Ever pick up a story in the bible you’ve heard a thousand times over and find it hits you in a brand new way? To me this is one of the most incredible gifts of the word of God, that it is constantly falling a fresh on us, that it never stops teaching and leading us to places of deeper relationship with him.
That’s exactly what happened when I opened the book of Jonah this morning.
Jonah was a prophet. Jonah’s story is unique because it centers on something that happened to Jonah rather than on the message he was bringing to the people of Nineveh. Jonah is a prime example that we can be a child of God, we can even be in ministry to God and find ourselves at odds and fleeing from him. Jonah was a regular human being, capable of fault, selfishness, pride and all the things that make us un God like.
God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh, to call them to repentance. Jonah did not want to go, do you know why?
Jonah’s biggest fear in going to Nineveh was not that he would be in danger (which I simply assumed in my desire to give him the benefit of the doubt), no, Jonah didn’t want to share God’s love with them. Jonah felt they didn’t deserve to be saved because his hatred for them was so strong.
So Jonah ran, he ran to find a port out of town that was far from where God asked him to go. He got on a boat and off he went. I wonder what he thought would happen next? Did he think “that was a close one, glad I found a way out of having to fulfill that job for God. Phew!”
The text goes from Jonah stepping aboard the ship into the very next verse that says “Then the Lord (here comes the response Jonah didn’t think through)… then the Lord sent a a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up” (talk about a vivid word picture).
It says the men of the ship started throwing cargo overboard and crying out to their various gods. And where’s Jonah you ask? Get this.. Jonah is fast asleep in the bottom of the ship. My commentary says this, “Even as he ran from God, Jonah’s actions apparently didn’t bother his conscience. But the absence of guilt isn’t always a measure of whether we are doing something right.”
Did you let that sink in? The absence of guilt isn’t a measure of whether or not what you are doing is right. In other words, you don’t gotta feel guilty to be guilty.
Jonah finally woke up and the crew cast lots to see who was the cause of this storm, and the lot fell on Jonah… surprise. How much you want to bet that as they were casting lots Jonah is standing there awkwardly looking around thinking “I really hope this doesn’t go the way I think it’s about to go.” He knew, he knew God was getting his attention and yet he was going to let this play out as slow as possible in hopes to hold off on the reckoning that was coming his way.
Sound familiar? I often find myself avoiding clear directions from God because I don’t want to face what he’s asking me to do or I put it off as long as possible because I don’t want to have to feel the weight of a poor decision I have made.
The crew asked Jonah “what can we do to you to get this storm to calm down?”, and his reply “pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm. For I have brought this great storm upon you.”
This next part is just, well I just love it because it’s humans doing what we do best and avoiding making the hard decision for what looks like a better and more comfortable one. So the crew tries to row Jonah back to shore.
But, the sea grew even wilder than before. I don’t know what the next notch up from violent storm could be, but let’s assume hurricane level storming is happening now.
So they eventually throw him overboard, against their better judgement and plead to God that they won’t be punished for throwing him into the sea. Little did they know that tossing him overboard was the exact thing God was asking them to do.
I wonder, how often we misinterpret what God wants us to do because it seems too painful or difficult? “No that can’t be from God because God is compassionate and loving and certainly he wouldn’t ask me to do it this way. I bet he wants me to do…”
As soon as he was overboard the raging sea grew calm. At this sight they offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows to him. (Talk about a coming to Jesus story, that one would be a big hit at community group).
And what about our friend Jonah? Well you know what happens next, the word says “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.”
In the past I likely skimmed past this part knowing what was coming but I want to take considerable pause here and let these words wash over you…
“But the Lord PROVIDED a great fish”. I have always thought the fish was the worst part, but I’d like to speak on behalf of Jonah and say that I’m fairly certain drowning in the middle of a raging sea takes the cake here.
How do I know this? Other than the word provided in the text, we know Jonah was fearful of drowning because of the very next words written. Chapter two is titled “Jonah’s Prayer”. From inside the fish Jonah prayed this…
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.”
Jonah was in a position of gratitude with the Lord for saving him from drowning, this wasn’t a new plea for God to spit him out (although I’m sure he still hoped God would). This was a cry of thanksgiving for God already saving him.
A few things that I believe we should note here, we know Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And at the end of this very prayer in verse ten it says “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited (another great word picture) Jonah onto dry land.”
Now it doesn’t specificy but it implies that Jonah prays and then is spit out. I like to think that it took Jonah a few days to get to this awareness of what God had done for him. If it were me it’d be like this:
Day 1 inside stinky belly of crazy big fish… “Am I dreaming? Did I take some drugs I’m unaware of? This cannot be happening to me!” Denial.
Day 2 inside stinky belly of crazy big fish… “God haven’t I been so faithful to you in the past, don’t you think you could show up here and give me that same grace you wanted me to preach to Nineveh. How dare you leave me like this. I don’t know if you really are such a great God after all… okay alright let me go and I’ll never be disobedient again, I promise.” Anger/ Bargaining.
Day 3 inside stinky belly of crazy big fish… with tiny violin playing in the background… “This is it. I am doomed to live in this desolate place for the rest of my life, God has forsaken me, woe is me.” Depression.
Day 4 inside stinky belly of crazy big fish…after a few days of reflection, “In my distress I called to you God and you saved me from that storm I caused. You are a good Father, you are always there and I will vow to make good on what you’ve called me to.” Acceptance.
and then forgiveness,
and then freedom.
Jonah was spat onto dry land and God gave him a second chance to go to Nineveh, and this time Jonah obeyed. And the people of Nineveh repented and Jonah danced the night away in praise of all God had done.
Nope. That is not what happened.
Jonah was pissed that God did what God said he wanted to do if the people repented, he had compassion on them.
And so Jonah was displeased (heaven forbid) and became angry.
Weren’t you just thrown into the sea to die and then swallowed by a stinky crazy big fish and praised and pleaded to God for him to save you? Wasn’t that you a mere one chapter ago Jonah?
And now you’re angry?!
And he mansplains to God, the creator of the universe… “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
LIKE THESE ARE BAD THINGS? No, no, no, no, no these are wonderful things but only saved for those who we deem worthy, likable, and deserving.
Then Jonah says, “O, Lord, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.”
I’m sorry Jonah, are you saying that you want to die because God did the very thing he said he would do? Which by the way was to save an entire city of people from the pits of hell? You want to die because you think only you and your chosen people are worthy of the grace and forgiveness of God? Have you forgotten how unworthy you are? Have you forgotten that God called Israel to be a blessing to the rest of the world? A carrier of his great message!
The God of Israel is the God of the World.
And so Jonah sulked and threw a pity party east of the city and in hopes of a good view of what God would maybe do the city. And God provided a vine over Jonah to provide him shade and comfort and it says Jonah was very happy about the vine. And then at dawn God PROVIDED (there’s that word again) a worm, which chewed the vine and it withered. And then it got very hot, sunny, and well the kind of heat that makes you want to die it’s so hot out, yeah God sent that kind of heat over Jonah. And he wanted to die.
And once again, Jonah was angry.
And God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
” I do,” he said.
And God 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. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Jonah was angry about his vine withering but had no issues with an entire city of people not being saved. His own interests of shade and comfort outweighed the need of salvation of a hundred thousand other people. Woah.
“God is more merciful than we can imagine.”
That’s where the story ends friends, with Jonah being taught yet another lesson on the condition of his heart and his heart towards people unlike him.
There’s about ten different ways I can wrap this up and make it applicable.
But I leave you with this:
Are you running from God? Is he wanting to do something in and through you but you don’t want to do it?
Are you taking on water? Is there someone close to you that you’ve been bringing on your boat wanting to save them from themselves? Is God asking you to surrender them to him? Is He wanting to bring them to a desolate place where only He can save them?
Are you angry? Angry at someone or some people and missing an opportunity to share God’s love, grace and compassion?
Lastly, are you missing out? Are you so inward focused you’re missing out on the calling that we as followers of God have on our life to share the message of salvation and redemption?
Dear Jesus, show us how we are showing up like Jonah in our lives and give us the wisdom and courage to do something about it. You are a good Father. Amen.
Sources: The Book of Jonah, NIV and commentary from Life Application Bible.