Jonah

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Today we heard part of a mythical tale – the story of Jonah and the big fish. It might be a true story of an historical event, but that isn’t the point. It was included in the Bible because it imparts a strong moral message: hat good will triumph over evil, the bad guys will get their comeuppance, and God is a God of forgiveness and love.

It begins with a dream, and in this dream God commanded Jonah to leave Israel and go to the city of Nineveh because of its great wickedness. Now Nineveh had a bit of a reputation, all good upright citizens would avoid it. A city where you wouldn’t want to bring up your children, full of undesirables and criminals, violence and muggings went hand in hand. It has been described it as a den of iniquity and the source of much suffering and evil upon the face of the earth. Jonah the prophet is therefore instructed to pay a visit and warn the people that if they didn’t pull their socks up the city would be destroyed in forty days.

Maybe Jonah thought that this was a tall order and he wasn’t cut out for it, because instead of making the 500-mile journey east from Jerusalem to Nineveh, Jonah boards a merchant ship at the port of Joppa and heads towards Tarshish, a city some 2,000 miles to the West. Once he’s out at sea the boat is caught in the middle of a storm. It’s so bad that the ship begins to come apart at the seams. Understandably the sailors are terrified. Each man prays to his own god for salvation, and they run to and fro throwing cargo overboard, hoping to lighten the vessel and therefore save the ship, but it’s not working. Instead the storm gets worse and it seems that the ship is about to sink. The fear of the crew is increasing by the second and being both desperate as well as superstitious they decide that someone on board must have made a god angry, and so they cast lots to determine who is responsible for causing the storm.

Jonah confesses, “It’s me! I’m running from my God.” The crew are already terrified and the storm is getting worse and so they ask Jonah, “what should we do?” And Jonah replies, “throw me into the sea and it will become calm.” Desperate measures you might think, but it works. As they do so the storm subsides and Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish and for three days and three nights he lies in the belly of that fish. An interesting parallel of Jesus spending three days dead in the tomb. However all is not lost. Whilst confined Jonah thanks God for saving him from drowning, and he promises that he will visit Nineveh, the fish spews the prophet onto dry land, and he embarks on his mission.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, a city so big that it takes three days to see it, and he proclaims the message of God, saying, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites, from the least who lived in slums and stole for a living, to the greatest, who lived in luxury and grew fat on injustice, give up their evil ways, put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted and prayed to God for mercy. Indeed they are so keen that they even dressed their animals in sackcloth and caused them to observe the citywide fast. And God saw the repentance of Nineveh and he had compassion, and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Our moral tale has a happy ending but what does it say to us today? Well imagine it if you can. Imagine if every terrorist today who preaches hate and murder were to change their minds and lay down their weapons and pray to Allah, or God, or their Higher Power for deliverance and forgiveness; or if all corrupt individuals and environmentally brutal corporations amended their behaviour about how they lived and worked and practiced? It would be bliss, no more wars, or bombings, or corruption, nor injustice. It would be a cause of celebration all over the world, there would be dancing in the streets. But this isn’t how Jonah felt. Even though the miracle that happened in Nineveh was greater than we can ever conceive, Jonah was very displeased, and he became angry. In fact, he became so annoyed that he prayed to God saying, “didn’t I tell you what would happen!”

How can we make sense of Jonah’s reaction? I think the answer lies in Jonah’s anger, and in the prayer, he makes when he’s angry. Jonah was a man of faith, a man who deeply loved his God and his people. He had integrity, he hated what was evil. Certainly, as his story shows, he was not a man who would do evil himself, that’s why he confessed to the crew of the ship that he was running from God and suggested they throw him into the sea. He wasn’t a man who would bring suffering upon the innocent. But when all this is said, the fact remains that Jonah hated evil more than he loved good, and this is the root of his problem.

In this whale of a tale we are told that the reason Jonah fled from God, the reason that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh with God’s warning, and the reason he got so angry at God, is because he was afraid that Nineveh would repent and that God would save the city. Does this seem incredible? Well, it is. Jonah hoped that God would punish evil, that he would destroy Nineveh, in much the same way that some individuals hope that God will reprimand their enemies, that some bad thing will fall upon those who harm us or our loved ones. Not dissimilar to the many advocates who belong to those extreme forms of religion and preach hatred wherever they are given a platform and will go out their way to destroy those who do not follow the same creed as them. Last year, this country was subjected to further acts of terrorism by individuals who believed that they were acting for some glorious good when in fact they simply wanted to spread fear and turmoil. I long for the day when we no longer need to worry about hatred and zealous bigots because they will be a thing of the past. Jonah’s problem was that he hated more than he loved. He desired that the doers of evil (in his eyes) die, instead of longing for their salvation. Sadly there are still too many people like that today.