Jonah 3:1- 4:5
Almost everybody knows something about Jonah. Even people on the street know Jonah as the guy who got eaten by a whale, only, of course, there never was any whale, at least not in the Book of Jonah. Some early translators of Matthew’s Gospel got overly ambitious and overly specific, and called it a whale, but the word really just means big sea creature. And that can mean big fish, or even sea monster. Our pew Bibles translate the word in Matthew’s Gospel as sea monster. Here in Jonah, it’s just a large fish.
Those of us who had the privilege of attending Sunday School have it even better than the people on the street. We got to look at flannel graphs. For those of you who don’t know, flannel graphs were actual pictures of Bible events taken by ancient photographers. This way, Sunday School kids could see things as they actually happened. And so when Mrs. Mitchell put that picture of Jonah up on the flannel graph board, I was intrigued. How cool it must have been for Jonah to have spent time in the belly of a very large fish! There was Jonah himself inside of a huge, cavernous fish belly, sitting on a small wooden chair, just like the ones that we were sitting on in the Sunday School class! And boy, did it look like he had learned his lesson. He was sitting perfectly still. And that’s a tremendous lesson all in itself. I knew that Jonah was the restless sort, because he had tried to run away. But there he was, sitting perfectly still, not twitching a muscle. And to top it off, he was sitting there with his head bowed, his eyes closed, and his hands were folded neatly together in his lap as if he was in prayer. He wasn’t even peeking around! The next flannel graph picture of course, was one of Jonah walking up a beach in the direction of Nineveh, looking none the worse for having spent three days inside of a big fish, and wearing a very determined expression never to mess with God again, and never to run away, and always to be a good boy; all very good lessons that little boys like me needed to learn.
And that pretty much gets us to where our passage begins this morning. We learn right away that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I will tell you.”
And this time, Jonah did it. There was no running away, and especially no running away in a boat, (for obvious reasons). I suspect that in addition to Jonah’s sudden decision to obey God, that he also had in the back of his mind that one ride in the belly of a fish was sufficient experience for anyone. I’m pretty sure he had no plans to do any more scientific experiments on the effects of the digestive juices of a fish on a live human being. That chapter of his life was probably complete.
And so Jonah walked into the city, going about a day’s journey into it, and summoning the most welcoming voice he could muster, he cried out and said, “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” I have always been amazed at the sudden and decisive response of the Ninevites. Think about this: here is this perfect stranger, wandering into the middle of the city, standing on a street corner somewhere, blatting out this terrible message of death and destruction, and the people of Nineveh paid attention to him! How crazy is that? One does not have to wander very far into one of our cities today to find similar nut-cases ranting and raving about impending doom. Some panhandling preachers even do this on the television! But the normal response to this kind of ridiculous behavior is to distance ourselves from it as far as we can, to ignore it completely, or to chalk it up to the consumption of too much cheap wine.
But instead of ignoring what Jonah had to say, the people of Nineveh listened. Verse 5 of chapter 3 is absolutely stunning. The narrator says that the people believed God. The good news here is that I don’t think that Jonah hardly entered into this process. The good news is that Jonah on the street corner is just a bit player in this whole amazing drama. The good news is that is God who is doing the preaching, directly into the people’s hearts. And that, of course, is the way that it should always be.
And so, because it was God who was doing the preaching, there is a movement of repentance that sweeps throughout the entire city. People everywhere put on sackcloth and proclaimed a fast. This is obviously very serious business, and before long, the grass roots effort that began in the streets eventually made it to city hall. And this is just about my favorite part of of the whole passage. When the king gets wind of what’s going on, he gets up off his throne, and he struts across whatever important thing it is that he struts across, and he declares in a bold proclamation that everyone is supposed to fast, and that everyone is supposed to wear sackcloth, and that everyone is to cry mightily to God. Now that is a very good thing for the king to be demanding, because it is exactly what everyone is already doing. I am sure, that even though the narrator is clearly writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek here, that Ninevite history has recorded that if not for the quick action of the king, that Nineveh would have been lost.
I don’t want to make light though, of what happened in Nineveh, because it is a wonderful example of what happens when people repent. Jonah’s message seized the hearts of all of those who were living in Nineveh, and their hearts were changed. They realized that they could not go on living the way they were living, and so they did something about it. They asked God for mercy, and they took positive steps toward changed lives. In the ancient world, sackcloth and ashes, and fasting and prayer are outward and visible signs of something that has already happened inwardly and invisibly in a person’s heart. The people of Nineveh did not really need to go through all of this elaborate ritual for God to have taken notice. God sees hearts when they are changed. And when God sees changed hearts, God has mercy. And that’s what happened in Nineveh. And a whole city was spared, and the angels in heaven rejoiced.
But Jonah, on the other hand, did not share the joy of heaven. Instead, he became very angry. No, wait, that can’t be, that’s all wrong! Jonah must have rejoiced with the angels, Jonah must have blessed God for being so merciful. Jonah must have given thanks for all of the people who experienced God’s grace, and Jonah must have been overjoyed that masses of wicked people had abandoned their wicked ways. Jonah must have been absolutely elated that all of these people were following God into paths of righteousness. That’s the way it should have been, right?
But it’s not the way that it was. Jonah was very displeased with the outcome, and he became very angry. In truth, Jonah had wanted these people to die. He wanted them to be swallowed up in a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. He wanted them gone.
And with self-righteous indignation, Jonah rails against God: I knew it! I knew you’d do something like this! This is why I decided to go to Tarshish in the first place! I suspected that this was the way that things would turn out all along! Even back at the beginning of this sad chapter of my life, “I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And I hate this about you!
At this point in the story, I want to take Jonah by the shoulders and shake him until all of the loose marbles in his head give him an intelligent thought. Jonah, Jonah, listen to me. Who do you know, really close to you, I mean really, really close to you, who has just very recently experienced a huge measure of God’s mercy and grace? Who do you know who has been lavished liberally with God’s steadfast love? Who do you know who most recently, has escaped judgment and death because of his prayers? Think, Jonah, think! It’s you, you dummy, it’s you, fish breath! You received God’s mercy and grace so you could come here and share it with the Ninevites. Figure it out Jonah, you are a mini Nineveh! If anyone deserved and still deserves destruction right now, it is you, Jonah!
It is a very good thing that God is gracious and merciful, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, because Jonah would now be just a greasy, oily spot on the ground. And in all of us there is a bit of this guy Jonah. Unfortunately, the concept of God’s grace is utterly abhorrent to Jonah. He despises God’s mercy, and this is because Jonah has a very narrow vision of God. Jonah believes that some people are more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than others. Jonah is a Hebrew, a member of God’s chosen people, and the people of Nineveh are not. The people of Nineveh are Goyim, they are Gentiles, and Jonah does not believe that Gentiles are worthy of God’s mercy. As far as Jonah is concerned, by sparing the Ninevites, God has done a disgusting thing, and Jonah is absolutely disgusted with God.
And so, the ponderous question for us this morning is, how do we feel about God’s mercy and grace? And the easy and fast answer, of course is that we love God’s mercy and grace. We are not as stupid as Jonah is. We know that we are the beneficiaries of God’s steadfast love. We know that our salvation in Jesus Christ has spared us the punishment that we so righteously deserved. We love grace. Grace is a wonderful thing, bring it on!
But that is the easy and fast answer. Jonah despised God’s mercy because he saw it freely extended to a people who were not really his kind of people, and that, good people, is putting it very mildly. Jonah hated the Ninevites. There are two things that are very clear in the Book of Jonah. Jonah hated the Ninevites, and God loved them. There’s a huge disconnect there that ought not to exist in any of our lives.
The bold truth is that God loves all persons, regardless of what we happen to think about them. God’s mercy and love is extended to all who will receive it, even if they don’t happen to be our kind of people.
And so the question remains, how do we feel about God’s grace and mercy? How do we feel about God’s steadfast love?