Summary: That fish gets all the attention, but this book contains a message about the character of God. In these few pages we find a story that reveals to us the power and compassion of God...and along the way, like Jonah, we learn that obedience isn’t optional.
Jonah—A Sermon Series by Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Outline of Jonah:
Ch 1, The Prodigal Prophet
Ch 2, The Praying Prophet
Ch 3, The Preaching Prophet
Ch 4, The Pouting Prophet
Message #1, “I ran away but I couldn’t stay” -chapter 1:1-3 (introduction to the series)
We all know the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who reached his appointed destination only after a detour in the stomach of a great fish. We know it so well that it’s easy not to take Jonah seriously. That fish gets all the attention, but this is a message about the character of God. In these few pages we find a story that reveals to us the power and compassion of God…and along the way, like Jonah, we learn that obedience isn’t optional.
One important lesson we find out in this tale has to do with us. In Jewish synagogues on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a passage from this story is read, and the congregation responds with the words: “We are Jonah.” This book is about us; it’s like a mirror, which means we may not like what we see. We are Jonah in our disobedience, in our insensitivity to others, in our dissatisfaction at how God works, in our selfishness. What makes the story bearable is that we also see how God is patient and quick to forgive.
Jonah’s name means “dove”, but he’s more like the raven that wouldn’t return to Noah’s Ark. We’re shocked by his rebellion and displeasure over God’s willingness to show mercy to the people of Ninevah. Jonah wanted Ninevah to “get what it deserved,” so he abandons his vocation, his calling. In this, Jonah is like both the Prodigal Son and the older brother of the parable. God is glorified, not through His prophet, but in spite of him.
Some people have trouble with the book of Jonah because it reads like a tall-tale, the mother of all big fish stories. Jesus compared Himself to Jonah, whom He regarded as a historical figure (1st mention-II Kings 14:25). In Matthew 12 Jesus predicts, “As Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth.” He is referring to His death and resurrection. If we can accept the resurrection of Jesus, the story of Jonah is not hard to believe. The key issue is: Can God work miracles? Does He have control of human events?
Next Jesus warns, “The men of Ninevah 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.” The self-righteous religious leaders looked down on Gentiles as unsavable; and by refusing to repent, they failed to measure up even to the standard of Bibleless pagans in ancient Ninevah.
Jonah is given a task typical of prophets, to preach against a foreign, pagan nation. Such assignments were commonplace, but prophetic warnings were usually spoken on the prophet’s native soil. Nahum also preaches against Ninevah, but Jonah’s call is to serve as a foreign missionary, which he finds an unacceptable task. To ask Jonah to travel to Ninevah, in Babylon, Israel’s enemy, would be like asking a Rabbi to preach against the Nazis in Berlin during WWII. Most prophets issued their rebuke at a safe distance. Israel wasn’t known for treating its prophets well; you can imagine how a sworn enemy of Israel might respond! But it isn’t fear that causes Jonah to rebel, but anger towards Israel’s enemy. He objects to the mercy of God being offered to the evil Ninevites!
We have enemies today. Do we pray for them? I have prayed that Osama bin Laden be captured, but I can’t say I’ve prayed that he repent and turn to Christ. I need to.
One reason Jonah was so reluctant to preach to Ninevah was concern that the Babylonian Captivity foretold by other prophets would ultimately destroy the Jewish people. Jeremiah described Babylon as a sea monster swallowing up the Jews. Yet the thing Jonah feared the most actually saved his people. The Jews were intermarrying with unbelievers and becoming influenced by idolatry. Had they not been taken into captivity they would have been assimilated and obliterated as a distinct people. They would have completely lost their national and spiritual identity. God’s punishment preserved His people.
The city of Ninevah is among the oldest of known civilizations. It was located on the Tigrus River in modern day Iraq. I preached on Jonah during Desert Storm, and I remarked to my fellow soldiers that we can understand why Jonah didn’t exactly relish going there--I sure got a lot of amens preaching that sermon! Ninevah was a large, prosperous city, known for its military might and perversion. It was dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and war. Yet as our text reveals, even ungodly cities are savable.