Message ‘God’s Message for Jonah (and Us!)’ Rev. Peter Mantell
PRAYER: Holy and loving God, throughout all time, you have turned to us and called us to turn toward you. And yet, we keep turning away. We thank you for your patience – a patience we certainly must be wearing thin… and yet, you still call out to us; you still desire relationship with us. Thank you, O God. Thank you. Strengthen your people gathered here that we may respond in faith to your calling. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
I love the story of Jonah! I really do. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it; even if you have read it, you should probably read it again. It’s a beautiful and fun story to read and be reminded of God’s perseverance. But at the risk of disappointing you, I should probably tell you that most legitimate scholars would tell you that the book of Jonah is a work of fiction. It’s widely considered to be satire, which means that there may very well have been a prophet named Jonah who tried to run away from his calling, but the over-the-top exaggeration of the story is just that… an exaggeration that makes a larger and more symbolic point. Let’s not get ourselves caught up in fantastic details that – quite frankly – don’t make sense. Instead, let’s focus on the lessons we can learn from Jonah.
Jonah starts out with him hearing a calling from God to go to Ninevah. The problem is that Jonah doesn’t want to go to Ninevah, so he goes in the opposite direction. He books passage on a ship and he tries to run away.
The ship he’s on gets hit with a huge storm and the sailors are trying to figure out why God is angry with them, and Jonah admits to them that it’s probably his fault and they should throw him overboard… so they do.
And that’s when Jonah finds himself spending three days in this weird AirBnB called The Whale Inn! Suffice it to say that the accommodations were not to his liking and after he complained to the management, they threw him up… I mean out.
And that’s where the story picks up today. Jonah finally arrives at the place he’d been avoiding all this time and he begins to deliver the message that God told him to say. To say that Jonah is unenthusiastic about this task would be an understatement. Jonah absolutely does NOT want to be there. Jonah would love for the Ninevites to disappear off the face of the earth. But he’s there and he’s gritting his teeth and doing the absolute bare minimum to get the message across. Jonah does not like Ninevah.
When Anna and I moved to Florida in the late 80s, I started a new job at a local bank. On my very first day, my new boss Tom, who could only be described as a “good ol’ boy” took me out to lunch for us to get to know each other a little bit. Tom was a graduate of the University of Florida. I knew this because he had University of Florida on his bumper sticker, his University of Florida diploma was hanging in his office, and he had a University of Florida coffee mug. Growing up in New Jersey in the 70s and 80s, college football was not a thing. It was big in other areas of the country, but at that time, New Jersey had very little interest in it. So, when I was out to lunch with my new boss on my very first day of work, I asked him, “Soooooo… University of Florida… what is that? Seminoles?” There almost wasn’t a second day.
I didn’t know. College rivalries were completely foreign to me… they still are. None of the schools I went to ever really had big sports rivalries, but based on the way Tom reacted, you would’ve thought I’d poisoned his dog.
While I’m still not very interested in college rivalries or college sports for that matter, I certainly do understand how rivalries work. In a perfect world, you always want your team to win and your most bitter rivalry to not just lose, but lose badly – to be utterly humiliated on the field. That’s what Jonah wanted for Ninevah. When God told Jonah to go to Ninevah to save them, Jonah undoubtedly thought that this was his big chance to get rid of this rival that he hated. He was going to get as far away from Ninevah as possible so that God will have no choice but to destroy them because they can’t get saved if they don’t hear the message.
After everything he went through to get to Ninevah, Jonah finally delivers the message, but he does so in the most half-hearted way possible. He grits his teeth, clenches his fist and tells the Ninevites, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In our English translation, this is only 8 words. 8. But Jonah didn’t speak English; he spoke Hebrew. In Hebrew, this was only 5 words. 5 Words!!
Jonah delivers this 5 word message and then the unthinkable happens: They listen to him! The whole country – from the king on down, everybody repented and Jonah was furious. He sulked and whined because this was exactly what he was afraid of. He bitterly prays to God, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
You could make the argument that Jonah was the most successful evangelist in history. He literally got an entire country to repent from their sins. And like he said when he prayed, he knew that God was going to forgive the Ninevites; that’s why he ran away to begin with. I think Jonah hit on the truth when he realized that God was ALWAYS going to forgive the Ninevites. That’s why God sent Jonah in the first place, because God wanted to forgive them. It says in the first chapter, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” God wanted to give them a chance. God was already willing to spare Ninevah.
In truth, I actually don’t think God was ever really going to destroy Ninevah. In fact, I think there’s a very good reason why this story is called Jonah and not Ninevah. God was not necessarily looking for Ninevah’s repentance, God was looking for Jonah’s. From the beginning of the story, Jonah was the one who needed to turn – literally and figuratively toward God. When presented with the opportunity to share grace, Jonah turned away. Even when he finally agreed to go to Ninevah, he did so reluctantly. He did the absolute bare minimum through gritted teeth to do what God asked him to do.
This story isn’t about Ninevah’s need for repentance. It’s about Jonah’s. From the beginning, Jonah needed to see the Ninevites through a lens of grace; he wouldn’t do it. From the beginning, God was telling Jonah to be a blessing to those whom he hated the most. He would not do it.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that – in some regards – we all have our own version of Ninevah. I mentioned my old boss’ reaction when I confused his Florida Gators with the Seminoles. It’s easy to use sports teams to illustrate Jonah’s feelings for Ninevah. Honestly, while I couldn’t care less about the Seminoles or the Gators, but I do have my own sports rivalries that I get sucked into. But sports rivalries are for entertainment. At the end of the day, whether my team wins, or their greatest rival does, that doesn’t change anything in my life. God’s calling upon us to view our version of Ninevah through a lens of grace goes much deeper than sports. Much deeper!
Growing up, there was a kid in my grade named Tom. Tom was a bully. He made me miserable; he made most of my friends miserable; and he always seemed to get away with everything. Suffice it to say that we’ve never exchanged Christmas cards. About 12 years ago, I went to my 30-year high school reunion, and Tom was there. When I saw him come into the room, I worked my way to the other side of the room to avoid him. Not because after all these years I’m still afraid of him, but because after all these years, why would I want to even acknowledge him. I had nothing to say to him in our school days; I had nothing to say to him at the reunion. And I will tell you that as I saw him there that night 12 years ago, I still had plenty of contempt for him.
Four years ago in January 2020, I heard that he died very suddenly. I am keenly aware that God’s grace has been given to me and I didn’t deserve it any more than the Ninevites did, or that old schoolyard bully did. If I had felt a calling by God to go embrace my old bully and help him to repent, my reaction would have been no different than Jonah’s. I did not want to see this person receive grace. I did not want this person to be blessed. But the truth is that God’s grace is for everyone… even me. I am no more deserving of God’s grace than Tom, or the Ninevites, or Jonah. And yet, God has made grace available to us all.
Who are your Ninevites that you would prefer to see cast off the face of the earth than to receive grace? Maybe for you it isn’t a schoolyard bully; maybe it’s someone that hurt your family. Maybe it’s someone that caused pain and suffering of a loved one, or managed to crush your dreams. Maybe it’s someone who, like Tom, has already passed away and you’ll never have the chance to offer them repentance.
I am more and more convinced that the story of Jonah has nothing to do with the Ninevites repenting, it’s about Jonah’s need for repentance. Jonah who ran away rather than offer grace to his enemies, Jonah who practically spit out his message to the Ninevites in protest, Jonah who sat and sulked in anger at God after his message was actually heard. We can all be Jonah at some point in our lives, stubborn, angry. It’s ingrained into our lives, whether we’re talking about something as petty as a sports rivalry or something more consequential like our political leaders.
You know, you can go back to the beginning of this country and you read some of the campaign literature that politicians put out and the language is not as different as you might think. The same name calling, the same accusations. In the 1804 election, Thomas Jefferson called John Adams effeminate and Adams accused Jefferson of being an atheist and of conspiring to create a Bonaparte dictatorship in America. Contextually, the language between politicians was no different than it is today. What IS different today is that in addition to the language of accusations, now we’re being told that if you’re on this side, you have to hate everyone on the other side, and vice versa.
It’s easy for us to be Jonah and dig our heals in. Jonah ultimately did what God told him to do, but he did not do so willingly. He did not offer grace. How do we offer grace? How do we put our feelings and bitterness toward Ninevah – whoever that Ninevah is for us – behind us and offer grace? Offer compassion and kindness? I want to encourage you to prayerfully remember those Ninevites in your life. You don’t have to go seek out those people that have caused you hurt – unless you really believe that God is telling you to do so. But remember that in spite of everything, God still used Jonah for God’s glory, and God can and will use you and I in the same way. I said at the beginning that I love the story of Jonah. I find it comforting that no matter what fool thing I do, God still has a plan for me. No matter what, God still has a plan for all of us.
To God be the glory.