Saturday, September 17, 2011
Text: Jonah 3:10-4:11 (NIV)
10 When God saw what the Ninevites did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” 5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” 10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah sits on a hill in Assyria looking down on its capital, Nineveh. Sitting there like an angry child, out of sorts with his parents, he huffs and puffs to himself over the events which have unfolded before him. Jonah has had his wings severely clipped since he took flight from his home in Israel. Jonah’s actions after God had called him to go to Nineveh to preach repentance, proved him to be as flighty as a dove, which is exactly what the name Jonah means in Hebrew. Jonah the dove was startled by God and took flight in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
Anyway, why would God wanted such a ruthless mob of thugs to repent? Surly it would have been better if God had come down and slaughtered the Ninevites. The Assyrian army was know for it cruel barbarianism. Many Israelites had been slaughtered at the hands of the men of Nineveh; some were left to slowly die, impaled on sticks outside of the city, being heckled by the locals as they passed by. Nineveh was a place of sorcery and prostitution, full of deported and displaced people. The city was furnished by their reckless abandonment, death, and the booty they carted from the cities they left burning in their wake.
So when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, no wonder he fled like a bird escaping from its cage. Why should he call them to repentance, when other prophets spoke harsh words to them, pronouncing upon them a seemingly more appropriate judgement? Such as that of Isaiah when God spoke through him saying, “‘Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!’ When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, ‘I will punish the king of Assyria for the wilful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.’” (Isaiah 10:5,12) Or, as is pointed out through the prophet Nahum, “From you, O Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the Lord and counsels wickedness.” (Nahum 1:11) “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses—all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft. “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty.” (Nahum 3:1, 3b-5a) So if God was against them why didn’t he just kill them? Why did he want Jonah to preach repentance to them?
The irony in the account of Jonah is that in Jonah’s decision to flee from God, and his responsibilities as God’s prophet before the Ninevites, Jonah actually became just as disobedient before God as were the people of Assyria and its capital, Nineveh.
We all know the events that preceded Jonah going to Nineveh. God called Jonah, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) But Jonah ran from the Lord, he wanted nothing to do with what his word called him to do. Maybe if Jonah ran away from God his conscience wouldn’t be troubled and the Ninevites wouldn’t hear God’s word and get what was coming to them. So Jonah when down—down to Joppa, down to the boat, down into the hull; and when God shook the boat in the storm Jonah asked the others on the boat to throw him into the sea, down into a hellish place where surely God would not be. But God was there and he caught him with a large fish. God’s compassion for Jonah was so great, that even while Jonah was in flight from God’s presence, God still sought out Jonah and saved him after spending three days in the belly of the fish.
Now having been saved and having preached repentance to the Ninevites, Jonah sits on the hill outside the city. He is angry that God would lead the people of Nineveh to repentance, beginning with the king who hears God’s call through Jonah and calls the whole city to repent, some one hundred and twenty thousand people. But God had done the same thing with Jonah. By pursuing him with the same goodness and mercy right down into the depths of the sea, and calling him to repentance.
The story of Jonah is our story. We like Jonah often work with the assumption that God surely wouldn’t want salvation to go to all those sinners, but the fact is salvation has come to us, we who are sinners too. Even when we turn away from the will of God he patiently pursues us with grace, he is slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love found in his Son Jesus Christ. So if the story of Jonah is ours, who are we in the story, and, how does God come to us?
If we let ourselves be placed in the story as Jonah, we see that we often let ourselves be subject to God’s graciousness and compassion, and are often saved by his patience with us and gracious means given to us as we struggle in this life. Even when all has gone wrong in this life and we sink into a seemingly unsolvable situation – God saves us. We willingly receive the help of God sent to us through his Son Jesus Christ.
However we, like Jonah, become fixated on the trivial things God places in our lives, just like Jonah sitting on the hill under the shade of the plant, thought that it was his good fortune to have that plant grow over him. We like Jonah become disgruntled when that plant is taken away but at the same time are irritated when salvation shades those whom we think don’t deserve it. As if the shade of God’s grace should fall on us and no one else, unless we give God the approval to do so.
So if Jonah requires the same salvation as the Ninevites, then surely we too can be placed in the story as the Ninevites as well as Jonah. We are the ones caught up in the lustful harlotry of life as were the Assyrians. We may not kill, and plunder, as the Ninevites did. But we hate, covert, lust, and assassinate the character of those around us. And every one of us plots evil in opposition to God and his compassion, grace, and love, every time we worry or doubt. And surely if God would come to Nineveh calling them to repentance through the words of Jonah, we too are called to repentance by the gracious actions of God who sent his only Son to die on the cross for us.
However, if justice is to be done to the Word of God written in Jonah, if justice is to be done for the sake of Christ and his gospel action of going to the cross, and if justice and righteousness is to come to us, we must see how God fits into the Jonah story, we must see how God fits into our story.
We have seen ourselves and humanity in the shoes of Jonah and the Ninevites, but until we see Jesus as Jonah we miss what God intends for us. We fail as Jonah, in fact Jonah fails too. Jesus was called to go to the lost Jonahs and Ninivites of this world and he was the only one who obediently did so. He was the only one who went the right direction, which led to the cross. You see God too was angry as Jonah was angry, he was so angry with sin—our sin, the sin of the Ninevites, and Jonah—that he would die. And he did die to overcome the sin of all the wayward Jonahs, Assyrians, and Ninevites of this world on the cross. God’s compassion and graciousness meant that he was quick to anger over our sinful nature but slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for us who suffer from the effects of this same sin in our lives.
Although Jesus, unlike Jonah, followed God’s will completely, Jesus still ended up in the tomb for three days after being crucified on a cross for all to see and mock. He like Jonah went down, down into hell, before being raised by God, just as God had the fish spit Jonah onto dry land. He was not flighty like Jonah, but on him rested the dove of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that rests on us and constantly leads us to Jesus.
God brought Jonah to repentance and saved him. God worked through Jonah to bring repentance to the Ninevites. God has worked through Christ’s death and resurrection to save us. And now like the fish, we too have Jesus Christ, the perfect Jonah, in us. Are we going to keep him hidden inside or are we going to be the agents through whom God’s compassion and steadfast love are made know to all, who like us need forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life? Amen.