This is our fourth and final week looking at the book of Jonah. We have discovered that the story of Jonah is not quite what we learned as a child in Sunday School; we have explored the grown-up version of Jonah. In Sunday School, the story of Jonah I heard was this: Jonah was asked by God to do something, he didn’t do it and so he was punished, God sent a big whale to swallow him up. Once he was in the whale he was sorry and so God saved him and gave him a second chance. After that, Jonah did what God wanted him to do. Did you learn something similar to that when you were little – disobey – get punished – say your sorry – and then obey? That’s not a horrible message. But we have seen that there is much more to the book of Jonah than that and that it is not a simple story at all. Jonah himself, is a complex character who is uncomfortably real.
Jonah is brought to us, not as some perfect example of how we should be, but as a witness to God’s amazing and incredible work in the world using incredibly flawed people, sometimes even in spite of us. Jonah is not a hero too high and mighty for us to identify with. He isn’t above us, he is on our level, he is somewhat like us for we, too can be stubborn, clumsy, and defiant at times; we, too, make mistakes and think we are doing the right thing. What is interesting with Jonah is that even when he does get it right (preaching, finally, in Nineveh) he does it wrong (by getting angry at God.) But here is the important thing – the whole time, God is working with and around and even through, Jonah’s ineptness, accomplishing his purposes through him.
Jonah is asked by God to do something – to go to his enemies, the hated and violent Assyrians who are living in Nineveh, with a prophetic word from God. Jonah, however, does not want to do this and fools himself into thinking he can run far enough away that he can actually escape the presence of the Lord. He runs the opposite way, taking a ship from Joppa bound for far-away Tarshish. He discovers in a mighty and violent storm at sea that he has not escaped from the presence of the Lord at all. Still, Jonah would rather die than go to Nineveh and so his fellow mariners find that they have no choice but to throw him off the ship where he is swallowed up by a great fish. Rather than sending this great fish as punishment, God provides it to save Jonah. Within the fish, Jonah offers a prayer that indicates that he still doesn’t quite “get it.” He doesn’t really understand that he would not be in the belly of a fish if he had not tried to run away from God in the first place. But nonetheless, God is a God of second chances and Jonah receives a second chance. He is spewed out onto dry land, literally the fish vomits him up. Yuck! In chapter three we read that God again asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, that great city, and to proclaim God’s message. This time he goes – proclaiming loudly, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” To Jonah’s great surprise and dismay, the wicked people of Nineveh – from the greatest to the smallest – listen, hear, and repent of their evil ways and the violence for which they are known. And here we learn about the compelling and effective power of repentance. The entire city repents and Jonah 3:10 tells us that “When God saw (this), he changed his mind about what he said he would do to them and he didn’t do it.” Wow! An entire city! Can you picture something like that happening here in Zephyrhills. Wouldn’t that be incredible to see a whole city on its knees. You might think this would make Jonah happy, but it does not! Instead, Jonah is angry and bitter.
Chapter 4 begins with Jonah settling in outside the city so that he can watch and see what happens next. What do you think he is expecting? Perhaps, he is waiting for the people to go back to their old ways so that he can say to God something like, “I told you so!” Perhaps he is waiting for God to realize his mistake in having mercy on Nineveh and maybe Jonah is expecting destruction after all. I’m not sure, but I do know that Jonah is angry and bitter about the state of things as he sees it. He doesn’t like it that his enemies are now in the good graces of God and his heart is rebellious toward God. Jonah believes that Nineveh deserves judgment and he wants God to conform to his wishes (not vice-versa).
Jonah’s main complaint here is that God is good. Remember from verse 2, Jonah knows that our “gracious God” is “merciful” to the guilty; “compassionate” toward our weaknesses; “slow to anger” – even in the face of grievous sin, “abounding in steadfast love” for us and “ready to relent from punishing” those that repent. Jonah hates those Assyrian Ninevite sinners, while God loves them.
And so, Jonah says, “take my life, I want to die.” Jonah’s credibility as a prophet is shot and his compassion toward these others is non-existent. So Jonah, who has finally outwardly obeyed God, continues to inwardly harbor rebellion. You might say he is operating with a divided heart. And so God sends an object lesson. I always do better with an object lesson, don’t you. Like when you take a tube of toothpaste and squeeze it out and then say, “try to put it all back in,” and of course you can’t. It is an object lesson that reminds us that what we say cannot be put back or taken back, just like toothpaste cannot be put back in a tube. In this case, God uses a plant as an object lesson for Jonah.
Verse 5 tells us that Jonah has settled in to wait. It hasn’t yet been 40 days and maybe Jonah is waiting to see if God may destroy Nineveh after all. As he waits, verse 6 tells us, the Lord appoints a bush to grow up and shade Jonah from the blistering heat. This makes Jonah comfortable and happy. But then, God intentionally sends a worm to eat up the bush causing it to wither. You have heard me talk about Reagan’s sunflower plants and that is often what happens to them, they look good then overnight something gnaws them down to nothing. This happened to Jonah’s bush and there goes Jonah’s shade. Then a hot wind from the east and a blazing sun take the place of Jonah’s comfort and make him so miserable that he wants to die.
And then the penetrating question from God in verse nine, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Do you have the right, Jonah? And Jonah answers, “Yes, I have the right and I am angry!” Hmm. He did nothing to produce the plant. He did nothing to grow the plant or save the plant, it wasn’t even his plant it was God’s. So God observes, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow;” and here we see how God’s mercy works, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, 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?” What matters to Jonah? His own comfort, his personal pride. What matters to God? People.
The book of Jonah is about the forgiving and persistently loving character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Who is working with and around and through us all the time, even through our (stubbornness, clumsiness, selfishness, resentment, bitterness, etc.) and accomplishing his purposes, just as he did through Jonah. It is God, whose mercy can break the cycle of blame. Through whom we can let go of any resentment or bitterness.
Did you happen to notice the similarity between Jonah and the story that Jesus told of the Prodigal Son? It’s an important message. The youngest son goes off with his dad’s money, and goes down a very destructive path, while the oldest stays home and works the farm. All the time, he harbors resentment for his younger brother. The youngest son reaches rock bottom and sees that he has messed up horribly. He repents – he changes his mind and throws himself upon the mercy of his father, not expecting much of a welcome for all the evil he has done. The young son is the image of the repentant Ninevites. What does the father do? While the son is off in the distance, he starts up the celebration, so happy is he at the return of his wandering son. Who does the father represent? God, whose concern and mercy is for all of his children. God who delights when even one of his children returns to him. Meanwhile, the older brother resents and is bitter at the positive outcome – Jonah! Have you thought about where you are in the story?
The book of Jonah does not have a proper ending, it just ends abruptly. It ends oddly, with a question mark. “Should I not be concerned?” God asks, doesn’t all of humanity, even all of creation concern me? The question leaves us in a state of tension to ponder and to consider, too, where we are in all of this. Have we learned something about mercy, about repentance, about God’s presence and God’s hand in our lives. And so I end, also with a question. Can we – can we go forward, even in our own questioning, can we go forward with God and demonstrate the same mercy and compassion and forgiveness that has been offered to us?
Prayer: Lord, So often we hold onto our righteous indignation, our anger that we feel is our right and in so doing, we miss out on so much. I see you extending your hand this morning, saying take my hand, take my hand. But my child, to take my hand you must let go of the anger and bitterness you hold there. Let it go and take my hand. Take my hand and receive my mercy and compassion and forgiveness. Lord may it be so. Amen.