7/18/2022 9:55:09 AM
Jonah: A Story of God's Compassion
Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, July 17, 2022
Dear Friends in Christ, If you were to play a word association game and say the name “Jonah,” most people – even those who know (or care) little about the Bible – would instantly reply with the word “whale” (in Hebrew, “big fish”). That one event pretty much sums up the working knowledge many have of this book.
But there is much, much more to the story. There are layers of context and backstory leading up to and following the singular incident for which Jonah is most remembered. And while he may be front and center, Jonah is not the main character in the book that bears his name. Neither is the big fish.
God is. Clearly. What we find more than anything else is that the Book of Jonah is
THE STORY OF GOD’S COMPASSION
- Compassion showered upon one flawed minor prophet, and
- Compassion showered upon all people in this world, including us
Most of the other minor prophets we have and will be considering during this summer sermon series are light on personal details and heavy on the messaging God asked them to deliver. Jonah flips the script. What God conveys through Jonah – both to his people back then and us today – comes predominantly not through his words, but through his life and actions.
Briefly retelling Jonah’s story, then, is the best approach to understanding its overall message. There are four short chapters in this book. Each chapter represents a stage or a phase in the prophet’s life that we will find interesting, instructive – and self-identifying (meaning, we can see ourselves in Jonah). We’ll attach a single word title to each chapter.
Chapter one: Reluctance. Here we learn that God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large city in the nation of Assyria. He is to openly confront them with their sin and evil behavior. The purpose of this world mission trip was to bring about their repentance before God, who cares for all people and is the Lord of all nations under the sun. Jonah was instructed to tell them failure to repent and turn to God would result in their destruction.
Jonah’s reaction to God’s command was an act of disobedience that could not be misinterpreted as the modern-day equivalent of boarding the wrong flight. Nineveh was east; he intentionally booked passage on a ship that was going as far west as possible in the then-known world.
What motivated him to do this becomes evident throughout the Book. As a Jew (Hebrew, vs 9), Jonah was a member of the nation through whom God in his grace had chosen to bring the Savior (the “Messiah”) into the world. Through special laws and ways, God had kept this nation separate from the rest of the world and entrusted them with preserving his holy Word.
Unfortunately, after a while the Jews began to see their selection by God not as a privilege and an act of grace, but as a source of pride. They believed they were somehow inherently deserving of this great honor. Not only that, but they also began to view the one true God as their own national possession.
In addition, Jonah didn’t like the Assyrians. Actually, nobody did. Assyria had distinguished itself by its reputation as a warlike and bloody country, and one that was especially cruel towards its enemies. This was a nation and people that for many reasons was not at all hard not to like.
Bottom line: Like the parable Jesus told about the unmerciful servant who had been forgiven much himself but was unwilling to forgive little in others, Jonah, the object of God’s grace himself, obviously felt Nineveh was unworthy of God’s mercy and compassion.
However, Jonah was wrong. And as he soon found out, you can’t outrun or outsmart God. God interrupted Jonah’s sea journey with a great storm, then a decision by the crew to throw him overboard, and then the opening verse of our text: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
Let’s say no more than that God chose a rather unusual method to force Jonah to rethink his actions and attitude. But it worked. This takes us to…
Chapter two: Repentance. Inside the belly of the great fish Jonah offered up a Psalm-like prayer to God (we read it earlier, so won’t repeat it here). Jonah recognized that he deserved death for his disobedience; yet, he also recognized God’s grace and mercy, and expressed confidence that God would deliver him.
For Jonah personally and spiritually, this may be his high point. He repented of his sin. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
Chapter Three: Restoration/Recommitment. Following his repentance and deliverance, God spoke to Jonah a second time and gave him the same directive: go to Nineveh and deliver the same message. Unless they repented of their wickedness, they would face God’s judgment.
This time Jonah did what God asked. And, his preaching had the desired result! The final verse of chapter three reads: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
You would think this would have made Jonah happy and gratified that God used him in such a marvelous way. Sadly, it did not.
Chapter Four: Regression. In this chapter Jonah reverts to his pre-big fish position. In a remarkably honest – but painfully misguided – conversation with God, Jonah reveals that he knows God is loving and compassionate. And because he is, Jonah stunningly admits he was afraid not that God would destroy the people of Nineveh, but that he would have mercy on them!
Which he did. Then Jonah goes on to say this makes him angry. So angry he’d rather die.
Why? Was it because God’s mercy to another nation would somehow lessen his love for Israel, or somehow make them less special? Was it because Jonah was so filled with bigotry and prejudice against another race of people that he couldn’t bear to believe they could be his spiritual equal? Was it because Jonah, who had rejoiced in his own personal deliverance from death, begrudged the same deliverance for others he thought were not worthy of God’s grace?
Don’t know. We aren’t told. But in this final chapter, Jonah clearly regressed. So, God once more puts his compassion on display. In another visible and natural way (but less spectacular than being swallowed by a big fish), God works with his self-absorbed prophet to help him see that God has compassion for all the people of his world, and that the world didn’t revolve around Jonah alone.
The book then concludes with God again showing his kindheartedness. He poses this question to Jonah: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jonah’s answer is not given. We are left to ponder – and hope – that Jonah, who was the author of this book, did indeed repent once again, and come to an even deeper understanding of God’s grace and compassion. For himself, and for all people.
What can we learn from this book and this minor prophet? An honest evaluation tells us we can see Jonah’s pattern in our own lives. Let’s march through the progression.
#1: Reluctance to obey. Why is this? We know who God is. We know what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. We know we have a place in heaven reserved for us. Yet we are often reluctant to live in conformity with God’s will and ways.
In the Book of Romans Paul tells us why. Up until the day we die we carry around a sinful nature. And sometimes – oftentimes – we give in to it. Sometimes in weakness. Sometimes in ignorance. Sometimes in defiance.
Jonah’s sins of pride, arrogance, selfishness and prejudice come through loud and clear. What about us? No need for examples. Each of us knows our own areas of weakness. So does Satan and the world we live in. And they both have an uncanny knack of being able to knock on the doors where we are most vulnerable.
What do we do? We fortify ourselves by Word and sacrament and grow stronger in our faith. But when we fail, and we will, we do what Jonah did in chapter two.
#2: Repentance. If you have ever read the celebrated American novel Moby Dick you may recall a section where the author takes us to a Whalers’ Chapel. The old pastor (his name is Father Mapple), a former whaler himself, mounts a high pulpit constructed in the form of a ship’s bow, and delivers a stirring sermon based on the Book of Jonah.
As one of his main points he says: “Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model of repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
Good counsel. This pastor can’t improve on Father Mapple’s words, so I’ll just repeat them: “Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
Repentance is so important because it acknowledges our sin before God. More importantly, it lays hold of God’s provision for our forgiveness. Jonah ended his prayer with this declaration: “Salvation comes from the Lord.” What Jonah knew in part as an Old Testament believer, we know in full. Salvation comes through the Messiah, whom Jonah knew was to come, and whom we know has come. His name is Jesus Christ.
We know the plan of salvation. How Jesus became one of us. How as our substitute he never disobeyed God, like Jonah did, and we do. How he took the punishment our sins deserve by dying on the cross, again in our place. And how he proved our redemption was complete and successful by fulfilling on Easter Sunday what he refers to three times in the Gospels as “the sign of Jonah.” “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” Jesus declares.
As Jonah emerged, so Jesus emerged from the grave. And because he lives, we also will live, eternally, says Jesus.
#3: Repentance leads to restoration and recommitment. How can it not? The life of discipleship is not a life of checking off designated boxes on some sort of unwritten “this is what it means to be a Christian” form. Rather it is a relationship with the God who loves us and saved us; a life that responds to the forgiveness, care, and attentiveness that comes to us 24/7 everyday from the hand of a gracious and compassionate God.
Truly we are blessed to be in that relationship, just like Jonah was. But his final chapter reminds us to be on guard. Because of that sinful nature we still carry around on this side of heaven, we must always be watchful of regressing. And when that happens, we remember Jonah in chapters two and three all over again – repentance, which leads to restoration, which leads to recommitment.
Which leads to peace.
So what do we learn from this minor prophet? How do we sum up the message of his book? On the one hand, we see how God’s children – even an Old Testament prophet like Jonah – can struggle in their life of discipleship.
But above all, and for this we must always thank him, Jonah is the story of God’s compassion. And we, through Jesus, are the beneficiaries of his grace. Amen.