This is part of a sermon series on the Sign of Jonah
Text: Jonah 3:1-4
Typically, I do not like to start my sermons with a joke, but one of our parishioners told me this last week and it made me think of Jonah. A burglar breaks into a house when no one is home and heads to the bedroom to find the woman’s jewelry box. As he rummages through the box, he hears a voice behind him say, “Jesus is gonna get you.” At first, he thought this was a voice in his head, his conscience getting in the way again! But no, he heard it a second time. “Jesus is gonna get you.” He took out his little flashlight and cautiously scanned the room with its light. Finally, he discovered the source of the voice. A large parrot sat in the corner and said, “Jesus is gonna get you.” The burglar chuckled to himself, left the room and headed down the hall to look for more valuables to take. As he placed his hand on the knob he heard the voice again, “Jesus is gonna get you.” He rolled his eyes and opened the door. At that very moment he came face to face with a large, angry Doberman. Just then the parrot said, “Sic ‘em Jesus!”
This is a little like Jonah’s sermon. God is gonna get you!
Jonah was a short preacher. This is a joke I have often made of myself—speaking both to the typical length of my sermons, which is never very long, and my stature. Now we may not know Jonah’s height, but we do know his sermon. It is the shortest sermon in the bible. “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overturned!” Other prophets make long speeches, some eloquent, some not, some tedious, some hopeful and some so scathing it makes your ears burn. But Jonah is short and to the point.
It has taken a bit to get here with Jonah hasn’t it? This all started when God called Jonah to go to the Ninevites and tell them that they were so corrupt, so out of control, that God could no longer just turn a blind eye to them. However, Jonah ran away from God. Or at least, he tried to run away from God. But God is persistent and he hounded Jonah across the seas with a great storm. The other men in the boat, after trying to pray to every god known to man and after Jonah didn’t bother to pray to his God, (even though, by the way, he knew it was his God who was sending the storm) they reluctantly threw him overboard to stop the storm. Yet God, being gracious and merciful, did not punish Jonah by letting him drown.
Nope, instead he sent a great fish to swallow him up.
For three long days and nights Jonah was in that fish and he prayed his long psalm like prayer to God. Even though, as we discovered last week, this prayer was not nearly as pious and faithful as it seems on the surface because it was really all about him. In fact, that is the hard truth of Jonah. It is all about him. And still, for some reason, God shows him mercy and instructs the big fish to vomit him out onto the shore. He is saved. Brought back from the dead.
We’ve answered some questions we started with but here’s a big one for which we still don’t have an answer: what is the real reason why Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh?
What is this Nineveh place anyway? Well the first mention of it is in Genesis where it states that Nineveh was a great city of Assyria which is the general area we now call Iraq. By the time of Jonah, Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria and was a city of great wealth and power and their kings lived in the very height of luxury. Even the archeological remains of the city today show its mighty wealth.
But the Assyrians were no friend to Israel. They had intimidated and fought against Israel, even enforcing a high tax on them. Worst of all, Assyria invaded Israel, virtually destroyed it and took many prisoners back to their lands. Also the people of Nineveh were not Jews. They did not worship YHWY, the God that Jonah worshiped. They were not supposed to be people God cared about.
Imagine that. God tells you to go to your enemy and bring a word from him. There are several problems with that. It could be dangerous, for one thing. Plus, it’s your enemy! What do you care if they are destroyed? In fact, that might be a good thing, right? And, to make matters worse, you do not think God ought to care very much for these people in the first place.
That’s a big reason why Jonah ran. He didn’t want to go to the capitol city of his nation’s enemy to warn them that his God, the God of the Israelites, wasn’t happy with their way of life. Who could blame him for running? So perhaps all this running and storming and nearly drowning and great big fish business had convinced God that it just wasn’t worthwhile. Perhaps God has gotten tired of trying to get Jonah to do what he wanted and just sent someone else instead.
Nope, he hasn’t.
Because, like we’ve said, God is persistent. He gives the same call again to Jonah. ‘The Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: Get up, go to Nineveh and give them the message I have for them.’
We can almost imagine him saying “FINE!” and stomping off to Assyria.
Now, I have to admit that a part of this might actually be kind of gratifying in a way. I mean, going into enemy territory, maybe not so much, but getting to go tell them that God is ticked at them…that God is going to smack them down for the way they have behaved! Well, you know what, part of that sounds not quite so bad. Imagine, getting to walk into the house of someone who has hurt you in some way, I mean really harmed you or someone you love, and saying: God is gonna get you for what you’ve done. It would be pretty scary to go there, but there might also be some part of us that felt like there was justice as well. You hurt me!? Well, take that!
However, it is possible that Jonah knows something about what will really happen. He knows that while God is fully capable of doing anything he wants, God also wants to show mercy most of all. Jonah knows that God searches and strives as much as he can to be merciful and is ready at a moment’s notice to forgive.
The bible tells us that Nineveh is a huge city; one that it would take three days to walk across. But when Jonah arrives, he walks about a day and announces ‘40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!’ Now, I will give Jonah credit for shouting because that is exactly what he did. But it appears that he just walked in a little ways and shouted out one time. He didn’t even go to the center of the city. He didn’t walk all through town. He just walked in a little ways and gave a one line sermon.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the street preachers. There are several that operate in this area and even one or two who come to campus from time to time. While I am certainly not advocating everything they say, (for one thing, don’t even know what they say) but I do admire their tenacity. The four or so gentlemen who stand in our downtown area will shout and shout and shout their warnings of impending disaster. God is gonna get you!
But not Jonah.
No, Jonah doesn’t seem a bit enthusiastic about this entire endeavor. It is almost as if he knows something we don’t yet know. It is as if he knows something might happen if the Ninevehites were to actually hear his message and do something about it. It is almost as if he knows something about God that makes God’s message something he does not want to deliver.
So what is it? What is it that keeps Jonah from wanting to tell one of the great enemies of his people that in 40 days God will overturn them? And why does God care at all about these people who certainly didn’t follow the Jewish Laws and, most likely, did not even worship him? You will just have to come back next week and find out.
But here’s a hint: the reason Jonah knows what will really happen is because he knows God and has already seen in his own life the way he often responds to those who disobey him: he saves them and gives them another chance. For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.