“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
Today is Jonah’s day. Its the one day in the lectionary that we get to hear the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah. In many ways it is a funny story. It is not just a tale for children in Sunday school. It is for all of us. A story about the nature of God and mercy. And we start the story right in the middle!
It might be a good idea to consider what came before and how Jonah got to where he was.
God had a job for Jonah to do. God wanted Jonah to travel to the great Assyrian capital of Ninevah. A city that we are told was so big that it would take days to cross it. But Jonah wanted nothing to do with this job - after all the Assyrians were enemies of the Jews. The Assyrians were regarded as the destroyers of Israel and a brutal occupying force. The Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and held the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost a hundred years. Assyria was a conqueror who changed Israel’s fortunes forever.
Nope, Jonah was not going there!
Instead of heeding God’s call Jonah gets on the first boat out and heads in the opposite direction. He hides in the bottom of the boat - maybe God won’t notice?
Nope God notices and the sea gets a little rough. The sailors are frightened - they start throwing things overboard. Finally Jonah goes overboard - perhaps to his death to save the sailors. The sea gets calm and the sailors - gentiles put their faith and trust in the God of the Hebrews.
God still has work for Jonah so God has him swallowed by a big fish. This saves Jonah’s life - but he is not very happy about all of this. He sort of prays to God and is finally vomited up onto the shore. He must have been a real sight - covered in seaweed and smelling like the inside of a fish!
And this is where we join the story this morning. We are told that “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
That’s right - a second time because Jonah was too pig headed to listen the first time. He is more than reluctant!
But this time off he goes to the great capital city of Ninevah. But he is still dragging his feet. He makes his proclamation - but not in the city centre - basically he is in the suburbs. I don’t really think Jonah wanted his message to be heard!
And this is what he said. “In forty days Ninevah will be destroyed.” Yes the shortest prophecy - the shortest sermon ever.
But it turns out that in spite of himself Jonah is a wildly successful prophet or preacher.
Against all odds the people of Ninevah repent. It starts with the King and goes all the way to the animals. It is decreed that everyone and every animal will repent! A fast is declared and are told that even the animals were wearing sackcloth.
The people have repented. Jonah should be pleased. But he is not. He is upset. More than upset, he is angry. The Hebrew reads roughly “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” For with the repentance God changes God’s mind and the great capital city of Ninevah will not be destroyed.
Jonah wanted the enemies of the Hebrews to be destroyed. I can picture Jonah having a meltdown or a temper tantrum. I can picture him stomping his feet and saying - its not fair!!!!! God you promised to destroy them.
Jonah is in such a state that off he goes to sulk. He is the most successful prophet or preacher in the whole bible and now he wants to die.
Because God is God and does not act as we think God should act.
The story of Jonah is not really a story of the mass conversion of Gentiles. It is really about Jonah’s reaction to the conversion (and the lack of destruction!)
Jonah throws at God the words that the Jews had often used to describe the character of God. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. These words come from Exodus.
God speaks to Jonah and tries to explain. But the book ends without a resolution and Jonah goes away mad.
The Book of Jonah is read in the Jewish calendar on the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbour.
The story of the reluctant - but successful prophet Jonah reminds us that we do not control or own the grace of God. God will be forgiving because that is the nature of God. Are we willing to let God be God?