Scripture: Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11
We’ve all had a point in our lives where we’ve looked at someone, or some situation, or some event, and we’ve said, “They got what they deserved.”
We’ve all said it right? Someone does harm to someone else and they get in trouble for it. And we naturally think, “Yup, they deserved that.”
After all, isn’t justice for everyone what it’s all about?
Now I realize this morning we’re looking at a pretty big story in the Bible. We’ve read 3 of the 4 chapters in the whole book of Jonah. It’s a story we’re familiar with in some way. We all know Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, or a whale.
We might not remember the circumstances around why he ended up in the belly of a big fish, but we remember that part. We’ve all heard it in Sunday School. And we might giggle when we remember that Jonah was literally spit up on the land when he was released from that prison.
But what do we remember about why this happened? And what do we remember about what happens next?
It’s funny when we attribute so much of Jonah’s story to the belly of the big fish. Because we’ve just read through 75% of the story of Jonah, and how many of those verses are about the fish? Just one from what we read this morning. Add two more if you read the chapter we skipped over.
Now we did skip over chapter two, which is Jonah praising God from the belly of the fish and ends with him being spit up on the land. And that’s it for the fish. For some reason we have this great narrative around God saving Jonah from the sea with the fish, which is true, but it’s not what the book of Jonah is ultimately about.
Jonah has been asked to go preach in Nineveh, and he really doesn’t want to. Which leads him to buying a seat on a boat heading in the complete opposite direction from Nineveh.
What does God say to Jonah in the second verse of the book? “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)
God wants Jonah to deliver a message, a very important message to the people there.
One thing you will realize when you read the book of Jonah is that you need to read the it with a sense of humour. You really do. Jonah is a prophet, which means God uses him to deliver messages. Big messages. Important messages.
All through the Old Testament we see these great prophets who intently listen to and obey God’s commands.
What does Jonah do when he gets a command from God? He runs away. There was no hesitation, he got up and fled. He didn’t sit and ponder what he should do. He didn’t seek clarification.
God spoke. Jonah ran the other way.
And as he ran, he got on a boat which ended up a nautical nightmare. The crew was throwing supplies over the side in an effort to find a way to control the boat in a massive storm. They tried rowing to shore, but the wind and waves were too powerful.
Jonah gets up (he was sleeping down below of all things!) and says, “Yes, it’s me, throw me over side and things will be calm again.”
The sailors refuse, they try rowing some more and it doesn’t work. Finally, the offer a quick prayer for mercy and throw Jonah over. At some point you might think, if Jonah truly believes he is the problem, there would be a time when he would just jump over the side himself, wouldn’t he? I mean, if he really cared about the safety of the boat and the crew…
But no, Jonah waits to see if things might work themselves out, that is, until the sailors toss him overboard.
And what happens? The sea becomes calm. The boat is saved! We read what happens next, “Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (Jonah 1:16)
The sailors had conversion experiences, they turned away from their other gods and made a commitment to Jonah’s God. Our God.
As for Jonah, that’s when the big fish comes up and swallows him. Again, we skipped over chapter 2 which is Jonah thanking God for what He has done and for saving him and speaking to him.
Once on dry land, God tells Jonah again, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2)
So, this time, off Jonah goes to this big city that takes 3 days to walk across. And as he’s walking he’s giving possibly the worst sermon ever given, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)
I mean, how effective could this truly be? I suppose we should just be happy he went at all after what we saw in chapter 1.
The funny thing here is, the people listened! This simple little warning, they listened and word began to spread that they needed to do something to avoid being overthrown.
Then word got to the king, and he was willing to do whatever it took to save his city. He took off his royal clothes and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. He then decreed that everyone in the kingdom was to do the same, but also to fast.
The decree said,
“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9)
So everyone fasts and wears sackcloth and ashes. Not just the people, but the livestock too! Can you picture people going out into the fields to dress the cows in sackcloth?
I can picture it now, a couple guys out in the field…
“What are we doing again?”
“The king said…”
“O right, can you hold the tail?”
The people of Nineveh have had conversion experiences. They gave up their gods and chose to follow Jonah’s God. Our God.
What does Jonah do? What would you do? Wouldn’t you celebrate that a whole city has devoted itself to God? Wouldn’t you just be praising God for using you in such a powerful way? Wouldn’t you just be in complete awe about what God can do?
But what does Jonah do?
He sits down and prays to God. He prays,
“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3)
Jonah accuses God.
Jonah is saying, “I knew this would happen. You gave me a message that you were going to destroy the city, and you didn’t do it. And I knew you wouldn’t do it, so I might as well be dead.”
That’s a bit of an unexpected prayer, don’t you think?
A whole city of over 120,000 people come to God and what does Jonah do? He mopes. He wishes he was dead and goes up to sit on a hill to see if God will follow through and destroy Nineveh.
What have we seen in this story?
We have seen Jonah be called by God to be a prophet. And he runs away.
In his running away, a ship full of pagans come to know and fear God, making vows to follow His ways.
Then when Jonah finally makes it to the city, the whole city repents from its sin and converts as well.
And Jonah wishes he were dead. The man who was supposed to be the hero, feels used and defeated.
A pastor was once asked, “How can you believe that story about living in the belly of a whale?”
The pastor’s response was this, “Out of everything that happens in that story, the whale is the most believable thing that happens.”
And it’s true!
The people of Nineveh are known to be evil, violent people. There’s even stories out there of them hunting Judeans down because there was a bounty for their heads. Only their heads.
These people are not going to take lightly a Hebrew preacher wandering their streets speaking of impending doom. So maybe we’re starting to see why Jonah wanted to run away in the very beginning.
He’d like to keep his head on his shoulders.
So then, who are the faithful ones in this story? Is it Jonah? No, it’s the people who hear the message, no matter how poorly delivered it may be. (Gives me hope for when my sermons go sour, I’ll tell you that!)
Even nature is more obedient than Jonah. When Jonah lands in the water, God tells the fish to get him. God also tells the fish when to spit him out.
When Jonah is sitting on the hill in the hot sun, God tells the tree to grow and give him shade, and it grows overnight.
Then God tells the worm to destroy the tree. And it’s destroyed overnight.
Everything in this story is more faithful than Jonah. Yet he is the one who carries the message, reluctantly.
There are a few takeaways we can get this morning from the life of Jonah.
One: God’s word holds power. God gave Jonah a message, one Jonah really didn’t want to give. And it was a simple message. One that, when people try it today, rarely, if ever, works.
Does that even work?
Yet, that is the message God gives Jonah. So if God is in the message, then things are going to happen. When God sends the message, people listen. People change. People come to God.
I spent a couple days this week in Halifax and Moncton travelling with my friends John and Lorraine Baergen from Church Renewal. They came down and invited a few of us in their mentoring program to share our experience after being to Steinbach, MB with other pastors and church leaders in the Maritimes.
We also travelled with a pastor by the name of Dave Overholt. A passionate guy living in Hamilton, ON who has been involved with Church Renewal from very early on. He was there to be our key speaker as we met with pastors in both cities.
The great thing about Church Renewal is that it is teaching people how to hear the voice of God for themselves.
Dave told one story about a grade 9 student in his church. The teenagers in Dave’s church will show up early for events to pray for people as they come in. This grade 9 student was praying for an adult he didn’t know. As he was praying he drew a picture of the man standing at a microphone, and around it were the words “Good job. I’m proud of you.”
What the student didn’t know was that this man is a professional speaker who had been questioning about whether to keep speaking or not. He wasn’t sure what God had in store for him. He got his answer.
The grade 9 student looked at what just happened and said to himself, “Wow, God can use me!”
God speaks to us. God shares with us His love for us and how we can be better followers of His Son, Jesus. God speaks to us so that we can give messages to others. God speaks to us through other people so we can learn and grow.
And God’s word has power. God’s word changes lives. He changed lives 3000 years ago when Jonah walked the earth, and He changes lives today.
The second thing we can takeaway from the story of Jonah is that our God is merciful.
Remember how we like to think sometimes, “they got what they deserved?”
God doesn’t think that way. As much as God loves justice and making things right… it’s His mercy, His grace, His love which always prevails.
It has to, when you think about it. If God demanded justice first and foremost when people turn away from Him, when people do harm to others, when we live in our sin and act in evil ways… if God is a God of justice first, then we all deserve death. We should all be dead, right now.
But that’s not God’s way.
God’s way is to show grace, mercy and love.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a pharisee and a tax collector going to the temple to pray. The pharisee, the religious leader, boasts about his greatness, while the tax collector beats his chest and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Who will God exalt of those two? Of course it’s the humble man seeking grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Tax collectors are terrible sinners in the time of Jesus. They’re well known for overtaxing people for their own benefit. The tax collector Jesus tells us about deserves punishment. He deserves the wrath of God because he is taking advantage of innocent people. He is living sinfully.
But he’s humbly seeking God’s mercy. He’s seeking forgiveness.
And Jesus tells us he will receive it.
Because that’s who God is.
Does God desire justice, you bet He does. God wants the world to be equal, God doesn’t want people to suffer, God wants us to love one another just as much as we love Him.
Now that I’ve said that, it certainly could explain a lot about what’s happening in the world right now, wouldn’t it? Aren’t we, as a society, aren’t we just loving one another as much as we love God right now. Could that not be the problem?
And that’s just one side of the relationship. We need to love God, and love one another as well. Jesus told us this.
Yet, on the other side, God’s love transcends all. It’s because our God is full of grace, mercy and love that we are still here.
His mercy was extended to Nineveh, a pagan land full of unspeakable evil and sin.
His mercy was extended to the sailors on the boat when they threw Jonah, God’s messenger, over the rail.
God’s mercy is extended to you here today as well.
Repent of the sin in your life and come to know God in a whole new, incredible, life changing way.
God’s mercy is for everyone. From the most loving saint, to the greatest evil. And the message is simple. Come to God, turn from your sin, and you will receive His mercy, grace and love.
Let us pray,
As you have spoken to Your reluctant servant Jonah, may You speak to us here today. May we hear Your wonderful voice speak life into our hearts and help us to turn from our sin so that we may all receive Your abundant grace, Your unfailing mercy, and Your unending love in our lives.
And may You bless the people here with us, and this church, and the work that we do.
In the glorious name of Jesus Christ we pray.
Amen and amen.