SERMON: Heroes of the Bible - Jonah (Jonah 1:1-4:11)
Australia Day may seem a while off, but despite that the preparations for 26th January are going on apace, both at a national and at a local level. Preparations are being made for both the festivities and the awards. Typically at a local level, most municipalities have provided a cut-off date for nominations, and time is ticking on. And in regards to the national awards… nominations close in early August. Which means, if you want to nominate someone for an award, then there may not be much time to get your nomination in.
Now those selected for awards each year are supposed to be people who have made some outstanding contribution, to either the nation or to the community to which they belong. They are people who can be looked up to, and admired. And with that in mind, today I’d like to – with tongue very firmly planted in cheek – introduce you to someone from the bible, who would probably have never made citizen of the year, in his own country or any other. And yet he is still considered one of the great prophets of the bible.
The man, of course, is the prophet Jonah. A prophet who lived in the 8th century BC during the time of Jeroboam II. He was a man of faith; he believed he was God’s servant. He even prophesied the expansion of the northern kingdom (2 Kings 14:25). Yet like many of us, he found faith a struggle. And faced with the task of confronting the Assyrians, who were a threat to the state’s existence, what is revealed are four character traits, which rather go against the grain of what one might be considered to be ideal in any believer.
B. FOUR CHARACTER TRAITS OF JONAH
a). A Disobedient Servant (Chapter 1)
The first trait of Jonah, was that he was not an obedient servant. Yes, he acknowledged that he was a servant of God, and that he was faithful only to him, but at the beginning of the story, after having received an official audience with God (1), telling him to go to Nineveh and to preach against that city (2), we find Jonah doing the exact opposite. Indeed he ran away in the opposite direction (3). And arriving at the sea port of Joppa, he tried to get as much distance between himself and Nineveh as he possibly could.
Now, there’s no doubt that Jonah would not have believed he could hide from God. But maybe, he thought, that if he showed a total lack of willing, then God might decide to choose someone else to carry out the task. The wickedness of Nineveh may have come to God’s attention, and the situation there may have degenerated to such an extent that his great mercy and patience had at last been overshadowed by the mandate of justice, but that didn’t mean that Jonah was going to be the obedient servant. He certainly wasn’t willing to go. So, we find Jonah boarding a boat, and heading in the direction of Spain (3), And even hiding well out of the way below deck, hoping to be left alone (5)
Now that’s hardly the response you would expect from a prophet of God. But, of course, what came next is well known. God wasn’t prepared to take no for an answer. A storm arose, which made even the seasoned sailors fearful (4-5); the ship was in danger of breaking up. So the sailors prayed to their gods. They even threw their cargo overboard (5). But eventually the sailors discovered that it was Jonah’s God who was responsible for the storm (9), and that it was because of Jonah that they were all suffering (10).
Then after much soul searching about what they would do with Jonah, which probably included the idea of taking Jonah back to Joppa, Jonah suggested throwing him overboard (12). Now that suggestion probably surprised the sailors, after all why couldn’t Jonah jump? But, eventually the sailor’s took up Jonah’s idea of throwing him overboard (15), and as soon as they had done that, immediately the storm calmed, and Jonah was swallowed by a great fish (17)
Jonah, then, the disobedient servant, unwilling to embark on the mission that God had assigned him.
Now, to be fair, Jonah wasn’t the first person to show a lack of willing. Indeed, Moses and Jeremiah had also shown that same trait. The difference is, though, that no one had required quite the same coercion that Jonah needed to change his mind.
b). A Resigned, but Unrepentant Servant (Chapter 2)
The second trait about Jonah, was that even when he had been swallowed by the fish, he showed no remorse over his actions whatsoever. Jonah may have subsequently resigned himself to carry out the task he had been given, but he wasn’t prepared to admit he was wrong in running away.
Now imagine Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, and his life flashing before him. With death apparently imminent, it might be expected that Jonah would have considered how he might have responded differently if he had been given a second chance. But that’s not the case. Because whilst inside the fish, Jonah cried out in distress (1); he believed he was going to die. But then, when he realised that the fish had been sent for his rescue, not his demise, he acknowledged God’s sovereignty over his life (3), and he boasted that whatever else he’d done, he had remained loyal to God right until the end (8).
The lesson that Jonah appeared to have learnt wasn’t that it was wrong to disobey the Lord, or that it was wrong to try to avoid the things that God wanted him to do. Rather, it was, where God was concerned, any attempt to avoid or escape one’s duties was a fruitless exercise. Jonah may have become resigned to the fact that he was going to have to go to Nineveh, but he showed no remorse regarding his previous actions at all.
And having come to the conclusion that he was going to live, and that God had rescued him by providing the big fish, Jonah was dropped off back onto dry land.
c). A Reluctant Servant (Chapter 3)
The third trait about Jonah, even after all that had gone before, Is that he took on the role of a reluctant servant. Because after he received God’s second call to go to Nineveh, we find Jonah doing what God asked him to do, and only what God asked him to do.
The journey from Joppa to Nineveh would have been between 800-960 kilometres, depending upon the route taken. It would have taken a month by camel or donkey caravan to get there. And Jonah was told that his task was to walk through Nineveh, proclaiming God’s message – a city that would take only three days to walk from one side to the other. And he did it. He went and proclaimed God’s message (4). But that was all he did.
Now, if someone came to your city and told you it would be destroyed shortly, wouldn’t you be full of questions? Wouldn’t you want to know why it was going to be destroyed? Wouldn’t you want to know how it was going to happen? And who was going to do it? Yet Jonah seems to have told the Ninevites only the barest minimum. Jonah only said the words he was told to say. Indeed, we have no evidence that Jonah told them that it was the Lord, the God of Israel, who was going to bring this judgement on them, or that he called them to repent. And he apparently gave them no information regarding how to prevent this proclamation of doom from coming true. As a consequence the Ninevites may have believed Jonah’s message, they may have even believed that Jonah’s god was the god who would do it, but they certainly weren’t in any position to express any real belief in Jonah’s God at all.
To their advantage, however, the Ninevites were well known to be open to foreign delegations. And they were known to be open to the religious ideas that those representatives brought. And it maybe that Jonah’s message was taken as an interpretation of another event. As a consequence they probably knew enough to acknowledge that they had strayed, to issue a decree, and to adopt the Hebrew practice of fasting and donning sackcloth. Practices that they hoped would appease Jonah’s God.
The end result was that struggled in knowing how to appease Jonah’s God. They were unsure whether their actions would cause God to set aside his judgement or not. All they could do, was to humble themselves before God, and hope for the best.
Jonah, then, did his task, but did no more. He certainly didn’t go out of his way to help the people of Nineveh.
d). An Inconsistent Servant (Chapter 4)
And the fourth trait about Jonah was that he was a man of prejudice and double standards.
Because after God had responded to the Ninevites with compassion, deciding not to bring upon them the destruction he had threatened, Jonah became greatly displeased and angry. And why? Because God had shown mercy on a people, who in some way, had shown repentance, but as far as Jonah was concerned, that repentance was shallow, and totally inadequate. Demonstrating that they no real understanding of what it meant to repent before his God. According to Jonah, why should they be spared for such a superficial response? But then why did they need to be warned in the first place? And Jonah totally ignored the fact that his minimalist approach to doing his duty to God was the very reason for their ignorance.
To which God’s response was to give Jonah an object lesson on compassion and grace.
Now, one of the things I like about the bible, particularly the Old Testament, is its refreshing honesty. It tells stories, warts and all. And today the story of Jonah, considered one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, shows us a character who has more flaws than you would ever have thought possible in a man of faith.
It’s an encouraging story in many ways too though. Because when we read about people like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel and some of the great prophets, We can easily get the impression of great men and women of God who somehow never put a foot wrong, who find faith easy, and who always seem to be doing things exactly right. And yet, with people like Jonah, there is the assurance that faith isn’t always easy, and there can be times when it can seem to be one huge struggle.
Now whilst we can smile, even identify with, the struggles of Jonah – a man of faith who is unlikely to have ever received a citizen of the year award – we can also learn a lot from the responses of God.
a). God Doesn’t Give Up (Chapter 1)
Because, in response to Jonah being the disobedient servant, we have an example of God not taking ‘no’ for an answer. In a sense we can wonder about Jonah, and why God persisted with him when he ran away. We can also wonder why didn’t God cut his loses, and pick someone else? But the story of Jonah demonstrates that God is not easily put off. And that if he asks someone of faith to do something, then he may well pursue them until they become the obedient servant too.
And that is something we should take note of. Because as people of faith, if God tells us to do something, and we decide that we don’t want a bar of it, then maybe we too should expect to be pursued to the point where we are willing to carry out the task.
b). God Comes to the Rescue (Chapter 2)
In response to Jonah being resigned to doing God’s will, but being unrepentant about his actions, we have a picture of God, that even when people of faith make some dreadful mistakes, that he still comes to their rescue.
Even though God was angry at Jonah, he rescued him by providing a big enough fish to swallow him and to take him to safety. And if God could do such an amazing thing like that for Jonah, imagine what he could do for us. As people of faith, who find themselves in trouble because of their own disobedience or unrepentant attitudes, we too can look to God for our rescue.
c). The Sovereignty Of God (Chapter 3)
In response to Jonah being the reluctant servant, and only willing to do the barest minimum, the reality is that God is able to use even that to do some remarkable things. But then what God does is not based on our merit, but rather on his own sovereignty.
Jonah may have been upset about the feeble response of the Ninevites to the message of doom, but the Ninevites responded to the best of their ability – based on their very limited understanding. Now that response may have been totally inadequate in Jonah’s eyes, but God responded with mercy and grace. He chose to honour their attempt at repentance, no matter how inadequate it may have been.
So when we can get ourselves all tied up in knots, about the way things should be done, and the way God thinks and works, we would do well to consider God’s grace too. Because God responds to us, not based on our own merit, or what we deserve, but rather, on the basis of his own sovereignty, mercy and grace.
d). The Giver of Object Lessons (Chapter 4)
And in response to Jonah’s inconsistencies and prejudices, particularly in regard to God’s compassion on the people of Nineveh, the story shows that God is not beyond giving his faithful people object lessons in regards to their own double standards.
Now just as, at the end of the story, Jonah cried out about how things were so unfair, we from time to time may cry poor about how things are so unfair too. So sometimes we too need God to give us an object lesson to show us how wrong we are in regards to our beliefs, the practice of our faith, and our dealings with others.
I began today by talking about the preparations for Australia Day, and nominations for the Australia Day awards. And at the same time I introduced Jonah as someone who would never have been nominated for any such reward. Yes, Jonah was one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. But he certainly had some character flaws.
Indeed he was committed to his God, but he didn’t always want to be active in his faith. And being asked to go to Nineveh was too much for poor Jonah to accept. After being rescued by God, he resigned himself to do the task, but remained completely unrepentant about his running away. When he carried out the task, he did it reluctantly, and only did the barest minimum. He showed no care or compassion to those to whom he was called. And when Jonah finally completed the task,
he was still consumed by his own prejudices and double standards.
Jonah, citizen of the year? I don’t think so. And yet, we can learn much from the story of Jonah. Not least of all by comparing the responses of God to Jonah.
Jonah’s side of the story is a reminder to look at out our own commitment to God, and the prejudices we hold about other people. But God’s side of the story is about how God takes his servants, warts and all, and how he moulds them into the people he wants, and that we need to be. And that is a very sobering thought for us, particularly when we feel reluctant to do our duty to God, and particularly when we feel like running away.
Posted: 5th July 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: The Book of Jonah (1) (Jonah 1:1-2:10)
Week 1: A Messenger on The Run
Read: Jonah 1:1-17
1. Who was Jonah (v 1)? Take into account the situation in 2 Kings 14:23-25.
2. What did the LORD instruct Jonah to do (v 2)? How does this fit with the idea that the Israelites were the LORD’s chosen people (Exodus 19:5-6a)?
3. What did Jonah do (v 3) and why?
4. Have you ever run away from the LORD? If so why and where did you go?
5. What does the LORD’s pursuit of Jonah (vv 4, 17) tell you about the LORD’s character?
6. Why did Jonah instruct the sailors to throw him overboard (v 12). What did Jonah expect would happen to him?
7. The LORD rescued Jonah by providing a great fish (v 17). How far do you think the LORD would go for you?
Read: Jonah 2:1-10
8. Comment on Jonah’s state of mind in the fish (vv 2-9).
a). Was he sorry that he’d run away?
b). What thoughts does he express regarding his call to go to Nineveh?
9. If you were the LORD, would you have pursued Jonah or would you have given up on him and sent someone else?
Posted: 17th May 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: The Book of Jonah (2) (Jonah 3:1-4:11)
Week 2: A Reluctant Messenger
Read: Jonah 3:1-10
1. What was the message that the LORD told Jonah to deliver (vv 2, 4)?
2. Was Jonah capable of carrying out the appointed task? How enthusiastic was Jonah in delivering the LORD’s message (v 4)?
3. How did the Ninevites respond to Jonah’s message (vv 5-9)?
4. What was the LORD’s reaction to the repentance demonstrated by the Ninevites (v 10)?
Read: Jonah 4:1-11
5. Why was Jonah greatly displeased? Did he have any right to be angry (vv 1-3)?
6. When the LORD has responded differently to what you had wanted or expected, what was your reaction?
7. What did the LORD hope that Jonah would learn by:
a). making a vine to grow to shelter him;
b). providing a worm so that it withered and died (vv 6-8)?
8. The name Jonah means “dove.” Was this an appropriate name for the son of Amittai?
9. Sum up the issues illustrated in the story of Jonah.
10. The story ends abruptly at verse 11. Had there been a 5th chapter to the story, how would you have liked the story to have ended?
Posted: 25th May 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Book of Jonah, Part 1: Excuses, Excuses (Jonah 1:1-16)
1. Our Discomfort
Have you ever been asked to do something … Something you were reluctant to do? And did you make excuses why you shouldn’t do it? I’m sure we all have, and probably for a variety of reasons. Because, if you’re anything like me, there are probably many things that you don’t like doing; there are probably many things you don’t even want to consider doing. Because in doing them, you know, that you will be made very uncomfortable indeed.
And for me, that includes anything from answering the telephone, to launching in to some big venture of which I have had no experience. I don’t like unknowns; I like to be comfortable. I like things which are familiar, and things that I am sure will run smoothly. I like to have control over the things that I do. So, when things are unknown or unfamiliar, or when I have little control, I get very uncomfortable. So much so, then when asked to do something, all the excuses under the sun, of why I shouldn’t do it, can come to the fore.
“I’ve never done it before.” “I haven’t any experience.” “So and so would be far better doing that.” “It won’t work.” Or simply, “Pick someone else.”
2. Jonah’s Discomfort
Sounds familiar? Well it probably should, because it’s a natural reaction. And it’s also the reason why, when I read the story of Jonah, in a sense I can sympathise with his dilemma. Because, what God asked him to do, would have made him feel very uncomfortable indeed.
Now Jonah’s story is one that often brings a smile to people’s faces. Asked to do a certain job, he didn’t just hide behind the sofa, but he immediately rushed off in the opposite direction. In other words, Jonah wasn’t just reluctant, he was down-right disobedient. He was determined to do whatever it took to avoid doing what God had asked.
But what was it, that Jonah was so uncomfortable about? What made him run away? Well, we do have one clue in the last chapter of the Book of Jonah (4:2). But to really understand what was going through his mind, we need to look at the background to the story. We need to examine the other excuses that Jonah may have given. The bits that aren’t recorded in the Book of Jonah.
B. BACKGROUND (1:1-2)
And to do that we need to place Jonah, firmly in his historical context. Which we can do quite accurately. Because in the Old Testament, in the Book of 2 Kings, we are told that Jonah son of Amittai was from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:23-25). He was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel, and he prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who reigned for 41 years from 793-753 BC.
And because we know where he sits in the history of Israel, I can think of three excuses, that he could have given God, why he shouldn’t go.
2. “That’s not the way we do things”
And the first is, “We don’t do it that way.”
Travelling to other countries to tell people about God, was not the way things were done. In the Old Testament God’s people were supposed to be a light to the world. They were supposed to draw others to them, not go out to others. And if they had stuck to God’s rules, people would have flocked to them, wanting to be part of whatever it was that they had. That’s how God had set up his people. As a consequence, the idea of going out to other nations to tell people about God would have been quite foreign to Jonah. And “That’s not the way things are done,” would have been an understandable first excuse.
3. “They’re our worst enemies”
The second excuse that Jonah could have come up with is, “But the Assyrians are our worst enemies.” And Jonah would have been right. The political expansion of the Assyrian Empire, lasted from 911 BC to 627 BC. And we can read many references in the Old Testament to the military power of Assyria, with the kings of Israel and Judah see-sawing between making alliances with Assyria, to paying them tribute as vassals, to rebelling against Assyrian control.
Yes, at the time of Jonah, Assyria was in decline; it faced bitter internal disputes. But Assyria, even in a weakened state, was still a serious threat to the existence of Israel. And Jonah would have known that. Because thirty years after the reign of Jeroboam, Shalmaneser V conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and took the people into exile (2 Kings 17:3-6). And twenty years after that Sennacherib attacked the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 18:13).
Now we don’t need to fuss over all the details. But let’s think about Jonah for a minute. Yes, he was a prophet. And, yes, he prophesied the restoration of Israel’s borders, during this decline in the Assyrian Empire (that is also in 2 Kings). But Assyria was still a threat. So, when asked by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire … Well you can imagine the excuses, not least of which would have been, “But they’re our worst enemies.”
4. “That’s not what prophets do”
And for a third excuse for Jonah? Well it would probably have been, “That’s not what prophets do. Prophets don’t go to other places.”
And if you think that that excuse is a bit weak, then you’re probably right. But let’s think about it for a moment. Put all the major prophets in historical order from Elijah to Malachi, Jonah would fit near the beginning. Indeed, the prophets would run Elijah, Elisha, possibly Joel, then Jonah, and then all the others would follow. Now Elijah and Elisha, even though they went to Damascus, did not prophesy to other nations. Joel did, but there is no evidence that he ever left the comfort of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Later prophets prophesied against other nations, but in the majority of cases there is no suggestion that they actually went to those places in person. Yes, Jeremiah went in person to the different nations, to prophesy against them. But that was 150 plus years after the time of Jonah (Jeremiah 25:15-29). And even Jeremiah didn’t always go in person. Indeed, on at least one occasion, he sent his message to Babylon via the king’s messenger (Jeremiah 51:59-64a).
So if Jonah, had said to God, “That’s not what prophets do,” then that would have been quite an understandable reaction too.
5. “I don’t care”
So, three quite understandable excuses, that may have gone through Jonah’s mind. “That’s not the way we do things,” “They’re our worst enemies,” and “That’s not what prophets do.”
So now, if we add in the only excuse that is recorded in the book as being offered to God, we get a clearer picture. For in chapter four we’re told that he had been concerned that the Ninevites might actually respond to God’s message (4:2), and that is something he didn’t want them to do. His excuse … He didn’t care for the Ninevites at all. He wanted them to be condemned. And that’s why he had run away.
Now I hope you can see where this is going. The story of Jonah … yes, it does put a smile on people’s faces. But on the serious side, Jonah was asked to do something that was quite alien to his way of thinking.
He was asked to go to a foreign land and proclaim God’s message, when his whole background and culture suggested that he should stay at home. He was asked to go to share that message, not just with anyone, but with his country’s worst enemies. He was asked to do something that no other prophet had done before. And he was asked to do something for a people that he wanted to be condemned and didn’t care for at all. Is it any wonder that he ran in the opposite direction?
And if that had been you or me, if our backgrounds had been the same, would we have reacted any differently? After all, I’m sure we have all been asked to do things that we are not comfortable with, or things that are quite alien to our way of thinking. And I’m sure that either now or at times we have all had enemies, or people who have made our lives difficult. So, in the circumstances, if God had come to us, would we have simply gone? Would we have hidden behind the sofa, pretending that we were weren’t in and hadn’t heard? Or would we have run as far as we could in the other direction too?
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part One)
1. Running Away (1:3, 5b)
Because that’s what Jonah did. Nineveh the capital of Assyria, was about 900 kms, as the crow flies, north-east of Samaria, the capital of Israel. So Jonah went to Joppa, a port on the Mediterranean Sea and got on a boat headed to Tarshish, about 3,000 kms to the west. At the time, as far away from Nineveh in the opposite direction, as he could possibly get. And there, in the boat, Jonah tried to escape from God.
2. The God of Everywhere (1:4-5a)
Now it was quite common in those days to believe that your god, was only the god of the territory to which you belonged. Sometimes your god was ascendant, and other times not. Indeed, even after the time of Jonah, about 730 BC, when King Ahaz of Judah was attacked by the Arameans, and supported by the Assyrians, in response, he offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus, and even had drawings made of an altar, which he then had made and placed in the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:10-18).
However, if Jonah thought he would escape from God, by running in the opposite direction, and even hiding at the bottom of the ship, then he was quite mistaken. For God sent a storm so great, that even the seasoned sailors became fearful. Whatever the limitations of other so-called gods, God was there. And he was just as present in the ship on the Mediterranean as he was in Jonah’s home town of Gath Hepher.
What-is-more, he had told Jonah to do something, and he hadn’t done it. So, Jonah could either change his mind and decide to go, or he could live with the consequences.
Now for those of you, who may be concerned about how God is portrayed in the Old Testament, that he seems to be a God of war rather than peace, then the story of Jonah is an object lesson. The whole point of the story of Jonah, is that there are three groups of people who need saving from themselves: Jonah, the Ninevites and the sailors. And God didn’t want any of them to be punished. Rather, he wanted them to repent and follow him.
As far as the God of the Bible is concerned, life is about having a relationship with the creator and living life under his rules. All other paths lead to eternal damnation. As a consequence, the story of Jonah is a snapshot of the lengths that God is prepared to go to rescue his people; to save people from heading down the wrong track. And in this part of the story, the sailors, who each cried out to his own god, were just as much in need of God’s help, than the disobedient Jonah himself.
So God used the situation, to give everyone a chance to respond, one way or another. Would they continue along the path to eternal destruction, or would they repent and turn to the only God, the creator of all?
3. The Reaction of the Sailors (1:5b-10)
Now of course, the sailors didn’t really know Jonah’s God. Yes, they’d heard about him, and perhaps even feared him to some extent. But he wasn’t their god. As a consequence, they started praying to their own gods, and lightened the ship by throwing the cargo overboard. They even called on Jonah to help them. But, when they became really desperate, they cast lots to see who was the cause of all the trouble (Jonah).
4. The Resolution (1:11-16)
However, when they discovered who the real problem was, they were left with a shocking decision to make. Not least of which would be, to abandon their own gods and to accept Jonah’s God, as their Lord and Saviour. Because throwing Jonah overboard would effectively be an acknowledgement that Jonah’s God really was powerful. And, indeed, even more powerful than their own so-called gods.
But Jonah’s solution would not have been easy for Jonah either. He had shown little care for the safety of the sailors when he boarded their ship. And being thrown overboard would mean placing his whole life firmly in the hands of his God. And the chances are, he wouldn’t have known what was ahead. He wouldn’t have known whether God would come to his rescue or not.
But what he did know, was that he had to place his trust in his God whatever happened. And what he did know, was that he should have done that in the first place. After all, being called to go to another country, and prophesy—and not just to any country, but Israel’s greatest enemy—should have involved Jonah in trusting his God, not in him being fearful and running away.
So Jonah gave the command, and the sailors then prayed to Jonah’s God, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They then threw Jonah overboard, and worshipped God by offering sacrifices and making solemn vows to him.
Now clearly there’s an interesting paradox in this part of the story. Jonah needed to be saved from himself. After all, he had run away from God. And yet at the point when Jonah is tossed into the sea, it is not Jonah who is saved, but the sailors—people who in many ways can be considered to be incidental characters in the story.
The Book of Jonah, then, is an interesting book, and the prophet Jonah is an interesting character. And certainly not the kind of role model that you would put up as a faithful follower of God.
But what does all this mean for us? And what can we learn from the lessons which we are presented with today? Well, for me, the story illustrates four things.
1. God is Interested in Everyone
And the first is, that God is everywhere. He was with Jonah in Gath Hepher, and he was with him on the ship. And evidently he knew very well what was going on in Nineveh too. When it comes to us, then, we can be assured that God is with us too.
God is everywhere. And we cannot hide or run away from him, because wherever we are, God is there. He is with us, he is with those with whom we mix, and he is with our enemies too. We cannot get away from God, and it useless to pretend that we can.
2. God Wants to Save Everyone
The second thing this story teaches, is that God wants everyone to have a chance to respond to him. Indeed, the story illustrates the compassion that God had for the sailors and for the Ninevites. And even with Jonah, he stuck to him like glue. When Jonah ran away, he didn’t just abandon him. He didn’t give up on Jonah, and say, “I’ll pick someone else.” As far as God was concerned Jonah needed to be saved too.
And, if God wants everyone to have the opportunity to repent and turn to him, then the salvation of others should be our main concern too. After all, it’s one of the reasons that the church exists.
Now some of us may have people they just can’t forgive—a family member, a work mate, a former friend, etc. And yet even God was prepared to forgive the people of Assyria, who had done some terrible things to his people. But God wants everyone to be saved. And we should too.
3. God Wants To Use His People
The third thing that this story illustrates, is that, yes, God can do extraordinary things without us even lifting a finger—like the storm, and like the big fish which we will look at next time. And yet he still chooses to use his people to proclaim his message.
But then there’s a point to God using his people, which is well illustrated in the prophet Jonah. Because it wasn’t just the Ninevites, or even the sailors who needed rescuing, Jonah needed to be rescued too.
As a consequence, we need to remember that when God calls us to do whatever it is that he asks of us, it’s not just the other people that he wants to reach, he wants to reach us too. Whatever weaknesses, or preconceptions we may have, God wants to use the situations he puts us in, to teach us as well as to reach the people to whom we have been sent. He wants us to grow, and to be rescued from all the obstacles that we have in our relationship with him.
4. God does not take no for an answer
And fourthly, that neatly bring us back, full circle, to where we started … the excuses. Because God does not necessarily take “no” for an answer.
We might be good at excuses why we shouldn’t do things, particulalry where God and the church are concerned. We might also say, “That’s not the way we do things,” or “They’re our worst enemies” or “That’s’s not what we do.” We might even indicate that in some way that we don’t really care. But yet, one thing that Jonah teaches, is that God might have other ideas.
Yes, we might like to feel comfortable. Yes, we might like to do the things of which we are familiar. Yes, we might like to surround ourselves with the people we like. And yes, we might not like to do things which make us uncomfortable, or which we have never done before. And yet, the story of Jonah shows that there are consequences to saying “no.” Not least of which may be that God may make the sea that we are in so choppy, that we risk getting thrown overboard too.
God does not necessarrily do things in ways that we might feel comfortable. He may use methods that seem very rough. Nevertheless, his ways do get results. And what he achieved in this very first section of the Book of Jonah, was the rescue every single sailor on that ship.
God wanted to use Jonah, for Jonah’s own benefit as well as for the benefit of the Ninevites. And excuses or not, God wants to use us in our part of his story too.
Jonah, then, hardly a role model of a man of faith. Told to do one thing, he did exactly the opposite. But in many ways, Jonah was only responding to what was accepted at the time.
Missions to other nations was not a common practice. Treating ones’ worst enemies with compassion was not something that he would have found easy. And prophets just didn’t go out to other nations, they spoke all their words at home. Is it any wonder that Jonah just didn’t care.
But that’s Jonah, what’s about us? When God asks us to do something, how do we respond? How comfortable are we, with the way we like things to be? And how many excuses do we think up for not doing as God asks?
F. NEXT TIME …
Now today’s episode, is only the first part of the story recorded in the Book of Jonah. But what happened next? Well, that’s what we are going to look at next time.
What we’re going to look is how God rescued Jonah from the sea, and in particular Jonah’s response to that rescue. Because in many ways Jonah’s response is another all too familiar story, which sadly is heard far too often, even today.
Posted: 30th September 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Book of Jonah, Part 2: Repercussions (Jonah 1:17-2:10)
When you’ve been asked to do something, and haven’t done it—and you know you should have—how do you feel? When you know that you’ve done the wrong thing—or not done the right thing—how do you respond? And, what-is-more, what do you expect will happen next?
Well, if you’re anything like me you might feel guilty; you might have a heavy heart. You might even feel sorry, and wonder if there is any way you can make up for what you have or haven’t done. You might even wonder or fear whatever consequences are going to come your way. After all, the things that we do, and don’t do, often have repercussions. And they are things we have to live with.
2. Jonah’s Repercussions
And as I was thinking about that this week, and as we continue our journey with Jonah today, I couldn’t help wonder about how Jonah felt—what repercussions he expected to face for doing the wrong thing, by running away. I wondered how he expected God to respond.
And today’s episode in the life of Jonah is quite revealing.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But first, let us recall something of the story of Jonah so far …
Now last time we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. And we discovered a background of three possible excuses he could have used, why he shouldn’t go.
Firstly, the Israelites were not used to going to other countries to share their faith; people were expected to come to them. Secondly, the Assyrians, for which Nineveh was the capital, were the Israelites most feared and hated enemies. And, thirdly, it had not been the practice for prophets to go and prophesy in foreign countries. So, three quite understandable excuses.
But on top of that, we discovered that Jonah just didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He wanted them to be condemned. And that is the reason he gave for running away.
However, what we also discovered, was that if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. God demonstrated that he was everywhere, and he showed Jonah that he was just as concerned for the lives of the sailors, as he was for Jonah and for the lives of the Ninevites.
And at the end of the first episode of the story, we found Jonah calling on the sailors to toss him overboard. Thus putting his whole future in the hands of God, whilst saving the lives of the sailors.
And this is where we pick up the story …
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Two)
1. God to the Rescue (1:17, 2:10)
Because what God did next, was to rescue Jonah from the sea. Indeed, he saved Jonah. He provided a great fish to swallow him—to prevent him from drowning. And that fish then carried him for three days and three nights back to dry land, where Jonah was vomited out onto dry land.
2. Jonah’s State of Mind (2:1-6)
Now having said that God physically rescued Jonah, is one thing. How he did it, is another thing altogether. Because apart from Jonah having to face up to the consequences of his actions, there’s a strong element of chastisement in this part of Jonah story—a bit of tough love—too. Jonah had strayed in his relationship with God, and God knew that it was going to take a lot to have any chance of getting him back on track.
So Jonah was made to suffer a bit. He was tossed up and down by the waves. So much so that he believed he was on the point of death. And it was only then that he was confronted with a big fish, which swallowed him, and in which he had to live for three days and nights. It would not have been a pleasant experience, particulalry if we remember something else of the background of Jonah.
Because at the time, the Israelites were not noted as being great sea-faring people. Indeed, the sailors in the first part of the story were more likely to have been Phoeniceans than Israelites. (Which tends to indicates something of the desperation and determination behind Jonah’s unwillingness to do what God had asked.) But more than that, the Israelites had this myth of a Leviathan—a great fire-breathing armour-plated sea monster. A serpent that is documented in the book of Job (Job 3:8; 41:1) and in Psalm 104 (104:26), both of which pre-date Jonah. And Isaiah (27:1) and Psalm 74 (74:14), which come much later.
What Jonah faced in the sea, then, was probably his worst nightmare. And there is no doubt he would have had a torrid time. And there in the fish, he would have had a lot of time to think. Particularly about what he’d been asked to do, how he had responded, and how close he had come to death.
So much so, that he was later able to recall, praying to his maker (1). The trauma of sinking in the water, thinking he would drown, and calling out to God for help (2). Considering that his rescue had not been immediate, but that God had allowed him to feel the effects of his rage (3). Then, how even when he felt banished, that in some way he expected to see God again (4). And how even in his darkest hour, when his life was ebbing away, God had come to his rescue (5-6).
3. Jonah’s Vow (2:7-9)
Indeed, at his lowest ebb, he remembered God, and prayed to him in the heavens (7). He acknowledged that God was the God of the universe, and that any other way was simply nonsense. And he vowed never to run away again, and (presumably once safe on dry ground) that he would once again sing God’s praises and offer God sacrifices (8-9a). And he acknowledged that only God had the power to save (9b).
In many ways it’s an impressive psalm. And yet, even in his prayer there is something seriously missing. And that is, that he expressed no sorrow for what he had done. Indeed, he didn’t mention running away at all.
Now, one of the things I like about the Old Testament, is its refreshing honesty. It tells stories, warts and all. And today’s part in the story of Jonah, shows us a character who has far more flaws than you would expect in a man of God. He’d already shown a reluctance to do what God had asked. Indeed, he’d run away rather than go to Nineveh. And yet, even after God came to his rescue, he expressed no sorrow for what he had done.
Jonah, then, a bit of an enigma. But then, isn’t feeling sorry for oneself, rather than being sorry for what one has done, a character trait that is all too familiar even today.
So Jonah and the big fish … what can we learn from this part of the story today?
1. God Saves
Well, the first thing is that even when people of faith are disobedient and make some dreadful mistakes, God may still be willing to come to their rescue.
God may have been angry with Jonah, but he rescued him by providing a big fish to take him to safety. And if God could do such an amazing thing like that for Jonah, imagine what he could do for us. Indeed, imagine what he has already done for us, not least of which is to send his son to come and die for our sins.
As people of faith, we may find ourselves in trouble because of our own disobedience to God. But even so, God may not necessarily discard us; he may well come to our rescue just the same. And, indeed, you may well be able to think of a time when God asked you to do something, and you didn’t do it, but God came to your rescue anyway.
2. God Disciplines
The second thing, that this story teaches, is that God disciplines his people. Because apart from allowing us to face the consequences of our actions to some extent, he is not beyond the idea of “tough love,” to get his people back on track either.
When God rescued Jonah, he didn’t just make things easy for Jonah; he didn’t just whip him off to safety. He didn’t just stop the wind, and gently tow the boat back to Joppa. Instead, he made Jonah go through “hell” (excuse the expression), as part of his rescue.
But he didn’t do it because he was vindictive. He didn’t do it to force Jonah into doing what he wanted. He did it so that he could show Jonah how wrong he was. And he did it to give Jonah what he needed, in the hope that Jonah would repent, and turn his life around, so it was pointing in the right direction.
After all, as we read through the Old Testament, we’re told time and time again that God is not interested in punishment for punishment sake. But what he does, is that he places unrepentant sinners in the positions they need to be in, in order for them to respond with faith. So, if Jonah needed a bit of tough love, then that’s what he had to give him. And if we need a bit of tough love, then that is what we can expect from him too.
Yes, sometimes God uses gentle methods, but othertimes he knows we need something a little stronger. And in Jonah’s case he needed to be very rough, because, as we’ve just seen, Jonah wasn’t prepared to accept that he was wrong in running away at all.
3. The Need for Repentance …
And that leads us to the third thing that we can learn—the need for repentance. The one thing lacking in Jonah’s prayer.
Because, yes, Jonah was grateful for being saved from the sea. And when the chips were down, he demonstrated that he wanted to live and not die. But sorrow for what he had done? Well that seemed to be beyond him. And I wonder, sometimes, how often we aren’t sorry for the things we have done either.
After all, repentence and turning our lives around are at the heart of the Gospel. And yet how often do we disobey God? How often do we not do as he wants? How often do we come up with a number of excuses why we shouldn’t do what he asks? And how often do we then meekly continue on, as though we’ve done nothing wrong.
Repentence and turning our lives around are at the heart of the Gospel, but I wonder how seriously we consider them to be part of our continuing walk with God.
4. … Not “Woe is Me”
And that, of course, leads us to the fourth thing that this passage teaches … that lack of repentance is often accompanied by the attitude, “Woe is Me.” Being sorry for ourselves, as though what we are facing is not our fault—even when it clearly is.
After all, the only lesson that Jonah appeared to have learnt, wasn’t that it was wrong to disobey God, or that it was wrong to try to avoid the things that God wanted him to do. Rather it was about how uncomfortable God had made him when he caught up with him.
It’s the “me, me” attitude that is so often heard today. People who are not sorry for what they’ve done. Yet they feel sorry for themselves, for the punishment they are facing. It’s the “it’s not might fault” attitude, when clearly the person had a choice, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for his or her actions.
Now if you were God, and if you had pursued Jonah to go to Nineveh, wouldn’t you have given up on him at this point. Wouldn’t you have found someone else? I think I would. But then where would that have left Jonah?
And if that had been me who had been disobedient, would I have wanted God to abandoned me? No! I think I would have wanted God to pursue me, and to pursue me, until I got it right. And, you know, that’s precisely the picture of God that we get throughout the book of Jonah—constantly pursuing Jonah.
Jonah’s psalm, then, in not one to be proud of. It is more “woe is me” than “sorry.” Because, yes, even after he was swallowed by the big fish, he may have been thankful to God for saving him. He may also have resigned himself to carry out the task that he’d been given (if he was asked again). But, the one thing that it doesn’t do, is to express sorrow for running away.
Now we can smile at Jonah, but is Jonah’s story, our story? Has God asked us to do something, which even now we are refusing to do? And is it that we are stubbornly resisting, or have even convinced ourselves that we are right in taking our stand? And are we not the least bit sorry, for taking that stance?
Because Jonah’s story, is not just Jonah’s story. Indeed, in many ways it is the story of everyone who has stubbornly refused to do God’s will. And isn’t that the point of retelling the story, even today.
F. NEXT TIME
Now lest we get too despondent about Jonah, there is a positive side to the story. Jonah does get a second chance (which will examine next time).
But that doesn’t mean that Jonah expresses a willingness to go, or that he carries out the task with enthusiasm. In many ways, he just went through the motions. And yet, even with that, God was able to use him to do great things.
Posted: 8th October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Book of Jonah, Part 3: A Second Chance (Jonah 3:1-4:4)
1. My Opportunities
When you’ve made a mistake, and you’re given a second chance—an opportunity to rectify what you have or haven’t done—what do you do? When you’ve made a mistake, and you’ve been given the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and start again, how do you respond? Would you grab that opportunity with both hands, or would you stubbornly stick with what you have done?
Well, I guess it depends upon what you were given a second chance to do. But if it was me, and I was sorry for what I’d done, I would probably grab the opportunity to get it right. Because second chances, opportunities to do things right, as though nothing untoward had happened before, do not come along very often. So, when they do come along, they are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.
2. Jonah’s Opportunity
And just as we shouldn’t miss them, neither should have Jonah. Because, as we continue our story of Jonah today, we find that Jonah gets one of those opportunities. An opportunity to start again—to start from scratch.
The question is, though, did he grab the opportunity with both hands? Did he use this second chance to start again, or did he muck the whole thing up? Well, that is something that we are about to discover.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But, first, let us recall something of the events in the life of Jonah so far ….
Two weeks ago, we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. And we discovered a number of excuses that he could have given God why he shouldn’t go. We also discovered that Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved, and instead ran away in the opposite direction.
But, if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. So much so, that at the end of the first episode we saw Jonah calling on the sailors to toss him overboard to save themselves. Thus putting his whole life in the hands of God, to either save him, or to let him drown.
And last week, we discovered that although God rescued Jonah by providing a big fish, which then took him back to dry land, Jonah expressed no sorrow for what he had done whatsoever. Yes, he was grateful to God for rescuing him. Yes, he looked forward to worshipping God when he was back on dry land. And, yes, he committed himself to go to Nineveh, should God ask him again. But Jonah showed no remorse for what he had done at all. Indeed, his only sorrow appears to be that he had got caught, and that he been chastised by God. It was not so much sorrow for what he had done, but “Woe is me.”
So now let’s continue the story …
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Three)
1. Jonah’s Second Call (3:1-2a, 3a)
Now I don’t about you, but it seems to me that there was probably a time delay between Jonah being spewed out on the beach, and him receiving his second call. Perhaps a bit of time to allow him to slip back into ordinary life—to a life more comfortable than what he had just experienced. It would also have been a bit of time for him to consider the ramifications of being disobedient to God.
But God had not finished with Jonah. So God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and to proclaim his message. Jonah is given a second chance. But there’s no hint of any “Here’s your chance to fix up your past mistakes,” or “Do it right this time.” It’s like Jonah’s slate has been wiped clean. God wants him to start afresh, with all the baggage of the past put behind him.
And this time, Jonah gets up and goes. He does what God asks. He travels the 900 kms north-east (as the crow flies)—a journey that would have taken him about a month.
2. God’s Message (3:2b, 3b-4)
And the message he had to proclaim? Well, Jonah wasn’t asked to make anything up. He was simply to declare the words that God would give him.
Now it became quite normal for the prophets to make these sorts of declarations. Indeed, Joel did it before the time of Jonah, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Zechariah all spoke out against foreign nations after the time of Jonah. And the one thing they all had in common, was that they were given the words to speak by God. Indeed, they were probably given to the prophets to write down on a scroll, which could then be read to the people concerned—and it was probably usually read by a messenger.
But that wasn’t to be Jonah’s lot. Instead, Jonah was to go and read the scroll himself—and to read it in the heartland of his country’s most feared enemy.
Now you can imagine that Jonah would have been very nervous. But the task itself was not a difficult one. Furthermore, it was a task, that having got to the edge of the city, was to take only three days—the time required to walk and proclaim the message from one side of the city to the other. Indeed, the same amount of time that he spent in the big fish, and far less time than he had spent in running away.
And, the crux of the message …? Well, that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed. A message that would have made Jonah very happy indeed.
So that’s what Jonah did. He did what God had asked. However, one does not get the impression that Jonah’s heart was in it at all. After all, we know that even when the task was completed, that Jonah was not happy with the end result.
Now if someone had come to your city and told you it was going to be destroyed, wouldn’t you be full of questions? Wouldn’t you want to know why it was going to be destroyed? Wouldn’t you want to know how it was going to happen? And wouldn’t you want to know who was going to do it? And probably all of that was in the scroll that Jonah read. But wouldn’t you also want to know how you could prevent it?
The trouble is, we know that Jonah didn’t want to prevent it. He wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed. So, no doubt, Jonah would have read the text of the scroll, as God had instructed. But whether, there was any real interaction between Jonah and the Ninevites on how this destruction could be avoided … well, I think that would have been very unlikely indeed. And, there is certainly no evidence that any kind of interaction between Jonah and the Ninevites took place.
Jonah was not interested in the welfare of the Ninevites. We know that. As a consequence, he probably did his task, but no more. Given a fresh start by God, he did the task, but he did so by dragging all of his past baggage behind him.
3. The Ninevites Repent (3:5-9)
Nevertheless, as soon as Jonah began his three-day walk through the city, the Ninevites responded; they repented of their sins. The Ninevites believed Jonah’s message, and they turned to Jonah’s God. They came to the belief that Jonah’s God was the one who would destroy their city. But were they in any position to express any real belief in Jonah’s God at all?
After all, what did Jonah’s God expect? How could they appease Jonah’s God, in a way that would be acceptable to him? (You know all the bits that are missing in the story—the bits that they needed Jonah to add, so they could respond appropriately.)
But, to their advantage, we know from history that the Ninevites were well known to be open to foreign delegations. They were also known to be open to the religious ideas that those representatives brought. Furthermore, it may have been that Jonah’s message was taken as an interpretation of a current, specific event. In other words, they may have known enough to acknowledge that they had strayed. So they issued a decree, and adopted their understanding of Hebrew practices.
They declared a fast, and put on sackcloth—signs of repentance. And even the king put on sackcloth, sat in the dust, and issued a proclamation for anyone and everyone—man or beast—to respond likewise. As far as the king was concerned, if they turned to God and gave up their evil and violent ways, then maybe God would have compassion on them; maybe he would turn from the planned destruction of the city.
Nevertheless, they were probably still not sure whether their response would cause God to set aside his judgement or not. All they could do, was to humble themselves before God, and hope for the best.
4. Two Very Different Responses (3:10-4:4)
To which, at the end of this episode in the life of Jonah, we find two very different responses.
Firstly, we find God responding by turning away from what he had planned. Whatever inadequacies there were in the Ninevites response, God saw their intent, and he responded to the people with compassion.
And secondly, if you had any doubts about Jonah at all, and the kind of person that he was, Jonah responded by becoming angry. He told God “I told you so. I told you that they would repent. That’s why I didn’t want to come; that’s why I fled to Tarshish.”
All Jonah could do was to be angry that the Ninevites had been saved. He was angry with God. And he was so angry, that all he wanted to do was to die. If that was what God was like—even willing to save Israel’s worst enemies—then Jonah didn’t want a bar of him. Running away from God had been pointless, so death was his only escape.
Now could you get two greater extremes, than the responses of God and Jonah? God had compassion, he wanted everyone to be saved. He even gave Jonah a second chance. But Jonah had very different ideas.
It’s like Jonah didn’t know God at all. Jonah’s vision of God was one that he could live with, and one which made him feel comfortable. But that wasn’t who God was. So, when faced with the real God, it was all too much; it was beyond his ability to cope.
Quite a contrast, then, between the responses of Jonah and God. But then, this whole episode in the life of Jonah is a series of contrasts. As a consequence, I’d like to touch on just a few. Because there are a number of important truths in this passage, which can help us in our walk with God too.
1. The Importance of a Clean Slate
And the first of which, revolves around the idea of having a second chance—another opportunity to do things right. Because Jonah’s second call wasn’t so much an opportunity to fix up past mistakes—as though he could go back in time and undo whatever it was that he had or hadn’t done. This was more a matter of wiping the slate clean and starting afresh. Treating past mistakes as though they had never happened.
When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh the second time, there was no dragging up the past by God. There was no “Fix up your mistakes,” or “Do it properly this time.” No, Jonah was given an opportunity to start afresh, and to move on.
Unfortunately, it was not an opportunity that Jonah grasped. Because whilst God offered him the opportunity to start again, Jonah for his part, insisted on dragging his past along behind him. He hated the Ninevites with a vengeance, and nothing that God could do would ever change that.
And that’s sad, because wiping the slate clean and starting again is what happens when God forgives us. He gives us the opportunity to let go of the past and to move on. And yet, I wonder how often, like Jonah, we remain stuck in our past, dragging it along behind us. Never really able to truly move on. Unable to forgive ourselves or forgive others. And unable to reciprocate to God’s love, by forgiving others in return.
2. Trusting in the Real God
The second thing about this story, is it raises the question “Does our picture of God, match the picture of God that God has given us?” Because, if Jonah was God’s prophet, but was unable to cope with what God had done, then there was something seriously amiss. Not least of which, was his concept of who he believed God to be.
After all, Jonah may have agreed to accept the second chance that God had offered—to do what God asked, but unlike God, he still hated the Assyrians; he still wanted them dead. He probably feared that if the Assyrians were saved, that they would once again become a threat to his people. But what he lacked was a clear vision of who God really was; he lacked that trust that God knew best. He simply couldn’t accept that God knew far better than he did, what he was doing.
Jonah had his own fixed ideas on who God was and what was right. And nothing that God did was going to persuade him otherwise. As a consequence, God did not meet his expectations and, because of that, his whole world fell apart.
Believing in God as he is, and believing in God as we’d like him to be, are two very different things. And yet, even today, God has been reinvented in so many ways. Indeed, very few people have a clear picture of who God says that he is—the God of the Bible. As a consequence, he is ignored, twisted, changed and manipulated to meet any number of views with which people may feel more comfortable. And his rules are ignored, changed and manipulated to suit too. And, when God doesn’t dance to the many different tunes, is it any wonder that people get disappointed and disillusioned.
The need to trust in the real God—the God, as he has revealed himself—then, is very much part of the message in the story of Jonah. And should he ask us to do something that goes against the grain, then perhaps our first response should not be, “That’s wrong. I’m not going to do that.” But rather it should be, “Is my view of God faulty? Do I need to re-examine my view of who God really is?”
3. God Uses People to do Great Things
Now the third thing about this episode, is that it shows the greatness of God.
God had compassion, but Jonah didn’t. God wanted the Ninevites the opportunity to repent, but Jonah didn’t want a bar of it.
All indications are that Jonah only did the barest minimum, but God used even that do a remarkable thing. Indeed, the whole city of Nineveh was saved. Jonah may have been reluctant; he certainly appears to have been half-hearted. But even with that God was able to use him to do great things. As a consequence, think about what he can do with our efforts too.
After all, how often have we said, “I’m no good at that,” or “So and so would do a better job”? How often have we been less than enthusiatic about carrying out God’s will? And yet the lesson is, that even with all our limitations, God can do great things.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should deliberately only do the barest minimum. Rather, it should reassure us, that no matter what we think of our inadequacies, even with that he can do great things.
4. The Extent of Compassion
And the fourth thing that we can say about this story, is that it illustrates the extent of God’s compassion. After all, the Assyrians had done some terrible things to the people of Israel.
Jonah may have despaired at the task, let alone the Ninevites response, but God was prepared to reach out even to Israel’s worst enemies. As far as God was concerrned no one was bad enough to be beyond saving, no matter what the attiude of Jonah to his greatest enemy.
And I think that says something about who God really is—a God of compassion, one who is willing to forgive all.
But can we say the same? After all, like Jonah, is there someone that we can’t forgive? Or do we, like God, reach out and offer an olive branch to everyone as well?
Jonah, then, even after all that had done before, remained a reluctant servant. Given a second chance by God—even a slate wiped clean—Jonah did what God asked him and probably no more. His heart wasn’t in it. Even with God’s offer to forget the past, he dragged all of his hatred and prejudices behind him. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved at all.
So when they were saved, he was angry. God had let him down. But then his idea of God probably wasn’t a true picture of who God really was at all.
A sad story? It sure is. But it does raise some serious issues for us. Not least of which is “What kind of God do we believe in? Is he the God as he has revealed himself? Or, is he the God that we have twisted, and manipulated to be a God with which we are far more comfortable?
F. NEXT TIME
Jonah, then, not the typical prophet. But let’s not write Jonah off just yet. Because despite everything, God still didn’t give up on Jonah. Jonah was still God’s prophet, and he had used him to save the sailors and now the Ninevites.
But could he teach Jonah what it really meant to be a man of faith? Well that is the topic for next time.
Posted: 16th October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Book of Jonah, Part 4: Being Single-Minded (Jonah 4:5-11)
1. My World
If I were to ask you about your world, how would you describe it? Would you describe it as something which revolves around you, or something which revolves around others? Is it something about which you like to have total control, or is there some flexibility in the way that things are allowed to evolve?
And when things in your world don’t go your way, how do you react? Do you pout and become sulky, or even become angry? Or do you take it on the chin, try to see if there is any merit in what has happened, and move on?
For me, I think I’m a bit midway. Because it’s always good when things go your way—the way you think they should. On the other hand, I’m realistic enough to know that’s not what’s always going to happen. Indeed, I can accept the idea that I’m not always going to be right, and that sometimes things just won’t go my way. And when they don’t? Then that’s when I need to evaluate whatever it was that had happened—that was different to how I would have liked it to be.
2. Jonah’s World
Now we probably all have our own little worlds to some degree. And when things don’t pan out as we think they should …? Well we probably all have our different ways of coping.
But, as we continue the story of Jonah today, we come face to face with a man who was incapable of coping when things went wrong; he was incapable of adjusting, or even thinking beyond himself. Which is why, when things didn’t go his way, he threw a tantrum. As a consequence, God had to give him an object lesson, to show him how wrong he really was.
B. THE STORY SO FAR
But, first, let’s recall the events in the life of Jonah so far ….
Three weeks ago, we discovered that Jonah was called by God to go to a foreign country and prophesy against it. We noted Jonah’s background, and a number of excuses that he could have given God why he shouldn’t go. And we also discovered his own statement, wanting the Ninevites to be destroyed. Indeed, it was the reason he gave for running away.
But, if Jonah thought he could escape from God, then he was very much mistaken. So, he called on the sailors to toss him overboard to save themselves. Thus, putting his whole life in the hands of God, to either save him, or to let him drown.
Two weeks ago, we discovered that although God rescued him, by providing a big fish, Jonah was not sorry for what he had done. Jonah may have expressed his gratitude to God for saving him, he may have committed himself to worship God when back on dry land, and he may have committed himself to go to Nineveh should he be asked again, but Jonah expressed no remorse for what he had done at all.
And last week, we saw God giving Jonah a second chance to do what he had asked. We then saw Jonah go and do the task, resulting in the Ninevites repenting of their sins and turning to God. But, despite Jonah being offered a clean slate by God, an opportunity to start again, we also saw Jonah dragging all his past hatred and prejudices with him. And he got angry with God; he didn’t understand him. So clearly for Jonah, God was not the God that he wanted him to be at all.
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part Four)
And now, the conclusion to the book of Jonah …
1. Jonah’s Temper Tantrum (4:5)
… Because throughout the story, Jonah had learnt nothing. God had rescued the sailors from their sins, and he had rescued the Ninevites. God had revealed himself to be, not just the God of Jonah or even of Israel, but the God of all creation. And yet, all Jonah could do, was to go out of the city, make himself a shade, and wait to see what would happen to the city.
Now clearly there is a problem with that. Jonah knew that the city had been saved—that’s why he’d got angry. Why, then, did he go out of the city and wait for it to be destroyed? What was it about God and the Ninevites he didn’t understand? He clearly didn’t want to believe God’s decision to save the Ninevites. And just how long did Jonah expect to wait?
Well presumably since God’s message had been that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days, then that was how long Jonah expected to be there. So, it was going to be a bit of a wait. But even Jonah wouldn’t have known for exactly how long. After all, the term “forty” in Hebrew thinking didn’t necessarily mean a literal “forty” days, but rather “a long time.” Nevertheless, we find Jonah sitting there, waiting for the city’s destruction (which in this case was not going to happen.)
2. God’s Object Lesson (4:6-8)
But God hadn’t given up on Jonah even now. He loved Jonah. So, he chose to serve Jonah an object lesson in compassion.
Now the shelter that Jonah had built was clearly inadequate. So God provided a vine to give Jonah some shade. Now Jonah didn’t say, “I don’t deserve it,” he simply accepted it. And indeed, it made Jonah very happy indeed.
What Jonah didn’t understand, however, was that it was an illustration of the compassion that God had for all his creation. Jonah hadn’t deserved God’s compassion, but he had provided the vine anyway. In the same way, the Ninevites hadn’t deserved God’s compassion, but he had rescued them too. God was treating Jonah and the Ninevites exactly the same. What right, then, did Jonah have in accepting God’s compassion for himself, whilst rejecting God’s compassion for the Ninevites?
Then, to illustrate his point further, God provided a worm to eat away at the vine so that the vine withered and died. That then left Jonah with only the inadequate shelter that he had made himself. And with the subsequent scorching east wind, Jonah baked in the sun, to the point that Jonah grew faint and wanted to die. In other words, it was God’s illustration of lack of compassion. The very thing that Jonah had had for the Ninevites. And if Jonah had been consistent, he would have realised that that was the very thing that he deserved.
Now do you think that was a pretty rough thing for God to do? Then you’re probably right. But Jonah needed an object lesson on compassion. He didn’t deserve God’s compassion any more than the Ninevites. But God was consistent. He had compassion on them all. What right then did Jonah have to receive God’s compassion, but want to deny it to the Ninevites?
Jonah was a man of double standards. He was quite happy for God to look out for him. But he wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed. He needed to be taught a lesson. So here was God saying, “See how you feel with your double standards. You don’t deserve my compassion any more than the Ninevites. See what it’s like to not be treated with compassion. Why should I have compassion on you and not them?”
3. The Debate (9-11)
But even with the object lesson, Jonah still didn’t get it right. Because the story ends with a debate between Jonah and God about Jonah’s anger, and God’s heart-felt need to have compassion on the people of Nineveh.
And at that point, the story suddenly stops. There’s no neat ending. There’s no wrap up of events. And there’s no comment about what Jonah did next.
Now over the years there has been a bit of a debate about the ending. Has something been dropped off the end of the story? Was there a chapter five, as some have suggested? But I don’t think so, because the Bible is like that. It tells you what you need to know—it makes it’s point—and then invariably goes no further. It doesn’t always expand on the things that you and I might want to know.
And in this particular case, leaving the relationship between God and Jonah deliberately unresolved, is very pertinent. And why? Because although the story is about one man—Jonah—the story is also about the attitudes that were prevalent in Israel at that time.
Leaving the end hanging as it does, then, serves to be an open challenge to its readers on the topic of God’s compassion. It served as an open-ended challenge to the Israelites after Jonah’s time, and it serves as an open-ended challenge for us too.
So, what is it that we can learn from this short passage today?
1. The Dangers of being Single-minded
Well, the first thing is, the danger of being single minded—of having our worlds revolve around us. Of being so focussed in our own little world, and on who we think that God is, that we give ourselves no room to move.
After all, Jonah got angry and threw a temper tantrum when he didn’t get his own way. He went out of the city, sat down and waited for its destruction, even though he knew that God had already saved it. Indeed, Jonah was so bound up in his own little world, and in his defective view of God, that he just couldn’t accept that he was wrong. And yet he was very wrong.
Of course, Jonah’s problem, was that he had the wrong idea about who God was in the first place. He believed that God was the God of Israel, and that God’s sole purpose was to care for the Israelites. But then Jonah was a prophet of his time; he was a prophet at a time when Israel’s borders were being restored, and a time of Israel’s increasing prosperity. As a consequence, he allowed the political and social situation of the time to colour his thinking. He’d fallen into the trap of making God in his own image.
And that should set alarm bells ringing for us. Because how many people today are so engrossed in their own little worlds—worlds that centre around them? How many of us have a view of the world, and God, coloured by the political and social thinking of our time? How many people have a view of God which is rigid—which is made in their image—and does not match the God of compassion that we have described in the book of Jonah?
There are problems with being single-minded—even for Christians today. And that comes out very clearly in the book of Jonah.
2. Lessons from God
The second thing that this passage teaches, is that God wants us to know him. Indeed, he wants us to be on the same wavelength as him. And, as part of that, he wants to teach us about himself, and about us. And he is not beyond using object lessons when we stray from the faith too.
Of course, in the case of Jonah, God had tried many different approaches. The storm was supposed to bring Jonah back to his senses. So too was the big fish. Even Jonah’s second call was an attempt to bring God’s idea of compassion into his life. But when all that failed, God provided a simple object lesson to show him his inconsistencies and prejudices. He grew a plant to shelter Jonah, and then he took it away.
Now the problem is that even with that simple lesson, Jonah still didn’t pick up on his own double standards. He just didn’t seem to want to be taught. And, sadly, we know that in the history of Israel, readers of this story also had the same problem.
But is learning about God and ourselves a problem for us today too? After all, God still wants to teach us. Indeed, he has even provided a book, people, other helps etc. to help us in the task. But not only that. For just as God engaged himself in the life of Jonah, to try to turn his life around, so he engages with us to teach us too. Indeed he has given us his Holy Spirit to help and guide us. Nevertheless he is not beyond giving us object lessons too.
So how do how we see our world, and our God? What do we need to be taught in order to see him as he really is? What lessons do we need? And what object lessons will God send our way, when we wander from the path?
The story of Jonah shows us that God wants us to be his people. And that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep us on track.
3. God’s Mission
And thirdly, as if we need to be reminded, this story illustrates God’s compassion for all. He wants everyone to be saved. He wants everyone to have a relationship with him.
Setting Israel up as a beacon to the world, where people were attracted to them because of their faith, didn’t work. It should have worked. But Israel, at the time of Jonah, was a nation where God was only God in lip service. They had chosen to go other ways. So, if God’s beacon didn’t work, then he had to find another way. So he sent a messenger, a prophet, to Nineveh. And what was at stake was a hundred and twenty thousand lives—none of whom knew God.
Now it doesn’t take much for the implications of this story to be understood. When this story was told to the people of Israel, it would have been seen as a radical departure from all that had gone before. An indication of the need to change. The people were being asked to rethink who God was, and to be prepared to go out and share the loving compassionate God with those who didn’t know him.
As a consequence, for us, who live in a very similar situation—who live in a country, and a world that doesn’t really know who God is—the implication is for us to do the same.
God wants to embrace all people. He wants us to be like him—compassionate. He wants us to be willing to outreach God’s love to all people. But it’s not something we can do well, if we are so single-minded that we don’t know who God is, or if we are unwilling to respond to the tugs and pulls of God, and refuse to learn from the object lessons that he sends our way.
Jonah, then, was a man of prejudice and double standards. But he was also a man of his time. Yes, in some way he was a man of God, but he wasn’t the man of God that he should have been. Indeed, he really didn’t have much of a grasp of who God was, and he was so single-minded that he wouldn’t be taught—even by God.
What was important to Jonah was himself, his own people, and no one else. He was very nationalistic; his views were coloured by the political and social situation with which he lived. So yes, he was probably the right person to prophecy the restoration of Israel’s borders (2 Kings 14:25-26), but he struggled with the idea of God’s compassion.
But are we any different? How wrapped up in our own little worlds, and how single-minded are we? Indeed, when it comes to showing God’s compassion, how enthusiastic are we in revealing God to the world?
F. SUMMARY OF JONAH
Now for the last four weeks we’ve been looking at the book of Jonah. And, as we’ve discovered, Jonah is a particularly interesting character. He is certainly not what we might consider to be a typical prophet. So much so that we could question whether he was really a prophet at all.
But despite his inadequacies, God was able to use him to deliver his message, and to save the sailors and the Ninevites. There were also times when he did listen to God—times that are not recorded in this book, but which had the welfare of his own people at heart. So, Jonah may not have been the prophet that he should have been, yet God was still able to use him.
And the purpose of the book of Jonah in the Bible? Well it’s probably because it illustrates God as a God of compassion—a God who wants to save everyone. And it does so, by demonstrating the huge gulf between God as he really is, and God as people think him to be. Thus, it provides a challenge for us to see God as he really is.
But one final thing, before we leave Jonah. And that is his name. Because Jonah means “dove.”
Now in the bible, doves are associated with Noah, who released a dove from the Ark to see if the waters had receded (Genesis 8:8); King David wished for the wings of a dove so he could escape—so he could fly away (Psalm 55:6); Solomon called his lover a “dove”—a term of endearment (Song of Songs 5:2). And for us, we use doves as symbols of peace.
But language can be problematic. Indeed, even today the meaning of words change. Because the prophet Hosea, shortly after the time of Jonah, described Israel as a dove. But then he qualified it, as “single-minded and without sense.” (Hosea 7:11a) A description which describes Jonah to a T.
Jonah then, was a man of his time. Someone who was so wrapped up in the politics and culture of his time, that he couldn’t see God as he really was. Indeed, he was so single-minded that even God had trouble breaking through.
But that’s Jonah, what about us? Where do we fit into the scheme of things?
You know, there are great similarities between Australia today and the Israel of Jonah’s time. The dangers of being wrapped up in our own worlds—with our culture, and our limited view of who God is—remains the same. Indeed, even today, we can be so engrossed in our own little worlds, and our own image of God, that even God has a hard-time breaking through.
Even today, many who acknowledge God’s existence, only pay him lip service. Many only see him through the lens of our political and social situations. Most have changed him into something with which they are more comfortable. So, as a nation, we don’t do what God asks. Indeed, we are usually heading in the opposite direction.
So, when a storm hits, or we face disaster, as a nation we don’t respond to God either. We dismiss it as “An act of God,” a bit of bad weather, or simply explain it away. We certainly don’t learn from any encouragements or lessons that God might send our way.
And that is the value of stories like Jonah. Because the book of Jonah provides a challenge to that way of thinking. It asks us to revaluate our view of God, and to take an active part in showing his compassion for all mankind.
So, is our God a God of compassion? Is our God someone who wants everyone to be saved? And, if he is, where do we fit in the picture? How willing are we take our part in telling others about God today?
Posted: 22nd October 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis