THE CASE OF THE MISTAKEN MISSIONARY
June 26, 2005
Anyone who has ever struggled with a sense of mission or purpose in his life, or with the spiritual resources to accomplish that mission, will be blessed by familiarity with the story of Jonah in the Old Testament.
The prophet Jonah lived and worked somewhere about 780 B.C. According to II Kings 14:23-25, this prophet lived in the northern kingdom in Israel. He lived at a city named Gath-hepher, which was about four miles away from what would become the city of Nazareth. Jonah was a prophet who worked in the years not long after great prophets like Elijah and Elisha. He served at a time when a king named Jeroboam II lead Israel in somewhat of a renewal of their national life. He re-expanded borders that had been lost to enemies. No doubt the work of Jonah was instrumental in what that king accomplished.
During his day, the great enemy of Israel – the nemesis all the world at that time – was the nation of Assyria. The Assyrians had as their capitol the great city of Nineveh. Nineveh was located about 220 miles to the north and just slightly to the west of the present city of Baghdad, along the Tigris River. The Assyrians were infamous, not only for their gross wickedness, but especially for their fierce cruelty in dealing with other peoples. Undoubtedly Jonah would have known what the Ninevites, the Assyrians, had already done to other nations surrounding Israel, and perhaps he as a prophet already had some inkling of what the Assyrians would do to his own people in the years that were ahead of them. He would have no doubt developed some strong feelings about international affairs at the time.
The prophecy of Jonah is really unlike any other part of the Old Testament. Here is a prophet who teaches us, not particularly by anything he said, but instead by the mistakes he made when God gave him a job to do. By comparing Jonah’s weaknesses and mistakes with the heart of our God, and especially by contrasting Jonah’s hard-heartedness and narrow mindedness with the love and grace of God displayed in this book, you and I can learn so much about our own mission and the resources we need to accomplish that mission in our lives.
I would like to call your attention to some of the mistakes Jonah made, not to make him look bad, but to help us see the light of God’s love and the grace of God’s heart even toward heathen nations like the Assyrians at that time and in that day.
In the first place, Jonah made the mistake of trying to run from God. He foolishly tried to go where God is not. There have been other prophets down through the years who have wanted someone else to be sent with the task because of their own feeling of inadequacy. Moses, for example, said to God, “I am not eloquent. The people won’t listen to me. Send someone else to the Pharaoh to say to him to let your people go.” But Moses didn’t try to run from God. Jeremiah, the great prophet who would come some years later said to God, “I am but a child. I don’t know how to speak.” But he didn’t try to run and hide from the responsibility God gave him. Jonah, on the other hand, knew what God was telling him to do, but didn’t agree and did not want to see the job he was given to do be effective. So Jonah ran!
When he was told to go to the great city of Nineveh and to cry out against it, the Bible says in 1:3 that “he rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” From where he was, Jonah had to go a distance of about 70 or 80 miles down to Joppa, the only port on the Mediterranean Sea that Israel had, where he caught a boat and headed off to Tarshish, which was completely on the other end of the Mediterranean all the way on the southwest coast of Spain – as far away as he could have gone. Surely God won’t be there! Surely he will escape God’s presence and this odious task of going to proclaim any message from God to the Assyrians.
You remember the story. There was no place Jonah could go where God was not. The God of the Bible is not like one of the gods of the nations who had as their locale wherever the temple that nation had built for them happened to be. Such “gods” were thus confined by the people to the location where they wanted them. God is not like that. He is the God who made heaven and earth, and his presence exists everywhere. Hence, we are not surprised that before they had gone far, apparently, Jonah encountered the Lord. The Lord prepared, as you remember, a great storm, hurled a great wind upon the sea and there was a mighty tempest. The ship was caught up in it and was threatened with being broken up. Everybody cried to his gods except Jonah. Jonah was so settled in his determination to escape God’s presence that he went into the belly of the ship and slept. The wording in the original language, I am told, suggests that he snored. While the seamen are struggling with the tempest and calling out to their gods and trying to figure out some way to keep themselves and others alive, Jonah in his determination to flee from God’s presence is so unconcerned by all of that that he sleeps the storm away -- until he is awakened and urged to call out to his God.
You and I, when we are pressed with the sense of responsibility, purpose and mission in our lives, need to learn from Jonah that the proper response, however overwhelming the responsibility might seem, is not for us to try to run from God to escape what it is he has asked us in his providence to do.
The great statements in Psalm 139 tell us something about God’s presence that we want to be careful not to forget. That Psalm says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” That was a way of saying what Jonah learned. God is, and that means that God is real wherever people are and there is no place anyone can go to escape his presence. It was a mistake that Jonah made so we don’t have to make it in our lives. God is.
Secondly, observe with me that Jonah made the mistake of not calling out to God, not aligning himself with God’s purpose, until it was so late in the process that he had no other choice. Jonah made the mistake of not turning to God and submitting to God’s rule until his life was slipping away and there was no other option for him. In this text, the sailors wake Jonah up and ask him to call out to his god and maybe that god will give thought to us that we may not perish. Notice that they saw what was at stake. They were at risk of perishing! Finally they decided that in order to find out if someone on board was responsible for their plight, they would draw lots. Jonah got the short straw, so to speak. It was him who was at fault.
The sailors asked him, according to 1:8, “’Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’” Isn’t it a sad situation when a confession like that is so far away from your practice that it is embarrassing? Here is a prophet of the living God having to admit to heathen, pagan seamen that he worships the God who made and controls both heaven and earth! You and I, had we been aboard, might have asked him, “Jonah, why then are you trying to run from a god like that? What is you have done?” They knew he was escaping from the presence of the Lord, verse 10 says.
Then he tells them. Verse 12 says, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” What is missing so far in what Jonah is doing? He doesn’t do the one thing they had appealed to him to do. He does not call out to his God! His answer, when he saw his guilt, was self-destructive: throw me overboard – that is the answer. Jonah, why don’t you call out to the Lord now? Why don’t you pray to him and submit to him now? Why don’t you put an end to this? No, throw me overboard!
The sailors try to resist the situation. They called out to the Lord, verse 14 says. Still, the storm went on. Finally with no choice, they pick up Jonah and hurl him into the sea, verse 15 says. “And the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” Look how this has impressed them. But so far Johan hasn’t changed. What is he waiting for?
We learn at the end of chapter 1 and beginning of chapter 2 that God, as you know, had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and then God miraculously kept Johan alive during this period of time. Finally, when it has gone that far, Jonah calls out to the Lord. He prayed to the Lord, his God. In 2:2 the Bible says, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Verse 7 is the key: “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came up ….” He has now changed his mind and called out to the Lord. But look how long he waited to do it! You and I may learn from his mistake that God even answers pleas that are late, but look what we put ourselves through by waiting to submit to the will of one who will finally be obeyed after all.
The Bible says the fish vomited Jonah out on dry land (2:10). Now he makes his journey from wherever he was off to the great city of Nineveh. Even if he left where the sea was there at Joppa, it would have taken a month to make that journey. But he went to Nineveh, and there our repentant prophet made a third mistake. The third mistake is that he tried to do God’s work without God’s heart. This man who ran from God and then waited until it was almost too late to call out to God now is ready to do what God sent him to do -- but not with the attitude that God would have placed in his mind.
God said, “Arise and go to Nineveh.” Chapter 3 says he arose and went to that exceeding great city. Nineveh itself had a wall around it that was said to be 12 miles circumference around the wall city, but we are told by historians and archeologists that there was something called “greater Nineveh” which actually consisted of this city and then of three neighboring cities which had an unwalled circumference of some 60 miles. There were 120,000 souls living in that environment. These people had been undergoing in recent history some terrible calamities. There were threats from their neighbors. They had had political unrest in their own country. Natural disasters had befallen them. They were already puzzled and downtrodden and afraid. They seem also to have heard of Jonah’s experience (cf. Lk. 11:30). Now Jonah brings a message of five words, not because he just wanted to present a brief sermon, but because he doesn’t want to say to them any more than he has to say. Jonah is like the boy who has been in a fight with his brother whose mother tells him to say he is sorry. That boy will do it in as few words as possible. That is about the spirit that Jonah is there is. He says, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Destroyed in forty days! That was the announcement.
Maybe a place like Nineveh wouldn’t have listened to Jonah under normal circumstances. But as I just tried to describe, these weren’t normal circumstances. This time, the Bible says in verse 5, “Nineveh believed God.” They called a fast out of their great grief and repentance, and they put on sackcloth that showed the godly sorrow they felt. The king sat in ashes. They repented and God changed his mind about the disaster he was going to bring on them, verse 10 says. Think about that. God is the God even of the Assyrians. He is the living God. This God does not even want to see citizens of Nineveh perish. He would even have them to repent and to be saved. And if they will listen to his word and if they will change their minds and if they will call out on them, he will save them from the disaster that might have befallen them (note Jer. 18:7-10). God, even when he has to declare judgment, wants something more than just guilt to be felt. He wants them to be saved from perishing. Jonah had failed to approach the situation with God’s heart.
Jesus warned in Matthew 15 about trying to draw near to God with our lips while our hearts are far from them. The apostle Paul spoke in Galatians 5:6 about the need for us to make sure that our faith is working through love. Faith is not just mental assent. It works. But faith is not just dogged determination. It works through love which seeks the best interest of the people who are to be helped.
That brings us to Jonah’s fourth mistake. Jonah made the mistake of withholding from other people what he himself had already required from God. When Jonah was at the risk of perishing and he called out to God, Jonah’s entire eternal wellbeing depended upon God graciously forgiving him for fleeing his presence and rescuing him and giving him life. Jonah was a man who had faced disaster and had been redeemed from it because of a loving God who was willing to be gracious to him. But when Jonah got to a city where the people were forty days from perishing and they repented and called out on God, Jonah was angry over it.
Only now do we learn in this story why it was that he ran from God to start with. (4:2) It so displeased him that these people repented that he was angry and he prayed to the Lord. How do you like this prayer? “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” The man saved by grace is now so angry at seeing grace extended to other people that he feels like he would rather die than see Nineveh delivered from disaster! This is the story of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son – the Old Testament version of it. It is a sad thing when people who are saved by grace become so exclusive as to not want God to extend grace to people who repent and who submit to his will and let him have his way like these Ninevites had done.
The fifth mistake that Jonah made is the mistake of being more concerned about his own comfort than he was concerned about the souls of other people. In the last half of chapter 4 Jonah sits down outside the city, east of the city, makes a booth for himself just to see what will happen to the city. Of course, the heat of the sun bore down on him and the oppressing circumstances were awful. God acted again. The same God who had prepared a wind and a fish now prepares a plant and a worm and a scorching east wind. Overnight God raises up a gourd plant. Some people believe it may have been some form of a castor bean plant, but it was a plant with large leaves. It grew up and made a shade over Jonah’s head to save him from his discomfort (v.6). This individual who doesn’t want God to save these people from destruction is now blessed with something to save him from discomfort. Jonah was glad. The angry prophet who wanted to die was now glad because of a bean plant!
But when dawn came, God appointed the worm and it attacked the plant and the plant withered and the sun rose and the scorching east wind began to blow, and our happy prophet is now sad again! He was faint from the heat and asked that he might die. It is better for me to die than to live (v.8). Look at his problems. Life has fallen in on him.
Then God confronts him with a question about where his compassion really was. The Lord said, “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 now this story ends with a question: “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?” God is saying, “Jonah, you didn’t plant that plant. You didn’t work for it. Its existence was a brief as one night. You are so upset when it withers that you want to die. You are expecting me now to be willing to let people that I made in my image and I blessed with the gift of life who have an eternal importance to wither away without me caring. Jonah, is that right?”
God teaches great lessons by leaving us with questions that are not answered in the text. We are supposed to answer them in our minds and in our lives. God is appealing to us to look at his nature in light of the questions that Jonah made and to be impressed with him. He is a God who is present everywhere. He is a God who is ready to answer if we will call out to him and submit to him. He is a God who wants his work done with a heart of loving faith. He is a God who extends grace and wants people who have received his grace to offer it to other people. He is a God who is more concerned about compassion than he is about convenience.
Which one am I more like, Jonah or God? Which one are you more like, Jonah or God? That is the question this book lays before us. Maybe you are here this morning and you need to respond to the grace of the Lord expressed in the gospel of Christ by repenting and being baptized for the remission of your sins. Maybe you are here and you have been trying to run from God like Jonah did and you need to come back to him. If we can help you, would you not let it be known while we stand and sing together?