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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

© 2015, Brian A Curtis