If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. – 1 Chronicles 7.14
The passage today is the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet. A prophet is someone who hears from God and shares what God has to say to others. Jonah’s ministry is confirmed in in the bible. Jonah lived at the time of Amaziah, King of Judah, and Jeroboam II, King of Israel (825-784 BC).
2 Kings 14:23-25 – In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty–one years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.
Scholars look at the story of Jonah and point out that the writing could be consider three different ways: allegory, parable, or historical event. As I read through the story I decided to assess if there was even a remote possibility that someone could be swallowed by a big fish. As I began to read the current research on the matter of big fishes swallowing humans and the human living to tell about it, I discovered two possible stories. This made me very excited. But as I read on, I discovered that over the last 150 years of recorded history no one had been eaten by a fish. The stories that had been reported where simply a yarn of a sailors’ tale. Inspite of my lack of discovery of people being eaten by a large fish, I was convinced that this story was a real narrative about Jonah just like the other prophets of his day who experienced miraculous events while they ministered among the people.
Jonah’s story…comes with four easy illustrations for us to remember – the storm, the whale, the city, and the vine/shrub. The story begins with the word of God: Get up and go! Jonah got up and went the wrong direction that leads him into a storm, the belly of a whale, and the heart of a city.
The Storm: Jonah ran away to Joppa and onward to Tarshish, which was completely in the opposite direction that God required of him. And, there came a great storm! The ship officer and sailors realized it was Jonah’s fault that the storm came! Jonah offered them a solution – just toss me overboard, and the storm will stop. So they followed Jonah’s directions, but he did not die. A big fish swam up and ate Jonah. Because Jonah had told them about his God, the Hebrew God Yahweh, they became believers. Salvation came to the sailors that day.
Jonah 1.10,16 – The sailors feared God (fear of the Lord). They “feared a great fear of the YHWH.” Before Jonah explained who he was running from the sailors did not know YHWH, and the text translates their god as Elohim. The fear of the Lord leads us to redemption. Our salvation comes when we fear God.
The Whale: Inside the whale Jonah remembers God, and prays. He calls on God’s steadfast love to save him, and the whale vomited Jonah out on dry land. Just as Jonah had declared God the God of land and sea to the sailors, so Jonah understood that God was the God of the land and the sea – From the depths of the ocean in the belly of a whale to dry land in three days. Salvation came to Jonah that day.
Jonah 1.16, 2.9 – The sailors take vows to the Lord. The vows that the sailors made show that they were going to worship YHWH beyond the moment of their salvation from the storm. They understood God’s loving kindness (hesed) toward them.
The City: Nineveh is modern day Mosul, Iraq, one of the cities Isis has taken over. Jonah is called to walk the streets of the great city Nineveh and report to them that God is about to destroy them. And, the people believed Jonah, and repented. The text reports that there were as many as 120,000 people in the community. And, it took Jonah three days to cross the community to proclaim the coming destruction. The great city of Nineveh is reported to have been almost 7 1/2 miles across while the whole administrative district of the capital was about 60 miles in diameter. Whether it took Jonah three days to proclaim the message across the 7 1/2 miles or 60 miles is unclear.
What we do know from the text is that Nineveh has done evil, and that great evil has come before the Lord God’s attention. God was coming to deliver punishment for her crimes. The evil is not described, it is just spoken of in a way that points to injustice that demands God’s attention. Judgement is coming to Nineveh, and God offers the people one last chance to repent. And, God chosen his servant Jonah to deliver the message in person. God sends a Jew into the heart of injustice, the capital of Assyria, Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Eventually, Assyria carried off the Israelites from the northern capital of Samaria, and the Israelites never returned to their homeland (722 BC). Nineveh eventually destroyed by the Medes and the Babylonians, and never rebuilt. Across the pages of the bible, God tears down empires and vindicates the oppressed; it is a thing to be celebrated. The prophet Nahum celebrates the final demise of this city.
Jonah 2.8, 4.2 – Recognizing God’s steadfast love and mercy (hesed). God’s love is unconditional. Unending. Unmistakable. Unpredictable. And, Jonah found out just how unconditional that God’s loving kindness can be when God relents from the utter destruction of Nineveh.
Jonah 2:8 – “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God’s love for them.
Jonah 4:2 – He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
The vine/shrub. As Jonah stood by watching the final outcome of his prophetic ministry in Nineveh, God sent an easterly wind and scorching heat to bear down on Jonah. Then God sends a vine/shrub that grows up overnight. Depending on the translation a vine/shrub provides Jonah shade from the heat of the day. Jonah finds that the vine/shrub is a comforting presence. If we look across the Old Testament understanding of what it meant to sit under a vine, we would find passages about God’s vine and fig tree being a place of prosperity to the Jewish people.
1 Kings 4.25 – During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and fig tree.
Zech. 3.10 – “‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
Jesus’ take on Jonah, and the city of Nineveh. Jesus refers to Jonah as well. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus points out that the sign from heaven is the sign of preaching and a call to repentance. (Matt. 12.39-41, 16.4,17 and Luke 11.29-30,32).
Matt. 12:39-41 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. Matt. 16:4, 17 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. …Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
Luke 11:29-30, 32 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. …The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now one greater than Jonah is here.
Conclusion: God offers an opportunity for repenting, turning, obeying, and following God with our whole hearts. God gives us a free will to choose. We can choose to follow his commands, his directions, or we can run away like Jonah. God desires for us to be saved like the sailors, Jonah, and the city of Nineveh. God will put obstacles and challenges in our lives to cause us to rethink the situation we are in.
The story of Jonah calls our attention to Jesus. Jesus taught his followers that the only sign from heaven would be a call to repentance, like Jonah in Nineveh. The story further points out the need for all people to surrender to the God of Heaven and Earth.
Peter’s story in the New Testament is not unlike Jonah’s story in the Old Testament. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and he believed. But he couldn’t comprehend the loving kindness of God just like Jonah. It’s hard to imagine that God chooses to invite the most brutal people to repentance, and they often choose salvation. More recent illustration of God’s loving kindness is illustrated among the people of Ecuador, Germany, India, Venezuela and Brazil.
Illustration from Ecuador: The End of the Spear is a great movie about a missionary, Nate Saint, who hears the call of God on his life to take the Gospel to an unreached people group in Ecuador. The story is set in the 1950s. It is Nate’s son Steve that retells the story in the movie. The theme throughout is God’s great love for people, and the forgiveness that God calls us to offer one another.
Illustration from Germany: Another such story is captured in the movie about Corrie ten Boom entitled The Hiding Place. The ten Boom family lived in Holland during WWII, and worked to save Jews from persecution at the hands of the Nazi’s. She and her family were imprisoned for their saving work, and sent to concentration camps (2/28/1944). Corrie lived to survive the brutality of her German captures, and went on to speak and write about the power of forgiveness.
Illustration from India: A friend of mine was teaching in India several years ago, and while there one of her students had a call to go to one of the unreached people groups in India. He was a young man, and a young Christian, but he felt called to go to one of the most violent unreached people groups in North East India. And, after he graduated from Bible College he went to preach the Good News of the Gospel, and within a short time he was murdered. The young man had a brother who took up his older brothers ministry to the unreached people group. When the younger brother went into the village to proclaim Jesus, they discovered that the people had killed his older brother. They were so moved by the great love of the brothers, and their God that they were soon converted. God can work miracles through the heart of forgiveness.
These illustrations help us understand that God requires acts of forgiveness from us. Many people groups have repented through the loving kindness of God of God’s people and they have come to salvation. When we look out across the land and sea, we can observe people who have come to know the loving kindness of our God. And, you and I have the opportunity to show it here in our community. We are called to the Great Commission to share the good news of the Kingdom of God across every language, tribe, and nation. Let us join together in God’s work of forgiveness.