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You Can Read and Understand Jonah
Jonah 3:10–4:2
Sermon Outline
3. Like ourselves, Jonah goes in the opposite direction when God gives him a job he doesn’t want to do.
Even when Jonah does go to Nineveh, God still has to teach him that he wants everyone to repent and live.
If God can work the “impossibilities” of Jonah’s story, why not believe in Jesus and live.
The Message of Jonah Is about Repentance, Rebirth, and Life as We Hear and Believe the Good News of God’s Grace in Christ.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country?
That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
(Jonah 3:10–4:2)
Whoever said there’s no humor in the Bible hasn’t read Jonah.
As Barney Fife is to deputy sheriffs, so Jonah is to prophets.
Like Barney, Jonah gets himself into impossible situations and has to be rescued.
Like Barney, Jonah is terrified of doing dangerous jobs.
Like Barney, Jonah wants to throw the book at the bad guys even when the boss wants to be lenient.
Jonah is the most reluctant prophet in the Old Testament.
You could say he’s the anti-prophet.
He doesn’t want the job.
He doesn’t want to go where God sends him.
He’d rather die than see lost sinners repent and be spared.
But in spite of Jonah himself, the little Book of Jonah—it’s only forty verses long—is full of truth.
I find the man Jonah to be a lot like ourselves.
When God gives us a tough or scary job to do, we’d rather go in the opposite direction.
Sometimes we might think we’d rather die than do something we know we ought to do but just don’t want to.
Who was Jonah, anyway?
Well, Jonah was a prophet during the time of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah.
He’s mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, in 2 Kings, as prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II, about whom we’ve heard before (2 Ki 14:23–25).
That means it was probably in the early 700s BC.
The biggest, meanest country in Jonah’s part of the world was the Assyrian Empire.
It covered all of Mesopotamia—that’s modern-day Iraq—into eastern Turkey, and then south to the borders of Syria and Israel.
The Assyrians used to boast about their cruelty toward their enemies and conquered people.
Ancient texts describe their atrocities in detail.
They’re hard to read.
Jonah is to proclaim that Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, will be destroyed if the people don’t repent of their cruel and evil ways.
That, presumably, would be the best news God’s people and the other neighboring ancients could hear.
But Nineveh is the last place Jonah wants to go.
It would be like God telling me to go to Pyongyang, North Korea, and preach the Gospel to Kim Jong-un.
I’d rather go anywhere but there.
To avoid the assignment, Jonah gets on a ship at Joppa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast and heads to Tarshish.
No one’s sure where Tarshish is, but it may be on the eastern coast of Spain.
Wherever it is, it’s in the opposite direction from Assyria and Nineveh.
During the trip, a violent storm comes up.
With the ship about to sink, the sailors start praying to their gods.
It becomes clear that someone on board has done something wrong to cause all this, so the sailors cast lots to find out who it is.
The lot falls to Jonah.
He confesses that he’s running away from Yahweh and that the only way to calm the storm and save the ship is for the sailors to throw him overboard.
The sailors don’t want to, but given the danger, they toss Jonah into the sea, the storm ceases, and the frightened sailors offer sacrifices and prayers to Yahweh.
Immediately, a great fish swallows Jonah.
Terrified, Jonah begs God to save him.
In fact, he writes a beautiful psalm, memorializing the occasion.
I think that probably had to happen sometime after this adventure is over when he’s safely back home.
After all, where would he find a pencil and paper inside a fish?
Anyway, God hears the prayer itself, and the fish vomits Jonah out safely onto the shore, whereupon Jonah starts walking to Nineveh.
Everyone who reads Jonah asks if a great fish could really swallow a human being and, if so, could he actually live through the experience (the human being, not the fish)?
The answer is yes!
In June 2021, a lobster diver named Michael Packard was scooped up into the mouth of a feeding humpback whale.
When Packard struggled, the whale spat him out, bruised but alive.
It’s hard to believe, but it happened.
There’s a newspaper article about it online you can read for yourself.
Once Jonah gets to Nineveh, a big city for those days, he begins preaching, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
(Jonah 3:4).
If this were me at Pyongyang, I would probably have gotten just far enough inside the gates to be shot full of machine-gun bullets.
But somehow, Jonah is spared, his message is actually heard, people believe, and, amazingly, they repent with fasting, putting on sackcloth, and sitting in the dust.
Even the king repents and orders everyone to do the same, even the animals!
That’s when the story makes an abrupt change.
The Bible says,
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
(Jonah 3:10)
You’d think Jonah would be delighted with this turn of events.
Mission accomplished!
The wicked city repents!
Thousands of lives are spared!
Jonah’s still alive!
He can go home a hero, having saved Israel from her worst enemy!
But no, Jonah is angry with God.
He heads out east of town, builds a shelter, and waits, hoping that somehow Nineveh will still be destroyed.
But it isn’t.
So he pouts and tells God,
That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
(Jonah 4:2)
This tells us where Jonah’s heart lies.
It’s not in leading sinners to repentance and salvation.
Instead, it’s in seeing them feel the wrath of God and die in their sins.
That’s the only thing that would make Jonah happy.
But that’s not the character of Yahweh.
God is all about giving everybody an opportunity to repent, turn from sin, and be saved.
Jonah would be okay with that as long it applies to him, but not to his worst enemy.
The story wraps up with Yahweh being kind to bitter Jonah.
Yahweh causes a fast-growing vine to spring up and cover Jonah’s shelter, giving him more shade.
But as fast as the vine springs up, it withers, and Jonah is irritated that his shade is gone.
That’s when God gives Jonah a good talking to, intended to help him get his priorities straight.
God says to him:
You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.
And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
(Jonah 4:10–11)
The point is that Jonah’s (and our) self-righteous prejudice and pride don’t matter at all in comparison to the great value God places on human beings and the animals he gives us to survive.
God cherishes all the people he made.
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