Jonah: The Pouting Prophet
“Jonah: The Pouting Prophet” by Rosanna McFadden
I can’t believe anyone would think I’m a jerk; I have a heart for mission. I’m always telling other people about missions they should go on. I pray for missionaries, go to presentations about mission trips, and I go to mission conferences, especially if the food is good. I have a sensitive stomach, and I don’t do spicy. Whenever the offering plate goes by, I put in a bill — sometimes two or three, depending on the food. $3 might not sound like a lot, but I go to 3 or 4 conferences a year, and that adds up. At the last conference, I signed my name, Jonah, son of Ammitai on a commitment cards that said: “Anything, anywhere, anytime.” I don’t usually put my number on stuff like that, because I don’t want to get calls, but I must have accidentally written it this time, because I did get a call about a week later. The caller said, “Jonah, I need you to go to Nineveh; their wickedness has come to my attention.” Right. As if there is anyone who doesn’t know about their wickedness. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, and Assyrians are terrible people: everybody hates the Assyrians, especially my people, the Israelites. If you look up “war atrocities” you’ll see pictures of Assyrians. When Israelites want to scare our kids, we say things like, “Get to bed right now or the Assyrians will get you.” There was NO WAY I was going on a mission trip to Nineveh, that just isn’t the kind of thing I’m good at. And, the Assyrians would tear off my arms and legs. Nope, I was NOT going to Nineveh. The problem was, the call was from God, as in, like God, so I couldn’t just ignore it.
I didn’t ignore it, but I did the next best thing — I ran away. The first ship I could get going the opposite direction from Nineveh. Nineveh was east and I headed west as fast as I could. Worst cruise of my life: one star, will never go again. The wind picked up as soon as we got out to sea, and I headed below to get some sleep. I have kind of a sensitive stomach, running away had been stressful — I hadn’t had time to pack carefully or stop my mail, and I just needed some quiet time away from God. I was sleeping when the storm got worse, and I slept through the sailors bailing and cursing and throwing things overboard to try to keep us afloat. It wasn’t until they started praying that they found me sleeping. I wasn’t too happy about being woken up: the waves were heaving, and soon I was — never mind. The sailors had been praying to their gods, and they asked about mine. I told them that I worship the Lord, God of heaven who made the sea and the land. I didn’t mention that I was running away from Him, but the sailors figured that out on their own. They finally had to throw me overboard to appease God and end the storm.
The storm stopped, alright, but what started were the most disgusting three days and nights of my life. Some biblical versions say God sent a prepared fish — believe me, this was no tuna casserole. It was a big, terrifying, slimy, stinking fish. I know God sent that fish to punish me. If you read my book in the Bible, you’ll find an entire chapter devoted to my Song of Thanksgiving while I was in the belly of the fish. I didn’t write that. Believe, me, there was no thanksgiving going on. I was inside the smallest, most uncomfortable space I had ever been in — and I used to drive a Mini Cooper. Of course, it was pitch black, and there were constant gurgling and sloshing noises. And the smell, the smell. There were fish digesting inside that fish. And those fish had fish digesting inside them, and there was something with tentacles in my left armpit. Did I mention I have a sensitive stomach? Maybe the fish did, too, because after three days it vomited me up on shore. And God said again, “Get up and go to Nineveh, and give them the message which I tell you.” So this time I went; after I took a long hot shower.
Nineveh is BIG. How big is it, you ask? It is soooo big that it takes three days just to walk from one side to the other. And here’s the message I had to give them: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Oh sure, that’s going to go well. They were going to kill me for sure. I said what God told me, but kind of quietly at first: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” What? I’m here for forty more days to look over the throne. I was encouraged that I wasn’t dismembered immediately. In fact, they seemed to be listening: I was good at this prophet stuff. Why had God waited so long to use me, after all those mission conferences I’d attended? By the third day I was having fun, I’d walk through the streets and look at people and say, “In forty days, you’re toast! Ha Ha!” I admit I was a little disappointed when the people of Nineveh began to repent and change their wicked ways: they prayed and they fasted and they wore sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. Everybody. Even the king. They even made sackcloth shirts for the animals, the cattle and dogs and cats. I got a little worried; maybe God wouldn’t kill them after all. But of course it wasn’t good for me to think like that: I knew I had to have more faith. I have been telling people for years about God’s mission, and I just had to trust that God would kill them. So I sat back and waited to see how God would kill them: 120,000 of them. Maybe the animals, too.
And then something terrible happened. God changed His mind, he went back on his word and decided not to kill them after all. Boy was I mad. God made a fool out of me. Had me travel all the way to Ninevah, gave me this message, made me walk around the city for days and days with the assurance that he was going to kill all these people, and then he changed His mind. Sure, just let them repent and pray and nothing bad will happen to them. I had to give God a piece of my mind: I said, “I know You are almighty and merciful and compassionate, but did you ever think of me when you decided to let those 120.000 people live? After I had prophesied their doom? At Your direction? Do you care how humiliated I feel right now? This is so hard for me; I wish I could just die right here. And God said, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”
It was, I’m sure it was, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I went up on a hill out of the city and hoped that maybe I’d heard wrong, and they were all going to go up in flames after all. Even if my stomach was a little upset, it would be a shame to miss that. I sat down and realized it was a great view, but pretty sunny and hot. Fortunately, a bush grew up and by afternoon my stomach had settled down, and there was some leafy shade, which made things a lot more comfortable. I was pretty happy about that bush. But the very next day, something attacked the bush and it shriveled and died. And it was hot, and there was a dry wind, and I didn’t have a hat and I was thirsty and my lips were chapped and the end of my hair were all split and frizzy and my feet were swollen and I was all sweaty — that kind of clammy sweaty where I was a little dizzy. My stomach felt terrible and I knew was going to have a sunburn, and that is NOT GOOD for someone who is fair-skinned like me, And I said to God, “I am so mad that my bush shriveled up and I lost my shade and I’m so miserable out here in the sun that I just want to die.” And God said, “Is it right for you to be so angry about a bush?” And this time I said, “Yes, yes it is. I’m so angry I wish I could die.”
But after I said that, I wondered if God asked me a trick question.
We are once again considering a jerk from the Bible, and continuing our series inspired by Margaret Brouilette’s book, “Famous Jerks of the Bible.” I appreciate those of you who shared comments about last week’s jerk, Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Jews, and I am especially grateful to Beth Sollenberger who gave me some great ideas for Jonah. At the end of this sermon, I’ll tell you how to read up on next week’s jerk — or you can look in the bulletin if you want to read ahead about reading ahead.
Jonah is unique in the portraits of prophets in the Bible: remember, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. Prophets are closely associated with God’s mission to the world, and Jonah is unique because as prophets go, he is immediately and wildly successful; all the people of Nineveh repent! He is also unique because he completely misses the point of God’s mission. You could say that as a prophet, Jonah puts the “miss” in mission. Let me share again from the book of Proverbs. This is not about fools, but an enigmatic passage about enemies from Chapter 25 verses 21-22:
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.
For you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.
The thing that most people remember about the story of Jonah is that he was swallowed by a big fish: this is a terrific narrative device, but it is SO dramatic that is in danger of swallowing up the rest of the story — particularly what happens when Jonah thinks he is fulfilling the mission by preaching to the Assyrians of Nineveh.
There is so much comedic material in the book of Jonah, it was obviously intended to be satire of Jewish prophets and prophecy. This makes for some fun reading, but there is also a deeper purpose here. Jonah doesn’t doubt, for even a moment, that the call he has received is from God: he just knows he doesn’t want to go. The author didn’t have to explain to a Jewish audience how terrible the Assyrians were — everybody knew that already. There is nothing surprising about being reluctant to accept a prophetic call; many prophets — including Moses — resisted their call at first, but Jonah bolts out the door and out to sea by the end of the first paragraph. He isn’t just reluctant, he is AWOL. There is not much detail about the fish in the biblical account. Obviously the fish kept Jonah from drowning, but the Hebrew verb the author uses for “swallowed up” always has a negative meaning: the character Jonah was correct — the fish kept him from dying, but it was sent as God’s judgment, or punishment, not as gracious deliverance.
You might think from Jonah’s song of thanksgiving in chapter 2, that the three days and nights in the belly of the fish were a time of reflection and insight — a turning point in Jonah’s sense of his call and how he fits into God’s plan. You’d be wrong. Scholars believe — again, because of verb construction, I trust them on this — that this song of thanksgiving was not part of the original story: it was added later. Jonah does end up going to Nineveh, mostly because he has few other options: the fish strands him on the shore of the Assyrian empire, and he made that sea voyage without a ship. He cannot hop in another fish to get home.
The message God give Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh is laughably short by prophetic standards: Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown. There’s no invitation to change, no proclamation of God’s sovereignty or God’s compassion. It’s just a hazard warning. No one, especially the thoroughly evil Assyrians, could be expected to repent on the basis of a single sentence. But they do: all of them: from the common people to the king. And they repent in the classic Jewish style of praying and fasting, putting ashes on their heads and wearing sackcloth (think scratchy burlap bags) They even put sackcloth on their animals (I didn’t make that up!) and they make their animals go without food or water: an enforced fast for the cattle and other livestock. The people, and animals, of Nineveh repent more sincerely and more thoroughly than any group of people before or since. Jonah should be overjoyed about this, right? He isn’t: and that is why Jonah is a jerk.
Jonah thinks God’s mission is to destroy the enemies of Israel — Jonah is an Israelite. He’s looking forward to their destruction, and he feels personally cheated when they repent. This is a classic case of putting prophets before people (see what I did there?) Jonah cares more about a bush that grew up in a day and gave him some shade than he does about a city of 120.000 people. When you care more about your own comfort than the lives of a gigantic city of people, you are a jerk. You can speak God’s words, and think you are part of God’s mission, but you have not understood who God is. God’s mission is not to eliminate people, it is to reconcile them to God. If God’s desire for humanity was that evil people get the judgment that is coming to them, we could have stopped with the Old Testament and there would have been no reason for God to send his Son, Jesus Christ.
The author of Jonah is posing the question — in a pretty entertaining way — who is God’s mission for? Just the Jews? Only those people who should already know God? You know, the ones who were born into the system and inherited the holy writings, and are taught by people who have studied the law? Is God’s mission only for insiders or is it for outsiders, too? This will become the crucial question for the mission of the early church and the first apostles: is everyone welcome to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, or only those who already have Jewish cultural credentials — circumcision, dietary laws, etc.
The author of Jonah understands something that the title character never figures out: the sacrifice which is pleasing to God is a broken and contrite heart, not matter if that person is Jewish, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, or American. Jonah proclaims a message of destruction, but he never figures out what it is that God really wants. God’s mission, the missio Dei, is never a tool to get revenge on our enemies. God’s mission is to draw people to God and to his Son Jesus Christ. It is news of the possibility of repentance and acceptance, and grace. Our mission is to go to all nations with that good news. Anything, anytime, anywhere. Next week’s character is Haman; you can find him in the book of Esther in the Old Testament. This is a longer book than Jonah, with a lot more political intrigue and a bunch of beautiful women; you’ll probably want to skip that part. I encourage you to read the whole book, but pay attention especially to chapter 3, and to chapter 7. Blessings for your week. Don’t miss the mission.