This talk was given by Neil Banks on .
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Before the talk, Jonah chapter 4 was read.
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Continuing our series of sermons on the Minor Prophets, today we’re looking at Jonah, and I’m calling my message, ’the topsy turvy tale, that’s about a lot more than a whale.’
Thanks to Edith for reading the passage earlier. Now, do you remember the TV show, Family Fortunes? I expect most of us do, because we’re of that certain age, aren’t we? But as a quick reminder, the game involved two families providing answers to everyday questions that were surveyed by 100 members of the British public before the show. I reckon if I did Family Fortunes and surveyed 100 people and asked them what the story of Jonah is about, they’d say it’s about a whale.
It’s understandable because Jonah has been a Sunday school staple for a long, long time. Because of this, it has remained in the public consciousness along with Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark. True, it’s a really well-written short story, and one that is superficially easy for children to grasp. When you boil the four chapters of Jonah down to its bare bones, you have a story of a man who disobeys God, causes a huge storm, endangers his life and the lives of many others, gets thrown overboard, swallowed by a big fish or a whale as most would have it, survives in its belly for three days and three nights, comes to his senses, repents to God, and is vomited back on to dry land.
There’s a fairy tale aspect to the first chapters of Jonah and that’s what I think makes it so memorable. But to categorize the book of Jonah as only a children’s story, is missing the point of what the book is all about. More than that, we risk skirting over some of the profound themes that are found within this book. This is a piece of Scripture after all, and, first and foremost, the purpose of Scripture is to show God’s character to his people.
Looking again at Jonah, as we’re doing today, this is a profound piece of Scripture. The themes contained within the short book include religious superiority, hypocrisy, repentance, and the double-edged sword of God’s grace and forgiveness. Jonah is a prophet called by God to deliver his word to his people, but if we’re being kind to him, he’s a reluctant servant to say the least.
In chapter 1, verse 2, God says to Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” What does Jonah do in response? He runs in the entirely opposite direction, gets on a boat to the farthest possible place he can go away from Assyria and Nineveh. Now, if God wants something from you, can you avoid doing it? Jonah running from God? You can’t run from God. It’s comical, naive and supremely arrogant of Jonah to even try. Is his running from the job really going to scupper God’s plans and message for Nineveh? Of course, the answer is, not a chance.
If you’re thrown overboard in a storm, you’re going to be expecting certain death, but clearly, God has other plans for Jonah and a sense of humour too because of what I’m going to call fish-rescue. Now, my Scottish grandma used to always say, and apologies for the accent, “What’s for ye’ll no go by ye.” Which in other words means, if God or anybody else wants something to happen, or for you to do something, you’re going to have to do it. Because look at the lengths that God will go to, to make sure you do.
After fish-rescue, Jonah realizes this and comes to his senses, at least for a while. In chapter 3:2, God tells Jonah a second time, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you,” and this time he does it, but as we see, when it comes to Jonah, nothing is quite what you’d expect. Now, I don’t think Jonah runs from doing God’s bidding the first time because he’s scared of the Ninevites, though this would be understandable because the actions of the Assyrians in general, and specifically the Ninevites, have been brutal and murderous to the tribes of Israel.
For Jonah and his fellow Israelites, the people of Nineveh are the absolute worst of the worst, the sworn enemy. What I think is driving Jonah’s actions is pure hatred towards them. If he goes to Nineveh and preaches God’s Word, there’s a chance they might change their ways and be saved. Jonah just doesn’t want this to happen. When he does finally obey God and preach the word to the Ninevites, it’s a short eight words long in English and five words long in Hebrew. In English, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” No mention of God or their wickedness that has so angered him.
Here is a prophet that wants to do the absolute bare minimum. Jonah wants to stack the cards firmly against the Ninevites so there’s no chance they can possibly avoid destruction at the hands of God. Perhaps it is the bluntness of the message that Jonah delivers to the Ninevites, but they respond urgently one and all, by fasting and putting on sackcloth, including royalty and their animals.
Chapter 3, verse 10 tells us, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented, and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Now, we don’t know much about Jonah beyond what is written in the four chapters of this book. We’ve already seen some indications of what type of person he is, but surely as a prophet, such a profound transformation happening directly as a result of something that you’ve done, would be a cause for huge happiness and wonder. For another prophet, maybe yes, but in Jonah, everything’s topsy-turvy.
We see in chapter four, that in fact, Jonah could not be more annoyed with the way that things have turned out for the Ninevites. Jonah’s rage is fully directed at God and we read about his full-on tantrum. This is Jonah effectively shouting to God, “What’s wrong with you? You’re being too soft yet again. You’re always too quick to forgive when you should be raining down your wrath on these hateful people.”
If Jonah were alive today, he’d definitely be a fan of Hollywood action films, where the bad guys get obliterated and the good guys ride off into the sunset, but God isn’t like that. In Exodus 34:6 we know that he passed in front of Moses proclaiming, “The Lord the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” In Jonah 4:2, Jonah takes these very words and turns them against God as if they’re character flaws.
Here we see Jonah as a prophet high on his sense of self-importance. He’s forgotten that he is only God’s messenger. Jonah doesn’t get to decide what happens in this story, though clearly he thinks he should. But to be fair to Jonah, here he is witnessing his most hated enemy escape God’s divine retribution and for him, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He’d rather die than live another minute under this God, but God challenges Jonah in verse four, “Is it right for you to be angry, Jonah?”
Now, last week in our second Sunday service, the theme was about seeing through God’s eyes and in 1 Samuel 16:7, it explains how man judges on appearance, whereas God sees what’s in the heart. I’m saying that God is fully aware of what is in Jonah’s heart. It’s not just the people of Nineveh that God wants to learn a lesson, but it’s Jonah himself. Here is one of the profound themes of the book, God loves your enemies as much as he loves you or I.
Here’s the really difficult part. He asks that we do the same. When we realize that God’s mercy doesn’t only apply to us and people that we like and that it also applies to the people we hate, the people that irritate us, the people that make our lives really miserable, well, that is hard to swallow. For modern-day context, ancient Nineveh is a modern-day Mosul in Iraq.
Mosul was until recently a stronghold for Islamic State, a group that committed countless murders, atrocities to innocent people, including aid workers and Christians. Do we feel comfortable that God’s grace applies to these people as well? Should someone who murders or abuses be granted God’s grace? These themes aren’t easy but we need to understand that if grace we don’t deserve is being granted to us, it can be granted to anyone.
Now unlike Jonah, we should know this from New Testament scripture and the teachings of Jesus. For example, in Luke’s Gospel, and I suggest you read Luke 6, verses 27 to 38 this week, you’ll see the themes of love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, do not judge and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned, forgive and you will be forgiven.
How does Jonah respond to God asking if his anger is justified? He doesn’t. In the heat of his anger, he goes off in a big soak. Verse 5 tells us Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he makes himself a shelter, sat in the shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. He’s going to stick around for a while just in case the city is actually destroyed, as he obviously hopes it will be. But God is going to have another go at trying to get Jonah to recognize his own hypocrisy. It’s baking hot in that desert around Nineveh.
In verse 6, God sends a plant to provide some shade for Jonah. Suddenly for the first time, this arrogant, self-obsessed man is happy and it’s all because of a plant. Now that shade is no doubt a welcome relief to the heat but like with fish-rescue earlier, God has other plans for Jonah, still with a sense of humour. Now we have destructive worm and this makes short work of withering the plant.
This glorious shade is short-lived then and yet again, Jonah has nowhere to hide. Briefly happy because he benefited from a plant that he had no hand in providing. Now it’s gone for good and he is newly livid. He’s such a cartoonish caricature, Jonah, that you can almost picture the steam coming out of his ears. Now God sees his chance and asks Jonah another question, “Is it right that you’re angry about that plant?”
Now, Jonah clearly thinks he is right to be angry about that plant. In fact, he’s so upset, he’s again wishing he were dead. Yet again, it’s all about Jonah, but God takes Jonah’s emotional attachment to the plant, so fleeting, to say that his care for his creation, the people made in his own image, the city of Nineveh, the people and the animals, the people who so quickly turn their hearts to God should also, therefore, matter to him.
Jonah is clearly a caricature for God’s people, an extreme version, yes, but this message is aimed squarely at us and we don’t have to look too hard to see ourselves in the story. It’s not a plant with us, though how many of us have pulled open the curtains with morning and been absolutely devastated to see the snails have eaten our lovely bedding plants we planted the day before, but how do we react when the Wi-Fi stops working? Or the queue at the coffee shop is a bit too long for us or the plumber fails to turn up on time or someone cuts you up on the motorway?
The way we react you’d think it was the end of the world. In Jonah, God is asking us crucial questions. Do we have a right to be angry when these things happen to us? Are we like Jonah getting ahead of ourselves in our own importance? How fleeting are the many things that we get so wound up about? How little do they really matter to our existence and to God’s plan?
The real message of Jonah applies to all of us. Not the message that whales make good marine rescuers or that worms are really good at killing plants. You see, like Jonah, we haven’t always put the work in. We don’t really deserve a lot of what we have and yet, we’ve been given it anyway, like God’s grace, for example. But with that blessing comes the responsibility to live like God, and for us to be able to forgive unconditionally. That, more than a plant, is what should really make us happy. Amen.
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