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Sermon blog: How NOT to make a prophet

June 3, 2016

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Jonah 1 & 3:1-4:3

This morning we are going to look at an unusual Old Testament story. An unusual story about a most unusual character. I would think that most people here know about Jonah.

Some of us might cast our minds back to some of the stories we were told in Sunday School.

  • Adam & Eve
  • David & Goliath
  • Noah & the ark
  • Samson & Delilah
  • And more than likely Jonah & the whale

A story of a man who ran away from God and got swallowed by a big fish. Unfortunately that is probably all that many people would know about Jonah.

The background to Jonah is not easy. The best Bible scholars are hard pushed to place Jonah in any sort of historical context as there is no apparent cross referencing in the book.

Just one reference appears elsewhere in the Old Testament to Jonah and gives us therefore an approximate placing of these events. There is no reference anywhere else to the repentance of Nineveh which is reported in this book.

Nineveh now lies desolate and its ruins can be found east of the Tigris in modern day Northern Iraq.

Apart from the lack of historical information, there is then the question of the fish/whale/whatever it was. Although not the central character of the story he does tend to get a lot of attention!

Apart from Jonah, the puppet Pinocchio was the only one to experience life inside such a creature. And that of course was a children’s fairy story, so how can we believe such things?

I am not sure we need to get too bogged down with the finer detail here. Are we talking fish or mammal? All have tended to be very good at swallowing bits of people.

In his book “Answers to tough questions about the Christian faith” Josh McDowell records that in the 19th century one James Bartley survived a day and a half in the belly of a whale.  Unfortunately James couldn’t be here this morning to tell us more.

So, is the story of Jonah fact or fiction? Well the strongest argument for the reality of the events is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew 12, Jesus spoke of Jonah in a way that showed that this was no fairy story.

The people were asking Jesus to perform a miracle. To prove that he was from God. He refused to play along. “The only sign you will get from me is the sign of Jonah, the one who was 3 days in the belly of a fish”. Jesus gives the story the highest endorsement.

So what do we know about Jonah?

  • He was a prophet
  • He was the son of Amittai (“son of who?” you might well ask).

Well that brief description is helpful for Jonah son of Amittai is also referred to in 2 Kings 14. King Jeroboam II was an evil king of Israel. However he had listened to a prophet and some positive progress was made. That prophet was Jonah son of Amittai. Jonah was a prophet from Gath Hepher.

So there is our man. In around about the eighth century BC being used by God to speak to a wicked king. Bringing good news to God’s people.

But he wasn’t bringing good news to anyone this time.

This time Jonah’s call was not to his own people. Not to his own wicked king, but to a city which in its day personified everything that was evil. Nineveh was everyone’s worst enemy. So Jonah you would think would be delighted to go and preach against that city.

We are given no detail of what Jonah is to say but from the use of the words “preach against” you can feel that God’s judgement is to be announced.

A man who shows elsewhere he is brave enough to confront an evil king, should be up to the task.

So Jonah is called to speak to his worst enemy. The most wicked city known to man. To preach against them. God knew of their wickedness and it seems their fate is sealed. God has chosen his man for the task.

Think about your prophets of the Old Testament. Elijah springs instantly to mind. Standing up to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, calling down fire to prove that his God is the only true God.

A lesser known prophet Nathan, boldly confronts King David, a murderer and adulterer, pointing the finger “You are the man”.

Just two examples of men of courage who spoke God’s word without holding back, at risk of their own lives. Prophets are God’s spokesmen.

Speaking for God is their job description and their reason for being.

Jonah is the biggest contradiction of them all.

A prophet who refuses to speak.

God called.

He ran.

And he didn’t just run anywhere. He didn’t stay at home. He ran as far as he could imagine. And in what can only be a major misunderstanding of the nature of a God who is everywhere, the writer tells us that Jonah ran away from God.

He set off in the opposite direction. He decided to head off some Mediterranean sun. To Tarshish, part of modern Spain. He tried to invent the Spanish holiday, to get away from it all. A sea cruise would be great.

Jonah seriously did not want to go to Nineveh!

By verse 4 Jonah has left home, got to Joppa, caught a boat and God has sent a great storm. The story is moving along fast. We are not told about any discussion with God. Jonah just had to go.

The storm must have been bad because we are told that even the sailors, the professionals were afraid. We are told that rather than check the manual, they were crying out their gods.

They must have been used to rough seas but this was something worse. Serious storms do tend to have an effect on people.

I remember in the 1970’ s with my family being aboard a broken down catamaran half way between France and Jersey, being tossed by 60 foot waves. Groaning. Stomachs doing summersaults, and an urgent need for paper bags. I was perhaps still young and naïve enough not to be aware quite how serious this was but I suspect people too were thinking about their mortality (a number of participants in the Fastnet boat race died in those waters that day)!

Jonah’s storm was certainly a heavy one judging by the reaction of the sailors so Jonah’s reaction is utterly amazing! He is tucked up in bed asleep!

Extraordinary! What are you doing Jonah? The captain doesn’t understand.

“Get up and pray! Our lives are in danger.”

The sailors meantime are yelling at their gods, they are doing all they can to lighten the boat, by throwing cargo overboard. And the prophet of God is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, by means of drawing lots, the sailors have insight that the cause of their current problem is Jonah. The storm is down to him.

So they want to know, who is this stranger? What does he do for a living? Where is he from?

Jonah’s answer to their questioning is illuminating.

“I am a Hebrew and I worship the God of heaven – he made the land and the sea that has our very lives in the balance”.

Pardon Jonah? You worship the Lord do you?

Let’s just recap:

You are the man called by God to speak and you are running as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

You are asleep, oblivious to the storm that everyone else is struggling with.

You are openly disobedient to your God and no help to these people at all.

But let’s not worry about those little details. You are a worshipper of the Lord for sure.

Jonah was a worshipper of God, but in this story his faith seems to have no outward way of showing itself. Jonah has done nothing to demonstrate his worship.

Well nothing until now that is. He recognises that this is all down to him. It is he who has put the whole crew in danger.

“Throw me overboard”.

Jonah recognises the only way is to sacrifice himself. He can surely have had no idea of God’s coming provision for him personally. To be thrown into this sea could only be one end for Jonah, but he considered this a price that needed to be paid. His life for all the others.

Maybe this shadows part one of the sign of Jonah that Jesus spoke of. One life laid down for many. For Jonah it was a spur of the moment decision in a desperate situation. For Jesus though it was all carefully planned.

The sailors tried other things first but in desperation they did what they were told and the storm immediately ceased.

As they watch all this unfold, we are told that the sailors worship the true God and offer sacrifices to him. It is one thing for someone to come to know God through consistent Christian witness, but quite another thing for someone to become a worshipper of God when the only example they have seen of a God worshipper is Jonah.

The prophet who says nothing, takes a nap (maybe a siesta as he’s on his way to sunny Spain), and does not lift a finger to help. Only God can work in that way!

The sailors were never in the original plan. Jonah should have been off to Nineveh, but God is working even through Jonah’s disobedience.

And then of course God is still working. He provides that fish and an unlikely rescue for Jonah. He hasn’t finished with him yet.

If we read on into chapter 2, we find Jonah praying from inside a large fish. Surely a dark time for the reluctant prophet.

What is surprising about Jonah’s prayer is that there are 2 things he does not say. He worships God for his rescue.

But he does not say sorry.

And he does not say “Get me out of this and I’ll go to Nineveh”.

In spite of his apparent lack of repentance God acts. It seems the storm was so bad that after 3 days, even the fish was feeling sea sick. And Jonah is back on dry land.

Here is part two of Jesus’ ‘sign of Jonah’. Jesus completes his victory after three days in the darkness of the tomb, with the resurrection of Easter morning.

When God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh again, he finds and obedient prophet to preach against that city. It’s a short message he has to bring:

“40 days. That’s all you’ve got. Then you’ll be in ruins”.

No trace of hope in the message. It’s all judgement and doom. There’s no call to repentance. There’s no glimmer of hope.

But the reaction to this message is astonishing. From the people of Nineveh who heard the message, right up to the king who heard about it.

Repentance. Sackcloth. Turning to God.

Even though the message is one of judgement, the king dares to hold out a hope that “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish”.

And the people follow his edict. Situation changed.

What a moment for Jonah. He had brought God’s message and seen God work in power and compassion. He had seen his Lord’s grace and mercy in action. Hallelujah!

Except Jonah is NOT happy. He is not praising God. He is one angry prophet.

Finally we get to fill in the detail of his running away in chapter 1. Why did he not want to speak?

“God, I knew you would do this. That’s why I never wanted to be part of this. It’s so typical of you!”

He lists God’s character, but rather than bringing them in worship each one is an accusation:

  • You’re gracious
  • You’re compassionate
  • You’re slow to anger
  • You’re abounding in love
  • You relent from bringing calamity

There is anger about God’s mercy.

Perhaps too there is anger that he will be discredited as a prophet. What he pronounced to the people of Nineveh has not come true.

Jonah is at the end of his tether.

He wishes he was dead. How on earth did Jonah get to this way of thinking, this conclusion?

So is it going to be a happy ending? We are not told. Jonah rebels and sulks and complains his way to the end of the book. We never get to know how he responds to God’s lesson that he was right to be concerned about this great city.

Nineveh’s destruction is avoided, but in fact only postponed (see Nahum for more details on that).

So what about you and me?

Jonah is the prophet who refuses to speak. As Christians we all have a message to share. We are all called, in different ways to share the good news of Jesus.

When God’s call comes to you, do you obey? When he wants to send you, will you go? Will we readily share what we know of the gracious, compassionate, patient, loving, relenting God?

Or are we, like Jonah, prepared to be a contradiction in terms?

Like Jonah, would you say “I am a worshipper of the Lord”? But if that is so, can people see it? Is worship just something we do on Sunday, but makes no difference to the way we live on Monday? Our worship needs to outwork itself in our living, for all to see.

Are we ever, like Jonah, oblivious to the needs of those around us? Could we even be guilty of sleeping peacefully, and failing to lift a finger to make a difference to the lives of those around us?

Are we even sometimes like Jonah in thinking, well actually that person or those people are so bad, there should be no mercy for them? God should just deal with them.

But the message of Jesus, reminds us that there is no one who is beyond the love of God, whoever they are, whatever they do. God’s love is for the world. All people without exception. That’s why Jesus died and rose again (the ‘sign of Jonah’). The message we bring is not, like Jonah, one solely of gloom, but is a message of hope in a gracious God.

It strikes me from the story of Jonah, that God works often in spite of us and our behaviour and disobedience. Although he may choose to use us, he is sovereign – in ultimate control.

A prophet runs away, sleeps through the storm, gets thrown in the sea, speaks a few words, rants at God, and then sulks to the point of being suicidal. Not much to work with is it? You and I are often not much for God to work with.

But then God is God. A crew of sailors, unwilling players in this drama, come to faith in the living God. A whole city repents of its wickedness and discovers God’ amazing grace.

For all my faults. And for all yours, we have a gracious, compassionate, patient, loving, relenting God who is bigger, who has bigger plans. How much better if we recognise his call on our lives, and his perfect plans?

Let’s be ready to follow where he leads us.

 

 

 

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