A Call From the Lord

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Jonah 1:1-17

Have you ever heard of a man in the Bible called Jonah? His remarkable story has some very important things to teach us.

If we were playing a word association game and I said “Jonah,” what would you say? I think most folks would blurt out “whale” – and they would be right. “Jonah and the Whale” is what most people think of when they hear the name. But in a way that’s too bad because if we only think of Jonah as an incredible fish story, we miss the point of this very important book. Jonah, someone has said, is not a story about a great fish but a story about a great God. In a sense, Jonah offers us a key to understanding the whole Bible. This little book first shows us what is in God’s heart, and then prompts us to share that heart and get busy with the work God has entrusted to us.

SCENE ONE: GOD CALLS

The best way to read the first chapter of the book of Jonah is to see it as an exciting drama written in three different scenes. Scene 1 is set in Jonah’s home in the land of Israel and is entitled God Calls.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Jonah 1:1-2, niv

The opening words of the book of Jonah are typical of Old Testament prophesies. In the Bible, a prophet was not so much someone who foretold the future as someone who “forth-told” the word of God. A prophet was a person who publicly spoke for God. God called different people to this difficult and sometimes dangerous ministry of proclaiming his Word, declaring his truth, to the nations. In some instances, the messages preached by Israel’s prophets were put into writing and included in the Bible. And those writings make up what we call the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

Old Testament prophecies all begin in a similar way. The prophet is identified and his commission is stated in a set formula. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah and said, ‘Go and preach.’”

So far there’s nothing out of the ordinary. The first indication, though, that Jonah is not going to be your typical prophecy is when God names Jonah’s destination: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach.” How that must have shocked and upset the Israelites who first heard this story! Just imagine you were one of them. Someone has come to your village with a copy of a new book. It’s called, “The Story of the Prophet Jonah.” You and your neighbors gather in a circle to listen to this fresh word from the Lord. You settle down expecting a good sermon. The scroll is opened and the first words are read. Everything is in order. Then suddenly comes this outrageous statement, “Go to Nineveh.” It wasn’t that Nineveh didn’t need to hear the word of the Lord, but there were two very large reasons why the Israelites of Jonah’s day would have been upset by his commission to go to Nineveh.

The first reason is that Nineveh was a foreign city. Its inhabitants were not Jews but Gentiles, which meant they were outsiders, devotees of foreign gods, idol worshipers, strangers to the covenant promises. They had no right to the Word of the Lord. God’s Word was something for God’s people, for Israel. Or, at least, so the majority thought.

The other reason you would have been bothered by Jonah’s commission was because Nineveh was the enemy. Nineveh was the capital of the empire of Assyria, which in Jonah’s time was rapidly growing in power and dominance. The Assyrians were ruthless conquerors who threatened every other people of the ancient near east. Israel and her neighbors were like a school of little fish being threatened by a large and very hungry shark that was swimming rapidly toward them. And the shark’s head was Nineveh. As far as the Israelites were concerned, the best thing for Nineveh would be destruction. They didn’t want God’s Word to go to Nineveh. They hoped his wrath would crush it.

The problem, you see, was that Israel had grown self-centered. It’s an easy thing to do. We all tend to think that God cares more about us than anyone else, that we’re the apple of his eye and other groups or races or peoples are somehow of less importance to him. Perhaps Israel had more reason than most nations to think this way. After all, they had been uniquely chosen and called by God. He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. He made them a special promise to be their God and to make them his particular people. He brought them into the promised land and gave it to them as their possession. He established his word and his worship there, making Jerusalem the place where his name was known and his presence experienced. It was easy to see why Israel would come to think they were different. They were, in a sense!

But what so many of them forgot was that none of this was God’s final plan. God’s final plan, you see, was to use Israel to bring his saving love to every nation and people on the face of the earth. God’s great purpose in history is to gather to himself a new community made up from every tribe and race and language. The story of the redemption of this people of God is the story the Bible was written to tell. It’s the story of world history. It’s the real meaning of everything that has happened and is happening in the world from creation to the end of time. It’s also the lesson the book of Jonah was written to teach.

SCENE TWO: JONAH FLEES

Now we shift to Scene 2. It’s set in the port city of Joppa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. We could call this scene Jonah Flees.

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

verse 3

If Jonah’s commission to take God’s Word to Nineveh would have been shocking to his contemporaries in Israel, then what comes next in the story is even more disturbing. Because, you see, Jonah simply disobeyed. He didn’t just hesitate or make excuses as other prophets sometimes did. He did what no prophet in the whole Bible ever did. He ran away. Jonah went down to Joppa, the port, and took ship for Tarshish, an area in southern Spain at the extreme opposite end of his world. Instead of heading toward Nineveh, Jonah traveled as far as he could away from it, like a person in Africa being told to go to America and instead flying to Australia.

Why did Jonah try to run away? Was he afraid? Did he feel like the mission he had been given was a hopeless one? Was he just lazy? We’ll have to wait to find the real reason until near the end of the story, but for now, let’s just say that Jonah’s problem wasn’t in his backbone. It was in his heart. What he lacked wasn’t courage, but compassion, and the lesson he had to learn is the same one we all do. Jonah had to learn to get his heart in tune with God’s heart. He had to learn to care as much about lost people as God does.

SCENE THREE: GOD INTERVENES

Now Scene 3, the great and exciting scene. It’s set aboard that Phoenician ship somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Let’s call it God Intervenes.

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship”
(vv. 4-5a).

But Jonah, meanwhile, is sleeping below decks. And finally, when he’s aroused and said that the lots the sailors have cast have pointed to him as the culprit, he tells them “Throw me into the midst of the sea, and the sea will grow calm” (v. 12).

Instead the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, “O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.

verses 13-15

Don’t you think Jonah should have known he could never run away from God? But that didn’t stop him, or countless others for that matter, from trying to do exactly that. The story of Jonah’s attempted escape is a wonderful illustration not only of the power of God but of what I can only conclude is God’s sense of humor. Notice how everyone and everything in this whole experience serves the ultimate purpose of God. Jonah, the sailors, the storm, the fish – all in one way or another are agents whom God uses to accomplish his will.

God’s will for Jonah is that he must bear witness to him. God called Jonah to preach his word. Jonah may have been history’s most reluctant missionary but preach he would, whether willingly or not. If he refused to preach to the Ninevites, then God arranged for him to preach to the sailors. Jonah became an involuntary evangelist of the ship’s crew. “What have you done?” they asked him. “Who are you?” And so he told them, and his answer was a witness to them about the real God, the God who made the sea and the land. “I am a Hebrew,” he said, “and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (v. 9). Meanwhile, another irony in the story. The pagan Phoenician sailors (sailors!) are more devout and God-fearing than Jonah, the prophet of the Lord.

When Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, it looked like a noble thing to do. But I wonder if this wasn’t just one more act of defiance against God. If Jonah can’t run away to Tarshish, he’ll escape by having himself thrown into the sea. In the few moments he had left, Jonah no doubt consoled himself by reflecting that, while it was not the end he would have chosen for himself, at least it meant he didn’t have to go to Nineveh! “But,” says the Bible. The word “but” is often very important in the Bible. “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah” (v. 17). The fact is: Jonah’s life wasn’t finished because Jonah’s God wasn’t finished with him.

Now you may be thinking: “That’s a very interesting story, but what does it have to do with me?” Let’s start by observing what you can learn about God from Jonah’s story. Do you know that God is a God who cares about everyone? The reason God sent Jonah to Nineveh was because he cared deeply about the people of Nineveh, even though, technically speaking, in Israel’s opinion, they didn’t belong to him. God is “no respecter of persons,” as the Bible says. God doesn’t discriminate. He doesn’t prefer one group or nationality or race over another. God loves all the different peoples of the world, and his plan is to reach out to all of them.

Consider also what you learn from Jonah about yourself. God doesn’t just have a plan for the world. He has a plan for your life too. Of course, the thing he most wants for you is to come to know him and to respond to his love for you by loving him and trusting and obeying him in return. But more than that, his plan includes a role for you to play in reaching the world. Just as it did to Jonah, the word of the Lord comes to you and to me, telling us to get up and go. And we must choose whether we will obey God or resist him, whether we’ll follow his call or try to evade it, whether we will be his voice, his hands and his feet in the world or try to run away from him. Which is it going to be for you?