I don't know whether you've ever had that experience of hearing things about someone again and again, to the point that you form this picture of what they're like in your head, but then when you actually meet them and get to know them properly, you're like 'this is totally not what I expected!'.
I read the other day of a posh New York art critic who had that experience when she joined a Bible study on the book of Jonah. She wasn't a Christian, but at the end of the study she sat back and marvelled. What amazed her was God! She was skilled at reading literature, and she'd always assumed the God of the Bible was a fairly one-dimensional character, "smiting the pagans and blessing believers" as she put it. But as she read the book of Jonah she saw that the God of this book isn't like that at all. He's a complex character. In an amazing way.
Well today we're going to do exactly what that lady did and have a look at the book of Jonah. The whole book! And my prayer is that it'll make us want to sit back and marvel at God's character – so that we trust him enough to play our part in his mission to the lost.
So as we think about Jonah, we're going to ask this question:
What does the story of Jonah show us about God?
Well we're doing something a bit different today, we're going to look at a whole book in an overview. We only had time to read the last chapter of Jonah earlier – so let's broadly go over the story. For some it will be new to you, for others, it might be a reminder.
Jonah was around about 750 years before Jesus. We know that because we're told he ministered during the reign of a particular Israelite King.
And here's what we read in Jonah 1.1:
"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, 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 from the presence of the Lord."
Now there are a number of surprises in Jonah, not least the ending which we're going to come to, but the first surprises are right here in the opening verses. Surprise number one, God asks a prophet from his people to leave Israel and go out to a Gentile city. Before then they'd only ever been sent to God's people. And this isn't any old city, it's the capital of the Assyrian empire – one of the most brutal and violent empires of ancient times. History records the Assyrians as being, quite frankly, horrific in some of the things they did. So the first surprise is that God asks Jonah to go and warn them – I mean, why show them any favours at all?
And the second surprise is this – Jonah goes in completely the opposite direction! He totally ignores God. It seems he doesn't think the mission makes any sense. He's probably thinking, firstly, why warn this awful nation – why not just destroy them? And secondly, why would they listen to him? It would have been like sending a Jewish rabbi to warn Nazi Germany. What hope has he got?
Jonah doesn't trust God. And so he gets a boat in the opposite direction. We then get to the well-known bit – there's a huge storm, Verse 4, "the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea". It's so bad that even hardened seamen are terrified. They realise that it's Jonah's fault that this storm has come upon them. Jonah knows that too, and so he tells them to hurl him overboard so that the sea will quieten down. They're not keen on the idea, but eventually they feel they have no other option and they throw him overboard.
And then, Jonah 1.17,
"…the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."
"The LORD appointed". That word 'appointed' appears various time throughout Jonah. And it tells us that God is in control here. He's sovereign over all these events. And as we work our way through the story we'll see the way that God is using these things.
The other thing to say here is that it's pretty crazy that he gets eaten by a big fish and survives isn't it? Can we really believe something like that? Well it depends on how you read the rest of the Bible. Because if we believe in a God who created everything, and if we believe Jesus rose from the dead (an even more incredible miracle) then it's not too difficult to believe that God might work other miracles sometimes. So if this is a sticking point for you, let me encourage you to examine the claims of Jesus first and make your mind up about that.
But back to the story. Jonah is in the belly of this fish. It must have been pretty grim in there – I hate the smell of fish at the best of times! But he seems to come to his senses. He prays to God, recognising that God has provided him with an undeserved rescue. And he finishes his prayer like this…Jonah 2.9:
"But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!"
Jonah says, 'You've saved me God! I'll trust you and do what you ask.' And so God comes to Jonah and asks him a second time. Jonah 3.2, God says: "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." And then we read, "So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh".
This time Jonah actually goes. And here's where we see two more big surprises in the book. The first one is this – the people of Nineveh, part of that awful empire (it's been called a 'terrorist state' – think of ISIS) – the people actually listen to Jonah! Their King issues a decree that they are to turn from their evil ways and violence and call out to God. If we've heard the story before, it's easy to miss the shock that they actually listen and turn from their evil. And so Jonah 3.10:
"When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it."
The end. That would be a great place to finish the book wouldn't it? On a high – I mean surely Jonah was buzzing that they hadn't killed him! Even more, they'd actually listened to his message! But it's not the end. And here's the next surprise – Jonah's reaction. Jonah 4.1:
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry."
You'd expect Jonah to be rejoicing. But instead, he's raging. You see, Jonah goes on to say that the reason he ran away from God in the first place, was because he knew that God was "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." Jonah wanted the Ninevites punished. He wanted God to exert justice. And he's like 'I knew this would happen! I knew you would be like this – that's why you warned them!'
And so finally we see the more surprising end to the book of Jonah, which we read earlier in the service. We're told that Jonah goes out and sits looking over the city, waiting to see what will become of it, i.e. he's still hoping that God will destroy it! And God patiently helps Jonah to understand by using a plant. He makes a plant grow to give Jonah shade, but then he makes the plant die. And Jonah is angry about the plant dying. And the book finishes, very abruptly, with God saying these words, verse 10:
"You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"
The real end.
So let's come back to that question we asked at the start, 'what does the story of Jonah show us about God?'
The first thing it shows us is that God is…
1. A God of Grace – Gracious, Merciful, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Steadfast Love
He's a God of second chances isn't he? A God who is compassionate, and patient. A God who is exactly as Jonah knew him to be – even if he didn't want him to be like that – "A gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster."
We've seen that in the way God treats Ninevah. At the start God is clearly angry at Ninevah and he warns them that they will be destroyed. But we also see God's incredible compassion and patience don't we? When they turn from their evil and call out to God, he relents.
And God explains to Jonah at the end that he pities Nineveh like Jonah pities the plant that has died. That word "pities" is much richer word in the original language – it really means he wept over them, he had compassion for them, he grieved over them. God's saying to Jonah – you're grieving the plant but I grieve over people. God is compassionate and loving.
As an aside, many people today have a problem with a God who gets angry – like he does at the start with the Ninevites. But God's anger is always controlled and right. And most of us would agree that to be passionate about justice in the world does cause rightful anger. When we hear about that awful lorry that was found recently with the bodies, it's right to be angry. And evil makes God angry, because he's a God of justice.
So we've seen God's patience with the Ninevites, and we see his patience Jonah himself too don't we? Jonah has ignored the God of the universe, and yet God sends a fish to rescue him. And when Jonah still hasn't learnt his lesson, God patiently takes time to help Jonah to see why he cares for Ninevah. I love the way you see God patiently teaching Jonah throughout the book.
But what is it that Jonah really struggles with in this book? What's his big problem? It's God's amazing character. It's a tension that Jonah can't grasp. How can God be both a God of justice and a God of mercy at the same time? How can God forgive people who have done violence and evil? How can God be both merciful and just? I wonder if you ever ask that question?
It's a question that we probably ask, even if we don't realise it. On the one hand, we want God to be patient and merciful with us and those we know, even when we ignore him or run from him. Whilst at the same time we ask, 'how can he let those things happen?' 'How can he not punish the perpetrators of that lorry straight away?'
And the question of how God can be both merciful and just isn't really resolved in the book of Jonah. But it does drive us forward in the story of the Bible to the amazing point where it is resolved.
750 years after Jonah, Jesus walked the earth, and he called himself "greater than Jonah" (Matt 12:41). He was the one the story of Jonah points to – and we see that in so many ways.
Jonah was sent by God to Ninevah, but he didn't weep over the city. He didn't have compassion. But God sent Jesus, and as he approaches Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, he weeps over the city. He has great sorrow as he contemplates the way they are going to reject God. And as they crucify Jesus, in Jerusalem, he says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Does that remind you of anything? God says this in the last verse of Jonah:
"Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left."
Jesus shows exactly the same character as God in the book of Jonah. He is God. And at the cross, that question of how God can be both infinitely just and infinitely loving is answered – because all sin was punished there, but God took it on himself. Jesus said this:
"For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Matt 12:40
Jonah encouraged the sailors to throw him out of the boat. He was saying 'I'll take God's wrath so you don't have to.' And Jesus went to the cross, to take God's wrath so that we don't have to. Of course Jesus is far greater than Jonah - not least because Jesus was perfect and yet he took the weight of the sin of the world – but Jonah points us to Jesus.
And at the end of Jonah's prayer in chapter 2, he says "Salvation comes from the LORD". And he at least got that right. Because some have called that the central verse of the scriptures - "Salvation comes from the LORD". Jonah didn't know the fullness of what that meant, but we do as we look to Jesus. It's the main point of the entire Bible. God saves us. We cannot save ourselves. That's the fantastic news of the gospel.
Which brings us to the second key thing this book shows us about God. And don't worry, this point is much shorter! God is…
2. A God of Mission
We've seen in the book of Jonah that it's in God's character to reach out – to the Ninevites outside of God's people. To Jonah himself. And we've seen the ultimate example of God reaching out, as God sends his Son into the world on a mission to bring salvation. He's a God of mission. He reaches out – and amazingly, he chooses to use us in that.
As God called Jonah to leave his homeland and to preach God's word, Jesus calls us. After Jesus rose from the dead, he said this:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
When God blesses us, he always sends us out to be a blessing to others. We're to take the gospel to them – the news that 'salvation comes from the LORD'. We're to be like Jesus – full of compassion, on a mission, holding out the gospel.
3. A God Who Calls Us to Go
The book of Jonah ends very abruptly doesn't it. Why end like that?
It ends with God's question to Jonah – 'shouldn't I have compassion on these people?'. We don't know how Jonah responded. But it seems to me that the abrupt ending points the finger at us. God, through the author, ask the same question of us. Do you understand my compassion? Do you understand grace? Are you willing to go?
Are we willing to look at those with deeply opposing beliefs outside the church, with compassion. Are we going to love them as our neighbour? Will we risk sharing the gospel with them?
For some of us that will mean leaving our homeland like Jonah. Maybe relocating to plant a church or going abroad as a missionary. I guess it's easy to always think that's for other people. But we'd love to be sending people out from St Joseph's – and if that's something that you feel God might have put on your heart we would love to help you explore that – so do come and talk to Ken or I. And please be praying for that – we already some people exploring that call right now.
But for many of us it will mean staying here, but going to our neighbours, our colleagues, maybe those on a sports team, – and being willing to love them, give time to them and speak to them about Jesus. Being willing to take a risk in that, to be bold. So let's be praying for opportunities and taking them this week. And why not start praying for five people who you might be able to talk to about Christmas or invite along to Christmas services this year. That would be a great thing to do.
I'm challenged that Jonah didn't go, because he didn't care about the Ninevites. Will we go? I imagine all of us are like Jonah at points. We run from God. Maybe we get angry at him or at the people he wants us to go to. Maybe we don't trust him enough to go.
And all of us need to remember this. The mission God gave Jonah and the mission he gives us might entail difficulty or suffering. But the mission God gave Jesus meant certain death and suffering, and yet he went, thinking of us.
That's the proof that God is good, and that we can trust him. That's God's amazing grace. That's his incredible character.
I said we don't know how Jonah responded at the end – whether he understood God's grace. But it seems to me that the most likely thing is that he wrote this book. And given the book of Jonah paints Jonah as such a fool, and God as amazing, it seems that he wanted us to understand God's grace as he had done – and to be willing to go.
Let's pray that we would listen.