Imagine with me for a minute. Think of a place that you do not like. Maybe it is Las Vegas, maybe Duke, maybe somewhere that you have very negative memories or someplace that you hope to never go. Now think of people that you do not like, maybe it is a group from school or people at work, maybe it is a religious group or a terrorist group like Boca Haram or ISIL. Now imagine being forced to go to that place and to those people to bring a message from God – to save them. This is the plot for Jonah. —
Jonah is the final prophet in our prophet series and Jonah perfectly sets the stage for Lent and for The Last Week of Jesus which is our next sermon series.
The story of Jonah is all about justice. The struggle for Jonah was all about Justice, justice for a bad city full of bad people. Jonah desired justice.
The story of Jonah is one of the best loved stories for children of the church. The idea of being in a boat on the sea in a terrible storm and then being swallowed by a great fish is simply awesome! The idea that we can’t run from God and that God hears our cries even in unimaginable situations are good truths that children and adults need to learn and be reminded. And then there are the themes like:
- the longing we all have to be rewarded for our good behavior and for being faithful to God,
- feeling sorry for ourselves when things don’t go our way,
- and desiring that people who do evil things – really evil things receive justice.
When God spoke to Jonah and said, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” Jonah was not excited. Jonah did not want to do that. He could not stand that city and he could not stand those people. He did not argue with God. He did not come up with excuses as to why he was NOT the man for the job like Moses and Jeremiah tried. Jonah just took off – ran away – went to the coast to catch a boat headed for Tarshish. He paid his fair and went aboard and thought things were good.
Jonah was like children and teenagers who know their parents want them to do that chore – cleaning out the litter box, babysitting a younger sibling or cousin, cleaning out a closet, raking the leaves, shoveling the snow, splitting the wood – that most despised chore whatever it is – will cause a perfectly good and reasonable child or teenager to run and hide – pretending that they did not hear the command to do it. They know there is no use in arguing – they will not win the argument so they just pretend they did not hear and go somewhere they hope they will not be found until hopefully someone else does the job. Maybe Jonah thought God would get someone else to do it when he disappeared.
Jonah really despised Nineveh. Nineveh was the oldest and most populous city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. A well planned and built city of about 100 kilometers of land inside city walls that housed more than 100,000 people, Nineveh was situated on the east bank of the Tigris River across from what is now called Mosul in Iraq. It’s location at the intersection of important north-south and east-west trade routes, made it the perfect place to be a city of sin. It was the city that never sleeps, the original city where what happens in Nineveh stays in Nineveh.
The entire book of Nahum is an oracle about Nineveh reporting that the people were tangled up like thorns, drunkards, whores and sorcerers. Both Nahum and Zephaniah predicted the destruction of the city by God because of all the sin. Jonah despised Nineveh and he did NOT want to go and he certainly did not want to save the people.
It was a matter of justice. Faithful people, like Jonah, deserved to be rewarded and sinful people, like those who lived in Nineveh, deserved to be punished. It was a matter of justice and justice means that those who deserve punishment receive it and those who deserve a reward obtain it. Justice includes the understanding that people who do not worship and serve God, who have no regard for God’s laws or God’s children or God’s creation will be punished. Our faith is built on a foundation of the understanding that God – is – just. If God is not just we might as well all go home. Right?
In recent months ISIL has be-headed and set fire to innocent people, they have video-taped the killing of men, women and children. Boca Haram has kidnapped, enslaved and killed Christian women and girls. These are not just people who, in the heat of the moment, make a bad decision. These are people who plan and carry out horrible, horrible atrocities. The thought that God might love and cherish people who carry out atrocities like ISIL and like Boca Haram, is too much. They are not loveable people, they deserve justice. —
—The ship pulled out of the harbor with Jonah aboard and they were on their way. Jonah felt safe and the anxiety of dealing with God had worn him out so he went below to take a nap. But shortly after – they encountered mighty winds and a great storm. The storm was so powerful it seemed as if the ship might break into pieces. On deck people were crying and praying and doing all they could to save the ship. The crew began to throw cargo overboard in order to lighten the ship’s load. They did not know if they were going to live and while all this was happening, Jonah was below sleeping.
The ships officer came upon him and said, “how can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your God so that maybe we won’t all die.” Jonah got up and Jonah fessed up and said, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.” Then he told them the whole story about not wanting to preach to Nineveh and about running away from God. The men started to really get scared. They asked Jonah what to do to appease his God. Should they pray? Should they offer a sacrifice?
Jonah answered, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
After trying everything else to save the ship, they threw Jonah overboard and right away the sea ceased its raging. In response, the men on the boat worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence and offered a sacrifice and made solemn promises to God.
While everything was looking up for those on the ship, out in the ocean, things were not so good for Jonah. While trying to stay afloat with waves crashing all around, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. There Jonah stayed – inside the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. This was not a good place to be. This was not a good situation to be in. Jonah had trouble breathing and was not sure he would live. He felt as if God had abandoned him. And so he did what any of us would do in a situation such as that. He promised to do whatever God wanted if he was delivered from this horrible situation.
And so when the fish vomited him onto the dry land, he did what God commanded and went to Nineveh. It took three days to walk across the despised city. And while his heart was not in the task, Jonah walked and shouted, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.” Walking and shouting, shouting and walking, he did exactly what God asked.
And to his surprise, wherever Jonah went the people repented. All who heard him preach, fasted and put on clothes for mourning. The king rose from his throne, stripped off his robe and sat in ashes proclaiming that no one should eat or drink – even the animals. The king called for everyone to call upon God, to stop evil behavior and violence in the hope that God would notice and spare their city.
—But Jonah wanted justice. He was Hebrew, a person of God. He had lived his life following God’s commandments. He was part of the chosen people of God – he was part of the covenant faith. And here in Nineveh lived sinful people, worshippers of other gods, who engaged in prostitution and drinking and sorcerery. Justice was needed, in the form of the wrath of God for all they had done to themselves and to other people. Jonah wanted justice.
When God chose not to destroy the city, Jonah got angry and he wanted to die. If the most sinful, evil people were not going to be punished – Jonah did not want to live. Jonah wanted to live in world where everything made sense – black or white, right or wrong, awarded or punished.
I get Jonah. I hate to say it but when I think of Boca Haram and how they have kidnapped those beautiful girls, those girls who are followers of Christ, those girls who are the same age as the beautiful girls here at Providence – I want justice. I want those men to suffer every bit as much if not more than the suffering they have inflicted. And then there are the people who have wronged me – who have really done something terrible to me or to my children. I want justice for them too. I want them to feel pain like they have given. I want justice.
But Scripture says God is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” And then there is the whole thing with Jesus — right —then there is Jesus, who came and loved and forgave – who ate with the tax collectors – the most despised people – who ate with the sinners – who asked for a drink of water from a woman with a bad reputation – who forgave adultery – who forgave those who killed him.
I cannot claim to understand the justice of God. I cannot claim to understand God’s grace. I cannot claim to understand the forgiveness we have through Christ Jesus.
But I do know in the depth of my heart that God is just and that God’s justice includes mercy and compassion, patience, grace and faithful love. And I know that I am called to that kind of justice in my life and in my heart as well. I am called to go to Nineveh too.