Jonah, The Reluctant Prophet audio
Well, it’s a familiar story isn’t it? Jonah is told to go and preach to the people of Nineveh, to warn them of God’s judgement and what does he do? He heads off in the opposite direction, to Tarshish in Spain. But he doesn’t get away with it. God knows where he is! He sends a great storm, so that the ship is foundering, until the sailors discover the truth. Jonah’s running away from the Lord who made the sea and the dry land. So they throw him overboard, the storm stops and a great fish comes and swallows up Jonah, only to spit him out on the shore of Assyria three days later.
But you know, there’s a bit more to this story than just a morality tale of someone who brings bad luck to those he travels with because he’s disobeyed God. Jonah is one of those Old Testament books that point forward so clearly to the gospel and its implications for us as Christians.
You see, Jonah isn’t your everyday prophet. As you’re no doubt aware, prophets were highly esteemed in Judah and Israel. They were the ones that God used to speak to his people. If God had something he wanted to tell the people he’d use one of his prophets to speak to them. That made them very important in the life of the nation. So even when they had things to say that were critical of the behaviour of people, they were allowed to say it; even if the things they said made them unpopular. Why? Because the people wanted to know what God was saying to them; because this was part of their identity as the people of God.
But here was Jonah being given a message, not to the people of Israel or Judah, but to the people of Nineveh. Now Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Assyria was one of the great world powers of the time and an enemy of God’s people. Through the second half of the 8th century BC, Assyria had attacked Israel and Judah until finally they defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and took their people captive.
One of the characteristic methods of Assyrian conquest, as a matter of fact, was that once they’d defeated a country, they’d take the population away and replace them with people from another nation that they’d also conquered. You may be aware that that’s how the Samaritan people came into existence.
Well, you can imagine how that sort of policy was received by those they defeated or who were potential victims. Not only would they lose their fathers and husbands and brothers in the fighting, but then, when it was over they’d be taken away from their homes as slaves and relocated to another country altogether. So Assyrians weren’t very popular in the surrounding nations.
Well, here’s Jonah being told by God to go and tell the people of Nineveh that their wickedness has become known to the Lord and he’s about to judge them. Why is God sending them this message? So they’ll repent before the judgement comes! We’ll discover that next week, when we look at chapters 3 & 4. So you can imagine what Jonah is thinking when he hears this call. The Ninevites being judged is exactly what he’d wish to happen! He doesn’t want them to be warned of it. That’d spoil the surprise. No, give them some more rope so they’ll hang themselves. Don’t warn them of the error of their ways.
Was this some form of racism? It’s very common isn’t it? Even in a multicultural country like Australia where we pride ourselves in our ability to live peacefully with just about every nationality in the world living side by side, we still see regular examples of racism towards indigenous Australians: e.g. footballers being called names from the sideline, against people from Arabic countries: with complaints about women wearing head coverings; we saw the court case last week against those men who beheaded an effigy as a protest against Muslims moving into their community; we see it against people from Asia: with complaints about them buying up real estate for example.
Of course that’s on a less serious scale to some of the examples over the past decades of attempts at what’s politely called ethnic cleansing. Genocide is what it really should be called. Killing people because they don’t belong to the right racial group. We’re seeing it in Myanmar at the moment.
Even here in Australia, dare I say, even among nice people like us racist attitudes seem to be ingrained in people. It’s so easy to fall into it isn’t it? Looking at a particular racial group and thinking in stereotypes. Particularly thinking that they’re in some way inferior to ‘us’, whether morally or intellectually, or culturally, or whatever. Thinking how much better we are because we think in a particular way, or live in a particular way, or because we don’t do certain things that other people do.
I wonder, does that sort of thing happen with the preaching of the gospel? Do we sometimes think, even subconsciously, that certain people don’t deserve to hear the gospel? Or wouldn’t listen to it even if we told them, so why bother? I don’t necessarily mean a racial group. Are there socioeconomic groups that we discriminate against with our preaching of the gospel? Those who are not educated enough to understand what we’re saying? Those who are too educated for us to approach with any sort of confidence? Or perhaps those we think mightn’t have gifts to offer to the work of the church? Do we sometimes think that people with successful careers and busy lifestyles won’t have time to be committed to God. It’s an easy trap to fall into isn’t it?
Well, that’s certainly the trap that Jonah fell into. It doesn’t seem to have taken him long to make his decision either. No sooner has he been given his message, than he hops on the first ship going in the opposite direction. But when God decides to do something, he does it. It’s no use Jonah trying to get away, because God is watching. As Jonah himself says, ‘He’s the God of both the sea and the dry land’. No-one can escape his reach. So Jonah is turned around.
Just as an aside, notice that even in that moment of despair and humiliation Jonah is an agent for the gospel. We’re told “Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” Here’s Jonah, running away because he doesn’t want the Assyrians to repent and on the way he becomes the cause of these sailors turning to God.
Well, God sends a great fish which swallows Jonah and for three days and nights he’s inside the fish, before being spat up on the shore. It’s not a very pleasant way to learn a lesson, is it? What must have been going through his mind as he lay there in the fish’s stomach? What a fool I am! Why didn’t I do what God told me? It wasn’t such a difficult message. I was afraid of the Assyrians, when it was God I should have been worried about! Then we’re told he called out to the Lord in his distress. He repents and reaffirms his vow of service to God, and God hears him and rescues him.
You know, God had to do the same thing with Peter, though in Peter’s case the lesson wasn’t quite as smelly. Do you remember the incident in Acts 10, when Cornelius sends his servants to ask Peter to come and tell them about Jesus? There, God prepares Peter beforehand. He gives him a vision. Do you remember what it was? It was of a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners with all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds on it. And Peter’s told to get up, kill something and eat it. Well, Peter’s a good Jew, so he’d never eat anything that was unclean and he says so. But God says to him, “Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter sees this vision 3 times, just to make sure he hasn’t missed the point. Then Cornelius’ servants arrive and Peter realises that the vision isn’t about food at all, it’s about sharing the message of the gospel with people of other nations.
Now there’s a strong parallel between Jonah and Peter in this instance isn’t there? Just as the Assyrians were the sworn enemies of Israel, so Cornelius was an officer in the Roman army of occupation. So it wasn’t only that Cornelius was a Gentile. He was also the oppressor. Yet Peter was told to go and share the gospel with him, because the gospel is for all the nations. It’s for those who are enemies as well as for our friends.
Well, Jonah provides us with an example of how God wants the gospel to be preached. God doesn’t want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance. The gospel is meant for all people irrespective of race or education or income or gender or employment status or whatever.
Like Jonah, we’ve been given a commission to go and tell people that God has seen the way they live and is not happy with them. Unlike Jonah, though, we have a greater message to proclaim. That is, that God’s judgement has been taken away through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that we can now be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus last words to his disciples were “19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:18-20 NRSV). Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 (2 Cor 5:18-20 NRSV) “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
How are you responding to the call of Christ to preach the gospel to all the world? Are you running in the opposite direction? Are you in hiding, scared to raise your voice in proclamation of the gospel? Or are you acting as one of Christ’s ambassadors, sharing with your friends the incredible good news that God has reconciled us to himself? Next week we’ll see what happens when the gospel is preached boldly and without fear. For now remember that when you speak the words of the gospel, you’re speaking the very words of God, and that his word never returns to him empty but accomplishes that which he purposes.