Imagine you lived in San Francisco and God told you to go to New York, but instead of hopping into your car for a long drive, you jumped onboard a big boat headed for Japan – that is what Jonah did. God told Jonah to rise up and go to Nineveh, a wicked city and enemy to the Jews. Jonah did rise up and he did go, but not to Nineveh as God commanded. Instead Jonah went to Tarshish. He fled in the exact opposite direction. Jonah intentionally ran away from God’s call and presence.
Not only did Jonah clearly head in the opposite direction geographically of where God called him, but the writer describes Jonah’s escape as a descent.
Our NRSV starts verse two by saying, “Go at once…”, but the text actually has God telling Jonah to arise or ascend. But instead of arising, the writer tells us that Jonah descended and went lower. He went down to Joppa, he descended down onto the ship, and finally Jonah went even further down into the inner hold of the ship. Down, down, down. Descending, not arising like God called him to do. God was not pleased.
As the ship struggled against a mighty wind hurled upon her by God, Jonah was once again summoned to rise up, this time by the captain of the ship, in order to pray for the ship’s salvation. Even though Jonah told them shortly afterwards to throw him into the sea in order to calm it down, the crew still tried to row. Reluctantly, the crew finally heeded Jonah’s request and threw him into the sea and the sea calmed, but only when they found that rowing would not work.
Of course we know the story, Jonah was saved from drowning in the sea by the great fish God provided for him. For three days and nights he wallowed around in the fish’s belly. Then Jonah finally decided to pray. After his meager and somewhat questionable prayer from the belly of the fish, Jonah was vomited up onto dry land and once again called to rise up and go to Nineveh. This time, Jonah did what was asked of him. He went to Nineveh, traveled in towards the center of the city and delivered what has been called the most successful sermon ever.
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It’s a sermon seven words long in our translation and only five in Hebrew, but everyone believed God. Immediately, the people of Nineveh started fasting and mourning. When the king heard the message he also declared a fast as well for everyone and every animal! None were not to eat or drink. They were all to be covered in sackcloth and turn from their evil ways in the hopes that God would not overthrow the country. Every preacher would love to have such a response to their sermons, but did Jonah?
For being a prophet, Jonah wasn’t exactly a great model of godliness. In fact, twice in this story pagan act more nobly than Jonah. The captain and his crew did everything they could to do their job and to fulfill their obligations as ship men. These pagan men risked their lives and business to save one man’s life while Jonah ran away. It was the pagan sailors who turned to prayer and recognized the power and authority of God giving God sacrifice and the making vows, not Jonah.
Later, the king of Nineveh and all the people of the city believed the most basic sermon imaginable. The sermon didn’t even mention God or the possibility of God being merciful. In reading Jonah’s words to the people one gets the feeling that he wasn’t really trying to win them over yet the Spirit of God worked and the wicked people of Nineveh believed God and sought repentance.
But it is in chapter 4 where we finally see the fullness of Jonah’s character revealed. When God decided not to punish the people of Nineveh Jonah became angry and declared to God, “This is why I fled to Tarshish. This is why I didn’t want to go to Nineveh; because I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
The snake! A whole city of people – God’s creation – doomed for destruction and Jonah knew they would be given mercy if he went and proclaimed God’s word to them and that is why he didn’t go?! The scoundrel! Here is a man clearly at odds with God Almighty. He stood opposed to what God would have for the people of Nineveh. I think it is fair to say, Jonah was an enemy of God.
Jonah isn’t alone though. Humanity stands opposed to God. Jonah is a good representation of us. Daily we offer many offenses against the LORD and against our neighbors and the rest of creation. We are like Jonah. We are selfish people who think only of ourselves and of the things that benefit us. We are scoundrels and snakes – enemies of God selfishly seeking our own good to the detriment of others.
Jonah fled because he knew God’s character. He did not want God’s graciousness and mercy to reach the people of Nineveh. But it happened anyway. God had a plan and for some reason it involved Jonah and there was nothing that was going to be able to stop the mercy of God from being unleashed upon the repentant people of Nineveh.
Throughout the story of Jonah we were given insight into Jonah’s character and really our character as well. But throughout the story we are also able to see the character of God played out in his determination. God had a purpose in mind – to bring the people of Nineveh to repentance.
At the very end of the story, God asked Jonah, “should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” The answer? Of course God should be concerned. The Ninevites were his children just as much as Jonah was.
God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. His desire is not to punish, but to give life and he would not let Jonah thwart his plan nor prevent his character from showing itself upon the people of Nineveh. Nor would he allow us to destroy ourselves completely.
When Jonah fled, it was God who hurled the great wind upon the sea causing the storm to crash against the ship. But did you notice the boat didn’t sink? Did you also notice that God didn’t request that Jonah be thrown overboard? I suspect that Jonah could have just turned around. Going overboard was simply Jonah’s last ditch effort toward escaping God’s will. And even then God would not be deterred from God’s desire to show mercy.
It was God who appointed the great fish to swallow up Jonah and, reading between the lines a bit, slowed its digestive process down and made the belly of a fish into livable quarters – the true miracle of the story. Three days later, God spoke again to the fish and by the power of God’s word it vomited Jonah up onto dry land. It was the LORD who gave power to Jonah’s feeble sermon and the Holy Spirit who wrought conviction and repentance in the Ninevites.
Time and time again, God showed himself to be the active agent of compassion and mercy in this story. The people of Nineveh were ripe and God was ready to relent from punishing them. A little twerp like Jonah was not going to stand in the way.
God’s mercy was and is unrelenting and God did what needed to be done to bring deliverance to the people of Nineveh just as God did what needed to be done to bring salvation to the world years later through Jesus Christ.
In Christ, God looked upon the world and saw his creation groaning under the weight of its sin and rebellion against its Creator and did something about it. In Jesus Christ, God came down and dwelt among us – rebels and criminals all – and willingly chose to die. Seeing that we couldn’t be anything other than enemies of God, he did this for us – for you. Nothing could deter Christ from his mission because Christ defines God’s grace and mercy.
Just as Jonah’s journey was described as a descent, the Gospel of Luke describes Christ’s life as a journey toward the Golgotha where he would be lifted up and ascend upon the cross. Christ’s death on the cross is how God shows us that he abounds in steadfast love, is extremely slow to anger and does not desire to punish. Rather, God’s desire is to give life.
As children of God, we can place ourselves in multiple characters in this story. In our sinful nature we are Jonah, enemy of God. But thankfully we sinners are can also be found in the Ninevites for whom nothing could stop God’s grace and mercy from reaching.
We are also new creations and in a way we are a new Jonahs. As new creations made righteous through the blood of Christ, God calls us to be ambassadors and representatives of Christ. In this calling we are blessed with the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Through Christ no longer are we enemies of God, rather we are friends of God.
In Christ, God looks upon you and says, “I love you. You are mine and I rend heaven and earth for you. You are my child because my mercy and grace could not be held back. I give you a new heart and make you a new creation.”