by: Denise Robinson
Life Lessons: Jonah
“Beware Whales and Bushes”
Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1-11
Our series, Life Lessons, continues this morning with the story of Jonah. Last week we looked at the life of Daniel and discovered his story much deeper and richer than his encounter with lions in the lions’ den. We looked at the lions we face in life and how, by studying Daniel’s story, we can learn to face any lion through a faith that is fearless, persistent, and based on the constant presence of God in our lives. But while Daniel lived a life of courage and commitment and is a positive role model for us in our relationship with God, the prophet we are looking at this morning is just the opposite. This morning we are reminded that we can run from God, hide from God, get angry with God, even throw a temper tantrum – but God will not be ignored.
This morning we go back over 150 years before Daniel to the late 700s, to a time when Jeroboam II was king of Israel and a minor, rather obscure, prophet by the name of Jonah, son of Amittai, lived in a small town in the province of Galilee. Our story begins when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, to speak against its wickedness and to call its people to repent. Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, was located approximately 700 miles NE of Jonah’s hometown of Gaph-hepher. The easiest and fastest way to get there was to walk west about 60 miles to the port city of Joppa, get on a boat, go north along the eastern shoreline of the Mediterranean, and then head east on foot the remainder of the way. The ruins of Nineveh were discovered in the 1800s and are still undergoing excavation today; they can be found just across the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq. So, as we might expect, Jonah goes to Joppa, but then he does something entirely out of character for an Old Testament prophet; he gets on a ship headed west towards Tarshish. To get to Tarshish, Jonah would be travelling by boat the entire length of the Mediterranean Sea, because Tarshish was in Spain, over 2000 miles due west. Tarshish wasn’t just in the opposite direction from Nineveh; Tarshish was as far as anyone living at that time could travel, because west of Tarshish was the Atlantic Ocean. It was believed to set out on that great expanse of water was to risk floating off edge of the world. In other words, Jonah was willing to travel to the edge of the world to get away from God.
Many of you may know the story, but some may not. Jonah gets on a ship and they head out on the sea to the west; then, all of a sudden, a mighty storm strikes, a storm so powerful it threatens to break the ship apart. You know it’s a mighty storm when it frightens experienced seamen and they throw cargo overboard to lighten the load. Jonah, meanwhile, is down in the hold of the ship sleeping when the captain of the ship comes down to wake him up. You see, up on deck, the sailors are praying to their gods for rescue and the captain expects Jonah to add his voice in prayer to whatever god he worships. The sailors are also casting lots to see who is at fault for this mess. They’ve experienced storms at sea before, but the fury of this storm and the way it struck without warning, tells them there’s a supernatural cause. They determine Jonah to be the cause of their misfortune and turn to him for an explanation. Jonah tells them he worships the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land – and then tells them he is on their ship because he is fleeing from God. The sailors wonder what should be done, and Jonah tells them to throw him overboard so that the storm will calm down. The sailors don’t take him up on his offer immediately; they try rowing to shore first and then cry out to God for another alternative. Finally, when it appears there is no other solution, they toss him into the sea.
Now enters the big fish or whale. God, it seems, isn’t finished with Jonah. He is swallowed by the fish and survives for three days and nights during which he, not surprisingly, prays for deliverance. The next thing we know, the fish spits Jonah out onto dry land. If you think this is entirely too far-fetched of a story, go online and Google (I mean conduct a scientific survey) of a man named Michael Packard who was swallowed and spit up by a humpback whale just about 30 days ago. Anyway, God then tells Jonah, a second time, to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message to the people. Jonah, seemingly possessed with a little more common sense, obeys, and goes to Nineveh. We read that from the king on down, the people of Nineveh turn to God and repent of their evil ways. God, who had been inclined to direct his anger against Nineveh, relents, and allows the people of Nineveh to live. End of story, Jonah’s mission is a success, he goes home a hero, and his life is an inspiration to us all, right? Not so fast.
You see, Jonah is angry. Not angry at himself for disobeying God, but angry at God for saving Nineveh. Here’s what he has to say in Jonah 4:1-3 (READ). Jonah knows that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent – and he explains to God that is the exact reason he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. What is his solution? He wants to die. Talk about drama. Jonah goes east of the city, makes a little booth, and sits down to see what is going to happen next. He is hoping that the people of Nineveh will revert to their old ways and God will destroy them. But it’s hot out there in the desert and the booth he has made offers some shade, but not enough. So, enter bush. God creates a bush to come up over Jonah to give him added shade and Jonah is “very happy” about the bush. But, at dawn the next day, God sends a worm to attack the bush. The bush dies, the sun beats down on Jonah’s head, and Jonah is no longer very happy, but very mad. In fact, for a second time Jonah tells God he is angry enough about this whole situation to die. And here comes the focal point of the book of Jonah. It’s in Ch. 4, verses 10-11: Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” This is the end of the story of Jonah. So, what life lessons can we draw from Jonah?
The first lesson tells us something about ourselves and our human nature. God calls us, but the truth is we don’t always want to respond. Nineveh represents those things in life we don’t want to change, the places we don’t want to go, the people we don’t want to associate with. Jonah might’ve even had a point about Nineveh. The Assyrian Empire was big and getting bigger. And it grew in size and strength by doing what empires do – overthrowing other nations, killing and enslaving people, stealing their natural resources and their wealth – and that’s exactly what happened 50 years later when Assyria conquered Israel. Nineveh was a wicked city that was part of a wicked empire ruled by wicked kings. God’s not only calling Jonah to an unpleasant and dangerous task, but it was even fair to believe the world would be better off if Nineveh were destroyed. But that wasn’t in God’s plan at the time and it wasn’t Jonah’s call to make. God calls each of us, you and me, for a purpose – and it’s up to us how we respond. We can do what God is calling us to do even if it’s out of our comfort zone or not part of our plan; or we can try and run in the other direction or try and hide from God. The problem is, if God wants you to go to Nineveh and you don’t go, you can expect to have to face storms and whales and bushes in your life.
The second life lesson from Jonah is if we follow God, our lives are not about us. In the first verses of Ch. 4, when Jonah is at his angriest with God, he uses the word “I” or “me” eight times in three short verses. God asks Jonah twice if he really has the right to be angry and both times Jonah says he is angry enough to die. That’s an irrational and extreme kind of anger, given the circumstances. If God possessed that kind of anger, Jonah would’ve been killed the minute he got onto the boat at Joppa. Instead, God sent a storm and then a whale, to try and get Jonah’s attention and bring him back into line with God’s plan for his life. And, when it seemed like that had worked, he delivered Jonah from the whale and protected him in Nineveh as Jonah delivered God’s message. Jonah could’ve left Nineveh a powerful and effective witness for God; but instead, he sat down and threw a fit. Even then God didn’t act out of anger against Jonah. He gave him a bush to give him time to think about his behavior and reconsider. What we learn in this lesson is that God is all that Jonah knew God to be – merciful, slow to anger, loving, and forgiving. Jonah’s problem was that he wanted these qualities for himself, but not for others. If we’re being honest, aren’t we tempted to think the same thing? When I mess up, I want mercy. When I see someone else mess up, I want judgment, punishment, accountability. Jonah reminds us that God doesn’t work that way. If I accept that God loves and forgives me, then I have to accept that God loves and forgives you and everyone else for that matter.
The third lesson from Jonah comes from the unanswered question at the end of Ch. 4. In reading the Old Testament, we often think of God as being concerned only with the people of Israel. Here we have Nineveh, a city of Assyrians, and its people matter to God. God says to Jonah, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.” Like Jonah, we tend to focus on things in our lives that will be gone when we are gone. We know that there is nothing material in this life that we can take with us into the next life and yet we live as though we can. While Jonah is crying over a bush, God asks: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?” Jonah, a man who claimed to follow God, simply did not share God’s concerns for people. God created the bush; God created all people. The bush made Jonah “very happy;” God, in Genesis, looked at the people he had created – people just like us with their pride and greed and self-centeredness and arrogance – and said they were “very good.” God, we learn from Jonah, is God of all and for all and loves all. That’s something we better never forget, and we need to embrace that fact rather than get angry about it.
We don’t know how the story of Jonah ends. God dangles a question and Joan is silent. "Should not God be concerned with the welfare of all people?" Jonah doesn’t say yes; he doesn’t say no. We leave him sitting in the desert, overlooking Nineveh, getting overheated by the sun, and pouting. The question it seems is left for us to answer. Leslie Allen, a seminary professor, wrote in his commentary on Job: “A Jonah lurks in every Christian’s heart whispering his insidious message….” It’s so easy for us to become Jonah’s: to turn away from God’s call, to put our desires first, to think we have all the answers, to believe that God is only for us or people like us, and to get angry with God when things don’t go our way. The life lesson for today is to resist that Jonah lurking within us: to be concerned about those things that most concern God, to be faithful to God in all circumstances, and to show others God’s love and mercy by being loving and merciful to others even when, especially when, we think they don’t deserve it.