Summary: Lessons learned from Jonah

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Jonah 3:1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

I’d be willing to bet a nickel (maybe even a dime) that if ten people were asked what they know about the Jonah story, most of them would say, "the whale." (Of course, the Bible never says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale - all the Bible says is "a great fish" - but everyone calls it a whale, anyway).

Everyone remembers the whale, but in point of fact, the whale is the least important part of this story. There are forty-eight verses in the Book of Jonah and only three of them mention the whale. You see, here is one of the best-known yet least understood episodes in all the Bible. If this sermon does nothing else, I want to convey to you what the story of Jonah is really about.

The background of this story is that it was written after the Jews had suffered their exile in Babylon. Fifty years earlier, the Jews had been crushed in war and carried off as slaves. It was a searing experience, an experience not unlike that of the Africans who were kidnapped from their land and carried off in chains to this country.

Both groups could easily understand the sorrow and desperate longing for home which appear in the Psalm 137th, a psalm written about this same exile:

Ps 137:1-6

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars

we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD

while in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget [its skill].

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not consider Jerusalem

my highest joy. (NIV)

The experience of exile had left the Jews bitter and hateful towards all foreigners. The old vision of Israel being called by God as "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6) was dead. All they wanted was for God to destroy their enemies. They had their righteous warriors (just as we have them today) - their xenophobic super-patriots and nationalistic priests who preached a religion of "Israel First."

Jonah represents Israel in this story. Like the rest of Israel, Jonah despises outsiders. He stands for all the hostility and prejudice Jews felt towards people of other races.

It is particularly important that God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of the world’s greatest cities. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and believe me - there was no love lost in the ancient world for the Assyrian Empire. They ruled their subjects with terror and brutality. Take all the fear and loathing Americans feel for our most hated national enemies and multiply it ten times. That’s how people felt about the Assyrians.

Still, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people there that their mighty city was doomed: "go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah experienced the call of God, that moment of crisis when God enters a person’s life and turns it upside down. It’s a crisis because faithful people have always found that God’s call upsets their prior attitudes and their best-laid plans.

The apostle Paul wanted to be a Jewish scholar and leader, but he was called to leave Israel and preach to the Gentiles. St. Francis Xavier wanted to spend his life in a monastery, but he was called to be a missionary in the Indies, never to return to Europe again. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to be an unassuming pastor and seminary professor, but he was called to a social struggle that finally cost him his life.

As for Jonah, he definitely didn’t want to go to Nineveh! It wasn’t that he was afraid to go; we see later in the story just how courageous Jonah was. Instead, Jonah didn’t want to go because he didn’t want Nineveh to escape destruction by repenting. Jonah knew that God "is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (4:2). He knew God was looking for a way to spare the Assyrians and all Jonah wanted was for Nineveh to go up in flames.

So, Jonah does what many of us do when God’s call to us is inconvenient - he runs the other way! God calls us to forgive someone who has wronged us and we run the other way by wanting to continue the grudge. God calls us to stand in the minority for a righteous cause and we run away from God’s call because it’s easier to go along with the crowd. God calls us to get involved in a situation and make a real sacrifice for the good of someone else and we run the other way because we want to live for ourselves instead.

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