The book of Jonah isn’t just a fanciful fairy story about a guy who got swallowed by a fish and then got burped up alive three days later. This is a story about a God who isn’t just ‘our’ God, but the God of our enemies too. It’s a story about a missionary who was told to go and spread God’s word to his enemies, but who chickened out and ran in the other direction instead – a reluctant missionary who eventually did as he was told, but then was angry when those enemies repented, because he was looking forward to seeing God wipe them out. I think you’ll agree that these themes are rather relevant to our world today. That’s why the book was written, and that’s why we read it as part of our Scriptures today.
There’s one question I’m going to set aside right at the beginning, and that’s the question of whether or not this story ‘actually happened’. This can be quite controversial, and people who are interested in the Bible often have strong feelings one way or the other. On the one hand, people point out that it’s impossible for a fish to swallow a human being and for them to stay alive for three days inside its belly. They also point out that there’s no historical record that the people of Ninevah ever turned wholesale to the God of Israel as this story says they did, nor is it true that Ninevah was a city that was so big it took three days to go from one side to the other. This story, they say, reads like a folk tale, and that’s what it is.
On the other hand, those who believe the story is literally true point out that if God can raise Jesus from the dead he can certainly make it possible for Jonah to stay alive in the belly of a fish for three days. They also point out that Jesus talks about Jonah in such a way as to give the impression he believed Jonah was a historical character.
I’m not going to take a position on this issue today, because I don’t think it affects the total message of the story. After all, we all know that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was a parable and never actually happened, but it can still speak powerfully to us about what God is like and what the Gospel is. And if it turns out that Jonah is also a parable, this still leaves us with the question of why this parable is included in our Scriptures; what is the Holy Spirit saying to us through it? So I will take the story as it stands in our Scriptures, leaving aside the question of historicity, and simply ask what God wants to say to us through it.
The story begins with God commanding Jonah the son of Amittai to leave Israel, go hundreds of miles to the northeast to the great Gentile city of Ninevah and try to drum up a revival by telling the people, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4). Ninevah, by the way, was not just another Gentile city; it was the capital city of Assyria, one of Israel’s deadliest enemies. Assyria was the nation that eventually destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. and took its people into captivity. Imagine God sending a prophet from occupied France to Berlin in 1941, with the message that if the people there didn’t repent, God would overthrow their city – that’s the sort of commission that God gives to Jonah.
But Jonah went in the opposite direction – he took a ship across the Mediterranean Sea for Spain, trying to put as much distance between God and himself as he could. Apparently he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the call to be an overseas missionary. God responded by sending a storm to slow the ship down. Eventually the storm got so bad that the sailors began to talk about religion: “Whose god have we upset?” They did a little survey of the passengers and crew to find out about everyone’s religion, and when they got to Jonah and discovered that he worshipped Yahweh, who he claimed was the one who created heaven and earth, they got really nervous. “What have you done to annoy him so badly?” they asked, and Jonah told them he was running away from God’s call to be a missionary.
The sailors didn’t really want to harm Jonah, so they went back to their oars and tried hard to fight the storm, but when it became obvious that they were losing they came back and asked him what they should do. “Pick me up and throw me overboard”, Jonah replied; “It’s me he’s after, not you”. So they did, and down Jonah sank into an increasingly quiet ocean. That’s the last we hear of the ship, the sailors, or the storm.
Jonah probably thought it was the last of him, too, and when he saw an enormous fish approaching he must have been even more sure that this was the end of his story. But in the next few hours Jonah discovered an amazing new truth about God: God didn’t want his death; he wanted his obedience. And somehow, in an entirely supernatural way, in the belly of a fish, God saved Jonah for one reason and one reason only: so that he could have a second chance at the job he’d run away from the first time: taking the Word of God to the enemies of Israel.
Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish and we can imagine that he did a lot of praying there (his prayers are summarised for us in chapter two of the book). The writer of the book makes it clear that God was in control of how long Jonah stayed in that dark and unpleasant place; presumably he waited until he was sure that Jonah’s repentance was genuine, but at the end of chapter two we read that ‘the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land’ (2:10).
We can imagine how happy Jonah was to see the light of day again, but we can only guess at his feelings when the word of the Lord came to him a second time: ‘Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you’ (Jonah 3:2). But Jonah had learned a thing or two about God, and so off he went to Ninevah, walking up and down in the streets and calling out “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (3:4).
Then an amazing thing happened: instead of lynching Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and they repented and turned to the God of Israel. The king ordered everyone to fast and pray and wear sackcloth and even the animals had to join in the fast – involuntarily, no doubt! And the Bible says that ‘when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’ (3:10).
Was Jonah pleased that the Ninevites had believed his message? He was not. He went off in a huff. “I knew this would happen!” he railed at God. “You’re such a wimp! You always come out with these big threats but then as soon as people say they’re sorry and turn from their sins you turn into a pushover! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish in the first place; I knew you’d make a liar out of me!” And Jonah sat down on a hill outside Ninevah with his nose in the air.
After a while it got very hot sitting there in dignified disapproval, and so God (who was no doubt watching and having difficulty controlling his laughter) made a bush grow up to give Jonah some shade. Jonah was happy about that and eventually he had a good night’s sleep under the bush. But the next day God commanded a worm to eat the roots, and the bush died. When Jonah complained about what had happened to the bush God spoke to him again. “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 Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).
And that’s the question with which the book ends. The author leaves it hanging in the air, because that’s the big issue he wants to raise. Is God only concerned for his chosen people Israel, or is he concerned for other people too – even the deadliest enemies Israel has ever faced? Is he their god too? And if he is, what should Israel do about that? The author of Jonah proposes two radical answers to these questions.
First, he is quite clear that God is not just our God; he’s also the God of everyone else – even the people we hate and fear the most. This is a revolutionary idea today, and it was revolutionary in Jonah’s time too. At the very beginning, way back in the book of Genesis, when God first chose Abraham, he said to him ‘…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Unfortunately, by the time of Jonah the people had forgotten this call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth; they had come to believe that God cared for the Jews and the Jews only, and that he had created the Gentiles for the express purpose of feeding the fires of hell. That’s why, when Jesus sent his apostles out as missionaries to preach the Good News, they had such a difficult time with the idea that it wasn’t only for the Jewish people. To them the Gentiles – especially the Romans – were still the enemy and the oppressor; God should judge them, not save them.
Luke tells a significant story about how that attitude changed in Acts chapters ten and eleven. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had become a believer in the God of Israel and had begun to practice the commandments, but had not gone the whole way of circumcision. One day he was praying in his room when an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa for a man called Simon Peter who would tell him what to do next. At the same time, Peter was having a nap on the roof of a house in Joppa. In his sleep, God sent him a dream to direct him not to call anything unclean when God had made it clean. Immediately afterwards, the messengers from the Gentile Cornelius appeared, and Peter concluded that the dream meant he was to go with them, back to Cornelius’ house.
This was a brave step for Peter to take – he was going to the house of the Roman enemy, the oppressor of Israel, and he was doing so, not with the hand of judgement and death, but with the gospel message of Jesus and his love. When he got to Cornelius’ house he began to share the gospel message, but almost immediately the Holy Spirit filled the Romans who were listening, just as he had filled the Jewish disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter and the others were amazed, but Peter said, “I guess we’d better baptize them, then!” And so the gospel first crossed the barrier between Jew and Gentile.
God sent Jonah across the barrier between Israel and Assyria to preach to the people of Ninevah. God sent Peter across the barrier between Jews and Romans, to share the gospel with Cornelius and his family. And today God is still calling us to cross barriers and build bridges across the divides between people, so that we can share the gospel story. I wonder which barrier he’s calling you and me to cross today? Is it a racial barrier? Is it a barrier between warring political ideologies – left and right or, as our American friends would say, red states and blue states? Is it about gay or straight, or rich or poor, or white collar and blue collar?
The first revolutionary idea is that God is not just our God; he’s the God of all people, even our enemies. But the second idea is revolutionary too. God did not say to Jonah, “I love the Ninevites, and they’re quite okay worshipping their own gods because those gods are just a different way of speaking about me”. No the book of Jonah is clearly teaching us that there are some ideas of God that are more accurate than others, and there are some ways of following God that are more faithful than others. Jesus obviously believed this too, because he sent his disciples out to spread his message around the world, to go to people who already had their own religions and their own ideas about God or the gods, challenging them to turn from their previous allegiances and become followers of Jesus. All the biblical writers are agreed that idols are a lie, and it is not an act of love to tell people that believing a lie is okay.
But before we get on our high horses about other religions, let’s look a little closer to home. What are our own ‘false gods’? What are the popular idols in our culture – the things that people prize the most, the things they sacrifice time and money and health for, the things that they use to make sense of their lives, and that they turn to when the chips are down and they are desperate? What about the false god of money and possessions? What about the idols of success, and popularity with others? What about the false god of nationalism, ‘My country right or wrong’? What about the idol of ‘the economy’, that one absolute value on whose altar so many governments are prepared to sacrifice so many other things – things that might just be more important to the one true God who Jesus revealed to us?
To be faithful to the book of Jonah means coming to see our own idolatries and turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. It means being willing to reach out across barriers of race and culture and economic status, and even to reach out to those we fear and hate. It means coming to recognise that each of them is made in the image of God, and is important to God. And it means learning to share the Gospel with them, the good news that God has sent his Son to live and die and rise again for us, so that we can find forgiveness and healing and hope and new life in him. May God give us grace to be faithful to the revolutionary message we find in this wonderful Old Testament story. Amen.
(A sermon for January 22nd)