Summary: An overview of the story of Jonah’s missionary travels, and how his attitude kept getting in the way of God’s plan.
What is it we think of when people mention the story of Jonah? I guess a lot of people think about the fish. Others think about the plant that grew and then died. We tend to remember the stranger things, don’t we? My personal favourite part of the story is when the king requires the animals to repent, and wear sackcloth!
Yet it is very easy to hear these parts of the story and miss what is actually going on. The story of Jonah is quite funny, it’s true – but underneath the humour God has some very important lessons to teach us.
First lesson – God is a God of compassion and mercy.
God originally told Jonah to go to the Ninevites because of their wickedness.
Throughout the Bible we find prophets who have been commissioned by God to preach against various evils. God cannot stand sin, and desires the world to be rid of it.
However, God doesn’t want to punish us. He would much rather forgive people. In Jeremiah 18 God promises that if a prophet brings a message of doom to a nation, but that nation repents of its evil, God will avert his anger.
This is exactly what happens here. The people repent, and so does God!
We’re continually hearing about how bad this world is. Every time I turn on the news, I hear someone telling me about how bad the world is. I hear scientists telling us that the world is in imminent danger of collapse and ruin. And these aren’t, often, Godly people telling us this!
There are many Godly people also telling us what a state the world is in. God has good reason to be angry with our world – our nation – our city right now. But he doesn’t want us to perish. He wants us to live! And it’s up to the church – which includes every one of us here today to tell the world that there is hope.
Second lesson – We can get in the way of God’s work!
God had a job for Jonah to do. But Jonah ran the other way!
Even when God convinced Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah still didn’t do his job properly.
We eventually find out that God’s desire was for the people of Nineveh to repent. But Jonah only preached destruction. ‘In forty days this city will be destroyed,’ he told them. He neglected to tell them that God was a God of compassion. And he knew God wanted to forgive the city of Nineveh – see his reply to God in chapter 4? Jonah put his own desires in front of God’s desire. It could have had tragic consequences.
Jonah isn’t alone in this. We can all put our own agendas in front of God’s. We do God’s work ... as long as it suits our purposes. How often do we have mixed motives for the godly work we do? It’s very easy.
Take, for example, the preacher who preaches a sermon that will enhance his or her reputation rather than the sermon that will result in many decisions for Christ.
Or the rich business man who sponsors an orphan in Africa because of the tax advantages, not because he desires to help a person in poverty.
All of these things are good, but in these cases people have put themselves before God. I am sure we are all aware of things we do or have done where God’s plan takes second place to our own. Roman 12:1 tell us that we are to be living sacrifices to God. We must defer to God in everything we do, not just the things that suit us most.
Third lesson – God will work in spite of us.
This is the part of the story I find the most incredible. Here’s Jonah, known as a prophet of God withholding information from the people of Nineveh. He tells them they are about to be destroyed, but he doesn’t tell them the important bit – they can repent and be saved!
Who is it that figures this out? The King! Here he is, the pagan king of Nineveh perceiving the plan of God. As I understand it, the King of Nineveh had a reputation for being an effeminate cross dresser, a homosexual and the epitome of all that the Jewish nation were supposed to despise. Yet he figures out God’s purpose. The dainty, cross dressing King put on sackcloth. The man who wore women’s makeup sat in the dust.
[At this stage, I asked a dairy farmer in our congregation how he would respond if he received a letter from the Minister for Agriculture requiring him to dress his herd in sackcloth and stopped their feed. The congregation thought it was hilarious - as did this gentleman!]