This sermon is part of the sermon series "Christmas Stories". See series.
This sermon is part of the “Christmas Stories” sermon series. See the whole series here.
(Read Jonah 3:1-4:1)
It was a dark, stormy night with lightning flashing, thunder crashing, waves ripping across the deck, a howling gale and a sideways rain that felt like needles. The sailors on the boat had a white-knuckle grip on anything that seemed stable, but nothing seemed stable. Even things nailed down were coming loose and boards were creaking and snapping under the stress. They all knew it. Every one of them knew it. Sailors have a sixth sense about those things: It wouldn't be long until the ship broke into pieces and slipped under the sea.
There are no atheists on sinking ships. Sailors were crying out with the only prayers they knew, to any god who might listen and have mercy. The only answer: another wave, another lightning bolt, another crash of thunder. "Throw the cargo overboard!" came a shout muffled by wind and rain. The sailors did what they could, but what they did didn't help.
"Where's the passenger we picked up in Joppa?" the captain asked.
"I think he's down below," replied the first mate.
Bracing against the wind and the tossing ship, the captain moved two labored steps forward and one step backward toward the hatch to the belly of the ship. He made it, steadied himself, and climbed down. He found the passenger sleeping, the passenger's snores as loud as the storm. The captain roused him. "How can you sleep at a time like this? Wake up. Call on your God. None of our gods are listening. Maybe your God will listen. Maybe your God will save us."
Jonah tried to run from God and avoid Nineveh
The captain knew that Jonah was a religious man and a prophet of some sort. When Jonah booked passage, the captain had asked, "Why would a Jew like you want to go to a faraway place like Tarshish?"
"I am going to Tarshish because it is far away," Jonah said. "My God has instructed me to go to Nineveh and preach against it."
"Nineveh?" queried the captain. "Why, Tarshish is as far in the opposite direction as you can go."
"That's the point," Jonah replied. "I don't want to go anywhere near Nineveh."
Nineveh: The very word sent chills up the spine of every Jew and Canaanite and Edomite and Ammonite and every other group in the region. Nineveh—it was capital city of the evil empire of Assyria, the Al-Qaeda of the 8th Century B.C.
By the time Jonah started his prophecy business, the Assyrians had about a hundred years' worth of atrocities under their belts. It wasn't enough for them to do barbaric things; the Assyrians had to write those deeds down and etch the images in stone. They had to beat their chests and brag about their evil deeds. Sometimes soldiers have nightmares over the people they have to kill in battle. But what would be nightmares for some people were pleasant dreams for the Assyrians. No nightmares for the Assyrians—they saw their atrocities as heroic and loved recording them. Records brag of live dismemberment that often included leaving one hand of a person attached so they could shake it before the person died. The Assyrians made parades of heads and required friends of the deceased to carry them on elevated poles. The Assyrians stretched out their enemies on tent stakes, yanked out their tongues, and flayed them like a fish. One of their kings, Ashurnasirpal II, bragged about his atrocities:
I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls … I captured many troops alive: I cut off some of their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of the heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.
He high-fived his chief of staff. Nineveh had no shame, no conscience, no moral compass, no compassion. Every nation around them, including Israel, feared them, hated them, and knew it was probably only a matter of time until the Assyrians broke down their gates.
The fact that Jonah wanted to stay clear of Nineveh would have seemed a wise decision to anyone who lived in the region. People would not have been questioning Jonah's sanity for not going; they'd be questioning God's sanity for sending him. I suspect the captain understood that, too, and let Jonah board the ship.
Jonah's decision to escape made sense to everybody—well, everybody except God. God was determined to get Jonah to Nineveh. That's why the storm on the sea was not a simple meteorological matter of cold air mass slamming into warm air mass. The storm was a matter of Jonah's disobedience slamming into the call and mission of God. God sent the storm. God sent the storm to get Jonah back on track. The storm accomplished God's purpose.
Reconsidering the call of God in the depths
Even though the sailor's didn't want to toss Jonah overboard, Jonah told them it was the only way to save the ship and to save their necks. Reluctantly, a burly sailor with an anchor tattoo on his forearm grabbed Jonah's legs, another bushy-bearded sailor grabbed Jonah's arms, and on the count of three they hurled Jonah into the sea.
As if God hit a stop switch, the sea calmed and the wind ceased and the rain stopped and the boat settled back to normal. Just as the sailors had feared the storm, now they feared God. They even offered sacrifices to God and made vows to him. Things were now okay on top of the sea.
Things were dicey underneath the sea. Jonah was sinking to what he assumed was a drowning death and was turning blue without oxygen when suddenly the gaping jaws of a sea creature opened wide and swallowed him whole. Yikes! It was unpleasant, but the creature saved Jonah's life.
Jonah discovered that a fish's belly provides a good place to reconsider the call of God, and that's what Jonah did: reconsidered the call. Jonah prayed. He thanked God for saving his life, and told God he was sorry. Jonah more or less said, "God, if you'll give me another chance, I'll go preach to Nineveh."
That's all God was waiting to hear, God gave a little ipecac to the fish, gagged the fish well, and the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land. Jonah looked the worse for the wear. The fish's digestive acids left burned patches on Jonah's skin. Jonah's hair was a tangled mess, bleached here and there, and he smelled like the guts of a fish. See Jonah there on the shore, waving his arms like a madman, fighting off a few pesky, squawking, fish-loving seagulls until he could get a good bath and a fresh change of clothes.
God gives Jonah a second chance
If the tale were a movie instead of a story, the director would shout, "Jonah and Nineveh, take two." As God is so quick to do, he let bygones be bygones and called to Jonah a second time: "Get up and go to Nineveh. I'm going to give you a message and I want you to preach it against Nineveh."
"You won't have to ask me thrice," Jonah replied. "I'm on my way."
Jonah made the long walk to Nineveh. With shaky nerves and sweaty palms, Jonah entered the city, a city larger than he imagined, a city so big it would take a person walking an average pace three full days to see the whole place. Jonah wasn't there for tourism; Jonah had a job to do. He marched a day's walk into the city. Fighting cottonmouth, he cleared his dry throat and preached. God didn't give him much to say; it was maybe the shortest sermon in history. Jonah said, "Forty days from now, Nineveh will be overthrown!" His voice cracked when he said that. It wasn't impressive. He wasn't impressive. The message of Nineveh's coming demise was all he had to say. Jonah gave the message every block or so for a day and then turned around and left the city. He hiked up a hill that overlooked the city and made camp. He wanted to be there when God lowered the boom on the hated Ninevites. That would be the best part of his long trip. That would be worth his near drowning. That would be worth being saturated in fish vomit, and that would be worth the long walk and his shot nerves. As he settled into his perch high above the city, he sat like a vulture and thought to himself, Hammer them good, God. They deserve the worst you've got, and don't let a single person escape.
Wouldn't you know it? For the first time in history, Nineveh did something right. Word of Jonah's message and word of the strange Hebrew prophet got around and the people repented of their sins. Jonah's one-sentence sermon might have got him an F in Homiletics but it got him an A in Prophecy. Even the king was moved by it. The king got up off of his throne, tore off his royal robes, slipped into some sackcloth, and sat in a pile of ashes. Nothing said repentance like sackcloth and ashes. The king decreed that all of Nineveh should repent and do as he did and that even the livestock should fast and wear sackcloth. More than one Ninevite had a story to tell and a couple of scars to show about how difficult it is to put sackcloth on a mean old bull, but they did what the king told them. "Who knows," said the king who was used to controlling things but knew he couldn't control this, "maybe God will turn from his anger and spare us after all."
Jonah's desires for Nineveh do not reflect God's mercy
Jonah was watching all of this from the hill. God was watching all of it from heaven. God, who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but would rather them turn to him and live, saw the repentance in Nineveh, heaved a sigh of relief, and cancelled their impending doom. It was a happy day in heaven. God smiled. Angels twirled and clapped and kicked up their heels in a jig of joy and praise to God.
But Jonah did not rejoice. Jonah didn't smile. He didn't clap. He didn't kick up his heels; he dug them in, got mad, and sulked. "I knew it," Jonah said to God. "I just knew it. This is why I didn't want to come here in the first place. I know you, God. I know how you are. I know how you operate. It takes a lot to make you mad; you're full of mercy and love, and you would rather save people than destroy them. Now you've done it again and for the Ninevites no less—the Ninevites."
Jonah believed the only good Ninevite was a dead Ninevite, so he sulked and he moped and he felt sorry for himself. But God loved Jonah too. God even caused a plant to grow up and shade Jonah from the harsh sun and the scorching desert wind. Jonah liked the plant. He smiled for the first time in days. The next day God sent a worm to eat the plant and leave Jonah in the wind and sun again.
"Just kill me, now," Jonah said to God. "I'd be a lot better off dead."
God pretty much ignored Jonah's words and changed the subject. "Do you think you're right to be angry about the plant?"
"Yes!" said Jonah. Jonah tried to change the subject back: "Angry enough to die. Would you please just put me out of my misery?"
"Really," said the Lord, "over a silly plant? Let me get this straight. You pity a plant you didn't sow or didn't water or didn't help grow in any way, a plant that appeared one day and was gone the next. Should I not pity Nineveh, that large and bustling city in which there are more than 120,000 lost people who don't know right from wrong?" That's the way Jonah's story ends. It ends with a question.
Jonah's story is a Christmas story
That's Jonah's story, and it is one of the ways the Old Testament says, "Merry Christmas." Jonah is a Christmas story. It is the Old Testament's John 3:16. It's the clearest statement in the Old Testament that God loves the whole world, including the most wicked people in the world, and he wants to save them. He wants to save the world. It's the story that says Christmas is on the way. It's the story that was echoed by the angels' announcement to the shepherds that first Christmas night: "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people …" Jonah's story declares that the "all people" of the angels' song include even people like the Ninevites.
Jonah is a Christmas story. God is the lead actor, and God is played by God. God relents at Nineveh's repentance. God saves them instead of destroying them. This is God doing his thing—seeking and saving the lost, just like he did when he sent Jesus through Mary's womb into the world, just like he did when Jesus died on the Cross to provide forgiveness for the sins of the world. God plays himself in the story—no sinner is too vile, no sinner too far gone for God's long arm of salvation to reach them. That's just who God is—finding joy when the lost sheep is found and when even one sinner repents and is saved. God is played by God—willing to go to extreme measures, sending storm and fish to spare a rebellious preacher and get him to lost, wicked Nineveh no matter how much trouble it was and no matter how much inconvenience it caused. Jonah is a Christmas story.
Jonah, the foil in the story, is, as Ellsworth Kalas observed, the original Ebenezer Scrooge—that old miserly skinflint. Scrooge's stinginess with money is matched by Jonah's stinginess with the good news that God loves and God saves and that Christmas really is good news to all people. God spared Nineveh, and instead of breaking into a chorus of "Joy to the world, the Lord is come," Jonah says, "Bah, humbug!" Jonah might have been willing to sing, "Joy to Israel" or maybe even "Joy to everyone but Nineveh." Jonah couldn't possibly sing, "Joy to the world!" because he didn't want the whole world to find joy. Jonah only wanted select people to get in on God's mercy and grace and joy—people like himself—certainly not the evil sinners of Nineveh or any other potential threat to Israel. Jonah is played by Scrooge—that selfish old cuss who couldn't care less about those in need of the gospel or anything else as long as he had his comforts and as long as his needs were met. Scrooge changed at the end of Dicken's A Christmas Carol. We don't know if Jonah changed or not.
Sometimes Jonah is played by us. You can spot a modern day Jonah by what a modern day Jonah says. A modern day Jonah may say something like, "Why are we spending all that money to go to places like Africa and India, to Japan and the Czech Republic when we have plenty of needs right here at home?" They may even go as far as to question why they should be reaching people who they associate with past or current wrongdoing or ideas they don't agree with. A modern day Jonah may ask, "Why do we have to take that Lottie Moon mission offering at Christmas? I want to give my own loved ones the Christmas they deserve. I want to make this the best Christmas ever. And by the time I do that there won't be any money left for Lottie Moon."
That's the way Jonahs talk, and their actions follow suit. They don't go on missions. They don't give to missions. They rarely even pray for missions. The attitude of modern day Jonahs can be summed up in one simple statement: "Missions? Bah, humbug!"
At Christmastime, Jonahs are most concerned about a silly tree and its trappings and are most concerned about taking care of self and family while the rest of the world goes to hell: "I'm saved. I'm fed. I'm comfortable. That's good enough for me."
God's concerns are different and he frames them in a question: "Should I not have compassion for the billions of lost adults and children on the earth who have yet to hear the gospel?" If our God has compassion for them, shouldn't we?
John McCallum is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he has served for 22 years.