We all know the story of Jonah. We have heard it since we were little children. God tells a person named Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh, and cry out against it. That’s a pretty tall order. After all the Assyrians were great charioteers, great warriors, kind of scary folks. They didn’t speak Hebrew. We have no indication that Jonah spoke anything but Hebrew. So, Jonah decided to quietly turn down God’s generous offer of a trip to Nineveh. To go to Nineveh, Jonah would have needed to travel northeast: inland.
Jonah got on a ship sailed southwest to Tarshish.
But Jonah had forgotten his childhood Bible lessons from Genesis. It seems God is in charge of the sea and everything therein. The storm raged. Jonah confided in the sailors. They put their backs to the oar and tried to make shore, but it was no good. Jonah pointed a finger at himself, acknowledging his complicity in their predicament, and the sailors hoisted him over board.
Scripture shows us that God not only has power over the waters to cause chaos, God has power to redeem, so a great fish named Grace swallows Jonah and gives him a ride. After three days, Grace belches Jonah up on dry land. Jonah had been buried in the waters and had risen in newness of life, a baptism of sorts.
God was not through with Jonah. We are baptized not to sit on our hands but to do ministry! God was determined that it should be Jonah who delivered his message to the scary inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah learned quickly. The second time he received the call from God he headed northeast- inland, until he reached that sparkling, foreign, pagan, completely overwhelming city of Nineveh.
Apparently Jonah arrived in a rather foul mood. He walked deep into the heart of the city and proceeded to preach the worst sermon ever heard. In Hebrew it was five words. In English it is seven.
“Forty more days, and Nineveh is overturned.”
That was the whole sermon. There was nothing about the nature of God. There was nothing about how or why God would overturn Nineveh. There were no words of instruction to tell the people how to avoid the catastrophe, not even the word “repent.” There was no reason given for God’s anger: just five Hebrew words.
Old Testament prophets don’t always have a great track record. They would preach and kings and peasants alike ignored them, threaten to kill them or at the very least laugh at them. Jonah, however, with his awful five-word sermon becomes the most successful prophet in Old Testament history. We are told that all the people from the king to the lowliest peasant began to fast and repent and pray. They put on sackcloth and ashes to show their repentance. They vowed to turn from their evil ways.
Jonah seethed. He was furious that God might spare these people he hated. He wandered out into the desert looking for death. His worst fears had come true. God had used his awful preaching to save his enemies.
At the end of the book we find God trying to teach Jonah a lesson about who is in charge. God is firm with Jonah: God will decide what happens to other groups of people. Jonah’s job was simply to deliver the message. Everything after that was up to God.
We are often reluctant messengers of the Good News of God’s love. Ultimately, Jonah’s story is the story of God’s unfettered love for all of humanity. From Jonah’s perspective, the Assyrians were the least deserving people on the face of the earth. But from God’s perspective they were a people worthy of redemption and grace, and God would find a way to redeem, even if it took a whining, angry, man like Jonah. If only we could see all people through God’s eyes. If only we could understand Jesus’ compassion and mercy encompass all people.
Jonah reminds us that God has called each and every one of us to be vessels of love and compassion, mercy and grace. God’s love for us is unending, even when we turn and run the wrong direction, God’s grace will ultimately correct our course. Even when the thing God asks of you seems hard and frustrating, you are not asked to do the thing alone.
God goes with you to Nineveh and blesses your most feeble efforts. May you miss out on the belly of the fish and head the right direction the first time. May you find the grace to see all people as God sees them. May you find the words and actions that bless others today and always.