Summary: The story of Jonah and how it parallels our reluctance to reach the lost.
I can still the scene from Titanic where the orchestra is brought out on deck to play music while the ship is sinking. Drinks and food are passed out in the dining room to maintain a sense of normalcy. People were eating, drinking and dancing as the ship was going down. It reminds me of what Jesus said: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39). We often think that the people who are oblivious to the seriousness of the times are the people without God in their lives, but it is also Christians who are eating and drinking, going about their lives as usual, while people are plunging into eternity. We are busy rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic while people are perishing about us.
That was certainly the case in the life of Jonah. People were about to die and he was totally unconcerned. The end was coming for Assyria and he was going on with life as usual. He could have cared less that God was about to judge the Assyrians. In fact, he hoped God would judge them. He wanted God to rain down fire from heaven and destroy those whom he considered his enemies. He would have loved it if an invading army would have come and crushed them. He would have played in the orchestra as he watched their ship sink. Jonah’s hatred of the Assyrians was not without good reason. They were an immediate military threat to the existence of Israel. The Assyrians had destroyed many of the surrounding nations, and their reputation for extreme cruelty made them a feared and hated nation.
But God was about to ask Jonah to do something he never would have dreamed God would want him to do. God asked him to care about what happened to the Assyrians, and then go to preach in Nineveh, their capital city, to see if he could turn them around. God wanted to spare them. But Jonah did not want to do what God was asking. He was reluctant to do God’s will, but it was not because he was afraid of the Ninevites. Neither was it because he was afraid of failure. Jonah was afraid of success. He was afraid they would repent and that God, in his mercy, would save them from destruction.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet for several reasons. The first was: Jonah did not want God to love people he hated. Jonah would have loved to see the people of Assyria judged by God. There is a German word for Jonah’s attitude: schadenfreude. It means, “Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” Schadenfreude is the sick pleasure you would have when you see the girl voted “most popular” in your senior class now weighing 40 pounds more than she did at graduation — pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. It is feeling good about your least favorite person at work being turned down for a promotion. That was Jonah. He was thrilled at the thought that the Assyrians might be destroyed. He did not want the Assyrians to be spared. He hated those barbaric people who worshiped idols and practiced such violence and cruelty. Jonah was not even sure they were human beings in the truest sense of the word. And if God spared them, it would mean they would live to conquer Jonah’s homeland of Israel. In Jonah’s mind, Israel may have sinned against God, but they were not nearly as evil as the Assyrians. Jonah resented God for wanting to reach out to these idolatrous and violent people. He thought it was perfectly acceptable to hate certain groups of people.
His attitude did not please God, but it is an attitude not altogether unknown to the Christian community. It is to the church’s shame that we have accepted, and at times even blessed, this kind of prejudice against certain groups of people. We have in our town an A. M. E. church. It stands for African Methodist Episcopal. The reason the church exists is because, to our shame, African Americans were at one time not accepted in white Methodist churches, and they were forced to form a denomination of their own. For years, we had the Methodist Church North and the Methodist Church South, because racism had divided the people called Methodists. I have just finished Tom Brokaw’s new book on CD entitled The Greatest Generation. It is a wonderful book about a great generation of Americans. But Brokaw also talks about the racism which was rampant in the 40’s and 50’s, and the tremendous injustices which African Americans endured during the war. He also talks about Japanese Americans and the wrongs done to them at that time. They were herded into detention camps and lived in squalid conditions, even though they were citizens of the United States and had committed no crimes. They were also unwelcome in many churches across the land, even though they were successful business people and often contributed more than their fair share to the prosperity of the nation.