“Heading in the Opposite Direction”

Jonah 1:1-3

Last week we completed the Gospel According to Matthew which we began on January 2, 2022, a year and nine months ago! I will assure you that we will not be spending that long in the Book of Jonah, even though we are only covering three verses this morning. 

The Gospel According to Matthew ended with Jesus giving a command to His disciples, Matthew 28:18-20,

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

That command is for everyone who chooses to follow Jesus. In fact, for those of us who follow Jesus, we are expected to “Go” wherever Jesus sends us and do whatever He commands. That’s what it means to be an obedient disciple of Jesus. As I thought about it, I realized many of us are not very good at doing that. Instead, we are a lot like Jonah. Thus here we are. 

How many of us here feel like we are familiar with the story of Jonah? 

This could be a problem. 

If I were to ask how many of us have actually thoughtfully read through the book of Jonah in its entirety, once or twice and possibly picked up a commentary on it, I believe there would be less hands raised. 

You know about this story because of what? 

Either a children’s story Bible, or perhaps Veggie Tales. Which therein lies the problem. Because most of the stories in the Old Testament we know because we have read them or watched them through children’s media, rather than thoughtful reading through them as an adult. So they end up being watered down and simplified and boiled down to teach a moral truth, such as “be kind.” 

When it comes to Jonah, there is one element of this story that every children’s book fixates on, that is the presence of the “whale” or the “big fish.” If you were to ask anyone what they know about Jonah I guarantee the first thing that will come up is something about a whale or a big fish. Taken in context, the big fish only appears in two sentences throughout the whole book. So when we make the fish the theme of the story we are missing the real meaning of the story. 

Every book in the Bible has the same purpose and that is to reveal the character of God and help us understand who Jesus is to us. They are given to us to demonstrate what God and Jesus are up to in the world. So whatever the book of Jonah is about, it is doing just that. 

Although the book of Jonah does lend itself to being a great children’s story, in order to truly understand what is going on, you need to be an adult. Because this book is made up of wit, irony, humor and sarcasm that only adults will comprehend. 

It’s like this, Jonah is the representation of the covenant people of God, that’s us, through whom God wants to do His work in the world. In fact, when we take a look at Jonah we realize he was a pretty bad character. He’s not at all nice and basically self-centered. 

As we get into this story and realize just how ridiculous a character Jonah is, beware, because just when you can’t believe what he does, then all of a sudden you stop and realize the story is about you. This story is great at exposing the worst tendencies that form inside God’s covenant people. Things like pride, hard heartedness, judgmentalism, tribalism, small mindedness and an inability to grow and change and let God’s grace take over and surprise us. This book is set up to hit you hard, right between the eyes. So I’m going to warn you, the next few weeks are going to have tough things to hear and face. 

Today I want to provide some background details that we will need to truly understand what is happening in the book. Without it, it would be like someone beginning to watch “Downton Abbey” for the first time by watching the second show of the second season. 

You are with your friend who has watched it from the beginning and they get frustrated with you because you keep bugging them to explain who is who and why they are doing such things. 

In the book of Jonah there are details that you are supposed to know in order to understand what the author is trying to do. It begins with the very first sentence in the book, 

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:”

This sentence automatically reveals what type of book we are reading. It begins with, “The word of the Lord…..” and we know that “The word of the Lord,” comes to prophets. The word prophet in the Bible context does not mean fortune teller. There are times when the prophet will look into the future to discern what God will be doing. 

But for the most part, prophets were sent to speak on God’s behalf or to provide God’s perspective on something. Let’s take a look at the book right after Jonah in the Bible, Micah. How does it begin? Almost exactly the same way. However, if we read on in Micah we discover Micah saying something, giving a prophecy to Israel. 

Not so with Jonah. 

By reading the first words of this book you would automatically think you are about to read Jonah’s prophecy, or the word God has given Him. That’s what all the other prophetic books are like. 

But not Jonah. 

There is no poetic verbage or prophecy coming from the mouth of Jonah. 

Instead, we will be reading a story about this prophet. God has many ways to speak through the prophets. Sometimes He uses the very words of the prophet to speak. But in the book of Jonah, God’s word is told as a story about him. So in order to hear God’s word we need to read the story in its entirety, not just about a fish, to hear what God is trying to say with the story of this prophet. It is important to understand that we are reading a biography of a prophet. Biographies are read differently than books of poetry, or personal letters. Each type of literature should be read and understood in a different way. So whenever you open your Bible and read it you should be asking what type of literature am I reading right now and what kind of information should I expect to get. If we do this with the book of Jonah, we need to ask, okay, what kind of story is this? When we ask this question, we realize there is no other book in the Bible like Jonah. There is no other book about a prophet. Orthodox Christian scholars have examined this book and there are basically two different beliefs on what this book is doing. 

One belief is the author has received a historical tradition about a guy named Jonah, son of Amattai, and he is passing the information off to us as a historical account.

The second view is that there is more to this book than what meets the eye. That Jonah is a form of a narrative parable. It’s a parable based on a real historical figure, so, the author doesn’t expect us to take this as a historical narrative but rather as a parable. Similar to what Jesus did in Luke 16, where He told a series of parables and one was about a historical character, Lazarus and a rich man. Jesus used the character Lazarus, a beggar that everyone knew and placed him in a narrative to tell a story. 

Because the focus on the fish has become the main focus in this book, in recent times, the choice between the two views has become a litmus test as to whether or not you believe in miracles. So if you take the book as a parable then you don’t believe that a man can stay in the belly of a fish for three days, it is decided that you are sliding into spiritual liberalism and you are denying the Biblical truth of the Bible. 

Not where we will be going. 

Let’s read God’s Word and allow it to take us where God wants us to go rather than us deciding where we think it should be. 

Both views will agree that the book of Jonah is a book of beautiful story telling. The book of Jonah is written like two different forms of literature we have in our lives. 

One is satire, like Saturday Night Live and the other is comic books. If you have watched Saturday Night Live you will recognize this type of writing. It’s where you take very well known characters who represent certain stock characteristics, such as political figures or movie stars and place them in extremely ridiculous stories that highlight how flawed and screwed up they are. They become the butt of every joke. Satire has the ability to not only get the reader or watcher trapped on how ridiculous the character is, but while you are laughing, you realize it is all about you. 

This is exactly like the book of Jonah. It is full of stock characters. It begins with the man of God, the religious prophet and he is the one who immediately runs away from God. He is actually the most hard-hearted, hateful person in this story. 

God does manage to get the fish to regurgitate Jonah onto the beach, to which Jonah responds by doing what God asked him to do in the first place. Jonah goes to Nineveh and delivers a five word Hebrew sermon of repentance.  The Ninevites respond immediately and repent. The book ends with the prophet chewing God out for being so merciful and that he would rather die than to live with this God. That’s the “man of God” in this story. 

Then you have the bad guys, the heathen, pagan sailors and big bad Ninevites, who had been doing the most hideous things humans have ever experienced. They have paper thin consciousness. Yet, they hear God’s Word and immediately repent, even the cows repent in Nineveh. Everything is extreme and crazy and no one behaves like their stereotype. 

The book is also written in what is known as comic book style, where everything is over the top. For example, the word great or huge in Hebrew appears 15 times in these four chapters. Everything is told to the extreme. Which is exactly what the author is trying to do. The reader is thinking this is hilarious and funny, laughing until the end and then thinks, “Oh, this was about me.”

We just don’t expect something like this in the Bible. The whole story of Jonah demonstrates God’s humor and yet God’s love. He uses this story of this over the top prophet to wake the reader up and think. He could have given prophetic words, like He did with the other prophets, but this time God chooses a different mode of writing and He expects the reader to laugh and see its absurdities and then to be convicted. 

Let’s continue. 

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:”

This is where you are supposed to laugh. If you were a Hebrew, reading this story you would chuckle. Because the name Jonah actually means “dove” and the son of Amittai means “son of faithfulness.” Get the irony? 

The dove in the Bible stands for innocence & Holy Spirit, and Jonah is the “son of faithfulness?”  HaHa!

Then we have verse 2, 

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Okay, this is where you are supposed to know the history of Nineveh and the history of Jonah, who is mentioned one other time in the Old Testament. Again, knowing the back story you would say to yourself, “Oh, this is rich!” 

There is a reason God uses Jonah as the lead character in this satire. If you were Hebrew you would know about Jonah from reading 2 Kings 14, where Jonah is mentioned, 

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.

To give you the context of what was going on when Jonah spoke the word of the Lord, it was during the time that the kings ruled Jerusalem. Jeroboam II was the king at the time and he was worse than Jeroboam I in doing things against God. Israelites would have known their history, as the stories of these kings were passed down from generation to generation. The name Jeroboam meant worthless king. Jonah was a prophet who prophesied favorably towards him. This was Jonah’s reputation. 

So when Hebrews read this statement that Jonah was supposed to go to Nineveh, Israel’s most hated enemy, and tell them they were behaving badly, it would have made them think, “Really, Jonah’s not that good of a prophet in the first place, and he certainly isn’t able to discern who is good and who is bad.”

We also need some background on the city of Nineveh. It was the capital of Assyria, the largest empire of that time period. Assyria was the empire that had taken the ten tribes of Israel and had wiped them right off the map. 

Poof! Gone!

Assyria was the most brutal, violent and oppressive empire that ever existed. Their general practice was to plunder a city and then take the leaders of that city and skin them alive in front of all the other people of the city. Then hang the skins on the city gates to warn others of what could happen.

The people around Nineveh have been praying to the God of Israel for help. God hears this and decides to do something. He decides to send Jonah, “dove, the son of faithfulness” to do something, verse 3 

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Again, we should chuckle, this is good. 

Take a look at the map I provided in your bulletin. God sends Jonah to Nineveh, which is east of Israel. Jonah goes to the coast and gets on a ship that will take him to Tarshish. 

In their day this would have been the English equivalent of him going to Timbuktu. It was as far west as the ancient civilization knew to go. As far as they knew, if you went through the Straits of Gibraltar, you were going off the edge of the world. Jonah doesn’t just “flee.” He goes as far as he can possibly go in the opposite direction. 

This is where we are supposed to think “How Crazy!”

Jonah is supposed to be a prophet. Surely has memorized Psalm 139, 

Where can I go from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

Is what Jonah is doing, something a prophet should do? Can you flee from God?

Obviously something is going on in Jonah’s mind that is scrambling his reality. 

At this point, we should be wondering, why? 

Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who runs away from God. So what’s going on?  

If you think about it, you might think. Okay, God has asked this prophet to walk into the capital city of this nation that was known for skinning people alive and preach against them. Ahhh, maybe Jonah is afraid? 

Not so, if we look in chapter 4. verse 2, we find that Jonah has just preached his message and the entire city repents. Instead of rejoicing, Jonah gets angry and says to God, 

“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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Thank you Jonah, “dove, son of faithfulness.” 

Jonah wasn’t afraid. He knew God so well that he knew He would show mercy to a nation that was in Jonah’s mind not worthy of God’s forgiveness. Basically, Jonah did not want a happy ending for his enemies. 

Here’s what is going on. 

Jonah had this wonderful plan for his life, as a prophet of God, and that didn’t include going to Nineveh. If Jonah did what God asked, he would not be liked by his own people. His friends would wonder why and be suspicious of him. Jonah knows God well enough that the Ninevites will be given mercy and that is not what Jonah thinks should happen. 

The book of Jonah begins with the essence of disobedience. In fact, most of us read the Bible and see God commanding people to do things and we expect them to obey. In our culture, obedience is not a positive word. We have parents who may have presented a strong understanding of obedience and we somehow project that idea on to God. 

But the Biblical understanding of God is not like that. God called Jonah to participate in changing the lives of those in Nineveh. God could have gone there Himself and done God like things, like bolts of lightning, or an earthquake, but God chooses to use humans to share His love. 

What is happening here is Jonah is being asked to step into a story that is risky and bigger than anything he actually signed up for. 

But, Jonah has a vision for what his life should be like as a prophet, and this request does not fit in. Basically, God’s vision and Jonah’s vision are competing. 

Sound familiar? 

As human beings we live in a culture that informs us how life should be lived, what is best for people and we are brought up to understand our society’s thoughts of what is good and what is best for us. 

Then, Jesus comes into the picture. He says, “Follow me.” You respond positively, you decide to follow Jesus and you realize that there are a lot of things you are doing that you think bring life when in reality do not bring life at all. 

The upside-down kingdom begins. 

Are we going to settle for what we think is the best way of life or are we going to entertain God’s new invitation to life?

Check in time,

For those of us who follow Jesus, 

Are there times when our vision of what our lives should be like and being obedient to God conflict? 

Are we following what the world thinks or what God has asked us to do? 

We will grapple with these questions as we continue to read the story of Jonah. 

Fortunately, we exist in a time after the resurrection of Jesus. We have an answer to our disobedience and it is represented here at the Lord’s supper. 

Lord’s Supper.