2nd July 23 – Jonah

2nd July 23 – Jonah

Our story today talks about someone who was told by God to do something he REALLY didn’t want to do.  It’s the story of Jonah.  But before we listen to it, I wonder if anyone knows the story and wants to tell us what they remember of it?


There are so many things we could say about this story.  We might think about parallels or contrasts with the story of Jesus – the prophet who disobeyed God and ran from God’s will versus the Son who obeyed even to death; sacrifice for the salvation of others, by being thrown overboard in a storm or by being killed on a cross; the three days and three nights even quoted by Jesus himself; the water of the sea and the water of baptism…

But for me, the book of Jonah is all about repentance, and there are two dimensions to it.  We start with two sets of people, or groups of people, who disobey God.  That is the people of Nineveh, and Jonah himself.  And both of those God loves and wants to bring back in line with his will.

We’ll come to Nineveh in a minute but let’s take Jonah first.  He’s asked by God to go and give a message to this city, this terrible city we learnt about a couple of weeks ago in the book of Nahum, the capital city of the enemy Assyria who were doing awful things in the way of war crimes and oppression to Israel and to other surrounding nations.  It must have been really scary for Jonah to go there.  What would they do to him?

So Jonah ran.  But God still cares about him, and wants to stop Jonah from running.  So he sends a storm.  The storm isn’t some kind of punishment from God, it is his way of getting Jonah’s attention, of stopping him from running away – and of making the point, again as we saw in Nahum, that God is not just God in Israel as though getting out of Israel would get him away from God, but that he is God everywhere.  Maybe Jonah should have read that psalm we started with – “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?”  because he couldn’t run away from God.

The storm comes up, and Jonah realises that the only way to save the ship and the lives of the people on it is for him to be thrown overboard.  How scary was that?  Did he know, then, that God still cared about him?  I wonder if as he fell into the sea he was desperately trying to stay afloat, if he cried out to God, if he looked around him searching desperately for anything he could use as a life raft.  I think we might have done.  But God didn’t send him a life raft, he didn’t send him a boat – as he sank beneath the waves, as he thought he was drowning, God sent a fish.

Sometimes when we disobey God, or when we fail to listen to him, there are consequences.  Not that God punishes us, as though he wants to make us pay, but that things happen to get our attention, to bring us back to him.  He doesn’t want us to suffer; he does want us to listen and to obey him.  We need to listen, in the storms in our lives – what is God trying to say to us?  We might be caught in someone else’s storm, as the crew of that ship were; we might be suffering as a result of someone else doing wrong or just evil and sin in the world.  But it might be that God is trying to get our attention.  In our suffering, even in the consequences of our own actions, God is with us, loving us, waiting for us to come back to him.

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt like I was drowning; I remember hearing the psalm we read and the words ‘if I make my bed in the depths, you are there’ – it reminded me of this story of Jonah.  He saved Jonah, but not in the way anyone would expect!  And when we are drowning in the troubles of life he is there for us too.

## Wide wide as the ocean

Craft activity for children – making a whale – plastic cup, (water?) balloon filled with flour.  Draw eyes on the cup, make a tail – string from tail, through cup to tie to balloon.  Catch game!

We come to the people of Nineveh.  They were called to repent.  God saw the things they were doing, pretty awful things, but still he loved them.  Instead of pouring out his anger on them, he sent them a message: “this is wrong – you need to turn your lives around.”  Jonah, having spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, came back to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.  We might remember that Jesus died and rose to life to give that opportunity to us, too.  And the good news of the book of Jonah is that God forgives all who truly repent, however bad they have been.

And if we just watched that video maybe we would think that the point of this book is that it teaches people everywhere to repent, to turn away from the bad things they are doing, to turn back to God.  After all, that’s what Jonah did from inside the fish, that’s what the people of Nineveh did at the end of the video.


That’s not actually the end of the story.

What do you think Jonah did next?  Do you think he was really happy the people had listened to him and been forgiven?  No, he was angry!  And we find out that the real reason he didn’t want to go to Nineveh wasn’t that he was afraid of what these people would say and do to him, it was because he actually looked at these people and the terrible things they had been doing and said, “I don’t want God to forgive them.”

“I know, if I go and they listen to me, and they repent, God who is gracious and compassionate and abounding in love will forgive them, and I don’t want that to happen.  They don’t deserve to be forgiven, they deserve to be judged and punished.  So I won’t go, they won’t repent and they will get what’s coming to them.”

Assyria had done terrible things against Israel (and other countries around).  Israel knew God was their God, not Assyria’s, and they wanted God to prove he was on their side, he was greater than anything Assyria could do.  Jonah didn’t just want the enemy to realise they were wrong and stop what they were doing – he wanted God to punish them.  So when God, who loved them, offered them forgiveness, his true feelings came out – and he went off in a sulk.

See the contrast between God’s love for the world and Jonah’s narrow-minded concern for his own people.  He didn’t understand that these people, who were not Israel, who were not God’s chosen people, were still God’s concern.  That God wasn’t only about looking after his own, but caring for the world.

Do you ever feel that way?  Are there people, in your life or in the world, who in your heart of hearts you think “I actually don’t want them to repent and be forgiven”?  Do you want to see Hitler in heaven?  Serial killers?  Rapists?  It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

There is a temptation sometimes to live in movie-land, where all we have to do is work out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  We know that the good guys are going to win and the bad guys are going to get their come-uppance.  The story of Jonah twists that tale, doesn’t it.  To start with he is, without a doubt, a good guy.  He listens to God, he speaks for God.  But he disobeys God, doesn’t he?  Not just through ignorance, but determined disobedience.  He deliberately runs away from what God has told him to do.  And it is only when he is in trouble that he repents, and is forgiven – but sent back to do what he had refused to do in the first place.  Even those of us who know God do things wrong and need his forgiveness.

The Ninevites are, without a doubt, the bad guys; doing all sorts of evil.  But to some extent they are acting in ignorance; they are not Israel, they don’t think they have anything to do with God.  And as soon as they hear Jonah’s message they repent and turn from their evil ways, and they too are forgiven.  How can Jonah, one minute rejoicing in his salvation by the fish, be so angry about the salvation of others?  How can we, forgiven and restored, keep others from receiving the same thing?

I know it’s hard.  But the thing I want to note here is that God doesn’t just blithely offer forgiveness to the people of Nineveh, he offers the chance to repent.  And to repent is to accept that we are in the wrong, the natural consequence of which should be to change our behaviour and to try to make up for what we have done.  So the people who repent are not just ‘getting away with it’, they have to change and they have to deal between them and God with what they have done and the people they have hurt.

Can we work with this?  Can we, instead of saying, “I can’t forgive what that person did,” offer them a chance to repent?  Can we accept when God offers them a chance to repent?  Because, believe it or not, God loves them just as much as he loves you.  God wants them to come to him just as much as he wants you to come to him.  Jesus died for them, just as much as he died for you.

Of course, restoration and relationship is only possible with repentance, and some people will not repent.  We can refuse to hold on to our anger, we can offer them back to God and pray for their repentance, without saying they or what they have done is ok.  We can leave punishment for the unrepentant up to God – and as we heard in Nahum, years later when Nineveh returned to their old ways he did punish them in the end.  But what we cannot do is live in anger, hatred and a desire for revenge.  Because when we are angry with someone God loves; when we hate someone God loves; when we desire revenge against someone God loves, we set ourselves against God’s will.  And his will is not that any should perish, but that all should be saved to eternal life.

Let us pray.

Lord God, it is hard to forgive.  To take the pain on ourselves and not try to pay it back to those who have hurt us.  As we bring to mind those people who cause this to be such a challenge to us, we ask that you would lead them to repentance…  Lord you who have forgiven us so much, give us grace and strength to forgive others.  And where they are unrepentant Lord help us to leave them in your hands.  Keep us from holding grudges and clinging on to our anger; set us free to love as you love, in the name of Jesus who died for the sins of the whole world.

And Lord bring to our minds those things of which we need to repent ourselves, those times when we have thought or acted against your will, and cover us with your forgiveness and compassion, as we close with the Anglican blessing:

Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord.