Sermon: "Jonah"

Second in the "Major Issues in Minor Prophets" series.
Delivered June 19, 2005 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

Theme: Jonah was a hypocrite: He enjoyed the forgiveness of God, but didn't want to share it with Nineveh. We talk and sing about how life changing the grace and forgiveness of God has been in our lives. Yet, far too often it seems we aren't willing to face any inconvenience to share this grace with others!

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: Jonah 1:2; 4:1-10

Let's pray. Gracious God, we thank you for your Word. We thank you for this opportunity to gather for worship. We thank you for the Book of Jonah, for the things that we can learn there, and so we pray that this time we spend thinking about the events of Jonah's life that we will in it learn what you want to say to us, for we ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

A lot of people know about the story of Jonah. We are in a series on the Minor Prophets and Jonah is almost certainly the best-known Minor Prophet. All kinds of children stories talk about Jonah and the whale. We have songs about it. So anybody who has any kind of church background probably has some kind of idea about Jonah, but it's pretty much an idea of it being a children's story. Now Jonah is famous, but he's famous not really because of what he says. For example, in the Minor Prophet Amos, we have nine chapters of incredible teaching about what God intends for the life of his people. But in Jonah we have in English at least eight words of preaching in the entire book. "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." That's it. That's the message of Jonah inside of the Book of Jonah. So the reason why we are aware of Jonah and the things that we learn from it don't have so much to do with what he said, but what happens in his life because what we see in Jonah is a conversation that he has with God over things that are happening, and we see events that happen in his life and it's from the life of Jonah then, and from his struggle with God that we actually learn something.

Jonah's experience begins in Chapter 1. We are going to be looking primarily in Chapter 4 today, but I just want to walk through it, so if you want to open a pew Bible or if you brought your Bible you can take a look at it. It begins the way it does in some many of the lives of prophets. It begins with the Lord saying, "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it." In other words, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet and tells the prophet to go and do something. What's unusual about this is that Jonah is called by God to go and speak to someone who isn't from Israel. This is unusual. Usually prophets, even if they are talking about other countries, they are talking to Israel about these other countries. But here, Jonah is being sent to someone else entirely. It's unusual because of that.

It's also unusual for another reason and that's because Jonah is sent to preach to Israel's enemies and Jonah decides the heck with it. I am not going to do that. It shows that even servants of God have a choice. God can actually be calling us to do something, and we run away from doing it. And that's exactly what Jonah does. Jonah thinks these are Ninevehites. I hate Ninevehites. They are the enemy of Israel. They have hurt my people. So he decides not to do it and he decides to run. And so when he decides to run what happens to him after that is what makes the Book of Jonah so famous. So God says, "Go to the northeast to Nineveh" and Jonah decides no, I am going to go west to Tarshish, which to a Jewish person would be the farthest, imaginable, end of the earth sort of place; let me get as far away as possible. Now, I can't figure out exactly what Jonah is thinking here. You know he is a good Jewish prophet. I don't think he thinks that God is like cell phone service; that if you get far enough away the signal will drop out. I think he has enough sense to know that wherever he goes God is going to be there. But maybe he figures he can get far enough away that he can make in inconvenient for God to use him. You know, if I get far enough way, if God has any kind of timetable at all, he will have to call somebody else to do it. Maybe God will give up on this sort of crazy plan. I don't know what's in his mind. What I do know though is that what Jonah struggles with is something that many of us struggle with. And that is, God asks us to do something and we really don't want to do it, and so we start scrambling for ways to get out of it. Have you ever had that experience? Well at least I have.

So Jonah has an experience we understand, even if we don't know what Jonah has in mind when he runs away. Now the thing about Jonah is Jonah is famously unable to get away from God. That is what makes the book famous, is that he tries to get away from God and God does all kinds of things to make that absolutely impossible. So he gets on a boat and he is trying to get away. A storm hits the boat. The people in the boat are wondering what's going on. They throw things overboard to try to stay afloat. That doesn't even work. They are in danger of sinking and they finally decide that they have to figure out who is at fault here and what God is angry at us, because from their perspective it could have been any one of many gods. And so finally they cast lots, which is kind of like throwing dice or pulling straws, and Jonah wins or looses, it depends on how you look at it. And so they ask Jonah, "What's going on here?" And so Jonah with his own voice says, "Yep, I am the cause. I am running from God, I am guilty." And they say, "Well, how can we solve this?" And he tells them, "Throw me over the boat. Throw me overboard off the boat." They don't like that idea and do everything they can to avoid it, but finally they realize that there is absolutely nothing left to do so asking God's forgiveness they toss him overboard.

Now, then God provides a giant fish to swallow Jonah and uses that fish to save him. Now this is the part of the story that a lot of people find the hardest to swallow as well. You know they think this is what makes it a children's story. This is a fairy tale. Well, I don't think so personally. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe the Red Sea parted. I believe that Daniel was preserved in the lion's den, and I believe that God did this too. But I want to give a caution to us. This book is so carefully written, this book is so carefully designed to confront Israel that there is a lot of things about the way it is written that remind us of the parables of Jesus, and so there are some good Christian people who believe in the resurrection of the dead, who believe in miracles, but still think that this was specially written as a story to confront people. Now that's not my position. What I believe is that a prophet had a real experience that later was carefully written for us to learn from. But let's be charitable with one another about something like this.

So a big fish comes and swallows Jonah, but unlike so many of the children's impression, the fish is not there to judge him. The fish is there to keep him alive. In fact, there are actually accounts in secular circumstances of people being found alive in the bellies of whales, or at least one account that I am aware of. Of course, they don't look too good coming out. So Chapter 1 Jonah is running from God. Chapter 2 God preserves Jonah as he's running and so Chapter 2 is this wonderful psalm of calling out in terror and how God has wonderfully answered, and now Jonah is going to commit his life to God because salvation comes from God. Now I am sure that this was written so beautifully and carefully once Jonah's feet were safely on dry land, because there is no screaming in the psalm, there is no, "Hey, it's dark in here, God why me?" You know, there is none of that in there that I know was there in his experience. But here is a distillation of the critical, spiritual thing that happens. He calls out to God for deliverance, God delivers him and so now he is going to commit himself to the God who loves him this much, who has been this patient and compassionate; Chapter two.

Chapter 3, we come to the first verse of Chapter 3 and we are right back where we were in Chapter 1, exactly the same words.

"Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you."

We are right back where we were. But this time Jonah obeys the word of the Lord. Now, Jonah goes to Nineveh. Nineveh is a huge city by their standards. It has a wall around it that is eight miles in circumference. There are 20 or more miles in every direction of small vassal, villages and towns that surround this city. It's a power center for Assyria; Israel's sworn enemies. And so Jonah goes in to this city and proclaims his message. This famous eight word message, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."

Now the biggest miracle in the Book of Jonah is that this city repents. This gigantic city with over 100,000 people in it all of sudden from the king all the way down, they say this is a real word from God and we have got to listen to it. Maybe it's because Jonah has just been inside the belly of an animal and his hair is bleached and he looks terrible. They might have viewed that as sort of a sign. Who knows what's involved in all of this. But Jonah goes in, he's obedient, he preaches the message and the city repents. That's Chapter 3.

Chapter 4, I want to read to you the first few verses, the first four verses of Chapter 4:

"But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." But the Lord replied, " Have any right to be angry?"

Jonah is not happy at all. He's angry. Why is his angry? Because God is going to show mercy on people he hates. The reason why Jonah didn't obey God wasn't because it was going to be dangerous to go to Nineveh; he didn't run away because he didn't like to be the bearer of bad news to anybody, forget about all of that. He didn't go, because he knew that God sending him there was giving them a last chance that if they would turn around, even at the last minute, God would be compassionate and gracious and he did not want that to happen. Look at the words he says.

"I know that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

Does that sound familiar to you? We read those very words last week in the prophet Joel, because these words come up again and again in the life of Israel. This is the words that were said to Moses in the earliest life of Israel, that God is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love, who doesn't want to send calamity. These words were said again and again in the life of Israel.

These words were part of what they held on to, just like we hold on to things about Jesus saving and the cross and the love of God. God is love. We say that over and over. Well, this is what Israel said over and over. This is what they rejoiced in. This is what they went and praised God for. You are a compassionate and gracious God and so here is Jonah saying the fact that you are compassionate and gracious God, the thing that I praise you for again and again in the temple, I am angry because you are being the same way with other people I don't like. Jonah is a hypocrite. Jonah the prophet. Jonah the hypocrite. The whole book of Jonah sets this up for us. Chapter 1, Jonah disobeys God and through his own words says I am deserving of judgment. Chapter 2, God shows mercy to Jonah and he praises God for that mercy and commits himself to serve God. Chapter 3, Jonah goes to a people who are disobeying God and deserve judgment. Chapter 4, God shows mercy on them and here is Jonah again, but instead of praising God, Jonah is angry. The whole book sets this up for how absolutely inexcusable Jonah's attitude is at this point. And when Israel was reading this and when we read this, we've got to look at Jonah and say "Where are we in Jonah?"

Jonah rejoiced in being forgiven, but he wasn't willing to forgive. And some people carry around hate like that. Rejoice at being forgiven, but just are not willing to forgive. Sometimes it somebody, some specific individual that has hurt us deeply. We are not willing to forgive and we hope that God doesn't do something in their life; that they are forgiven. We are like Jonah. Sometimes it' s a group of people, maybe a nation. Right now because of the tensions we have with Iraq, you know Nineveh was in Iraq, around Mosel. So maybe some people are struggling with a whole nationality that they don't want to forgive, that they don't want to see God bless. Maybe it's some individuals there. Maybe it's just terrorists. I can remember when we were going to Japan as missionaries, occasionally a church's older member would come to us and say, "You know, I don't whether it's a good idea to go to Japan." And what they were struggling with is they still weren't ready for God to forgive them. Sometimes it's racial. There are all kinds of things that stay in our hearts and that we struggle with and since Jonah, a prophet of God, struggled with it, I can confidently say that the people of God struggle with it. But you know most of the things that we struggle with are a little more subtle than that. Jonah had this obvious prejudice and hatred for these people, but there is even more going on in Jonah's life and perhaps even if we can't identify a problem like this sort of hate, maybe we can identify with the other kind of problem that Jonah is dealing with.

Let's begin again at Verse 5:

"Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, " It would be better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do, he said. I am angry enough to die" But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

Okay, Jonah has preached. Jonah goes outside the city. There is not a whole lot of wood in the area, so he stacks up some rocks and builds as much of a shade as he can get under so he can kind of squat down where he can see the city, and maybe they haven't repented enough to be forgiven. Maybe God will still judge the city, so he sits to watch the show. C'mon God, it could still happen. But God has forgiven and as Jonah is sitting there waiting for what might happen, he's hot, but then a plant grows and shades him and he says, "Okay this is good. Glad this has happened." But then overnight the plant disappears, it withers away and the next morning it is dried up and it's no good at all and Jonah gets really, really angry. Now God decides to make a little lesson out of this. Jonah, you didn't tend this plant, so you are not concerned about this plant because of all of your effort that is gone into growing it, and it's not that you value this plant and love this plant. The reason you are angry is because you are uncomfortable. The reason you are angry is because I have called you here. I have sent you through all of this. Here you are outside of this city where you don't want to be and you are hot besides and that's just too much. And so, he says if you have all this concern about your own comfort, about all the things that surround your own life, your own concerns, shouldn't I be even more concerned about the hundred and twenty thousand plus people who will perish if they don't hear the news of my love and of my judgment?

You see, going back to what John Marsh, I think it was John, who said to us a number of months ago, Jonah right now is acting out cat theology. Theology that has to do with God being nice to us because we are so important. And so when things don't work out just right, you start getting angry at God. Hey, I am not where I expected to be in life. Things aren't happening the way that I want them to right now. God, what's going on? And God is shaking Jonah out of that and saying Jonah, there are concerns bigger than you in the world around you. I think our struggle is more often this kind of struggle that Jonah is having right here. We talk, we sing, we pray about how important it is to know God's love and forgiveness. We do it all the time. And that's good. That pleases God. But at the same time, the same time we are praying and praising and thanking God for the incredible mercy shown to us, it is so hard to sacrifice or do anything uncomfortable in order to share that with other people, in order to serve other people that need to be served, in order to bring the compassion and help of God to people who need that compassion. It is so difficult to do.

And sometimes we get angry that God asks us to. There are all kinds of people out there. People we would like to ignore. People that if God said I want you to go and serve them, we would try to find a way to run away from it. We would try to find some kind of way to make it difficult for God to use us that way. Maybe God will forget and will send somebody else. Is it in our city people? Is it people of other races? Is it people of other countries or languages? Is it gay people? Is it the really rich people? Is it the really poor people? There are so many people we would like to ignore and just stay comfortable, stay inside of what we would like, what we expect from God in our own lifestyle and what Jonah is teaching us is that isn't always an option. Jonah did not want to be at Nineveh. God who loves even Ninevehites called Jonah to go there.

I can't read this section of Jonah without feeling a certain amount of emotion about it myself because it was these words in the Book of Jonah that God used to shake me out of my own selfishness. The final few years we were in Japan I had made a decision, God it is too uncomfortable to be here. It's gotten hot. The plant has withered away and I am angry. I never said to God that I was angry enough to die, but I did complain every day for four years. I think I have shared that with you before. And I was angry at God for getting me to the point where all the things that I wanted to do, all the kinds of ministry that I wanted to do, all those doors had closed in Japan and the one door that was open was to work with physically disabled people in a tiny little church of five members and I didn't want to do it. My family thought we were to stay in Japan. I thought it was time to go and one day I was riding on a train and these words spoke to me, "John, why are you so concerned about doing something you like? Why are you so concerned about your career proceeding a certain way? Shouldn't I be more concerned about these people who have no pastor and who need to hear the word of God?"

And finally I heard it and I wasn't a whole lot more graceful than Jonah in obeying, but it was something that I needed to hear, and I think just like I had a part of my life and still do have parts of my life that are like Jonah; we all have these parts of our lives that are like Jonah. They are holding out on God. God might be calling us out of the shade. God might be calling us out of our comfort zone. God might be calling us to serve somebody, to sacrifice for somebody who is different than us. It might happen. In a small way that is what we celebrate. When we send these people on the summer mission projects, one of the things that we are celebrating is that we do believe this, that it is worth sacrificing some and extending ourselves some for other people. What something like that shows us is that we don't have to be hypocrites. Jonah was a hypocrite. We don't have to be. The same mercy we have received, we can share. We can share it here. We can share it out there somewhere. We can share it to the ends of the earth. The one thing we want to learn from the Book of Jonah is that we don't want to be like Jonah. Let's not be like Jonah was in hiding the whole way. Instead our call is to be like Jesus Christ who willingly gave up all that was due to him and took upon himself the shape of a servant, became human and suffered willingly. He was even willing to face the cross in order to be God's person for the rest of the world. That is our Lord. That is our Savior. That is what we rejoice in and that is the pattern we are called to follow.

Let's pray. Lord God as we gather right now today for worship, as we celebrate the goodness that you have given to us, at the same time we are so aware of how we fall short and so we pray now that in our worship, the rest of our time of worship, in the week that we face ahead we pray that we might be able to wrestle with these areas of life where you are calling us to reach out, to stretch out and to serve in new ways. God, we are so grateful that the mercy you give us is not only strong enough to show us what's right and wrong, but to give us the power to want what is right. Lead us. It's your right. You are God and we are your people. And it's in Jesus' name that we pray this. Amen.

© 2005, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145