November 4, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2016. From our ongoing fall series, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”
The texts are selections from Jonah.
The resources behind my sermon this week were Peter C. Craigie, The Twelve Prophets, Volume 1: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, The Daily Bible Study Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1984), 211-237; Marvin A. Sweeney, The Twelve Prophets, Volume One, Berit Olam, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 301-32. But especially–I can’t say enough good things about this rich, densely-packed commentary from my friend, mentor, and thesis advisor, Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, Hearing the Message of Scripture: A Commentary on the Old Testament, gen. ed. Daniel I. Block (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).
And if you’re interested in reading my cheeky, pretentious work in Jonah from my seminary days, see this series on my blog, in which I serialized a 2008 paper.
For those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below:
An odd book, an odd prophet
Jonah is an incredibly odd book, and Jonah himself is an incredibly odd prophet.
Jonah is one of the Book of the Twelve. Twelve prophets, one scroll. At the popular level, they’re known as the Minor Prophets. Not because their message is only of minor importance. They’re just shorter than other prophetic books, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
What makes Jonah so odd among the prophetic writings is that it’s mostly a story. Other prophetic books mostly contain the words of the prophets, with a few sketchy details here and there to give those words some context. But the book of Jonah is so odd because it tells a story. His only prophetic word in the book is, Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown! And even that word wasn’t very clear, as we shall see.
Jonah himself is an odd prophet because the way things are supposed to work between God and a prophet is that a) the word of the Lord comes to the prophet; and b) the prophet goes and says or does whatever God told him. But with Jonah, here’s what we get:
The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
Nineveh was the first city of Israel’s bitter enemy, Assyria. And God told Jonah to get up and go there. So Jonah got up—so far, so good. To flee to Tarshish from the Lord! Well, now that’s not supposed to happen! How odd!
One of the psalmists asked the question: Where could I go to escape your presence? The question is rhetorical. The answer, of course, is nowhere. The psalmist says God would find them even: If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight! (Ps. 139.7, 9-10) The psalmist knew God well enough to know God would still be there on the far side of the ocean. But Jonah—a prophet of all people!—tried to cross the ocean to get away from God.
But like the psalmist said, even as Jonah fled across the ocean, in the exact opposite direction God commanded him to go, God still didn’t let go of him.
Jonah went forth and sinned boldly
Nineveh lay to the northeast of Israel. We’re not exactly sure where Tarshish was—more than one place went by that moniker back then. But all the possible Tarshishes lay well to the west of Israel. So Jonah wasn’t just being a little rebellious. Martin Luther is reported to have said, Go forth and sin boldly. He didn’t really say that. Not exactly. But that’s exactly what Jonah did. He went forth and sinned boldly by doing the exact opposite thing than what God told him to do.
Jonah’s name meant the dove. And true to his name, Jonah flew the coop.
Jonah hitched a ride on board a ship bound for whichever Tarshish it would take him to. Any Tarshish will do. And he promptly went down, into the belly of the ship, and went right to sleep. Meanwhile, we are told, the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. God hurled the wind like a warrior hurls a spear. The storm was aimed at Jonah, but he was fast asleep. The pagan sailors on board the ship were praying to their gods and tossing cargo overboard to lighten the load.
At some point they noticed their passenger was conspicuously absent. The ship’s officer went and found him sleeping and lit into him: How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.
These pagan sailors were praying, but Jonah the prophet still refused to pray, even when they begged him to.
When the sailors cast lots to see whose fault this storm was, the lot fell on Jonah. But I think, deep down, they already knew who the culprit was. And Jonah sheepishly confessed that he’d angered his God, the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land. Jonah told them to hurl me into the sea—just like God had hurled the storm at the sea—and the storm would calm down. Imagine, that whole time, the only cargo they needed to toss overboard was the runaway prophet sawing logs below deck.
But before they tossed Jonah into the wild, raging sea, they did what he had refused to do: they prayed to his God, YHWH: Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do. And just like Jonah said, as soon as they hurled him overboard, the wind and waves ceased. God saved them. And then something amazing happened. These pagan sailors worshiped YHWH, the God of Israel. They made sacrifices to YHWH, and solemn vows.
Jonah was a prophet of Israel. And in this story, he stands for his people. As an Israelite, he is an heir to the promise God made to his ancestor Abraham: all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you. As an Israelite, he is called by YHWH to be a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Gen. 12.3; Isa. 49.6). Ironically, Jonah was running away from those very callings. And somehow God, who is both faithful and tricky, found a way to make Jonah be a blessing and a light and a vessel of salvation for the nations, in spite of Jonah.
There’s a lesson here, people of God. God’s going to get done what he wants to get done. And he’s going to use us to get it done. Because he’s faithful. The question is, do we want to do it God’s way, or Jonah’s?
Jonah (sort of) repents
God hurled a storm at Jonah’s ship. And the sailors hurled Jonah into the sea. And the storm stopped. But they weren’t placating the wrath of an angry God. Jonah wasn’t a sacrificial victim. It was part of God’s plan to get Jonah back on track—headed back to Nineveh to be a light to the nations. Jonah wasn’t swallowed up by the sea. Instead, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
Later on, when Jesus was looking toward his upcoming death and resurrection, he also looked back to Jonah’s experience: Just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Human One will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matt. 12.40). God used Jonah, who didn’t even want to be a prophet anymore, to foretell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection!
Jonah was drowning in the sea, but God saved him by sending the fish to swallow him. In the fish’s belly, Jonah realizes that he has experienced God’s judgment and God’s mercy. God has been faithful to Jonah even though Jonah was faithless to him. And somehow, in the belly of the beast, Jonah finds the wherewithal to pray a beautiful prayer. Unfortunately, his prayer totally ripped on the pagan sailors who’d tossed him overboard. Jonah says: Those deceived by worthless things—like those pagans praying to their false gods—lose their chance for mercy. But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks. That which I have promised, I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord! What Jonah doesn’t know is that those pagan sailors he’s judging already know that salvation belongs to YHWH, because they know it’s YHWH who saved them. They’ve known God’s mercy, and they’ve made sacrifices and vows to God, too. The pagans have turned to God, but Jonah has turned to self-righteousness. Even in prayer, he’s stuck judging others instead of owning his own sins.
Jonah’s shallow repentance from deep inside the fish’s belly, however, is enough to move God to finish delivering Jonah. God had hurled a storm at Jonah’s ship. The sailors had hurled Jonah into the sea. Now, it’s the great fish’s turn to hurl. Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. And then God recommissions Jonah—still reeking of fish innards. Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.
And so Jonah heads into this strange, wicked city full of people who have no idea who he is, certainly no idea who his God is, and begins to prophesy: Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!
Two things you need to know about this prophecy, because it’s not straightforward. First, forty days means God is giving them ample time to repent. Second, the prophecy could mean either that Nineveh will be overturned—that is, utterly destroyed from the ground up. Or it could also mean that Nineveh will turn itself over—in other words, the wicked city will repent and change her ways.
Ah, I see what you did there, Jonah. Or was it God? Whatever the case, Jonah’s message gives Nineveh a clear choice. They have forty days to repent of their evil, or God’s going to destroy their city. And no matter how they choose, Jonah’s prophecy will come true.
Here’s the lesson, people of God: God gives us freedom to choose, but he’s always faithful to his word. Always.
Nineveh turns over
Well, Nineveh chose to turn itself over in repentance, instead of having God overturn it in judgment. Everyone from the king down to the cattle repents in sackcloth and ashes. They fast—even the animals!—and pray to a God they don’t even know. The king of Nineveh declares: let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control! And the storyteller lets us into the mind of the king: He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.
By the way, the phrase turn from his wrath uses one of the standard Hebrew words for repentance. The king hopes that if everyone repents from their evil and violence, God will repent from letting evil and violence fall on them.
Many people find it odd that even the animals participate in the repentance of Nineveh. From a biblical perspective, this isn’t strange at all. The animals share in salvation, too. We see that with Noah’s flood—God is as concerned with saving animal life as he is with saving humanity. Paul also reveals God’s plan to save all creation—not just human life. Paul says that the whole creation waits breathless … in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children (Rom. 8.19-21). Even the animals suffer the effects of humanity’s fall into sin, and so the animals long with humans for God to redeem and restore all of his good creation. By having the animals join in Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah reinforces a theme of God saving the whole creation that runs through all of scripture.
Jonah’s vague prophecy had left Nineveh with a choice, and they chose to turn themselves around. Away from evil and violence. So God, who is faithful, honored their choice with a choice of his own. God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. Again, this is language of divine repentance. We saw this a few weeks back when we heard the story of Israel worshiping the gold bull calf after the Exodus. God was going to pour out his wrath on them, but Moses interceded for them. Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people (Exod. 32.14). God did the same thing for Nineveh that he’d done for his own people: he changed his mind about destroying them.
That’s something we need to understand about God’s faithfulness. God is responsive to us, to our choices. That’s why 1 John 1.9 speaks of God’s faithfulness this way: if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. God’s faithfulness means that he adapts to the choices we make, whether bad or good. God is faithful because he is willing and able to change his mind.
So far, Jonah has changed his mind about preaching to Nineveh. The Ninevites have changed their minds about the evil they were doing. So God has changed his mind about the evil they would suffer. We expect the story to end there—a nice, clean, happy ending. Everyone repented. They lived happily ever after.
But like I said at the beginning, Jonah is an odd book. Jonah himself is an odd prophet. And so that is not the end of the story.
Jonah’s judgment and God’s mercy
We find Jonah watching Nineveh’s repentance and God’s faithful salvation from a distance. Our storyteller shares that Jonah thought this was utterly wrong—literally, it was evil to him—and he became angry. For Jonah, God’s mercy to Nineveh was morally evil. Jonah prays to God—an angry, complaining prayer—and finally tells why he ran away at first: Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.
Here’s what Jonah was really afraid of: If YHWH spares Nineveh today, tomorrow they’ll be wicked again. And they’ll conquer Israel. So God’s mercy to Nineveh is cruelty to Israel. Jonah, it turns out, was not entirely wrong. Nineveh did eventually return to their evil and violence. And they did much evil and violence to Israel. And God did eventually destroy Nineveh for their evil and violence. You can read all about that in the book of Nahum.
So Jonah throws down a gauntlet: At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live. Jonah is basically telling God: Either destroy them, or destroy me!
But today, our faithful God doesn’t destroy anyone. In fact, he grows a shrub over Jonah to protect his sulking prophet. But the next night he sends a worm to destroy the shrub, and the sun and east wind beat down upon him.
God had been merciful to Jonah by growing the shrub over him, then took that mercy away overnight by sending the worm that destroyed the shrub. Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?, God asks Jonah. Jonah says, yes—he is justifiably angry over the shrub. God’s point: I was merciful to you one day, and turned around the next and snatched back my mercy. And you’re rightly angry about that. So why is it okay for me to be merciful to Nineveh one day, and claw back that mercy the next? That would make God fickle, not faithful.
God continues to reason with Jonah: You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
And that’s how the story ends. No resolution—just God’s question to Jonah hanging in the air. In Exod. 33.19, God had told Moses: I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate. Jonah, God’s prophet, knows this. And so God basically asks him, Am I not allowed to have compassion on whomever I wish?
In our story today God showed faithful mercy to both Nineveh and Jonah. Israel and the nations. That means we should not be surprised when God shows faithful mercy to the church and the world. To me, to you, and the other guy. And by leaving God’s question hanging in the air, our storyteller gives us a choice: Will we choose Jonah’s way? Or God’s?