to get to know someone.

We have two stories of people called to God’s service today: Jonah the runaway prophet; and the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.

People sometimes try to invent a backstory for the four disciples, to explain why they followed Jesus so immediately. They must have met Jesus at some earlier time. But Mark gives us nothing.  Mark wants us to see that the power of Jesus’ call summons them away from their boats and their nets, and into a new life. It’s almost as if  the word of Jesus has recreated them.

But today, I want to look more at the main character, Jonah, and his backstory. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the Bible. It’s 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 hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t always like that. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, and not a hero at all.

Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of Bourke.

Tarshish was a ‘back of Bourke’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. God can’t reach me there, he thought.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he has time to sing a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins to cooperate with God.

Jesus knew the story of Jonah well. When the pharisees ask him for a sign to show that he was from God, he says No way. The only sign they’d get would be the sign of Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights; so Jesus was to be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights.

Then he would rise again. Again, Jonah is a faint image of this. He comes up and out of the fish, transformed. He goes to Nineveh and proclaims

In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!

But it’s not destroyed.

This is the bit that the Lectionary leaves out:

The people of Nineveh believed God’s message. So they decided that everyone should fast, and all the people, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth to show that they had repented.

When the king of Nineveh heard about it, he got up from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat down in ashes. He sent out a proclamation to the people of Nineveh: ‘This is an order from the king and his officials: no one is to eat anything; all persons, cattle, and sheep are forbidden to eat or drink. All persons and animals must wear sackcloth. Everyone must pray earnestly to God and must give up his wicked behaviour and his evil actions. Perhaps God will change his mind; perhaps he will stop being angry, and we will not die!’

And as we know, God changed his mind and didn’t punish these enemies of Israel.

If you read through this book in one sitting, perhaps like me you’ll laugh out loud at this reluctant prophet who succeeds despite himself.

Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? It wasn’t for fear of his life. It was his fear that God would forgive them. Listen to what Jonah says in chapter 4, straight after our reading today:

Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry. So he prayed, ‘Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.’

Here we have the really distressing part of Jonah’s backstory. He wants a God who will punish his enemies. He doesn’t want them to hear God’s message and repent; he knows God is ‘a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change God’s mind and not punish’. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh.

A lot of the people we come across every day have the same false image of God in their minds as Jonah had. Maybe we do too?

In another placement, I was once castigated for not ‘denouncing’ homosexuality from the pulpit. Part of the reason I don’t do denouncing that is that I am only a sinner saved by grace.  To misquote the great Sri Lankan theologian DT Niles, I am a beggar showing other beggars where to find bread. So it is essential to major on God’s grace in the pulpit. God’s grace extends to all—and 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 people of Nineveh turn to God, he takes a position outside the city to see what will happen. Perhaps he thinks 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 has become a kind of ‘opposite’ of Jesus and the disciples.

We’ve already seen that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls the fishers to follow him. 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.

Yet 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. Yet Jonah is still not ready to turn back to God.

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 themselves  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 too 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 Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church. Shall we respond like Andrew, Peter, James, and John; or will we be like Jonah?

I was serious when I suggested you go home, make a cuppa and read this book in one sitting. You’ll be richly rewarded. _______________________________

I’ve preached on Jonah before, and for this sermon I pinched my conclusion from then. Have a look:

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Filed under church year, Epiphany Season, RCL, sermon

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