Jonah's story is one of my favorite stories in the bible; not because of the big fish or the debates that it leads to about the historicity of the bible. It's because Jonah is just so easy for me to relate to. He knows what he's supposed to do, and doesn't do it. Not only doesn't do it, he runs away from the life he knew in order to avoid doing God's bidding. I've been tempted....
I want to start by looking at the life Jonah was living at the time of his call. In the book of Jonah we don't get his background, but he was a prophet in the time of second Kings; 800 BC. He had a particular assignment; he prophesied the reestablishment of Israel as a great nation. He could be called a nationalistic preacher and that makes him an unusual choice for God to call to preach to the hated enemy of the nation of Israel, the Ninevites.
So here's this popular preacher bringing good news to his countrymen, and boom! God sends him to hated, evil, cruel Nineveh. Maybe we see a possibility as to why he ran in the other direction.
One thing we don't read here is just how Jonah received that call from God. A dream? A feeling? An angel? God's voice booming the message? And I bring this up because I'm wondering, how do you hear the call of God in your life? We talked about this in Bible Study on Tuesday, how do we know and follow God's will? Here was the list developed from how the disciples made a decision in Acts: The disciples sought to obey, they were enjoying a time of particular unity and fellowship. They were spending time in prayer and in reading the Scriptures. They didn't ignore basic, common sense and perhaps the most important part of finding God's will is this next statement: The disciples wanted to do God’s will. Seeking God's word is critical for us today; God is not going to appear and tell us. I often wish it would happen that way, but on the other hand... maybe not. Jonah certainly wasn't happy to hear God's will for him. The book of Jonah challenges us as to how we will respond when we feel, or just know God's leading.
I'm reminded of a couple examples from my life. One I've shared before so will try to keep it brief. It happened when I first began here as interim pastor. I was working full time and when I went to the Post Office on this particular morning, I told Julie I might be a little late getting home as I was going to stop at the nursing home for a visit. It turned out to be a long day and when I stopped home at noon for lunch I told her I decided not to make the visit. Long story short, I couldn't shake the need to visit so I went and we prayed and I read and she passed away while I was reading her a psalm. So, so close to missing God's call. So, so close to doing exactly what Jonah did, running the other way.
But I'm not always so obedient. This example is much more recent. It was an evening at home, Julie and I were watching TV. I got a call from someone who was struggling with various issues; someone I'd promised to help. In retrospect, I know exactly what was needed. But that evening I did what Jonah did, I ran away. She wanted, perhaps needed a visit, and I just didn't want to. I gave her some advice and said goodnight.
I ran away because I was tired and lazy. Let's look at why Jonah ran away. I've suggested hate and fear of the Ninevites. And that is part of the story. But Jonah actually tells us the full story of why he ran away in chapter 4. “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.” He ran because he felt sure that God was going to show mercy to those hated Ninevites! He didn't want to preach repentance because he was afraid that they would actually repent and God would not wipe them out! Josh Vincent, Senior pastor at Trinity Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona put it this way, “God’s judgment didn’t send Jonah running. The Ninevites’ violence didn’t send Jonah running. God’s mercy toward Jonah’s hated enemies sent Jonah running. Jonah anticipated God’s mercy, and he hated it.”
Now it may be hard for us to relate to this idea; we all want the best for everybody, even our enemies, right? I'd sure like to think so but it doesn't take much time on Facebook to see not everyone feels this way. Jonah didn't want the Ninevites saved. God's will was placed second to Jonah's will; God said go and Jonah said no. There is something to be said for hearing directly from God like Jonah did. And we'd all like to think we would surely go if God sent us.... So why don't we? The rubber really meets the road in our day to day, hour to hour lives live away from church. How do we relate to people who disagree with us on various topics from religion to politics? Are we praying for them? (Maybe that they see things the way we do!) Do we practice responsibly living with them? Show charity, grace, encouragement? Or are we like Jonah; we want to keep those people at least at arms length and preferably farther away. And I'm not trying to tell you that the other side is right and you are wrong; or vice versa. But we need dialogue. Nothing would have changed in Nineveh if Jonah would've made it to Tarshish and hidden out there. We don't have any record of God's plan B.
So what happened to Nineveh? We know that Jonah changed his mind after the experience with the fish. The Results? Stephanie read this, “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” So it worked out! And Jonah celebrated his great work in the name of the Lord, right? In chapter 4 we read his reaction, “Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, 'God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!'”
An interesting exchange. We are free to be angry with God when we have major disappointments. Most of us have been where Jonah was. Sometimes God's grace just is not fair. But that's my view; Jonah's view. But in God's view, grace is always a tremendous success. It saw a great city in repentance, acknowledging the God of Israel, seeking to live better lives! Good news!
Is there a call here for our own repentance? If a great city built on violence, cruelty, blind power can repent and claim God's grace, shouldn't we, as God's beloved people, examine our lives to see where we need to change direction? Can we reflect on the great disparity between the way Jonah responded to God's call and the way the evil Ninevites did? Self-examination is what the story of Jonah means to me. I am like Jonah in so many ways, and yet desire to be better. We all come together on Sunday mornings and our motivations are not all identical. We seek to praise God. We seek to build community. We seek to be the presence of the church here in Litchfield. But every Sunday we pause for a few moments for self-reflection; the Prayer of Confession. Why do we do that? We have been forgiven once for all by the sacrifice of Jesus.... We do it each Sunday because our journeys of faith are not static. Our journeys should be toward an ever more Christ-like life. And so we examine how we are doing, ask for help in changing--repenting--and then praise God for God's grace.
Finally I share this quote from Ryan Maas, “This repentance, of course, isn’t an alarmed reaction to the moralistic 'turn or burn' cry of so-called evangelical preachers; it’s true metanoia, the willing, intentional change of mind—and life—of one, or of a community, convinced that there’s a better way than the path currently being traveled.” May that be our response to Jonah's story, to be intentional in following the better path, the past of Jesus. Amen.
Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love