Jonah 1:1-3

If you read the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Jonah or the IVP Bible Dictionary, you will find a story about a British sailor named James Bartley who was working on a whaling ship in the late 19th century off the coast of, depending on your political sensibilities, the Falkland or Malvinas Islands. He fell overboard and was feared drowned. A couple days later they were carving up a whale on deck when they discovered Bartley in the stomach of the whale. He was unconscious and somewhat digested, but alive. They doused him with sea water, put him in the captain’s cabin and after a couple of weeks of recovery, he was back on the job. The accounts vary in details. Some quote him as saying he remembered flying through the air when the whale struck the boat with its tail – and then suddenly being in darkness and slipping along a smooth passage of some sort. He then came into a larger area marked by a slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. He finally realized that he was in the whale. He said that he could breathe, but that it was very hot in there. At some point he lost consciousness and the next thing he remembered was being cared for by the crew.

The difficulty with this story is that there is no evidence it ever happened. The wife of the captain of the ship in the report wrote a letter saying her husband had not lost any of his men overboard. There is nothing in the historical record to support this. It seems, that the story is one of the urban legends we would like to be true and so circulate as truth.

We would like it to have happened because it could help us believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Martin Luther wrote that the story “is almost incredible, sounding more strange than any poet’s fable; if it were not in the Bible I should take it as a lie.” It is an incredible tale and we will take it as a true story with the sailors and Jonah as eyewitnesses to the events.

This is a short story with an enormous message, far larger than any questions of its historicity. When we read the book of Jonah we think the story is about Jonah, the choices he made, and the consequences of his choices, but Jonah is principally a story about God and his heart for the world. We learn that we are often like Jonah, but we learn, far more importantly, about the length God will go to save his creation.

In the early church, Jonah’s story was one of the four most popular Old Testament themes in Christian art. (The other three were Adam and Eve, Abraham’s offering of Isaac, and Daniel in the lion’s den.) A connection is made in early Christian art between Jonah and Christ, which makes sense, because when Jesus was asked for a sign, he said, (Luke 11:29) “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

The early church recognized the meaning of this statement of Jesus when they made the connection between Jonah being in the belly of the whale and Jesus being in the belly of the earth. After three days, they were both resurrected.

Incidentally, there is another connection between Jonah and Jesus. Jonah was born in a small town in Galilee, located just three miles from Nazareth. So they were neighbors, separated by 700 years.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah

These opening words tell us that Jonah was a prophet. Jonah was chosen by God to communicate to his chosen people. God spoke to Jonah and then Jonah had the responsibility to pass on that message. Jonah was not one of the false prophets, using his office for financial gain; he was a prophet who spoke the word of God that came to him.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai:

Jonah was a prophet in the Northern kingdom of Israel and he prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II. The northern border of Israel was threatened by the Syrians and by the new world power, the Assyrians. The Assyrians were the nation most feared by the Israelites because as the Assyrian empire grew in strength, they were moving out and would make a move toward Egypt. This meant they would move through Israel to get to Egypt and conquer it as they went.

Jonah was a popular prophet because he delivered a message Israel wanted to hear. In the only other mention of Jonah in the Old Testament, in II Kings 14, he is recorded as having received a word from the Lord that Israel should reclaim territory that had been taken by Syria and fortify their northern border. This is what happened. Jeroboam II led the attack and that border was once again restored.

This account tells us Jonah was a fortunate prophet. He had good news to tell the people. This good news delighted the king and the people of Israel because this indicated that God was working on their behalf, protecting them from their enemies.

In contrast, consider the message of Jeremiah who said that the Babylonians who were laying siege to Jerusalem would conquer Jerusalem and everyone should surrender now and spare more blood being shed. Jeremiah was declared a traitor but Jonah was honored for his positive, encouraging message.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Ninevah, located in present day Iraq, was a leading city in the Assyrian empire. Assyria was, as I said, the new world power, flexing its muscle, moving out, expanding. Assyria was the greatest threat to Israel and in just fifteen to twenty years would conquer Israel and begin the deportation of its citizens.

Assyria had a reputation of great cruelty. Most nations in that time period were looters, building their state by robbing other nations. Assyria was the most ferocious of them all. Their very name became a byword for cruelty and atrocity. They skinned their prisoners alive, and cut off various body parts to inspire terror in their enemies.

So this was the call of God to Jonah, to go to this fierce nation, this powerful nation, and in one of its greatest cities, to preach against the evil they committed.

How did Jonah respond? How did others in the Bible respond to the call of God?

God told Noah (Genesis 7:1) “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation,” and Noah went into the ark.

God told Abram (Genesis 12:1) “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you,” and Abram obeyed.

God told Jacob to go back to the land of his fathers (Genesis 31:3) and he obeyed. God told Moses (Exodus 4:19–20) to go back to Egypt and he obeyed.

God called Elijah to go to Ahab who was seeking to kill him and he obeyed.

God called Isaiah. (Isaiah 6:8)
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Jeremiah obeyed God’s call, as did Ezekiel. (Jeremiah 1:7–10) (Ezekiel 3:10–11) Hosea obeyed when God called him to return to his adulterous wife. (Hosea 3:1) Amos obeyed God’s call. (Amos 7:15–17)

When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would bear a son, (Luke 1:26–38) she responded: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Jesus called his followers for all of time to obey his great commission. (Matthew 28:18–20)
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And this has happened as the Gospel of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to all of the world.

God told Phillip (Acts 8:26–27) to go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza and he obeyed. As a consequence, the Ethiopian eunuch took the gospel to his country.

Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:5-6) and was called to take the gospel of Jesus to the Gentile world and Saul obeyed. Ananias (Acts 9:15–16) was called by God to visit Saul who came from Jerusalem to kill him and he obeyed.

When God called, men and women in the Bible obeyed his call. Many of the calls were difficult and involved great sacrifice on the part of those who obeyed, but nevertheless, they obeyed.

So it comes as a shock when we read about the response of Jonah to the call of God.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 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.

Jonah clearly heard the call of God to go to Nineveh. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He understood what this meant and he refused. Rather than head east to Nineveh, he went to the port city of Joppa, the same city where Peter received the call of Jesus to go to the house of Cornelius. No one is quite sure where Tarshish was located, but it was somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea and this was in the opposite direction of where God told Jonah to go.

Next week we will talk about the consequences of Jonah’s disobedience. This morning I want to talk about how Jonah’s response is relevant to us.

First of all, the word of the Lord comes to us. God did not speak only to the prophets of the past. God is speaking to us all the time. There are paths God wants us to take and decisions he wants us to make. God can take our mistakes and bad choices and make good come out of them, but there is a path God knows is best for us.

The Bible records major events when God called men and women to a specific task and this still happens. But in addition there are many smaller ways in which God is calling us. Each day God is calling us to serve him and wanting us to respond in obedience.

How does God speak to us?

It has been awhile since we have had the Alpha Course at RIC and I would love to do this again. If you are not familiar with it, the Alpha Course is an excellent introduction to Christian faith and helps seekers of truth as well as followers of Jesus to understand what it is Christians believe.

In the course Nicky Gumbel, the teacher, speaks about five ways God speaks to us. He calls them the five CSs: Commanding Scripture, Compelling Spirit, Common Sense, Counsel of the Saints, and Circumstantial Signs.

We are led by Commanding Scripture. Scripture leads us in many cases into what we should do. If I am so angry I want to kill someone, the Bible clearly tells me I am not to murder someone and in fact I need to learn why it is I am so angry and forgive the one who has offended me. There is a lot about my Christian life that I learn from what the Bible has to say.

We are led by a Compelling Spirit. There are many things in life about which the Bible does not speak. Choosing a college or job is not something the Bible speaks about. To take a train or drive to Marrakech is not a choice the Bible will help you with. But the Holy Spirit speaks into our lives and guides us. The tragedy is that most of the time we are not listening. But even so, the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us, encouraging us to follow a path that will lead to God. We can receive a sense that a particular decision is the right decision for us to make.

We are expected to use our Common Sense. God gave us a mind and we are expected to use it to make good decisions. We can make a list of pros and cons for the choices we face and come to good conclusions. God gave us a mind and expects us to use it.

We are expected to seek the Counsel of the Saints, which means asking for advice from other Christians. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge in the body of Christ. Your brothers and sisters in Christ have learned a path of obedience and can help you as you make your way.

And Nicky Gumbel says, we are to pay attention to Circumstantial Signs. God uses circumstances to lead us and direct us. If you think you should marry a certain woman but she says no, that is a pretty clear sign. In less direct ways, circumstances also guide us. Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe says we need to pay attention to the little details of life because that is how God often leads us.

The Alpha Course goes into much more detail about these five CSs. What I want to emphasize is that God speaks to us in many ways and calls us to share with him in his work.

As the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the word of the Lord comes to us. Secondly, we are called by God to serve the one we follow.

Why did Jesus call you to be in relationship with himself? He loves you and wants you to share with him in the eternity of his kingdom. But that is not where it ends. Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. He accomplished what he came to do, but the work of Jesus did not end in the book of Luke. Luke went on to write about the continuing work of Jesus in the book of Acts, but the work of Jesus did not end with the book of Acts. Jesus has continued to work through the centuries since the first years of the church and in each generation, he is working to encourage people to choose life by choosing him.

This is his call to us in the Great Commission that I already mentioned. (Matthew 28:18–20)
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus did not say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and live as comfortable a life as possible. Make lots of friends and gain wealth and power.” Jesus calls us into relationship and then asks us to work with him as he works to save our generation.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
May I come back to what I said before? This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects—education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden— that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.

We need to be aware, in every interaction with people that God wants each person we meet to be part of his eternal family.

As the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the word of the Lord comes to us. We are called by God to serve the one we follow. Third, it is not for us to analyze the call and consider its merit.

Rick Atkinson has written The Liberation Trilogy, three books of the three invasions of the Allies in WWII: the first in North Africa, the second in Italy, and the third in France. In the Day of Battle, the second of these books, he writes about troops being ordered to cross a river that caused a lot of casualties. What these soldiers did not know was that their attack was used to divert the German army from a primary attack elsewhere.

If the soldiers had made their own decision, they would have concluded the attack was too risky and foolish. But they did not see the larger picture. They did not see what the generals saw. They obeyed, sacrificed, for a greater good.

We do not see what Jesus sees and so it is not for us to question what it is he wants us to do. As followers of Jesus it is our privilege to obey our Lord and Savior. Our assignment is often not easy. Abraham left his family to go to a strange land. Elijah went to the king who was trying to kill him. Jeremiah delivered a traitorous message. Hosea faced the shame of marrying a woman who had rejected him to be a prostitute. Mary faced the shame of bearing a child before she was married.

In each of these cases we can see God’s plan, but that is only because we have read the rest of the story. But these saints of the Bible were very much like us. Abram did not know what was going to happen. Neither did Moses or Elijah or Mary. We face the decision to obey God without knowing how things will work out. We obey, trusting God who calls us.

Moses objected that he was not a good speaker. Jeremiah said he was too young. Mary said she was a virgin. There are those who asked questions but they obeyed. Not Jonah. Jonah did not object. He vehemently refused to obey God. Why was Jonah so determined not to do what God called him to do? The clue to his motivation comes at the end of the story, after Jonah did go to Nineveh and preach God’s message. The people repented and Jonah was in despair.  (Jonah 4:1–3)
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah disobeyed God’s call, ran away in the opposite direction to get as far away from what God was calling him to do as possible. Jonah did this because he hated, he despised the Assyrians. Jonah was a proud, patriotic Israelite. He loved receiving the message from God telling Jeroboam II to take back the land in the northern border of Israel because this made his much loved Israel stronger. Jonah loved Israel and he hated Israel’s enemies.

If you want to know how Jonah felt, imagine that this evening, as you sit and take time to pray and reflect before the end of the day, that God makes it clear to you that he wants you to go to northern Nigeria and preach the gospel to Boko Haram. Would you obey?

Perhaps you might think it was too dangerous. Wasn’t it also dangerous for a prophet of Israel to go to the stronghold of Israel’s enemy? I talked with a man this week who told me I shouldn’t make this comparison because Boko Haram are so evil. This response exactly illustrates my point. This is how Jonah felt. How could God possibly care for such evil people? We want Boko Haram to suffer for their cruel actions, not be saved and experience the peace of Jesus.

This is a theme we will come back to as we move through the book of Jonah. God’s heart is for all the people of the world. He reached out to Saul who was persecuting the early followers of Jesus. He loved the man the early church feared. He loves the people you fear, the people you dislike, the people you would like to see suffer and die.

God is calling you. It may be a turning point in your life. God may be calling you to a career. God may be calling you to change to a new career. God may be calling you to serve him in another land. God is calling you.

God is calling you to work with him. In every situation, in every relationship of your life, Jesus wants you to work with him. This means we have to forgive someone who has hurt us or offended us. Why? Not just because we are to forgive, but because God wants our act of forgiveness to be something he can use to draw the other person closer to himself.

I talked with a woman whose father was very manipulative. He is dying and wants to see her but she has a difficult time going to him and saying nice things to him. Why should we reconcile with someone who has been abusive in some way to us? For the same reason God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, he calls us to go to people who have offended and hurt us. He loves those people and wants them to repent and turn to him. Sometimes it is our parents we have to forgive. Sometimes it is our brothers and sisters. Sometimes it is our spouse. Sometimes it is a best friend.

When you feel the call of God to mend a relationship, to do something kind for someone, to share some of what you have with someone else, respond to the call and know you are working with Jesus. That person could be your friend for eternity. Obey the call of Jesus in your life.

I was in a situation where people in power were being insulting to a couple friends of mine. My response was to glare at them, shooting arrows of fire with my eyes. I was furious. Afterwards I realized that Jesus loves those people and I had not helped Jesus at all by the way I acted. It could be that the people I wanted to destroy with my eyes will be my friends for eternity, but not because I helped. I failed to work with Jesus in that situation.

Jonah received a word from the Lord and refused to obey. As God calls us to work with him, love people in his name, forgive people who have hurt or offended us, will we obey and allow our love to be used to bring people into his kingdom? We need to keep at the front of our minds the mission of Jesus. We need to see people with the eyes of Jesus and then we will be his voice, his arms to the people he loves.

Oh hi there 👋 It’s nice to meet you.

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