The story of Jonah – is it true?
When people ask me that question what they usually want to know is, did it really happen? Did that dude really get swallowed by a fish and then live to tell about it? Whether Jonah falls under the genre of history or allegory is an interesting question to consider, but it’s by no means the most interesting question. More interesting than the question “did it happen” is the question “does it happen?”
The story of Jonah – does it happen? Well, to answer that question, lets go ahead and dive into the story.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)
This is where our story begins. God calls Jonah and Jonah runs away. God sends him to Nineveh but he flees to Tarshish. He finds a ship, buys a one-way ticket, and Jonah runs away from God.
Now, of all the places that Jonah could flee to, why would he go to Tarshish? Well for starters Tarshish is a lot more exciting than Nineveh, which had a reputation for being full of brutish and pathetic pagans. When you hear Nineveh think modern day College Station. But Tarshish on the hand, Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was an adventure. According to 1 Kings, King Solomon sent ships to Tarshish and they came back with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks. That’s right – monkeys and peacocks. Pretty exciting stuff.
Of course there’s more to the story than that. Jonah has a pretty good reason for not wanting to go to Nineveh. Like I said, the people of Nineveh were known for being a bunch of spiritually ignorant and bloodthirsty brutes. And to make matters worse, they attacked, conquered, and at one point even slaughtered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. For you non-math majors, that’s 83% of God’s elect people, which is no small thing. And so Jonah hates the Ninevites, and if Jonah had his way, God would hate the Ninevites, too. And so when Jonah begins to sense that God loves the Ninevites, that He wants to save the Ninevites, and that God wants to use him as part of the plan, Jonah runs away. Or perhaps to be more accurate, he sails away. Jonah wants nothing to do with bringing God’s love to such horrible, nasty people and so he sails away to Tarshish.
Back to the question of the night. Does it happen? Does God ever tell us to do something that we don’t want to do, or to go to a place that we’d rather not go, and when that happens, do we ever get freaked out and run away? Or if we look deep into our souls, do we have a Tarshish that appeals to us more than the presence of God – an adventurous city of gold that seduces us away from the Living God?
We’ll leave that question hanging for a bit …
Well, as the story goes Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish pretty confident that he’s the one in control of his life. Lesson #1 about the book of Jonah – he’s not – because God responds to Jonah’s disobedience by sending a horrible storm. Jonah’s ship begins to sink and everyone on board knows that Jonah is the problem and so the sailors decide to throw him overboard. And just as he’s about to drown, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. For three days and three nights the belly of the fish becomes Jonah’s home. Jonah is trapped, helpless and he has nowhere else to go. He’s trapped. You see there’s not a whole lot one can do to entertain one’s self in the belly of a fish and so Jonah does the only thing he can do. He prays. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prays, and God hears Jonah’s prayer because the fish spits Jonah up near the great city of Nineveh.
Once again, does it happen?
Have we ever been certain that we were in complete control of our lives only to discover that, actually, we weren’t in control at all? Has our journey to Tarshish – the one we mapped out for our self – ever been ruined by a storm? Have we ever been hit by a storm so great that we were brought to our knees – trapped and helpless – with nowhere to go but to God in prayer? That’s the question. Does it happen?
We’ll go ahead and leave that question hanging, too.
I kind of feel bad for Jonah. He’s worked so hard to get to Tarshish, but God thwarts his plans and Jonah finds himself on the outskirts of Nineveh – the one place he did not want to go. And to make matters worse, God asks Jonah a second time to ask the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent. It’s a three-day journey to Nineveh and this time Jonah goes, albeit reluctantly. He pouts the entire time.
Now, if you haven’t figured this out yet, no one ever listens to the prophets in the Old Testament, and it’s not because they’re not persistent. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah – they all preached for like twenty or thirty years and they weren’t all that successful. Only a few people repented. But Jonah – Jonah storms to the center of Nineveh and preaches the shortest and to be honest the worst sermon that’s recorded in our Bible. “In forty days,” Jonah says, “Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s it. That’s all Jonah says. “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s his entire sermon. Jonah says seven words and then he calls it a day.
But here’s what so amazing – it works! Not one person, not one family, but the entire city of Nineveh repents. The king tears his garments and declares a city wide fast. Even the animals are forced to wear burlap sacks and are denied food and water. Make no mistake, this is hard-core repentance, and God, who loves the Ninevites, is pleased – God is pleased that the Ninevites denounce their sinful ways and turn to the truth; and God is even more pleased to show Nineveh His mercy, His forgiveness and His love. God’s free and unmerited grace prevails and because of that, God is pleased.
But do you think Jonah is pleased? He’s not because when Nineveh repents this is essentially what Jonah tells God: “if you’re not going to kill those bloodthirsty brutes, then kill me. Because I’m better off dead.” Now, think about what Jonah is saying to God for a minute. Jonah’s primary concern is that Nineveh be destroyed. Jonah hates the Ninevites. And if Jonah had his way, God would hate the Ninevites too.
Does it happen?
Since we’re a community of Christ-followers, I’d like to assume there’s no one we openly hate. But is there anyone we’d just assume never see again? Conservatives, liberals, immigrants, terrorists, feminists, fundamentalists, consumerists, activists, attorneys, cops, soldiers, hippies, Greeks, non-Greeks, the rich, the poor, the homeless? Is it possible that we’re avoiding a group that God’s calling us to embrace? Do we have any Ninevites of our own? Are we inclined to exclude, isolate, leave out, or push anyone away? Does it happen?
Well, there’s one more scene, and it’s a showdown between God and Jonah. You see when God saves the Ninevites Jonah storms out of the city, he sits down, and then he begins to pout. And apparently it’s a really, really hot day and the heat makes Jonah even angrier. And so God does something nice for Jonah. God makes a bush miraculously grow right above him so that Jonah has shade from the heat. And according to the Bible, this makes Jonah really, really happy. Jonah, of course, doesn’t thank God for the miraculous bush that’s been planted because in Jonah’s mind, it’s the least God could do for not killing the Ninevites. Well, all is well for a while, but then God sends a massive worm, and this massive worm eats the entire bush. Well, this pisses Jonah off and so listen to how the book of Jonah ends.
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Does it happen?
Are we ever concerned with one thing, perhaps even consumed by one thing, only to discover that God is concerned about something far greater? Has God ever done something dramatic to show us that the thing that most concerns us is shallow and unimportant?
Make no mistake Jonah’s primary concern is Jonah. He’s concerned with the bush and not having any shade. He’s concerned about his trip to Tarshish that didn’t work out. He’s concerned with getting revenge on the Ninevites for what they did to his people. But do you know what Jonah’s not concerned with?
Does that ever happen?
You see God’s concern is to save Nineveh and to give Jonah the joy and the privilege of being part of the action. But Jonah, he’s concerned about the heat and pouting like a baby because his trip to Tarshish got cancelled.
Does it happen? Do we ever view life through such a narrow lens that we miss the great concern of God? Does it happen?
It wouldn’t be fitting for me to answer that question. You see, the book of Jonah ends with a question – there is a crucial question that the Book of Jonah just leaves hanging. There is no resolution to the story. Jonah is the only book in the Bible I know of that ends with a question. You see the book ends with Jonah arguing with God, and with God arguing back. The book ends with Jonah asking God, “should I not be concerned about the bush?” and with God responding, “Jonah, wake up! Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”
Now obviously this isn’t the end of their conversation. God asks Jonah a question and God’s questions always demand an answer. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh? Another way of asking the question is this – is My concern not far greater than yours?
Jonah’s answer to God’s question is missing from the story, which of course isn’t a mistake. The writer withholds Jonah’s answer to force us to answer God’s question. Jonah? John? ____? Is my concern not far greater than yours?
You may recall that we began tonight’s talk with a question. The story of Jonah – is it true? And obviously, the answer is yes. Jonah’s story is my story and it’s your story, too. You see the story of Jonah happens. The Living God calls us and pursues us and like Jonah, we run away looking for an idol that’s just a little more exotic. The story of Jonah is the story of fallen humanity. We take control of our own lives – that is, of course, until the storm comes and we find ourselves trapped in the belly of the fish. And when that fish spits us out, we either buy another ticker to Tarshish, or like Jonah, we just sit around and pout. But what we fail to see is the greater purpose, or the greater concern, of God. The whole time God is asking us a question. Jonah? John? ___? Is my concern not far greater than yours?
If we think that God doesn’t want us to be joyful, then we haven’t understood the book of Jonah, or God for that matter. I really believe that our joy is God’s chief concern. I’d go as far as saying that our joy is tied to God’s glory. Our joy gives God glory. But at the same time, God is smart. And God knows that Tarshish will never bring us joy. God didn’t make us to live in Tarshish. He made us to live in His presence. But if God is going to do that, in an odd way, the witness of Jonah is that God has to break us. He has to send the storm. Or at a bare minimum, God must allow it and cannot intervene.
But in my own humble opinion, I think God sends some storms our way. And you know what? I think that the storm is grace. I think that the fish is grace. I think that when God sends the bush its grace and that when God sends the worm its grace. And do you know why? Because I honestly believe that every detail of our life is packed with meaning and purpose, and that little by little, God is working to break us from the petty, shortsighted concerns that govern our lives. And I honestly believe that God does this for a reason – to help us find our purpose in the things that concern God, both for our joy and for His glory.
Now, I’m going to close tonight’s talk by throwing a little curveball. On the one hand, the story of Jonah is true. But on the other hand, the story of Jonah isn’t true at all. You see there was another man that God called to save a group of spiritually ignorant and bloodthirsty brutes, but it wasn’t Nineveh. It was the world. And the man wasn’t Jonah. It was Jesus.
And Jesus had plenty of chances to board that ship to Tarshish, to walk away from the work that God gave him to do. But he never did. Not once. You see when God called Jesus to that place that he just didn’t want to go to – which for Jesus was a cross – he went. And when God told him to spend three days in the belly of the fish – which for him was a tomb – he went. That’s the story of Jesus. It’s a story of complete and total surrender. And as Christians our hope, our faith, is that Jesus’ story most certainly is true, and that because it happened in human history, it’s the only story that matters. And so what that means is that through faith, Jesus’ obedience is our obedience. Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness. Jesus’ story is our story.
The story of Jesus is true.
Is the story of Jonah? We’ll go ahead and just leave that one hanging.