Jonah 1, Introduction and ‘running from God’
June 14th 2020, first Sunday of trinity.
Jonah 1, also Mark 14:32-42
Prayer before preach, a prayer very suitable as we study the themes of this Book.
Lord, before your eyes, everything is uncovered and laid bare: speak your word – living and active, sharper than any double edged sword; let it penetrate our souls and spirits: Examine our thoughts, and by your Holy Spirit renew the attitudes of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Jonah. A person wrote: It is most unusual, he must be the most successful failure of all the prophets!’’ (Peskett & Ramachandra, ‘ The Message of Mission’, Bible Speaks Today, pg 125). In the Jewish calendar is it read in the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, due to the connections in the book with repentance, especially by the city.
So over the next 5 Sundays, including today, we will be focusing on Jonah. This sermon has two parts: an introduction to the Book as a whole; then we focus upon its opening few verses.
For us, what is the Book of Jonah?
For us, is it about the experience of a man, whom Jesus pointed to – ‘’the sign of Jonah, for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and nights in the heart of the earth.’’ Jonah had a type of resurrection?
Is it about race and nationalism, was Jonah is more concerned for the safety of Israel and wants Assyria to be punished, than caring about a city of 120000 spiritually lost people. Is it about God’s call to mission – for blessing to come to the nations and not blessing only for the covenant people? Is it about the struggle believers have to obey and trust God when he is asking very difficult demanding things of us? Is it, for us, about a man, who was forced to self isolate – in a big fish – and yet in that place learned more about God’s grace and change took place in him? For me, for a long time it was just a Sunday School story about a man and a whale.
Maybe not many preachers – do this, but if you are watching or listening to this ––please stop listening to me, and if you can, I suggest you pause this sermon – and to go get your Bible and read the Book of Jonah at least twice, ideally in two different translations. If you need a suggestion for one, try the Message Translation. You can find it at biblegateway.com Read it through and as you do ask God to speak to you, and be ready to listen. Write down what strikes you as you read it; think about which of the characters or groups you identify with, and why?
If now isn’t the best time, can I suggest you do it later today or during this coming week? It will make the journey through Jonah more fruitful for you.
The Book has a striking rhythm to it.
The first two chapters:
God’s word comes to Jonah, there is a message to be taken, we see his response;
we see the response of the pagan sailors, and their leader, a respons which is better than Jonah;
Jonah cries out in distress to God and God teaches grace to Jonah through the fish.
In chapters 3 & 4,
God’s word comes to Jonah, the message to be taken, the response of Jonah.
Then the response of the pagans, the response of the pagan leader, the response which is better than Jonah;
in the final chapter, Jonah cries out in distress, God teaches grace to Jonah via the plant.
It is a book full of questions – 13 or 14 – and ends with a question from God. Half the Book is direct speech – so it is a book to be heard not just read – so why not use an audio bible and listen to it, or with a friend or loved one, read it out together.
Let’s focus in on those first three verses
The word of the Lord came to Jonah. It is as if we enter midway into the middle of a man’s story – like we all saw Lord of the Rings first, yet the Hobbit comes first. ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh’. Prophets had spoken about the surrounding nations. Elisha had been sent to anoint a new gentile king. But Jonah isn’t to speak of foreign nations, or to foreign nations via a letter, he is to go. This is so rare, and in fact he is sent the capital of Assyria, the superpower of its day. The Book begins with God assigning Jonah a mission – the honour God gives Jonah – the only time an OT prophet is sent to the Gentiles.
Go … preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’’ Nineveh – and the nation Assyria were known for its wickedness. It was not a peaceful nation. It was cruel and violent. The Assyrian Empire was built on military action. When records were written or placed on stone, it often spoke of fields full of bodies cities destroyed. Victims were cruelly killed, children burnt alive, torture. Inscriptions seem to delight in such descriptions. Nineveh was the capital city ‘’ in the time of the world gobbling Assyrian Empire, one of the most cruelest and most rapacious empires of the ancient world.’’ (BST, ibid., pg125).
Go – the object of the command by God. Jonah will bring a warning – why do so, unless God was willing to show mercy if they repent. Jonah knew well God was willing to do this, as we see much later. But why would a good God, a holy God, a just God, give Nineveh any chance? Israel had over past years been forced to make payments to this empire to keep the peace, it had lost land to Assyria. They were threatened and Israel opposed everything this empire was about. As Tim Keller asks: Why on earth would God be helping the enemies of his covenant people?’’ (Keller, The Prodigal Prophet, p.12).
And who does he send? Jonah. The fact there is a book in his name and also it just begins, with no introduction, suggests he was known to the listeners. He was a contemporary of prophets Hosea and Amos. He was from a village in Galilee, just 5 km, NE from the village of Nazareth. He served during the reign of a king of Israel. Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14). He prophesised that land would be taken back from Israel’s enemies by the king. It was. God asks the one, to go, who had prophesied about doom to enemies and the blessing and defence and safety of Israel, to go to their enemies and give them a chance? Keller asks: ‘How could God have asked anyone to betray his country’s interests like this?’’ (Keller, ibid., p.13).
A theologian translates the opening verses:’ ‘God’s word came to Jonah Amittai’s Son. ‘Up on your feet, and on your way to the big city of Nineveh. Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer. But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God.’ (The Message Bible).
Jonah does the opposite of what God asks him to do, he goes in the opposite direction he is asked to go, goes as far away as he can from the place he is meant to go to.
Why disobey God? Practical reasons may have been in his mind. One man to go to the city of the enemies and preach. It is like someone going to a city controlled by ISIS and telling them to stop doing things. Chances of success zero. Chances of death high. If Jonah saw how the people of Israel who knew Yahweh and yet still didn’t usually listen to the prophets or to the God who had committed himself to them, why should Assyria proud of its gods and who had no knowledge of Yahweh listen? Not worth it.
Theological? This is the main reason. Jonah we will see has problems. Jonah knows that the reason God has for sending him to preach judgement, that there is hope, judgement will be cancelled. Jonah doesn’t want judgement on this great oppressor to be cancelled. ‘’He resents God’s compassion towards an enemy people’’ (Stuart, New Bible Commentary, p814).
Was there also theological backing for his view? The Hebrews enter and occupy the Promised Land, one purpose is judgement on the Amorite nation, who were cruel, who killed children and it seems were as bad as the Assyrians. The Amorites had no chance. Why go to the Nineveh? In a canonical order, Jonah follows Obadiah. Obadiah shows God’s toughness. Jonah the book shows God’s desire to show mercy. Jonah wishes his story was like Obadiah’s message.
Why do it? Jonah is not happy with what God is asking him to do? Easy to obey God when we agree… Maybe he could not see any good reason – practical or theological – to do it. Maybe in his head, was the thought – God do you know what you are doing? – some people, maybe you are one of them, have had this thought:
God do you know what you are doing?
Jonah ran away from the Lord. It asks a question. Does God know best or do we ? Our deep instinct can be: God isn’t fully informed. We know how things really are – is our heart. Or we doubt that God is not good, or perhaps not good to us – he has a good perfect pleasing will for others but in this case, not me. Or we believe yes he is good, he is committed to me, but I cannot see how this can be a good will, so can’t be God’s will. We do not trust God’s goodness or his Word.
Think to the Garden of Eden. God’s will is not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Super super clear. Yet Satan plants the lies, and the lies grow in the minds of Adam and Eve. God is lying. You won’t die. In fact he doesn’t have your best intentions. You will be like god. And it was nice to do it, nice to eat. Keller one more time: ‘’Sin always begins with the character assassination of God.’’ (Keller, ibid., p.138).
So, ‘we trust God too little because we trust in our wisdom too much. We think we know far better than God how our lives should go and that will make us happy.’’ (Keller, ibid., p.139).
Jonah did not trust God. He ran. What did God want? For Jonah to be like the great ancestor Abraham. Araham was given a command of no sense – maybe like Jonah felt – for Abraham, kill your son, your only son. No reason is given. God’s promise was to prosper the covenant people. Yet this word would kill it. Yet Abraham goes. To Mt Moriah. He refused to ask if he knew best. Jonah could have followed in Abraham’s footsteps.
The obedience of Abraham. Obedience shown by Jesus. Jonah may have considered to obey God could mean suffering for him as he delivered the message. A call many Christians down through the centuries have heard to go and preach in parts of the world where sudden death or suffering is very possible. The mission Jesus was given meant ‘certain death and unknown to us depths of suffering’. He knew the will of the Father – betrayal, mockery, suffering, the Father to turn his face away. He expresses his preference – in the Garden of Gethesemane, but the will of his Father is different. For the joy set before him, as Hebrews writes, he endured the cross.
When we think of the cross. We need never doubt God’s will. As we walk in suffering or when his will is unclear to us – God is good, if he did all this for me – the cross – he must love me, in fact he loves me the way he loves the son – his plans are good ultimately. If we see Jesus trusting God in the dark in order to save us, we will be able to trust him when things are confusing and difficult that God asks of us.
The Word of the Lord came to Jonah
Go to that city of wickedness
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.
But as we will see, he couldn’t run away from the Lord, for the Lord remained faithful to his plans for Jonah and offer to Nineveh, despite Jonah becoming unfaithful.
Lord what is your word to us this day. Open our ears.
Lord to whom would you send us? Open our eyes.
Lord help us love our enemies. Change our hearts.
Lord, when we hear your word, give us the courage to obey and go, like Abraham and your Son. Amen.