Jonah is often thought of as a children’s story complete with a whale. However, the real message of Jonah is an adult one with the opportunity to stretch our understanding of God and salvation. The focus text is God’s second call to Jonah and his less than enthusiastic response. Jonah’s story is a moral tale, much like Aesop’s fables, and is designed to teach us something about ourselves. Some background, however, is necessary for a modern audience to understand the conflict within Jonah’s heart and soul.
God’s instruction in both 1:1 and 3:1 is “to go to Nineveh, the great city.” To an Israelite like Jonah, this would be equivalent to announcing today, “Go to ISIS compound.” Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and held the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost one hundred years. Assyria was more than an enemy; it was a brutal occupying force that forever changed Israel’s fortunes. Jonah is called by God to go and prophesy to the enemy. For us to believe the story, we must look through Jonah’s eyes. We should not stand on the sidelines and judge, but think of how we would feel in the same situation. I cannot imagine a worse position! Jonah is told to go into the enemy city and announce God’s judgment.
We are not told why Jonah runs. Maybe he feared for his life, or perhaps he thought the enemy did not deserve to be offered a chance. Either way, Jonah leaves town on the first boat out. We all know that Jonah ends up in the fish, and it is only here that Jonah finally does something. He calls out to God. Even inside the fish, Jonah does not use his own words to speak to God!
In this Lectionary text, is God’s second command to go to Nineveh. But it appears that Jonah only learned a very small part of his lesson. He goes to Nineveh alright, but gives the wimpiest prophecy ever recorded. Again, instead of condemnation, we need to see the world through Jonah’s eyes. Would we be any more enthusiastic? These folks are mortal enemies and the chance of instant death is great.
The response of the people, like the sailors in chapter 2, overstate the truth. The king declares that everyone and every beast fast and be covered with sackcloth and ashes. Imagine the picture; all the people and all the cows and all the sheep fasting with sackcloth tied to their backs! The image of the enemy is transformed from one of fierce occupier to comic relief. Just as God has transformed their hearts, their appearance is markedly changed. Jonah should be ecstatic; he is the greatest prophet. With a couple of words, he turns a whole nation to God. He should be headed for the evangelism hall of fame.
How willing are we to let God be God? Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah’s story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish. God is forgiving because that is the very heart of God.
The story of this old prophet is much more than a whale tale. Its message is meant for those mature enough to understand the ways of God, and to face the ways we try to lay claim to God and God’s gift of grace. If we do not believe that God would save the most foul of humans, then we do not really believe in God’s power to save our souls. The book of Jonah demands that everyone who hears it contemplate God’s attributes and the meaning and power of salvation.
Tune in Sunday on your Tablet, Phone, Notebook or computer as we break open the Word of God in Jonah 3:1-5,10.
“I don’t know how, but I know WHO!”
Peace, Pastor Nelda
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