Probably for many of us, the most memorable thing about this story is that Jonah got swallowed by a big fish! But there is much more to this book, which we’re going to try to unpack over the next few weeks. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated by this book, & it's always struck me that there is an important message for all of us here.
Isn’t it amazing how even tho the Bible was written by over 40 individuals over a time span of 1500 yrs, all of scripture really contains the same theme, the same message, which is this: There is a God who loves us so deeply, that even though we run away from him & reject him, he will never stop pursuing us, & calling us back to himself. God loves us so deeply that no matter what we have done, how far we have fallen, he is always ready to give us another chance.
Theologians refer to this as the "Grace of God", that God acts out of mercy and forgiveness, even though we don’t deserve it.
And of course we can see God’s grace demonstrated most clearly and dramatically when he sent his own Son into the world- in order to, as Jesus was fond of saying: "to seek & save those who are lost"
But in fact, we see God’s grace displayed time and time again all through the scriptures, in both the OT & the NT. It was because of his grace, that God preserved Noah & his family thru the flood. Because of his grace, he made a cov't with Ab & his descendants. Because of his grace, he brought the nation of Israel out of slavery and established them as a nation.
And that's why he sends a man named Jonah, to a city called Ninevah: to call the people of Ninevah to repentance, to plead with them to come back to God. So the book of Jonah is really about the incredible grace of God. Paul tells us in Romans that "where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Rom 5:20) That might be a good way of summarizing the book of Jonah. We see that grace working in Jonah's life, but also as we shall see, in the lives of the people of Ninevah as well.
The story starts out without any kind of preamble with this very straightforward narrative: "The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." Let me try to give you some background about what is happening here:
1st. of all you have this man named Jonah. We really aren't told much about him here, other than the fact that he is the son of a man named Amittai. But there is another brief reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25, which tells us that Jonah was a prophet who lived during the reign of King Jeroboam, who was king of Israel from 782-753 BC. It also tells us that Jonah came from a town named Gath Hepher. An interesting sidelight here is that this town was only a couple of miles from the village of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up
2. God calls Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah and warn the people there that unless they change their ways, the whole city will be destroyed. If you look at a map of the ancient Middle East, you will find Ninevah in the northern part of what is now modern-day Iraq.
The site of Ninevah is now occupied by the modern day city of Mosul, which you have probably heard about in the news recently. A year ago Mosul was captured by ISIS forces, who later destroyed many ancient Assyrian artifacts in the museum there
In Jonah’s day, Ninevah was probably the largest city in the world, with a population of over 120,000. It was the capital city of the great Assyrian empire. And to understand the book of Jonah, you have to remember that the Assyrians were not exactly the most popular group of people among Israelites. They were characterized as a feared & ruthless people, who had burned & pillaged & looted their way thru most of the countries of the Middle East by Jonah's time. Understandably, they were despised & hated by the surrounding nations they had invaded.
The prophet Nahum (a few pages after Jonah) wrote an entire book chronicling the wickedness of Nineveh, & the atrocities commited by her people. Let me read you just a short excerpt:
"What sorrow awaits Nineveh, the city of murder and lies! She is crammed with wealth and is never without victims… There are countless casualties, heaps of bodies--so many bodies that people stumble over them. All this because Nineveh, the beautiful and faithless city, mistress of deadly charms, enticed the nations with her beauty. “ Nahum 3:1-4
But it was to these Assyrians, the bitter enemies of Israel, that God was sending Jonah. "Go & preach against that city, because it's wickedness has come up before me"
One thing that we learn about God in the pages of the Bible, is that again and again he comes to the point where he must deal with sin. God being a holy and righteous God, cannot simply overlook evil, or forget about it. Whether it is the city of Sodom, or the city of Ninevah, or the town of Fort Erie, God sees what is happening, & he is obligated to respond to it.
And really when we think about it, can we expect anything less of God? Sometimes we find ourselves wondering why God doesn't seem to do more to stop some of the evil that we see around us in the world. It sometimes seems to us that God is too lenient in allowing wicked men freedom to carry out their evil actions. That was the complaint of the prophet Habbakuk
"Why Lord do you tolerate wrong?...Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?" (1:3,13)
But there comes a day, as we see for eg, in the story of the flood, when God says "No more! I will not allow this evil to continue. I am going to put a stop to it"
And that's what we see happening here in the story of Jonah. God is going to deal with the people of Niniveh. But what is truly amazing in this story, & what we must not miss, is how God deals with them.
We find to our amazement, is that in spite of the wickedness of the Assyrians: their cruelty, their idolatry- that even though they have brought God's judgment on themselves, God responds not simply with punishment & retribution, as we might expect, but with incredible compassion & grace. That is the message of the book of Jonah.
You see God will never bring judment on anyone without first giving them one last opportunity to repent, to turn back to the Lord. And that’s what he is doing with Ninevah here. And so He calls on this man named Jonah, a prophet of God. And he says "Jonah, here's what I want you to do: I want you to go to Ninevah & warn them about what is going to happen to them"
Well, how does Jonah respond to this? He says: "Thank you Lord for giving me this great opportunity to go & proclaim your message to these people!" No, not exactly! What is Jonah’s response? "Lord, You must be joking! You want me to go to the Assyrians, Israel's worst enemies, the people who burned our villages, raped our women, stole our cattle? There’s no way! I am out of here!"
Jonah wanted absolutely no part of what God was proposing.
And so Jonah takes the first boat out of town! He goes down to the port city of Joppa, & finds a ship bound for a place called Tarshish. No one is exactly sure where Tarshish is, but it was probably about as far away as Jonah could go, possibly out towards the western Medit, maybe even on the coast of Spain. If Jonah were around today, he would probably have headed for a remote village in South America. Basically he just wanted to get as far away as possible- as far away as he could get from Nineveh, & as far away as he could possibly get from God as well.
But of course, even though Jonah tries to run away from Nineveh, he can't run away from God. There on that ship heading out into the Med, hiding down in the hold below deck, Jonah may think he is free from God, but he's not. God is going to throw a little wrench into Jonah's plans. And so not long after, the crew of the ship find themselves in a violent storm out on the ocean which threatens to sink the ship, & of course, they are terrified!
Now it's interesting to contrast the reaction of the crew with that of Jonah. v5 "All of the sailors were afraid & each cried out to his own god." Jonah is supposed to be the great prophet of God, but it is these pagan sailors who turn to their gods for help in time of crisis. Meanwhile Jonah is fast asleep down below, & has to be woken up by the captain of the ship, who appeals to him to pray for their deliverance. These men instinctively sense that this storm is no coincidence, that there is a deeper reason behind it. And when they draw lots to see who might be responsible, guess who gets picked?
Well, to make a long story short, Jonah admits to these men that it his fault that the storm has come, because he is trying to run away from God. Altho they are reluctant to do so, eventually the crew feel they have no choice but to throw Jonah overboard, & when they do, the storm abates, & the sea grows calm once again.
I'm sure that the crew assumed that was the end of poor Jonah, & that's what he probably thought himself as they threw him overboard. But as we see at the end of chapter 1, that wasn't the case. God still had plans for Jonah, & he provides an incredible means of escape through this great fish which swallows Jonah & saves him from drowning. And next week we'll continue to look at what happens to Jonah from this point on.
But the main thing I'd like us to see this morning is that behind everything that happens in this book, there lies the amazing grace of God. Grace that is directed towards the people of Nineveh, as God calls Jonah to go & warn them to repent. Grace that is directed even towards the men on board the ship Jonah is sailing on, who thru this whole incident are brought to a new knowledge of God. Notice that at the beginning of the storm they are calling out to their own gods, but by the end of the story, v16 says "the men greatly feared the Lord and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him"
But most of all we see the grace of God at work in Jonah's life. Even tho he tried to run away, God did not leave him there. He pursued him & began to deal with some things in his life that were keeping him from following God. We'll be talking about that some more next week
But in closing, let me just say this: I wonder if there aren't a lot of us here this morning who can relate very well to Jonah, because we feel like we've been running from God, as well. Maybe, like Jonah, God has been trying to get thru to us, but we're doing everything we can to avoid him. Maybe there is something he is calling us to do, but our response has been: "Lord, I'm not ready! Why can't you just leave me alone"
I want to tell you something that you probably already know: You can't run away from God forever. No matter where we go, no matter what we do, God will still be there. And he won't give up on us. No matter how far we try to get away from God, his grace will always go one step further. Remember Paul's statement- "Where sin increased, grace increased all the more"
But if you're tired of running, I also want to tell you that God is ready to help you. He will never ask you to do something, without also giving you the grace to be able to do it. As we will see as we continue this story next week, all we have to do is be willing to say “Yes!” to God, and he will provide us with everything we need to carry out his call on our lives. As we close in prayer, I would invite you to just that. To say Lord, I am tired of doing things my way, I'm tired of running away from you, I want to come back to you this morning. I am ready to do whatever it is that you want me to do