Sometimes people make the assumption that this is a Christian country and that people from other religions should keep quiet about what they believe if they want to fit in. However, I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe that the New Testament does not push for the church to have special status in any country. Indeed, I want to belong to a nation that shows generous tolerance to people of many creeds (including tolerance towards evangelical Christians like us). So I recently unfriended someone on Facebook because I felt that something they posted was aimed at stirring up fear of Muslims. I don't believe we need to fear the Muslims in our community (who seem to be generally peaceful citizens), instead I believe we need to fear 'for' Muslims in our community (because there is a great deal of bigotry shown towards them).
Be honest, what groups of people do you struggle to love? Some of us are too proud to face the tribalism that all of us have to battle with. So imagine your son brings home his new girlfriend. Like him she is a Christian, and you can tell that they are really good together, but she is from a traveller family. What do you think? Your new neighbours never cause trouble, they keep their property looking well, but they don't speak English. How do you feel? Do you make as much effort to become friends with the gay man at work as you would try to befriend anyone else? Do you judge people by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character (to quote Martin Luther King)?
The book of Jonah is designed to tackle our prejudices. For Jonah was a bigot. He would have wanted to go to a church that was filled with his sort of people. He would have agreed with you if you said, 'we have enough of '"them" (whatever your them refers to) and we need more of "us".' God calls Jonah to share his love with "them". Jonah's "them" were the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah could have supplied a whole load of reasons why God should not bother with them. Nineveh was a wicked city, belonging to an evil regime that had kept undertakers in Israel busy for years. But God loves them.
Our God is more compassionate than we are (verses 1-3a)
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai ...
This book is not the only time that Jonah is mentioned in the Bible. In 2 Kings 14 Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher, is ministering God’s word to King Jeroboam II of Israel. It’s the eighth century B. C.
King Jeroboam was a very wicked man and his people were unrepentant. Yet Jonah comes to the king with a message of mercy and grace – Israel’s borders will be restored to what they had been during the era of prosperity under Solomon. God shows them favour that they do not deserve. These were Jonah's people and so he has no problem with God showing them undeserved kindness.
Now Jonah is been called to speak to a different people! "Go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” So what does Jonah do? He runs away!
Nineveh was a feared and hated place. Nineveh was responsible for all kinds of atrocities. Jonah is being called to speak against this city. Jonah is to warn them of God's imminent judgement. And Jonah knows that warning people of God's judgement gives them the chance to repent and be forgiven. He knows that God's intentions are actually merciful. In the last chapter he complains, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity." Note that warning people about God's coming judgement is actually an important act of mercy.
Jonah was glad when God showed undeserved kindness to the people he loved, and sad when God showed the same undeserved kindness towards the objects of his bigotry. The scope of God’s mercy was too great for him.
How do you feel about God’s mercy?
One morning in church a special visitor is invited to share their testimony. He tells the congregation of how he used to be a theif. But he was introduced to the gospel when he was in prison. Everyone is delighted. But then you realise why you know his name. He is the man who was convicted for robbing your parents' home. Your dad is still a nervous wreck because of that break in. Your mum no longer sleeps well at night. Is it easy to accept this man as a brother in Christ?
Our God is always in control (verse 3-15)
As well as this being a story of God’s wonderful compassion (compassion in forgiving Nineveh and compassion in persisting with a rebellious bigoted prophet like Jonah) it is also a story about God’s absolute control.
Jonah heads for Tarshish. While Nineveh is in the east (it was in what is now northern Iraq), Tarshish is west. He heads in the opposite direction! God calls Jonah ‘up’ (verse 2 is more literally, 'Arise go to Nineveh...'), he went ‘down’ to Joppa. He sailed to Tarshish, 'to flee from the LORD'.
So the LORD sends a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arises that the ship threatens to break up. All the sailors are afraid and each cries out to his own god. The sailors do what Jonah should have done—they pray. But nothing changes, because their gods don’t exist, they have no power. Jonah who is the cause of this storm does know the one true God who can calm that storm. But where is he? He has gone below deck, where he is in a deep sleep. All around him people are facing death and he is asleep—what a devastating picture of the half-hearted Christian and the sleeping church! We know the way to rescue, but refuse to share it.
The captain goes to him and says, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god!" But does Jonah pray? It doesn’t seem so – he is still running from God.
By this time the sailors are convinced something extra-ordinary lies behind this storm and they are determined to find out what had sent it, and why. So the sailors said to each other, 'Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.' They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. They bombard him with questions, 'Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?'
Jonah answers, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’ There is something very shallow in Jonah’s response. He claims to worship God but he is running from his call! There is so something inauthentic when we claim to be Christians but refuse to obey God and do things like forgive as we have been forgiven and love even our enemies.
Jonah's God is in control of all that is happening. Jonah had sought to flee from his presence but the Lord was at work wherever he went. Who sends the storm? God! Who directs the lots in the story? God! Who will turn up the volume of the storm when the sailors try to get Jonah to land? God! Who will calm the storm when Jonah is thrown overboard? God! Even when we are the ones who have created the mess God remains in control and he is often working in hidden ways.
The sailors' voice their astonishment that anyone who claims to know this God would have the audacity to defy Him. The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, 'What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?'
'Pick me up and throw me into the sea,' he replied, 'and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.'
'Kill me' (surely that is what Jonah expects to happen when he is thrown into the sea). So man rebellious man reluctantly goes to his death so a crowd of men could be saved. There is an imperfect shadow here of Jesus' death. Jesus is neither reluctant or rebellious but willingly goes to his death so that we might escape from the storm of God's judgement.
The sailors had been afraid of the storm (1:5). They were terrified and asked Jonah 'what have you done?' (1:10). Jonah had declared 'I worship (literally "fear") the Lord' (1:9). Now, in verse 16, we read that as the storm grew calm the men 'greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him' (1:16). As we encounter the God of compassion and control our fear of circumstances should give way to the reverent awe and worship ('fear') of God.
Thanks God that the one of absolutely control is the one of infinite compassion. He even ordered events to ensure that his Son would die for the guilt of undeserving people. He made a promise to Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his people. That is what is happening here. Jonah, one of Abraham's people, is used in sharing the love of God with these pagan sailors (and is on his way to pagan Nineveh). This blessing for the nations finds its fulfilment in Jesus who sends us with the good news to all people, and who is gathering to himself a people from every tribe and language group. The compassion of God issues the call to repentance and the control of God guarantees that our mission is not fruitless.
Jonah's prejudices had deeper roots than most of the prejudices we struggle with. They were based on real acts of violence against his people. Nineveh had kept the undertakers in Israel busy for years. And what if God decided to be prejudices against us? The Bible tells us that we have been hostile towards God, the same hostility that pinned his only Son to a cross. Yet Christ died for us while we were still his enemies. He has shown us a kindness that we have done nothing to deserve.
So may we delight at the opportunity that is presented to us in the diversity of people that walk into those building; may we seek to share the good news of Jesus with all different types of people who live and work around us; and may we faithfully warn people of the coming judgement so that they may avail of the forgiveness and life that is offered as a result of the cross and resurrection.