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On three, separate occasions, the Pharisees, Scribes and the crowds asked Jesus to give them a sign to convince them of who He is and what He's up to. On all three occasions, Jesus answers the same way. "No sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah." In other words, knowing the story of Jonah is important to knowing the story of Jesus Christ. So our mission this Lenten season is to get to know the story of Jonah. The story unfolds in six different scenes and we're going to look at each scene in succession over the six Wednesdays and Thursdays during Lent.
Tonight, the curtain opens with scene 1, recorded in chapter 1, verses 1-3. "God calls Jonah." It reads as follows, "Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.' But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord."
1. Who is Jonah?
So, just who is this Jonah? It just so happens, this same Jonah appears in another book of the Old Testament that records the history of Israel during the time of the Kings. II Kings 14:25 says, "[Jeroboam, king of Israel] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher."
The only thing that concerns us from this is that the Jonah in II Kings is the same Jonah as the one to whom the word of the Lord came to saying, "arise and go to Nineveh." Jonah is a real person who lived around 750 B.C. when Jeroboam was king of Israel.
Jonah is a prophet of the Lord. The job of a prophet was to deliver a message from God to people. And there were two types of messages that prophets were to deliver. One was the message of divine judgment, and that began with, "Woe to you…" The other was a message of divine blessing, and it would begin with, "Blessed are you…"
And the prophet had to know when to speak the divine curse of judgment and the divine blessing of mercy. When people were living in sin and doing evil and perfectly content with themselves, they needed to hear God's word of divine judgment – the law. When people were convicted by the message of God's judgment and were truly sorry for their sinful life, the prophet was to speak God's message of mercy and forgiveness – the Gospel.
So, one day while Jonah was busy being a good prophet of the Lord to Jeroboam, king of Israel, the word of the Lord came to him. And what a word it was.
'Arise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.'
1. Assyrian Evil
From Israel, Nineveh was quite a hike about 500 miles to the northeast. Today, Nineveh is the city of Mosel in the country of Iraq, about 220 miles northwest of Baghdad.
The thing about Nineveh that's important for us to know is that it was the principle city of the nation of Assyria, and the Assyrian's are known for being the most ruthless, barbaric people in the world. The Assyrians took pride in their brutality. When they conquered foreign nations, they would impale any resisters on a long pole. The Assyrians were the ones who invented the practice of deporting entire populations of people from their homeland to some foreign place. They would force march people into exile by putting a fishhook through their nose and connecting it to a long rope like a stringer of fish. The only people who like the Assyrians were Assyrians, and as we'll see, even they were nervous about the way they treated others.
This is who Jonah is to go to. Not exactly the bible belt it is it?
2. God sees all
At least, the Lord gave Jonah the kindness of explaining why He is sending him to Nineveh. "Their evil has come up before me." God sees it. Nothing escapes Him. Even pagan nations are not hidden from God's sight or immune from God's judgment against their evil deeds.
3. God wants all to be saved
He wants Jonah to "call out against it." He's sending Jonah to deliver a message of divine curse and divine judgment against them. Jonah is to preach the law. But the preaching of the law always has as its purpose to prepare the way for the preaching of the gospel. Hopefully, if they hear that God sees their evil and that He will punish them for it, they will turn from their evil and cry out for mercy. And this is just what God wants to see happen and what He loves to do.
4. Mission in the Old Testament
It might surprise you that God would be interested in foreign, pagan nations even in the Old Testament. Maybe you thought that in the Old Testament God was only interested in the nation of Israel and that His concern for the gentiles didn't happen until the New Testament. Actually, all throughout the Old Testament, God sends His messengers to go into all nations with the message of His judgment and His love so that they might repent and be saved.
For example, when God saw that everything in the world was evil, He sent His servant Noah. And for 120 while he was building the ark, Peter says that Noah preached the message of divine judgment and divine mercy to all who turned and believed.
God sent Abraham, and his sons, Isaac and Jacob to go to Cana to preach to the Canaanites.
He sent Lot to Sodom and Gomorrah to preach to them in their wickedness.
He sent Moses to arise and go to Egypt and deliver His message of divine judgment and mercy to Pharaoh.
God sent the prophet Elijah to the gentile village of Zarephath in order to reach a single widow and her son who lived there, and they were gentiles.
So, when Jesus sends His disciples to go "to all nations" with the message of His judgment and mercy, and when we St. Paul is commissioned to go be the God's messenger to the gentiles, this is just God carrying out the same love and compassion for all people as He always has. He truly desires "all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim.2:4.) Always has and always will.
Some people have a problem with this you know. They have this idea that God's loves His people – the Israelites in the Old Testament and the Christian Church in the New Testament. And if you're not one these, then God doesn't care. Or at least, He shouldn't! He's got no business warning evildoers to turn from their evil ways so that they'll live. They think that some evil is just too evil for even God to have mercy on.
I think that the way Jonah reacted to the Lord's call to go to Nineveh.
III. "But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord."
Remember how we said that Nineveh was northeast from Israel. Well, Tarshish is southwest from Israel. Jonah hopped a boat on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and told the crew to take him to Tarshish which is a city on the coast of Spain, all the way on the furthest point on the west coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
1. Fleeing the presence of the Lord
Actually, a careful reading of the text here says that Jonah didn't just buy a ticket on this ship, he chartered the whole ship and its crew. This wasn't a cruise ship that set sail according to schedule. Ships sailed when they had enough cargo and passengers to pay for the journey. Jonah wasn't about to delay his departure. He would be the ship's only cargo and only passenger so they could leave immediately.
In order to emphasize the outrageous thing that Jonah is doing here, the author repeats himself two times in this verse saying, "Jonah rose to flee from the presence of the Lord," "to go away from the presence of the Lord."
Jonah's a man trying to hide from God. It's not simply that Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh. He's mad at God for even suggesting such a thing. Jonah's so angry about this, he doesn't even want to argue with God. It's not simply that Jonah doesn't want to talk with God about this. He doesn't want God to speak to him. That's what it means to flee from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah knows that God is omnipresent. As we'll see, Jonah knew the Psalms by heart and so he would have known Psalm 139. "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there." Jonah knew that there was nowhere where God was not present.
But it is possible to cut yourself off from hearing God's word. It is possible to block out His voice from reaching you. And that's the presence of God that Jonah wants to get away from.
Actually, Jonah never stops believing in the Lord. As we'll see later on, Jonah makes two, very poignant and wonderful confessions of faith in God. But he doesn't want to hear what God has to say to him.
I think that Jonah helps us understand why a lot of people whom we may know, say that they believe in God and Jesus Christ but don't want to come to church. They don't want to hear Him speak to them because they don't like the things He has to say. And so they block out His voice by staying away from where His Word is spoken.
2. Resisting God's will
So what we have here is a man who is a man of God, a believer in God, a prophet of God. But who is also a man who rejects God's word and resists God's will for his life. And here's where we can all identify with Jonah. God may not be calling us to go to a barbaric nation. But He has called us to speak His message within our own families and communities. And sometimes they can be pretty threatening. Like Jonah, we're simultaneously saint and sinner. And the two are always fighting against each other. One says, "Here I am, send me." The other says, "this is ridiculous, absurd, even unfair." And we run away from God's presence. We don't give up on God, we just don't want to hear His Word.
This is Jonah's struggle and ours as these ashes on our forehead testify to. It's why, when Jesus teaches us what we should pray for, He says, "when you pray, say, 'Our Father who art in heaven, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'"
Luther's explanation captures Jonah's experience and our own very well. Luther says, "God's good and gracious will is done even without our prayer. But we pray in this petition that it would be done among us also." That we would not run from it but go and speak as God wills us to.
So, let's conclude with two questions. Since the book of Jonah concludes with a question, I think its okay to conclude a study of the Jonah with questions.
First question is this. What will become of a prophet who refuses God's calling? And the second question which is, what will become of that great city Nineveh if the prophet does not bring God's message to them?
The rest of the book of Jonah is the answer to these two questions.