Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Holy Trinity – you have given us your Word, the Bible, so that we might know you truly and rightly. Illumine us by your Spirit so we might hear your Word clearly. Renew our hearts so that we might receive it in faith. Strengthen us so that we might walk with you in gratitude. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Jonah. Jonah is in the Old Testament, part of what is known as the minor prophets. They are minor, not on account of their significance, but because their writings are much shorter than the major prophets. Jonah, chapter 1. If you are in Amos or Obadiah, you have not gone far enough. If you are in Micah or Nahum, you have gone too far. Jonah, chapter 1, beginning in verse 1.
Jonah contains one of the most well-known and iconic scenes in the Old Testament. Jonah being thrown from the boat in the storm and swallowed by the big fish. As we will see in the next couple weeks, there is far more to the story than this, but how do we read Jonah?
We could look to the book of Jonah in order to learn more about ourselves. At times, we will see quite a bit more of ourselves in the story of Jonah that we might want to or feel comfortable with.
We could also look to Jonah to debate the possibilities of miracles. The reading of Jonah is often plagued with questions of lengths and widths and the size of fish. We wrestle with the possibilities and impossibilities of what we hear in this story. These questions can be good and honest and I don’t want to make light of them. I believe that what is set down here in Jonah happened as it is written and I would be happy to talk more about that with you.
However much benefit there might be in reading these ways, the book of Jonah itself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was written so that we would read Jonah to learn about the heart of God.
Jonah reveals the character of God. So as we listen together to God’s Word from Jonah, chapter 1, I invite you to listen for who God is in the book of Jonah. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
Now the Word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “Why are you sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew” he replied, “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The book of Jonah reveals the character of God. In this first chapter, we see at least three aspects of God’s character: God sends, God reclaims, and God saves.
1. GOD SENDS
First, God sends his prophets to go to the nations. It’s verses 1-2: Now the Word of the LORD came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”
God sends his prophets to the nations. In 2 Kings 14, the only other place Jonah is mentioned in the Old Testament, we learn that Jonah is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and that he has prophesied that King Jeroboam II would restore the boundaries of Israel.
God brought the twelve tribes of Israel out of Egypt and settled them into the land he had promised. After a series of judges, God gave the people a king. First, Saul, then David, then Solomon. At this time, the whole kingdom was known as Israel. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom was torn in two. Two southern tribes – Judah and Benjamin – became known as Judah, while the ten northern tribes took the name ‘Israel.’ God sent prophets to both Judah and Israel to call them back to faithfulness to him. Jonah is one of the prophets of God to those Ten Northern tribes after the split of the kingdoms.
Up to this point, God’s prophets had always been sent to his people. God sent his messengers to call out to the people who had the word of God, who were part of the covenant, who should know how to walk in God’s ways. But something new happens with Jonah. Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come before me.”
God sends Jonah to the nations. Jonah is the first prophet who is physically sent to bring God’s word to the nations. Others before him had spoken prophecies concerning the other nations surrounding Israel and Judah, but none were sent to go there. Until Jonah.
Jonah has to cross physical, political, and spiritual boundaries to go to the people of Nineveh. God sends Jonah out of his familiar place with his familiar people into an unknown, challenging, and potentially hostile place. Jonah must leave home, leave his comfort behind, in order to follow where God calls him.
Jonah’s missionary call is made doubly difficult by where God calls him to go. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city.” Nineveh was a growing power in the time of Jonah, but a power that prided itself on cruelty and the utter destruction of their enemies. Nineveh did not just want to defeat you, they wanted to break you. When they invaded, their armies did not just take your food and lay siege to your cities, but chopped down all the trees, burned the fields, and destroyed the countryside. They raped, disfigured, and mutilated captives in order to break the spirit of their enemies. When the inevitably won, those who survived the slaughter were separated and scattered to the four corners of their empire so that their cultural memory and shared identity would be crushed.
Already in the time of Jonah, Israel had turned from the Lord. God’s prophets had begun to promise a coming judgment from a rising empire in the East – Nineveh. The first time God sends a prophet to go and speak God’s word to a people who have never heard of the LORD, God sends Jonah to Nineveh. To Nineveh, the cruel scourges of the ancient world. To Nineveh who would be the instrument of God’s judgment upon Israel.
God sends Jonah to them. It must have been hard for Jonah to wrap his mind around.
God sends his prophets to the nations. When God first called Abraham, he promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. When God settled the people in the land, he told them that they would be a light to the nations, they would be his chosen people, that their election was not an election to idleness and self-preservation, but to be the people of God, to proclaim to the nations the mighty deeds of the living God.
That was Israel’s calling and had been from the beginning – a light to the nations – not under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, to give light to all. Now in Jonah, God is moving into the next phase of his calling upon the people. He is sending Jonah out to the nations. Sending him to a people who know nothing of God.
But God does not send Jonah to the people we would have chosen. Nineveh does not look as if it is good soil for the word of God. And yet, Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come before me.”
God still sends his people to the nations. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. God’s mission and God’s heart has not changed. He still calls people to cross physical, political, and spiritual boundaries to bring his word. He still calls people to leave comfort and ease for the work of mission. He still calls people to go where the soil does not look good, but trust the Lord to bring the harvest. God sends his people to the nations.
INTERLUDE: JONAH FLEES
Yet, when Jonah hears the call of God, he bolts. But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
Twice in two verses, we are told that Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the LORD. Jonah heard the call, heard clearly God’s will for the next step of his life and intentionally went in the opposite direction. Instead of heading east toward Nineveh, he goes west toward the coast and then takes a ship sailing as far west as he could imagine – all the way to Tarshish.
Even though God sends Jonah to Nineveh because of their wickedness, Jonah runs away. There is a subtle, but alarming shift in these two verses. Jonah begins by rejecting God’s will – go to Nineveh – but ends up trying to leave the LORD altogether. His rejection of God’s will swiftly leads to trying to leave God behind, to hide from his presence. This is how sin works. Turning from the Word becomes fleeing from God.
2. GOD RECLAIMS
Yet, God does not give up on Jonah. He works to reclaim him, to bring Jonah back. Jonah heads down to Joppa, gets down in a boat, and heads down toward Tarshish. But the LORD will not let him go, but sends a great wind and mighty storm upon the sea. There is both mercy and judgment here.
God takes Jonah’s rebellion seriously. God’s call to go to Nineveh was not a friendly suggestion or a job offer Jonah could choose to take or not. The storm is a form of judgment upon Jonah for his disobedience. The sailors seem far more aware of the significance of what is happening. They believe that this calamity, this storm, is not natural, but the result of sin. They cast lots and it falls upon Jonah. They confront him and the more they learn, the more terror they feel. Jonah has sinned and his sin affects not just himself, but threatens the lives of everyone around him.
Yet the storm is also a form of mercy. God will not let Jonah remain in sin and rebellion forever. He will not let him get what he wants when what he wants is to flee from him forever. God, in mercy, works to reclaim Jonah and bring him home. As Matthew Henry says, “the wind was sent forth to bring Jonah back. It was to reclaim Jonah to God and his calling. It is a great mercy to be reclaimed and called home when we go astray, even if it takes a tempest.”
God reclaims his wayward children. When Jonah flees toward Tarshish, God stops him with a storm and a mighty wind. God works to bring Jonah back. God is relentless is his love toward his own. Jesus said that he would lose none of those who were given to him and we see that same faithful love here in Jonah. Even when Jonah wants to be lost, God will not lose him.
Some of you have been there. You wanted to walk away. You wanted to find a way to give up on God, but, in mercy, God would not let you. God would not give up on you. He brought you back. Maybe he sent a mighty storm through your life, too. I wonder if some times he does this because we, like Jonah, are trying to sleep in the boat and it takes a storm to wake us up.
When we see that God won’t let go of Jonah, this is not the clingy, controlling love of the ex who just can’t let go. Instead, this is the steadfast commitment of God to love his beloved Jonah, even when he does not want to love him back.
In many ways, Jonah’s own journey mirrors that of his people. Israel was the beloved of God who had been sent out to the nations, but then turned her back on God. She was the one whose disobedience swiftly turned into full abandonment of God. Yet, God continued his steadfast love for Israel, even when she did not love him. Upon her, too, God would send the mixture of judgment and mercy in the form of exile. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, would not come back from that exile, but Judah would. Years later, Judah must have read Jonah and seen herself in the prophet.
God sent the wind to bring Jonah back. This stormy mercy was God’s way of restoring Jonah. Restoring him to relationship with God and to his mission.
3. GOD SAVES
The last thing we see is that God plunges his prophet into the raging seas in order to save. Once the sailors realize who they have on board, the God he serves, and what he has done, they ask, What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us? The sailors are crying for rescue from certain drowning and destruction. Jonah’s response is stunning, Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you. The sailors initially refuse this offer of salvation, choosing to try and save themselves by rowing to shore. When that doesn’t work, they cry out for mercy as they prepare to do as Jonah asked. They seem to have a deep sense of just how monumental of an act they are being asked to do. They throw him into the raging seas and the sea is stilled. They respond by turning wholeheartedly to the LORD, offering him sacrifices and committing themselves to him.
When Jonah, the man of God, is thrown into the stormy depths of judgment, the sailors are saved. No amount of rowing will get them to shore, will save them from the storm. Only God plunging his prophet into the depths will save.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus once responded to a call to perform a sign by saying, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (12:39-41). We will talk more about Nineveh’s repentance in the weeks to come, but Jesus connects his death and resurrection with the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the fish.
God saves by plunging his prophet into the raging sea. Mercy is found when the man of God enters into the waters of judgment.
Jonah is guilty and the reason for this great storm of judgment. However, Jesus – the greater Jonah – is innocent and we are the reason for the storm of judgment.
While Jonah lets himself be thrown in to take the punishment and wrath he deserves, Jesus is thrown into the depths of God’s wrath for us.
When Jonah enters the depths of judgment, it is there that he encounters the mercy of God. When Jesus enters the depths of God’s judgment for us, it is there that we encounter the mercy of God.
Jonah enters the belly of a fish and experiences a figure of death and resurrection. Jesus enters the belly of the tomb and experiences true death and resurrection.
Both go willingly into the depths – Jonah to save the sailors from shipwreck, Jesus to save his whole church from eternal death.
God sends his prophets to the nations. Jonah is sent to proclaim the Word of God to Nineveh. God reclaims his wayward children, even with a storm. God, in love and mercy, will not let Jonah go, but brings him back. God saves by plunging his prophet into the depths. The fullness of this is Jesus Christ willingly entering the raging storm of God’s judgment so that we might be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.