For many of us, the only time we will have a meaningful encounter with Jonah, is in Sunday children’s Bible class or Vacation Bible School. You see, Jonah is often thought of as a children’s story complete with a big fish (or a whale), but the real message of Jonah is an adult one with an opportunity to stretch our understanding of God and salvation.
And the story begins with a command: Go and proclaim!
That’s the order that came down from God to the prophet Jonah. Go and proclaim!
And Jonah is a very interesting kind of missionary. A very interesting man to have received the command go and proclaim. He’s reluctant, withdrawn, and stubborn. Never quite ready to go to Nineveh. All over the Bible, people are getting up and going. Abraham and Sarah move out on a promise and a prayer. Even Moses, after some initial reluctance, heads for Egypt with nothing but a shepherd’s crook and Aaron to write his sermons. Elijah stands defiant, facing 450 of Baal’s prophets. But not Jonah. Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish. He doesn’t want to go and proclaim.
All over the New Testament people are getting up and following Jesus. Fishermen are dropping their nets, tax collectors are forgetting about credit and debit, and others are leaving their parents behind. A little man called Paul travels the Mediterranean spreading the Word. But not Jonah. Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish. He doesn’t want to go and proclaim to Nineveh.
“Why so reluctant, Jonah?” Why not just go and proclaim? Well, that’s a good question. What is the problem with Nineveh? Is it just that it is another foreign land? Certainly going to a foreign land is never easy. Maybe that’s it — Jonah just doesn’t want to do foreign missions. He doesn’t want to go to a foreign land and do the Lord’s work. Perhaps that is the problem. Isn’t it?
Well, no, not exactly.
Jonah’s problem is with Nineveh itself — a city on the east bank of the Tigris River in Assyria. The Assyrians, you see, were not too popular in Israel because in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., they thoroughly plundered Palestine, looting and burning its cities and deporting its inhabitants.
In fact, in 722-721 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel passed out of existence as a result of Assyrian conquest. So for Jonah, Nineveh is anathema; it is an object of intense hostility. For perspective, imagine an African-American being asked to go preach to the Ku Klux Klan. “Go to Nineveh,” says God.
To an Israelite like Jonah, this would be equivalent to announcing today, “Go to Osama Bin Laden’s compound,” and preach a message of repentance. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and held the Southern Kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost 100 years. Assyria was more than an enemy; it was a brutal occupying force that forever changed Israel’s fortunes. Jonah is being called out by God to go and prophesy to the enemy. Nineveh is to Jonah what Babylon and Rome would be to later generations.
It was a city that any Israelite would love to hate. So Jonah says, “Anywhere, Lord; anywhere but Nineveh.” And Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh.
Nonetheless, here comes God with his command: Go and proclaim! Now, by the time we reach the third chapter in Jonah, we note that it’s Round Two between Yahweh and Jonah. Jonah has already tried to flee to Tarshish. And the call to preach gets re-issued, after all the events like the fleeing to Tarshish and the big fish and the three nights and the being spit up on a beach. And if in Round One Jonah walked the opposite direction from Nineveh, this time he heads straight for it. He knows he cannot resist God.
God has by now made it crystal clear: Jonah will find no escape from this preaching gig! Maybe some version of the words of Psalm 139 were even rattling around inside Jonah’s head: “If I go to the highest mountain, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I go to Joppa, you are there. If I set out to sea, you are there. Where can I go to escape my God!?” (Except in Jonah’s case the psalm was no doubt being recited through gritted teeth.) So our text represents Round Two between God and Jonah and the Ninevites:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10)
So Jonah goes and proclaims, for what other choice does he have? He goes, he preaches the standard Prophets 101 sermon of doom and gloom and repentance, and though the locals perhaps do not notice it, there is a tinge in Jonah’s voice that bespeaks the ancient equivalent of yada, yada, yada. His heart just is not in his work. But if ever a preacher needed a reminder that it’s not finally about you, Jonah gets it. Half-hearted and boilerplate though his message to Nineveh is, it takes hold, it takes off, it goes viral throughout the city and clear up to the king himself.
And this is important to note: whatever Jonah says or does cannot possibly account for the level of sincere repentance the Ninevites muster. This is clearly, as some now put it in our day, a “God thing” and a “Holy Spirit thing.” And it works. And God relents.
Foreign though these non-Israelites are, and though they live well outside the boundaries of the covenant as Israel understands it at that time, their loving respect for Yahweh is more than enough for God to take their destruction off of his “To Do” list. And it angers Jonah something awful.
In chapter four he’ll even move east of the city and set up a little lean-to shelter for himself, hoping against hope that just maybe there’ll be some fireworks after all. There are none, of course, and Jonah’s anger soon curdles into boiling rage and a dyspepsia for which there are few (if any) earthly cures.
And retrospectively, of course, this fills in the gaps in the narrative up to that point. Now we know why Jonah fled in the first place: he wasn’t afraid of failure. He was afraid of success. In his perception, salvation was a little Members Only Club of which he was a member but which no greasy foreigner could ever join. In our Scripture passage today, he has gone and become an agent of expanding the club’s membership and it makes him both angry and uneasy. How would he explain this to his loyal compatriots back home? Talk about providing comfort and aid to the enemy. This feels like treason!
So, what does the story of Jonah have to do with us?
Well, here, right in the middle of the Book of Jonah, is the spectacle of an unfaithful insider, one of God’s reluctant people, being used sincerely by God. And here in the middle of the book of Jonah is one of the Bible’s finest examples of how God can (and often does) hit a straight shot using a crooked stick. It’s a vignette of how God’s Spirit can (and often does) get life-giving messages across to people even if and when we are imperfect, half-hearted, and distracted for whatever reason.
Let me ask you: who in your life would you like to withhold the Kingdom of God from? What person or kinds of persons would you feel better if they always stayed outside of God’s plan of salvation? Maybe another way of asking this is: in what relationship in your life do you wrestle with hate? Perhaps it’s a co-worker? Or a former friend? A faithless spouse? A child who has turned away from you? Perhaps more introspectively, it’s an ethnic group? Or a nation? Who, if God asked you to minister to them, would you run away from to Tarshish?
If Jonah’s story tell us anything, it’s that God’s economy of love is much larger than our economy of love.
And at the heart of Jonah is something else worth pondering, too: namely, how sincerely do we in the church today really want to bring all kinds of people into the church? Yes, we always say we want to reach all people, and sometimes in the unfortunate language of the “culture wars” we act as though we’d love nothing more than to have all those who oppose the church for whatever the reason, to come and join us.
But what if they really did?
What if the young people with the torn jeans and the multiple body piercings did want to join us at the communion table? What about all those ethnic groups with habits so very different from the warp and woof of our congregation? We say we want to grow our congregation these days, but what if our growth means the need to change and accommodate people who are different from us?
What about those struggling with sexual identity, or gender identity, or those with wildly different political views than what may characterize the majority of a given congregation?
If we preach repentance to these people, and then if one day it actually takes hold and they show up in the worship sanctuary here … well, then what?
You see, maybe we are not actively awaiting and licking our lips over the potential destruction of this or that group, but if certain types of people did come to us (as they are), would we generate the kind of joy over this, the joy one might wish for?
The uncomfortable question with which Jonah confronts us yet today is whether the story these verses tell is also our story. And if so, what can we do about that unhappy fact?
You know, it’s interesting, Jonah does not crop up much in the rest of the Bible. But the most important part of the Bible where Jonah is very much present is a passage where he is not named. It comes in Acts 10 when Peter receives the famous rooftop vision through which he is taught not only that just maybe the Kosher food laws are being overturned in the New Covenant but that so is the “Jews-only” nature of salvation. And Peter has to go to all people and not wait for them to become Jews before trying to turn them into Christians. Not long after that, of course, some Italians from the household of Cornelius show up at Peter’s door to take him straight into the heart of Gentileville. And Peter ends up preaching, they end up repenting and receiving the Spirit (somewhat to Peter’s astonishment), and Peter ends up staying with them and enjoying pizza with ham, pepperoni, and a few other unclean toppings. That much we all know.
But don’t fail to notice where Peter is when he receives his vision of God’s new picnic: he is staying in Joppa. The very city to which Jonah had once fled God’s call and from which he set sail to get away from God to go to Tarshish.
Joppa is the turning point for God’s people. Jonah failed. Peter succeeded. Which direction will we go when we get to Joppa, whatever our “Joppa” may be?
Is our faith narrow like that of Jonah, or can we see others through God’s eyes?
Header image by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18874983
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.