This was the first in a sermon series on the book of Jonah (a chapter a week), and was helped by Tim Carter’s book Being Sent and also by Chris Meredith’s talk on Jonah at Greenbelt 2015.
Jonah; Reading: Jonah 1
When was the last time that something that you had to do or were asked to do really scare you? I guess most of us have been there at some stage or other. In a job, or as something that your family or friends wanted you to do.
I really don’t like Remembrance-type services where you’re meant to get to a particular part in the service bang on 11am. At one of the churches where I was curate there were two clocks: one that you could see from inside and one that made the bells chime, neither of which were related to each other or to 11 o’clock itself… So, that was always a challenge!
But, most of us at one time or another have probably faced a challenge that we’d really rather have avoided. So, what did you do? Did you do it? Did you try to find some way to get out of it? Some way to give it to someone else to do? Or did you grit your teeth and get on with it?
Well, if you’ve ever gone for any of the other options then you might understand where Jonah was coming from! And that’s before we’ve even started to think about what, actually, God was asking Jonah to do!
Go to Nineveh! Nineveh! One of the 3 greatest cities in the Assyrian Empire at the time! So big it would take 3 days to walk all the way round it. One of the leading cities of the greatest empire at the time, that of the Assyrians. So, if God told you to go to or New York, or Bejing, or Moscow, to call all the people there to repent and to worship the one true God, what would you do? Go? Or book the next flight to the Costa del Sol, Timbuktu, or wherever?
We’re told in chapter 4 that the population of Nineveh was about 120,000. That’s about the same size as Swad and Burton combined. It’s not small even now, and would have felt even more massive a task then.
Jonah is a topsy-turvey sort of book. The characters never do quite what you expect them to do. The only Israelite in it, the only person from God’s chosen people, is the person who comes out the worse, as we’ll see over the next few weeks. He isn’t called a prophet and he doesn’t do many of the standard prophetic type things!
The book of Jonah is also written in larger-than-life ways, almost more like a comic book than anything else. The people are stereotypes, the city of Nineveh is barely described, half the situations are played for laughs, and the only part that is properly described is Jonah’s relationship with God. And that isn’t exactly one without problems, with Jonah running away, complaining, getting angry and so on.
So, for the whole of the first chapter, which is what we’re looking at today, Jonah largely fails to behave like a prophet. He hears God speaking and then promptly does the opposite!
The book starts like a fairly standard book of prophecy. God’s word comes to Jonah the son of Amittai. Which is how the prophet Jonah is described in 2 Kings (14:25) which talks about the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, telling King Jeroboam of Israel that the kingdom of Israel’s borders will be extended. That’s the only time the prophet Jonah is mentioned outside this book.
All of which means that it’s possible that the book of Jonah is a parable: telling a story about a barely remembered prophet. That would explain some of the exaggeration and over the top style, in the same way that Jesus’ parables talk about planks in people’s eyes and trying to hide cities which are built on the top of hills. It’s certainly written like one, whether or not it’s also historical. And, like Jesus’ parables, that doesn’t make the message of Jonah any less true.
The first couple of verses of the chapter are written more or less like a standard book of prophesy. God comes to Jonah, tells him that the wickedness of Nineveh has arisen before him, and tells Jonah to arise and go to Jonah. And so, we’re told, Jonah arises. So, far, so much like a standard book of prophesy. We’re expecting Jonah to arise, to go up to Nineveh, to call people to repent, to turn away from their worship of other gods and to worship God, the one true God, the maker of heaven and earth.
Jonah arises to go. And promptly legs it to Joppa, away from Nineveh. And then Jonah spends the rest of the chapter going down. He goes down to Joppa. He goes down into the ship, then goes down into a deep sleep. He doesn’t go up anywhere until the sailors pick Jonah up and throw him into the sea.
Jonah has taken the fastest way to get as far away as possible from where God was calling him to go. Tarshish was in Spain, about as far away as you could think of going. It’s a bit like how we think of and use Timbuktu. ‘You can go to Timbuktu for all I care’. It’s a place we know exists, but it mainly exists a very long way away from here. Nineveh was about 500 or 600 miles east from Israel. Tarshish was about 2,500 miles west from Israel. Unfortunately, at the moment, more of us know where Nineveh is than we realise. Because, the ruins of Nineveh are part of the city of Mosul in Iraq, currently the frontline of fighting against Daesh.
Jonah does, however, get people worshipping God, but in spite of his actions, rather than because of them. The sailors end their encounter with Jonah by recognising God’s power, worshipping him and make promises to him. These foreign sailors who worshipped foreign gods.
God can work despite us as well as through us, God can work in our weakness as well as our strengths, God can work in ways that we don’t recognise. Which isn’t an excuse for giving up, stopping trying, or doing nothing. But it is a reminder that God is bigger than we are, that God is at work in ways and places that we don’t expect or sometimes even recognise at first. All of which should also be a challenge for us to seek to see where and how God is at work and to get involved.
Our God is a God not just of second chances but of third, fourth, fifth chances and so on.
Another challenge of the book, and of this chapter, is that everyone else behaves a lot better than Jonah. The sailors are more ready to follow God than Jonah. They are also far more ethical than Jonah, going to great lengths to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. Jonah isn’t ready to follow through his own prophesy and jump. He’s still trying to shift responsibility. The sailors try to do to others as they would have done and try as hard as they can to save Jonah, as they see it.
But, when they’ve tried everything else they do what God was wanting them to do. Which I think probably sounds familiar. Do we sometimes try every other course of action and then end up doing what God calls us to do, rather than doing that to start with?
And Jonah is swallowed by a huge fish, provided by God, where he can think about what has happened. And that’s where we’re going to leave Jonah for this week. Thinking about his actions and exactly where they’ve got him. And sometimes we need to spend times reflecting, thinking, praying. Looking back on where we’ve got to and then doing something different.
The challenge of the first chapter of Jonah is to live in ways which are turned towards God and point other people towards God. We are called to live as part of God’s kingdom, to welcome others into God’s kingdom, and to seek God’s power and God’s guidance to help us to do that.
As Jonah shows us, things have a tendency to go wrong if we try and do things by ourselves, in our own strength and out of fear. But Jesus promises us that we can instead be part of God’ family, live and work in the power of God’s love and in the knowledge of the hope that he gives us. Amen.