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Jonah: A Story of God’s Relentless Grace

Week One: Runaway Prophet

The Bible is True…

This morning we’re starting a 4-week series on the historical-prophetical book, Jonah. I always have a hard time locating Jonah—BECAUSE HE’S IN THE BELLY OF A BIG FISH! Seriously, locating the book of Jonah can be tricky because, even though Jonah is considered one of the Minor Prophets, the entire writing is a narrative…it’s a story. While there is often historical narrative found in books of prophecy, they are almost always written in “thus sayeth the Lord” language. The prophet of Yahweh is speaking to a particular group or individual on behalf of God, warning them to adjust their lives to God’s will and God’s way or suffer the consequences.

And while we will hear Jonah make that declaration in two weeks, this short prophetic book is much more a story of a gracious God, a reluctant and irritated prophet, and a repentant city called Nineveh. For this reason, I think Jonah is one of the most beloved of the OT books. We are drawn into a good story…and this one is EPIC!!!

Let’s read the first chapter to get the very important background to what happens to and THROUGH this professional clergyman named, Jonah. [READ JONAH 1]

Before digging into the nitty gritty of the events of chapter one, let’s get a sense of time and space. I want to thank Dr. Sandra Richter, author of the Epic of Eden series, for providing some of the historical background for today’s message. I’ve been planning this to preach this series for weeks, but little did I know that Sandy’s latest study guide on Jonah would hit the shelves just last week!

Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the first half of the 8th century BCE during the reign of King Jeroboam II. Under his 41-year reign, the Northern Kingdom reached the height of it’s economic and military success. Likewise, the southern Kingdom of Judah under the rule of King Jehoshaphat didn’t fair too shabbily! This was due in part to their alliances to create important trade routes connecting their kingdoms with the territories of Egypt to the south and the kingdoms east of Canaan.

And now consider the main character of this book, other than God himselfà Jonah son of Amittia. We know from the historical book, 2 Kings 14:23-26, that Jonah was in fact a historical figure and not just some “legend,” as some scholars suggest.

He was a professional preacher…a mouthpiece for God. No doubt he had spoken in the king’s court many times. No doubt he had preached many a sermon, like our prophetic friends Isaiah and Jeremiah, of whom we have dozens of oracles from each.

But Jonah? We have this ONE STORY. Only this one narrative of a runaway prophet, a big fish, and a pagan city, Nineveh. What does that tell us about the significance of this one story? It tells us that there is much to learn from its pages!

In the opening verses of the book, we hear of Jonah’s assignment: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh was an enormous, influential city and the natural center of Assyria. In later years under Sennacherib, it would become the capital city. Assyria’s goddess of love and war, Ishtar, had her chief temple in Nineveh.

The Assyrian Empire (east of Israel) was one of the ancient superpowers during Israel’s existence. Assyrians were the Borg of the Ancient Near East (think Star Trek, the Next Generation)… “Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.” They developed the idea of exile and assimilation into their own culture.

They were masters at torture and execution. Neighboring nations trembled before them. Assyria’s goal was to rule the world, of course. By the second half of the 8th century, King Tiglath-Pileser III seized the Assyrian throne and resurrected the Neo-Assyrian Empire which set its sights on the West, including Israel and Judah. But that’s another story.

In Jonah’s day, the first half of the century, Assyria was in trouble. Ironically, it was also during this period that the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were experiencing the height of its influence and wealth.

Given what we know about Assyria—their penchant for world domination by intimidation, extortion, torture, execution, exile and assimilation—is it any wonder that Jonah would be more than a little reluctant?

So, when Jonah hears God telling him to go “preach” to his enemies, the Ninevites, he does just the opposite. He runs away. And not just to a neighboring town…he runs in the opposite direction of Nineveh toward Tarshish.

How many of you have heard of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot? They were a young missionary couple serving in Ecuador in the 1950s along with four other missionaries. The five missionary men were attempting to reach a people group now known as the Huaorani tribe—a group no outsider had ever been able to share the Gospel with. The men were savagely murdered. Jim Elliot left behind a wife and daughter under a year old!

If you were Elisabeth, how would you feel about continuing to try to reach the very group of people who killed the love of your life? Even if you could manage to love them enough to forgive them, how could you muster enough courage to face killers who may just kill you, leaving your daughter orphaned?

And yet, that is exactly what Elisabeth did. With the help of some Huoarani women who taught her their language, Elisabeth and her colleague, Rachel Saint, returned in October 1958 to live with that tribe with her now 3-year-old daughter. Courageous? I think so. Loving? You better believe it!

But that’s NOT Jonah’s story! And I suspect that if we were faced with a similar assignment from God, we would behave more like Jonah than Elisabeth. For me, this is one of the great lessons of Jonah—and one that Carolyn Moore repeated constantly in her book, Encounter the Spirit: When God moves, WE MOVE!

Jonah moved alright, but in the opposite direction! Not only was he running in the opposite direction, but he was hiding in the deepest recesses of the ship along with the cargo. Even though theologically Jonah would have known that HIS God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God who rescued the children of Israel from slavery, gave them a Land flowing with milk and honey, was all-present and all-knowing—he, like many of us, thought he could emotionally “run” from God.

Have you ever felt that nudge to do something…say something…that may go against cultural norms or may put you out there in a vulnerable state? You KNEW it was God moving. Maybe it was to speak up in a meeting about something you know to be morally and ethically right but doing so you knew you’d be going against popular opinion. Or maybe your boss wanted you to do something unethical and you KNEW the right thing to do, but doing so may cost you your job? Or maybe you felt led to tell somebody about Jesus but were afraid. So you did nothing. In essence, you ran the other way from God’s will.

Obedience to the Gospel may cost us something…time, money, our jobs, friendships, maybe even our lives. But DISOBEDIENCE to God’s direction, either in the short run or long run, is even more costly!

So, as Jonah is running, things are being “hurled.” First, (v 4), the Lord “hurled” a storm upon the sea. Then (v 5) the crew “hurled” the cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Later (v 15) they “hurled” Jonah overboard when he gets swallowed by a huge fish.

It’s interesting that when God causes the great squall, the captain and crew of that ship—those unbelieving, polytheistic, heathens behaved more ethically than Jonah did. They prayed like crazy to their respective gods. As the famous line goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

Second, they respected other people and their religious practices. We see from the captain’s plea, they expected Jonah to pray to his God, whoever that might be. They believe that somebody’s god…some higher power…was causing the sea to roar and they just want it to stop! The crew didn’t know this higher power to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…YET!

Third, they only considered acting against another human being as a last resort, pleading with Jonah’s God to NOT hold their actions against them. [Later in chapter 3, we discover that Jonah did not share the same kind of concern for outsiders and those who did not believe in God or behave the way he thought they should.]

Jonah recognized that the calamity was because of his disobedience, so he told them to “hurl” him into the sea. At first, the crew tried some other method…anything…to keep from having the blood of Jonah on their hands. They tried rowing back to land, but God made the storm that much stronger. So reluctantly and after crying out to Jonah’s God to forgive them for taking such measures, they hurled him overboard.

At this the storm ceased, they feared and worshipped the Lord, and Jonah was saved through the belly of a giant fish.

What can we learn from this first chapter?

  1. God’s grace is universal. Why was Jonah called to go to the wicked city in the first place? If they were so wicked that God wanted them destroyed, he could have just done it! He didn’t need to warn them…UNLESS…he had another plan.

Ah, yes! Could it be that God already knew what it would take for the city of Nineveh to repent and turn to him? Could he already have been at work in the hearts of those heathens?
Remember the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Here’s how that saga begins in Genesis 18. The three visitors to Abraham are leaving when they looked down toward Sodom talking amongst themselves. The Lord asked, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Then the Lord tells Abraham about the grievous sins the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the outcry against them. In other words, God shares his plans! I believe he did so because he knew Abraham would try to intercede on their behalf. After all, his nephew Lot and his family reside in Sodom. As the story goes, they couldn’t find 10 righteous people in the whole city; so God destroyed it…but NOT before warning Lot and his family. We see again God’s grace at work. God ALWAYS wants to save the lost!

Back to our story of Jonah, the prophet hears the call to go to a heathen nation and proclaim the sacred Word of the Lord. Why? So that they might repent and be saved. It’s all about God’s grace. Grace means unmerited favor. It’s undeserving…it’s unearned. The Ninevites did NOTHING deserving of God’s “second chances,” but God was sending Jonah as a warning SO THAT they might receive and accept the unearned love and salvation of God.

Later, when the sea was about to claim another ship and its crew, God provided them another way. God’s way challenged the crew’s sense of right and wrong. Nonetheless, these pagan sailors took a leap of faith by giving Jonah a little push from the boat. When they did, the sea turned calm and they were saved. Grace.

Finally, the sea did not swallow Jonah up but a large fish, where he stayed in its belly for three days & nights. God spared the life his disobedient servant which we’ll see he later used to accomplish his purposes with the Ninevites. That’s grace! Jonah certainly didn’t deserve it, but god extended it.

God grace extended to the Ninevites, the sailors, and to Jonah. And it extends to you and me. You may think you don’t deserve a second chance…and according to OUR standards, maybe you don’t. But according to God’s standard, which is all that matters, you are offered unconditional love. God’s grace is universal.

  1. Man’s disobedience is also universal. Jonah, our runaway prophet, headed for the opposite direction of God’s will. Jonah had been a prophet in the court of the Israeli king. Now, he’s being told to preach to a heathen, terrorist bunch of folks he hated and didn’t WANT to have what Jonah has…a relationship with the one, true, God.

For some of us, we prefer Jonah’s worldview over God’s. After all, THOSE people aren’t like us. They never come to church. They have unruly kids who don’t know how to act in church. I don’t want my kids associating with them. I don’t WANT to have to share the grace and love of Jesus Christ with them. Oh, I’ll write a check to Hearts and Hands and let THEM deal with social outcasts and heathens. That way I’ll feel better about myself.
But don’t ask me to personally invite them to MY church. Don’t ask me to share my faith with them. It just wouldn’t be right! We’ve worked too hard what we have at Byhalia UMC. So we run the other way, spiritually speaking. We turn up our Christian music louder to drown out the cry of those who need the Gospel most. We rush out of church to restaurants, leaving behind any compelling voice moving us to go to Rio Bravo, or Planned Parenthood, or some other Christ-centered ministry to those unlike ourselves. Truth is, humanity’s disobedience comes in countless forms just as God’s assignments for His people are equally vast.

  1. Disobedience has consequences. I ran from my calling for 3 years, and for three years I was in constant spiritual misery. For Jonah it nearly cost him his life and it costs him thee days in the belly of the big fish.

I don’t know how God will place the spiritual grain of un-comfortability in your “shell of comfort.” And it can rub us the wrong way. But look at what can come from it…God can produce a one-of-a-kind spiritual pearl out of you and me. Disobeying the will of God has consequences…and that’s a good thing, because it can lead us to repentance and into the perfect will of God.

CONCLUSION. Let’s stop here for now. Next week we will look at the second chapter and Jonah’s response to God’s discipline. The historical, prophetical book of Jonah can teach us so much. But NOTHING is more important, I think, that the lesson that God’s love and forgiveness extends to EVERYONE who will repent and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. And God uses US—disobedient and undeserving as we may be—to extend His grace to a lost and hurting world…even those we don’t necessarily want him to. AMEN.