Jonah, the Second Chance Prophet
Our series on the prophets continues with the story of Jonah. It’s only a few pages long, and unlike other prophetic books, Jonah didn’t write the book himself. Scholars say that this book was likely developed as a children’s story based on Jonah’s life. Fantastical plants and animals and a definite moral combine to make it a perfect children’s story with a message that rings true for all ages.
The Prophet’s Deliberate Disobedience
The story begins with God commanding Jonah to travel to the vast city, Nineveh, to proclaim God’s message. God communicates the order with three simple verbs. “Arise, go, and tell.” Arise, go, and tell the Ninevites my message.”
Jonah, however, did not want to go. He hated those people who lived in that city, which is not too far away from present-day Baghdad. He didn’t like the way they looked. He didn’t like the way they smelled; he didn’t like the way they worshiped. The prophet remembered what those people did to his people in war, and he held it against them. He’d been taught that the Ninevites were genuinely evil, and they stunk to heaven. “I ain’t going.’ No way, Yahweh. Lord, you want someone to give a message to them? Find another prophet. I despise those people.”
It’s easy to sniff out the hypocrisy. Jonah judges these people for not being religious enough, and his way of demonstrating his judgment is to disobey God.
He hopped on board a ship that headed in the opposite direction of Ninevah. It would be like one of us being called to go to New York, but instead, we hopped on the next plane to China. Jonah headed the exact opposite way of where he was called to go. The Bible says that he was trying to flee, not just from Nineveh; he was trying to flee the presence of the Lord. Maybe you can relate—have you ever thrown up your hands and declared, “I’m out, done, finished with you, Lord.”
You Can’t Escape God
Now, if he had read his Bible, he would have known that was a futile proposition. Prophets should read their Bibles, and there they discover the 139th Psalm:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
He should have known that you can’t escape God. God pursues you. Remember Psalm 23? “Surely, goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Do you want to turn your back on God? Okay, but God keeps coming anyway. God’s going to keep bringing you blessings, opportunities, good people. It’s best if you let them into your life.
Sleeping through the Storm
Jonah hopped on a ship and fled. Then God concocted the perfect storm and hurled it at the ship. The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, and despite their fearless crew, Jonah’s ship seemed all but lost. The crew of the ship fought to keep the boat upright. They threw the cargo overboard, but they were losing the battle. They needed all hands on deck.
In the bowels of the ship, the captain discovers Jonah–asleep. The violent waves are crashing in, the frame is groaning in the swells, the thunder is crashing like cymbals, and Jonah abides cozy and warm, comfortable, and oblivious. What is he doing sleeping? He is more interested in being comfortable than following what God wanted him. Maybe he was depressed; depressed people tend to get tired all the time in part because sleep can be a means of escape from things you would rather not deal with.
The captain says, “Come up here and pray to your God. Maybe your God can do something about this storm.” The ship’s crew cast lots to discern who had made his God so angry that a storm like this would hurl this storm at them. And the lot fell on Jonah, who said, “God is mad at me because I refuse to do what God wants. Tell you what you need to do, throw me overboard, and then the storm will cease.”
Storms Raging around Us
Isn’t that interesting? Do you suppose that it still works that way? Do you suppose that when the people of God are silent when they are supposed to be speaking out as God calls them, that storms come up? I’m not talking about God punishing people by wiping out a town with a tornado or earthquake. Maybe the cold air of human indifference and hatred toward others mixes with the warm atmosphere of God’s love and call to create a better world, and conditions turn nasty.
I look around, and I see raging category five storms. Don’t you?
- There is that great storm of corporate corruption that leaves innocent people in its wake.
- There is that destructive storm of racism that wreaks havoc on so many lives.
- There is the storm of what our culture tells children about how they have to look to be acceptable and loved—some anorexic airbrushed supermodel on the cover of Cosmo or some hateful bully.
- The storm of a nation so bitterly divided we wonder if we can ever find our way.
- We have responses to an out of control pandemic that presents false dichotomies between opening back up and juicing the economy.
Who’s Been Silent When Called to Speak Up?
And what I want to know is who is responsible? Who stayed silent when they should have spoken up? Who is running away from what God is calling you to do? Who is ducking God’s call to be an example, to live a life worthy of your calling?
You can raise your hand. We all did it. It’s a class-action suit. But you notice that when they threw Jonah off, the storm stopped immediately. Maybe if we are faithful after we get out of the hold of the ship this morning, some of the storms in our spheres of influence will begin to calm down, too.
What about the Fish?
I imagine Jonah when he gets thrown off that ship to have a triumphant if ironic look on his face. Aha! You didn’t get me! I didn’t go where you wanted. I didn’t go to those no good, foul-smelling, evil Ninevites. Ha! He was probably gleeful, shaking his fist at God as he sunk toward the bottom of the sea. Then, all of a sudden—gulp–the big old fish.
Now, I know people always get hung up on the fish. But this is theology, not biology. Remember, it’s supposed to read more like a children’s story that has a valid message in it. However, I like the way James Forbes talks about it. He said he used to not even believe in the Bible because it has this fish story. But he said now he believes in the fish. He said he noticed that this is not an ordinary fish, but this was a fish God provided. And if God wanted to manufacture some new kind of fish for a special occasion, then so be it. If God wanted to, God could make a fish that had oxygen and a Lazy-Boy and a microwave with popcorn. God could do it.
Maybe God did give him a Lazy-Boy because Jonah was undoubtedly someone who seemed to prefer his conveniences and comfort to the things God called him to do. He had the ratio all messed up. He thought his comfort was more important than what God wanted from him. But God wanted him to turn that upside down and put God’s will above his comforts and securities.
Protection, Reflection, and a New Direction
At any rate, the function here is to show that the prophet is given a second chance. Moreover, Forbes says, God gives Jonah a chance to have a little time for protection, reflection, and direction.
Jonah gets protection from what he would do to himself and a chance to reflect on what he was trying to do. While in the fish’s belly, Jonah comes face to face with the truth about his beliefs. Think about it. He wanted a life without God. What is God? God is the source of all love and warmth and creativity and beauty and friendship and compassion and forgiveness and grace. Do you want to turn your back on God? You turn your back on all of these things as well. What good is running away from these things of God? Where are you running to? So the fish gave him a new direction and got him going back to Nineveh again.
Jonah comes to his senses and says he cannot stand even the thought of never having these things in his life again. He tells God, “Deliver me! Then I will sacrifice to you and get my ratio back in the right way. So God does what God has done with so many people—God gave him a second chance. Maybe you don’t have to get into the belly of a fish. Perhaps your own home has been a place of your convenience. But know that when you come out of this church, this boat this morning, you have a second chance. If I ever am asked to design a church, I will make a drawing so that it looks like the belly of a fish. Isn’t that what the church is about—protection, reflection, and new direction? And yes, I’ll put lazy-boys in it too for your comfort; popcorn, also.
Jonah’s Horrible, Yet Effective Sermon
The fish spit out old Jonah on dry ground at Nineveh. The word of God came to him again, “Arise, go, and proclaim my message.” This time he did what was asked, but I think he would have flunked preaching class. All he did was walk around, saying, “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Think about that as a sermon. Although it was short, he provided no creative illustrations. No personal examples. Why his sermon didn’t even have any hope in it. “40 days.”
Who knows, maybe the people thought the fact that they had 40 days was good news. Perhaps Jonah’s preaching just built on the preaching of someone else. But you know what happened? His sermon worked. Every time he opened his mouth, people repented, turned away from the evil in their lives, and changed their ways. It says even the cows repented. The cows? If you preach in such a way that it leads to bovine repentance, now that’s preachin’! I lived in Iowa most of my life, never more than a 15-minute drive away from a herd, and I never converted a single cow.
When they changed their ways, the king said, “Who knows, maybe God will be merciful and spare us.” And God had compassion on them and did not destroy them. They turned away from their evil ways and opened their heart to a new way of living
A City of 120,000 Repentant Sinners and One Curmudgeon
There was only one person who did not rejoice, and that was Jonah. He was mad, livid at God.
“What? You mean you aren’t going to destroy them? You make me come here to tell them they are going to be destroyed, and now you aren’t going to follow through? See. This is why I didn’t want to come in the first place. I know you — you are slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. You forgave them. But I haven’t. I still despise them.”
God asked him, “Jonah, is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah did not answer.
God’s Response to Jonah’s Temper Tantrum
Can you believe he pouted because God didn’t give him what he wanted? He built a little booth to make himself comfortable (of course). Then he looked out over the city. And God said, “Ah Jonah, you like to be comfortable. Here, I will grow this great bush to keep your head from getting hot in the desert sun.” This bush sprang up, and Jonah loved its shade.
Then God sent a worm to destroy the root of the bush, and it died supernaturally quickly. Then Jonah was honked off. God, you give me some shade, then take it away? What kind of a sick-o are you anyway?”
Then God brings it home. “Jonah, is it right for you to be angry with me over the demise of this bush?”
Jonah, breathing fire, retorts, “Yes, angry enough to die!”
“You want me to destroy these people you don’t like. One hundred twenty thousand people and animals too. And you are upset about the loss of your comfortable shady spot? Jonah, I am the creator of all things. I love all my creatures and creation. These people you don’t like, I gave a second chance to, just like I did you. Sometimes, my dear Jonah, people can and do change. Don’t fill your heart with hatred. There is still time for you, Jonah. There is still time for you.
An Open-Ended Conclusion
We are never told if Jonah changed or what he did next. But that isn’t important, is it? It isn’t essential if there was a God provided fish or repentant cows or magical plants. What is important is that you see the heart of God through this story.
The heart of God who loves us all, who calls us to service even if it means sacrificing some of our personal conveniences.
What’s important is for us to let go of our prejudices and let faith become an instrument of healing and recognition that all people are created in the image of God and have goodness within them.
Arise, Go, Tell
And ultimately, what’s important is to see that God gives us a second chance and that there is still time for us. It isn’t about what Jonah did with that information. It is about what you will do with it. Now arise, go, and tell all people you encounter–with your words and the way you live your life–that God is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. Will you go? Amen.