'Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish.’ Jonah 1:1-3
Brothers and sisters, today is the first Sunday of Lent and we often - and rightly so - spend this period of 40 days reflecting on mistakes made, things which we have done and actions we have taken which we should not have done. However, that is only one side of the coin. There are also things which we have not done. Things which we know we should have done, but have not. Love we should have shown. Kindness we should have given. Words we should have said. After all, Jesus doesn’t just give us things to avoid, more often He commands us to go and do certain actions. To love our neighbour. To care for the poor. To tell people about Jesus. Too often we Christians, seek to avoid doing wrong, but fail to do right. And so as we begin this walk through Lent, let us spend some time reflecting, on the things we should be doing, as we begin our little study on the amazing story of Jonah. Today I want us to think about 3 questions: 1) How do God’s people, the insiders, act? 2) How do non-believers, the outsiders, act? 3) What should we do?
Let’s start with God’s people. Let’s start with Jonah. True to Hebrew writing style Jonah is both a real person and also a representative of God’s people. Jonah was a real prophet (see 2 Kings), and prophets were the cream of the crop; but in this story he is also a representative of all God’s people. Now, let’s turn our attention to the account given in Jonah 1:1-16. God is looking around and He sees the terrible behaviour of Nineveh, a pagan, non-Jewish city. Who should God send to convert this city? Who should God send to save this people from judgement? Who out of all of His people would make the best choice? Well the answer is a prophet, and specifically the prophet Jonah. It’s usually pretty straight forward in other prophetic books: God speaks; the prophet listens; and then the prophet acts exactly as God told him. So, we should have no worries as we read verse 1. But this command of God is a little bit different. Why? Well because every other time God spoke to a prophet and told him to go and warn someone it was always Israel who the prophet had to speak to. This time God wants Jonah the prophet to go to… outsiders, to go to non-believers, to go to… Gentiles. However, if anyone would obey God, if anyone would understand God’s love for non-Jewish people surely it’s a prophet, surely its Jonah. How will Jonah respond? Look at v.1(above). Jonah will have none of it. Like a whippet out the gate Jonah is off, but not to do God’s will as we might expect, no Jonah runs away! He symbolically goes in the opposite direction, he flees west when Nineveh is to the east. I think we get the point, Jonah really doesn’t want to do what God told him! However, before we laugh too much, let’s be frank Jonah does what we too often do. We have so many commands, and so many examples of how we are to behave, how we are to go and speak to those who don’t believe that we have no excuse. And it’s not as if we have to go to abroad, like Jonah, we just have to go to our friends and neighbours. But often - far too often - we behave like Jonah don’t we? Flee in the opposite direction, maybe not physically but in our heads and in our hearts we run away from such commands. What’s true in Jonah’s time is true today. God loves the world… sometimes though His people, His Church, do not.
Let’s move on to our next question. What about the awful pagans, the sailers on the ship, who believed in other gods? You can just imagine the Jewish people reading or listening to the story looking down their nose at the pagans who Jonah encounters, perhaps hoping that at some point God is going to punish them. And sure enough God sends a storm. Now we will see the true metal of Jonah - think the first readers - now we we’ll see the true metal of these pagans. But the results are now what God’s people might expect: ‘the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god […] Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god!’ Jonah is asleep! Jonah isn’t praying, Jonah isn’t speaking to God, no, he is hiding in the bottom of the boat unconcerned for the people around him! In contrast, the sailors are people whose religion calls them to a healthy balance between prayer and action. It’s not the prophet who prays, it’s the sailors! It’s not God’s people who act, it’s the pagans! How often is this true today? How often do we find the church not acting when the rest of society does act. How often do we talk about God’s love but fail to show it ourselves. It’s clear already, isn’t it, how God feels about His world, and about the people in it. God loves His world, loves all of the people in it, and wants everyone to be spared judgement. And so God calls on those who follow Him, to love like Him, and to act like Him, and to speak for Him. And yet too often, the people of God have only cared about those inside the church walls, and not about those outside the walls. Well, there is the answer to our second question: How do non-believers, the outsiders, act? Just as God’s people should have been acting!
Finally, then, what should we do, how should we respond to this teaching from Jonah? Well, first let’s use this period of Lent, to reflect on those things which God is calling on us to do but so far we have not. Let’s admit our failure to love, admit our failure to speak, and ask for His help to change and do better. Jonah failed, Israel failed, and too often the Church has failed. But we have a loving and merciful God, who not only calls out to Nineveh to repent but also His own people. And then second - having confessed our sins - let us go out and love the people in our neighbourhoods in word and deed. Our proclamation must ring out over and over: Jesus Christ loves you; He gave his life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you. Let’s not act like Jonah, let us listen to God’s command and then let us go and speak. Amen (from Rev. Mike).