The Sign of Jonah

(Jonah 1:17, 2:10-3:10, Nahum 1:1-8; Matthew 12:38-42)

The great British preacher G. Campbell Morgan—also a great figure in Winona Lake history, as the founder of the Winona Lake School of Theology; this is truly an odd little town—once observed that in the story of Jonah, most people have focused so much on the great fish that they miss the great God. He was right. It’s understandable, though, because Jonah shows us the great God at his most unsettling. Even the New Testament leaves it alone, except for these words from Jesus—and they’re hard to pin down.

What do we make of the sign of Jonah? It can’t be just his preaching—Jesus has already been preaching; the Pharisees want more. It can’t be just the three days in the fish, because Luke ignores that completely when he tells this story in chapter 11. But if we put them together and understand that Jonah himself was the sign to Nineveh—both his call to repentance and the story of his time in the belly of the great fish, a mighty sign of God’s power over life and death and all creation—it begins to make sense.

Consider: how did the Ninevites see Jonah? As a servant of God who arrived unexpectedly at an opportune time, preaching a message of judgment backed by displays of the power of God, giving them the opportunity to repent and seek mercy. That’s Jesus. He was God’s Redeemer sent at just the right time—and though he should have been expected, he wasn’t; the leaders of his people weren’t looking for him and didn’t want to. He preached a message from God of both warning and hope, explicitly promising mercy and grace to those who would turn away from their sin and follow him; and like Jonah, his message was authenticated by displays of power that could only come from God—including, ultimately, spending three days in the grave before rising again from the dead.

Of course, at the time of our passage in Matthew, that hadn’t happened yet; but there had still been plenty of signs of God’s power in Jesus’ ministry, including the stilling of the storm—another echo of Jonah—and the raising of the dead. The Jewish leaders just wouldn’t accept them. What they were really saying was something like this: “Look, Jesus, we don’t believe a word you say, and we’ve refused to accept all the miracles you’ve performed to help people as evidence in your favor. If you expect us to believe you, you’re going to need to produce a miracle on our terms, to our specifications.” They were setting themselves up to judge the Son of God. They would not believe him to be the Messiah unless he conformed himself to their predetermined ideas of what the Messiah would be and do and say. They would not submit themselves and their unbelief to him; instead, they were demanding that he honor their refusal to believe.

The summary lesson of Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees is that God doesn’t play that game. They had already seen more than enough to convince them, if they had been willing to be convinced, but their hearts were hard; they would not humble themselves to accept that they might be wrong. They would not be taught—they refused, they were the teachers, they were the authorities, they knew best—and so the only sign they would get would be Jesus himself, culminating in his death and resurrection. The resurrection would be the greatest proof possible that Jesus was who he said he was, and yet even then, many of them would refuse to accept the sign; and in refusing to repent and bow before him as Lord, they would seal their own judgment.

This is why Jesus compares them—unfavorably—to the Ninevites; which had to sting, because the scribes and especially the Pharisees were the exact opposite of the Ninevites. The Ninevites were the ultimate pagan barbarians, completely without God’s Law, while the scribes and Pharisees were devoted to God’s Law. Except that really—this is the key—what they were devoted to was their own understanding of God’s Law; they wouldn’t let anyone, not even God himself, tell them they were wrong. Which meant that they were really worshiping themselves and their religion. It’s a very subtle sort of mistake, perhaps the Devil’s subtlest snare, and very potent in making us immune to repentance; it’s the reason the Jewish leaders would not repent and acknowledge the God they claimed to serve, when even the Ninevites would.

Now, as we see the Ninevites juxtaposed with the Pharisees—equal and opposite errors, sort of Newton’s Law of Spiritual Dynamics—a question lurks: what happens when you merge them, when the Ninevites are Pharisees? We stand here this morning in a very particular way worshiping into memory, lifting the banner of the gospel and the standard of the cross in defiant response to the evils of the world—which is a very Hebrew thing to do; one of the great holy days of the Jewish calendar is the Ninth of Av, a day of fasting and lament for the fall of Jerusalem. And as we remember 9/11 and respond with worship, bearing witness to our faith in God our Redeemer who has overcome the powers of death and Hell and is making all things new, we also remember our nation’s Ninevites, who killed thousands of people, and sought to cripple our economy and destroy our government, in the most horrifying way they could contrive—in the triumphant conviction that they were doing so according to the will and good pleasure of Almighty God, as an act of worship. How do we deal with that?

As we said two weeks ago, we need to remember how God deals with his enemies; which means three things. First, he loves them, and wants to reconcile them to himself. He sent Jonah to Nineveh, and he died on the cross for the Pharisees even as they jeered at him; and he has called us to join him in that ministry of love and reconciliation. Love your enemies, he tells us, and do good to those who hurt you—yes, even those who are truly evil, who would massacre the innocent and call it good. Jesus did; he died for those who did it to him. This is the scandal of the cross.

Second, remember Jonah has a sequel: it’s called the book of Nahum. Assyria repented in part, and mended its ways in part, but only in part; and in the end, the judgment of God fell on them, and they were destroyed. Their destruction was less cruel than that which they had visited on so many other nations, but it was no less absolute; judgment fell, and Assyria was no more. The Lord is slow to anger, yes, but let no one think him weak or uncertain because of this; he is great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty. He prefers to destroy his enemies by making them his friends, but those who reject him, he will destroy the hard way.

And third, we must also remember that we too were once God’s enemies. We do not, we cannot, ever, regard the judgment of others from a position of moral superiority, but in the deep humility of understanding that there but for the grace of God go we all. This, I think, is what brings these first two points together in our practical experience. Too often, we don’t know how to hold them together—we saw this when Osama bin Laden was killed by a squad from SEAL Team 6; on the one hand, you had people who responded with unholy glee to the news, and on the other, people who called the first group’s reaction immoral, inappropriate and disgusting, because God loves everyone.

Yes, God loves everyone. No, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, as Ezekiel 33 tells us. But in his time, he will take their life all the same. Mercy triumphs over judgment, but only in those who surrender to mercy; judgment still trumps defiance. We should not rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than God does; it’s a regrettable necessity, part of the sad reality of our world. We should rather reflect and give thanks that by God’s grace we’ve been spared the same. But we should find comfort in it as well, because when the judgment of God falls on those who have set themselves against him, it is a good thing—it’s a small restoration of the order of his creation—and more than that, it’s a sign and a promise of what is coming.

The nations may rage, now, but they will not do so forever; those who stand against the Lord and against his chosen one will not succeed. They make their plans, and he laughs. They are temporary; God is eternal. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth shakes and its cities tremble, even though men should cause its towers to fall into the sea, for God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, and in the end, his city shall stand secure and all his enemies will be shattered. Let’s change the order a little this morning—please stand with me and take out your insert and let’s declare that together, let’s affirm our faith in the reading of Psalm 46.


(Jonah 1; Acts 9:1-9)

I was tempted to stand up here and say, “Now that we’ve spent the last four weeks going through Jonah, we’re going to do it all over again”; but no worries, we aren’t. Before we move on, however, there are a couple things I want to note. One of them is in the language of this chapter—and also in chapter 2—and it’s something you probably don’t see in your English translation. If you look at verse 3, Jonah runs away from the Lord; the text tells us, “He went down to Joppa,” where he found a ship headed for Tarshish. Then, the Hebrew says, “he paid the fare and went down into the ship.” Next, according to verse 5, he went down into the hold, and lay down to sleep. Notice a pattern here?

Once the ship puts to sea, God sends the storm, and from that point on, Jonah isn’t in control of the situation; but it ends with him being thrown down into the sea, and then being sucked down by the great fish. Then in 2:6, he sums up his situation by saying, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”—i.e., the land of the dead, the land of Sheol. It is only when he calls out to God that the direction begins to reverse, and he can say, “You brought my life up from the Pit, O Lord my God.”

The author is making a simple point here: when you run from the Lord, the only direction you can go is down. Your descent might be swift as Jonah’s, or it might be long and gradual; it might be drastic and unmistakable as the prophet’s, or it might be masked by worldly success; but regardless, it is as certain as sunrise and as inexorable as the grave. The Lord is the creator of all life, the source of all good things, the only Father of lights; to run from God is to turn away from light, air, warmth and goodness to run into the cold, suffocating dark. It is nothing less than to choose the drowning of the soul.

Which is bad enough if it’s just about you; but for all our age talks about “victimless crimes,” there’s really no such thing, because everything we do affects others. In Jonah’s case, imagine this whole scene from the sailors’ perspective. It was just an ordinary day for them—good load of cargo, even a paying passenger, long voyage ahead, and the weather looking fine—but then all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes the perfect storm. They throw the cargo overboard—that’s their income, they now have no way to make a living, but if they drown it won’t matter anyway—but nothing they can do is enough. Why? Not because of anything they’ve done, but because of Jonah. To quote Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood again, it’s “because of one man who ain’t where he’s supposed to be, and is where he ain’t got no business being!”

Or as another preacher, the English poet John Donne, put it: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” He was focused in that sermon on the way in which others’ lives and deaths affect us, going on to say, “any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde,” but it’s equally important for us to understand the way our lives (and deaths, when it comes to that) affect others. When you run from God, you don’t go down alone, you take others with you, because Dr. Donne was right: we are each a piece of something far greater than ourselves, and when we bring a storm down on our heads, those around us risk drowning, too. We’re never the only ones hurt by our sin; there is always collateral damage.

This isn’t just a concern on the individual level, either. The story of Nineveh and the Assyrian empire shows how the sin of a few can corrupt an entire society; the story of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh shows how repentance can spread in much the same way. You’ve probably heard of the idea, taken from chaos theory, of the butterfly effect—that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can theoretically cause a hurricane in the Atlantic; the underlying point is that in complex, non-linear systems, small changes in conditions can produce drastic changes in results. As far as physics, weather, and the like, I can’t speak to that—there’s a reason I was a history major—but I know it’s true in human society. We’ve seen it most vividly this year, as the series of revolutions dubbed the “Arab Spring” were touched off by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire after the police took his goods (again) and beat him. For another instance, African slavery arrived in the American South by accident. Little events, big results.

At the same time, though, Jonah’s story gives us a salutary reminder that God is bigger than all of it, and that he’s at work in and through all of it to accomplish his purposes; there is nothing he cannot use, and no problem he cannot solve. And perhaps most importantly, there is no one he cannot rescue—and no one he will refuse to rescue. There is no one who has gone beyond his mercy, and there is no one who has escaped his presence—just look at our call to worship this morning, taken from Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heights of heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Hell, you are there.” There is no one, as Jesus’ parable of the two lost sons makes clear, who has done so bad that God wouldn’t save them, and there is no one who has ever managed to get themselves into a situation in which he couldn’t save them. However improbable it may be, nothing is impossible for God.

Joe McKeever, who used to be the Director of Missions for the Baptists down New Orleans way, illustrates this powerfully with the story of one night when two men were walking around a county airport in rural Mississippi. One of them was the airport’s manager; the other was his pastor, Slim Cornett, who was getting the full cook’s tour of the facility. They were in the tower, and the manager pointed to a switch, said to Slim, “This switch lights up the runway,” and flipped it. “Then,” he said, pointing to another switch, “let’s say there is a plane in distress up there. I would throw this switch”—and he did so—“and turn on the searchlights.” The night sky lit up—and the Rev. Cornett and his friend were amazed to see a small plane come out of the blackness and land on the runway. Their amazement redoubled as Franklin Graham got out of the airplane.

This was when Franklin was in college; the pilot was flying him back to school in Texas from his home in North Carolina when something shut down the electrical system. That had left the airplane without lights, without its guidance systems—no way for the pilot to know where they were, which way they were going, what was below them, or how close it was—and with the radio dead, they had no way to call for help. Then, out of nowhere, the searchlight had come on to guide them to safety. Earlier that evening, before Franklin left home, his father had prayed that God would guide and protect the pilot and his son; when trouble struck, God answered.

What hits us about that story isn’t that it’s impossible; clearly, it isn’t. But it’s implausible. It’s the sort of wild coincidence you’d expect of a fifth-rate novelist who doesn’t care that things like that don’t happen in real life; it’s a billion-to-one shot, like winning the lottery with a ticket you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe. But you know, God doesn’t just do the impossible; he does the wildly implausible, in order to save us. There is no one he cannot reach, and no one he cannot redeem—just look at Saul; just look at the Ninevites—and he’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to do it. No matter how fast or far we might run, God will never stop pursuing us, because he loves us; no matter how deep we may sink, his love can always lift us to safety.


(Jonah 4; Matthew 18:21-35)

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all he has made.” From David’s pen in Psalm 145, that’s praise. On Jonah’s lips, it’s an indictment.

Which is telling, and should be sobering for us. We’ve talked about why Jonah thinks and feels this way; Israel is God’s chosen people, Assyrians are his enemies, which means that the Israelites are the good guys and the Assyrians the bad guys, and therefore mercy is for Israel, while the Assyrians are for judgment. The command to go give Nineveh a chance to repent, and thus to avoid judgment, violated his understanding of how things ought to be.

We understand that. Whether it’s that car that just cut us off, the person who just hurt someone we love, or that group of people who are advocating for causes and laws we find repugnant, we have our own Ninevites. I remember hearing Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a black Baptist preacher who founded a megachurch in Brooklyn, talk about receiving invitations to preach to white congregations and wanting to refuse, “because white folk been mean. They’re Ninevites, and I don’t like preaching to Ninevites.” Our Ninevites are different, but we understand the desire that those who we believe have done evil to us and ours should suffer the full consequences.

What should give us pause, though, is to realize just how far that desire has driven Jonah. In his self-righteous insistence on his own idea of justice, he has gotten to the point of criticizing God for being merciful—even when he himself is only alive to complain because of that same mercy. You can just hear it, can’t you? “God, I told you this would happen! Isn’t this exactly what I said was going to happen? This is why I ran away to sea, to try to keep you from making this mistake!” And on and on, until finally he declaims, “And now, O Lord, please kill me, for after this I’m better off dead.”

To borrow a phrase from Mark Driscoll, what we see here is Jonah the emotional counter-punching drama queen; but beneath the melodramatics, we also see just how far his heart is from God, how he has let his idea of what God ought to be like blind him to who God is. His worship has been taken over by arrogance and self-righteousness, to the point where he believes he has the right to keep God’s mercy for himself; though he had been forgiven much, he refused to forgive others, and was even presumptuous enough to object to God doing so.

As Jesus’ parable makes clear, such an attitude offends God; Jonah is now, for the second time, in exactly the same position as the Assyrians he despises: in rebellion against God. His rebellion is less severe than theirs, but no less real; once again, you can make the case that Jonah deserves death for his defiance, and once again, he invites death rather than submit. If God isn’t going to do things his way, he wants out.

Instead, for the second time, God in his difficult mercy spares his life. Rather than killing him, God merely asks, “Do you really have the right to be angry?” Jonah doesn’t answer; instead, he goes out east of the city and sits down to wait, hoping God will see reason and obliterate it. He builds a little booth for himself, but it doesn’t provide much shelter; so God commands a plant to grow over Jonah’s head and give him shade, easing his discomfort. But that night, God sends a worm to kill the plant, and with the sunrise he sends a hot east wind, so that Jonah’s discomfort is far worse than before; and once again, he prays for death.

Look at God’s response. He asks Jonah, “Do you really have the right to be angry about the plant?” This time, Jonah snaps back, “Yes—angry enough to die!” This plays right into God’s hands, as the Lord turns Jonah’s anger against him. “You’re angry about the plant,” God says, “but you never took care of it—you didn’t make it grow; it was here one day and gone the next. If you’re concerned about that plant, why shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh? I made Nineveh, and everyone in it—more than 120,000 people, who have never had the chance to learn right from wrong. Yes, they do evil, but I love them in spite of their sin. But you, even if you can’t spare a thought for them, at least think of all the animals who would die if I destroyed the city.”

And there the book leaves us, with God’s appeal hanging in the air and Jonah still sitting in his selfish bitterness and tribal arrogance. The mere fact of the book’s existence may suggest that Jonah grew up and learned what God was trying to teach him, but we really have no way of knowing—which means that we can’t move on with the story and leave God’s appeal behind us; we’re left to answer the question, not for Jonah, but for ourselves. We don’t get to leave this safely in the past, where the Assyrian Empire has been dust for millennia; we have to face our own Nineveh, and our own Ninevites.

I don’t know where Nineveh is for you. It’s for you to consider whom you resent, who angers you, against whom you’re holding a grudge; I won’t name the person in your life who not only deserves to be judged, but whom you want to see judged—and quite frankly, I’m not going to tell you they don’t deserve it. But you know, even if they’re every bit as bad as you think, we still have God’s question ringing in our ears: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” And behind that question, we hear the voice of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for”—catch this—“for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” In other words, “I made the Ninevites, too; I sent them the sun and the rain, and I sent my Son to die and rise again for them just as much as for you. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”

God doesn’t try to convince us that our enemies aren’t that bad; he doesn’t try to get us to understand them or sympathize with them; he doesn’t, in fact, do anything to minimize the scandal of what he asks of us. He simply says, “Love them. Bless them. Turn the other cheek, pray for them, and work for their well-being. Yes, they’re your enemies, yes, they hurt you; remember how I dealt with my enemies: I died for them. You were my enemy; I died for you. No, they don’t deserve it. Love them anyway.”


(Jonah 3; John 3:11-21)

So Jonah disobeyed God, got caught by a terrible storm, had the sailors throw him overboard, was swallowed by a big fish, repented, got spit back on the beach, and now he’s learned his lesson. Right? Well, maybe not exactly. Yes, he’s given up on defying God, and he goes to Nineveh—but he doesn’t do it on his own initiative. Sure, you can’t expect him to start walking as soon as he’s back on his feet—he would at least have wanted a bath and some clean clothes—but once he’s freshened up a bit, he doesn’t need new orders from God; he knows where he’s supposed to go. And yet, he doesn’t start moving until God tells him a second time: “Go to Nineveh.” Clearly, he still resents God’s command. He’s learned his lesson about fighting God, he’ll be a good little prophet and do what he’s told, but he refuses to really accept it.

Which fits with his prayer in chapter 2, because there’s a major omission there. If you go back and take a look at that, he thanks God for his deliverance and promises to obey in future—but isn’t something missing? Where’s the repentance? Nowhere in his prayer does he admit that he was cast into the deep because of his own sin; nowhere does he confess his rebellion or ask forgiveness for his defiance. He goes to Nineveh because he has to, because God makes him; but his heart has not been humbled.

Jonah gets to Nineveh, and the book gives us an interesting statement about the city in verse 3. Literally, the Hebrew reads, “Nineveh was a city great to God, a visit of three days.” For the first part, I think it means more than just “a really big city”—I think the point here is that this was an important city to God. The second part’s more difficult, because we don’t have this expression anywhere else in the Bible, and so we get a lot of different translations; most of them, like the NIV, end up exaggerating the city’s size. What I think is in view here is that because Nineveh was a royal city, where the king had a palace and held court, there was protocol involved in any visit. Small towns, you could just show up, conduct your business, and then leave, but in places like Nineveh, there were formalities that had to be observed on arrival and departure, requiring a visit of at least three days. Think of it like traveling abroad and going through customs; their customs weren’t the same as ours, but they still had them, and they took time.

The expectation, then, is that Jonah would arrive at the city, meet with the officials at the gate, and declare his business. He would spend the second day preaching around the city. The third day, he would conclude his preaching, perhaps have an audience with the king, and then go through the proper rituals of farewell. Except—it didn’t work that way, because the people of Nineveh disrupted the schedule. From the moment Jonah opened his mouth, his message carried such power that it spread across the city like wildfire; the king commanded his people to fast and put on sackcloth, but he was only confirming what they were already doing. The Ninevites took Jonah’s warning with deadly seriousness, crying out to God and begging him to forgive them.

Now, we shouldn’t overstate this; it doesn’t mean that the people of Nineveh abandoned the worship of their own gods. They should have, but they didn’t go that far; as long as Assyria was in existence, they continued to worship Ishtar and the rest, and they kept right on waging war and conquering other nations—including, eventually, Israel. But they did recognize the God of Israel as a god they needed to honor and appease, and if they didn’t completely change their ways, they did mend them. There was an abrupt change in Assyrian behavior, as their exaltation of cruelty came to a sudden end; going forward, they treated the countries they conquered far more humanely. Their repentance wasn’t total, but it was real; and God saw it and lifted their sentence.

The irony here is that Jonah’s story very likely played a part in this. Though not a seafaring people, the Assyrians recognized the fish god, the god of the sea, as one of the deities they acknowledged and respected. Here comes Jonah, telling the story of his God who had overcome the fish god—who had called up a great storm on a whim, then dismissed it in a moment, and who had used the fish god as a beast of burden to save Jonah from drowning and deliver him to shore; and it’s not just a crazy story, because his skin is bleached and damaged from the stomach acids of the fish, and maybe he even still smells funny. Any god powerful enough to do that could well be the god who had sent Assyria the famine, the eclipse, and the earthquake; if that god was now threatening to destroy Nineveh, then it was time to repent, to change their ways and beg his forgiveness. Jonah’s message probably had more credibility and effect because of his disobedience than it would have if he’d just gone straight to Nineveh.

Now, it’s safe to say that Jonah didn’t appreciate that irony, because he didn’t want Nineveh to repent; he wanted God to be just on his side, against his enemies. But God is never just on our side. He doesn’t offer salvation to one group and refuse it to another; his concern is for the whole world, not just those who worship him. It’s tempting to imagine that God favors us because we’re better than everyone else—as demonstrated by the fact that we don’t commit those sins, like those people over there (whatever those sins and those people may be)—but it isn’t true; the fact is, we too are saved only by God’s grace, in spite of what we deserve; we need God’s mercy as badly as anyone.

It is no stranger that God shows mercy to Nineveh than it is that he gives us his grace, for we haven’t earned it any more than they had; both come because he desires to show mercy. God is just and holy, and so he punishes those who do evil because he will not allow their evil to endure—but that isn’t his preferred method of defeating his enemies. Rather, as he declares in Ezekiel 33, he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but only when they repent and come to him and live. As such, God will show mercy even where we are scandalized by the injustice—and so remind us that the grace we have received from his hand is every bit as scandalous and undeserved.

And in truth, we should rejoice at that; for it’s when God shows love and grace beyond reason that he produces blessing beyond all expectation. Sometimes the greatest mercies he gives us are the mercies he shows our enemies, for it is by this that he defeats them and makes them his friends—and ours. We object when God forgives those whom we believe unforgiveable, because we tend to think of his mercy as a free pass, but it’s nothing of the sort; his grace costs nothing, but it isn’t cheap. It is free, in that we don’t have to do anything to earn it—but as we saw last week, that very fact means that we can’t control what it costs us, or what it requires of us. We do not accept God’s mercy on our own terms, but only on his; receiving his grace necessarily means admitting that we need his grace. We must allow ourselves to be convicted of sin, called to repent, challenged to grow and to change; to refuse to repent is to insist that we don’t need mercy, and thus to reject it. Grace costs us nothing to gain and everything to receive; it’s just the nature of grace. It’s why we find grace so hard to take.


(Jonah 2; 2 Corinthians 1:3-11)

Jonah was in an awkward and unpleasant position: he’d tried to escape from God by killing himself, and God had blocked him. He’d tried to run from God, and now he couldn’t get away; he could try to ignore God, but he certainly couldn’t hide, and he didn’t have anyone else to talk to. And to crown everything, however unpleasant his situation, and however much it was not what he had wanted, he had to be grateful for it; whatever else he might say, being alive instead of dead was still a good thing.

And so he began to pray. This is a formal psalm, crafted to be useful to a wide audience, so while it could be taken to mean that Jonah repented and prayed for deliverance before God sent the fish, that’s not necessarily true; in fact, it probably isn’t. Still, despite his ambivalence toward God at this point, Jonah does at least praise God for saving his life. When he went overboard, Jonah believed he was cut off from God, and going down to the land of the dead where that separation would be permanent—and he had chosen that fate. God had mercy on him despite himself. It’s significant that Jonah praises God for that mercy which he had not wanted, and for which he had not asked.

Even more significant, Jonah rejects idolatry and recommits himself to keep his vows to the Lord. He confesses that only God can deliver anyone, that salvation belongs to him and him alone—which means that God is free to save whomever he chooses. He is free to save Jonah; he is also free to save the Assyrians, and Jonah has no right to complain one way or the other about either. It isn’t his place to decide who will be shown grace and mercy, and who won’t; his own undeserved salvation obliges him to offer the same to Nineveh, and he acknowledges that. What had he vowed to the Lord? As his prophet, to go where God sent him and speak what God told him to speak. Jonah bows his head and accepts the Lord’s will, and the fish spits him up on the shore.

Now, I have to ask you, how far would you trust Jonah at this point? Sure, he’s repented, to some extent, under extreme duress; but based on his record so far, how deep do you think that repentance is? You could hardly blame God if he wanted a few guarantees out of his recalcitrant prophet before putting him back on his feet. But then, if the Lord had been a prudent God—if he’d been the kind of God people tend to imagine when they hear the word “God”—he wouldn’t have bothered to save Jonah at all, he would have just let him drown, and call another prophet who’d do what he was told. After all, Jonah certainly had it coming, and it would have been an object lesson to everybody in what happens if you disobey. That would have saved time, saved effort, and provided a nice neat moral lesson to boot: do what God says or you’re fish food.

But that’s not how he works. Rather, he is a God of utterly imprudent mercy. He doesn’t ration out his mercy drop by drop, careful not to use too much, as if in fear of running out; he doesn’t hold back his grace from anyone who would take advantage of it, nor does he keep it for the most deserving or those of whom he might make the greatest use. Instead, he lavishes it on us, grace upon grace. We see that with Jonah; most fully, we see it in Jesus Christ, in whom his mercy would go to the uttermost limit, climbing up on a cross to die in order to bring all of us back from the shipwreck we had allowed sin to make of our lives. That was utterly imprudent, it is utterly God, and it is utterly glorious.

Of course, Jonah wasn’t looking for mercy; in fact, he was trying to reject salvation—but God saved him anyway, despite himself. In truth, in some sense he always does, because salvation is always God’s work, and his initiative; we never turn to look for him except he draws us. Still, most of the time it would seem that those whom God saves are at least cooperating with his work; but sometimes, as with Jonah, God saves us even though we don’t want to be saved. Why he lets some go and hauls others back, I don’t know; that’s something for him to know and me not to find out, I suspect. But he’s God, if he wants to he can save people even when they’re bound and determined not to let him—as Jonah was; and sometimes he does.

This story highlights a strange reality, that sometimes God’s mercy is harder than his justice. That might sound hard to believe, when his mercy means sparing us punishment, but it’s true. Punishment doesn’t really demand much of us, after all. When we’re punished, either we know we’ve earned it or we can tell ourselves we haven’t, but either way we’re still in control; we can choose to change in response, but we don’t have to if we don’t want to. All we have to do is endure it. Mercy, though—mercy unsettles us, because it reverses the field on us. It takes us out of control, because we can’t predict it, we can’t earn it, we can’t determine it in any way—God’s mercy is entirely his own doing, completely outside us, completely beyond us. And mercy has a power to compel which punishment lacks, because it challenges us to respond in kind; it challenges us to live up to it. In the very fact that it makes no demands of us, it requires us to change.

No author has ever captured this truth better than Victor Hugo in his great novel Les Misérables, in the relationship between the hero, ex-convict Jean Valjean, and the Bishop, whom Hugo refers to as “Monseigneur Bienvenu”—Bishop Welcome. Dirty, shivering and bedraggled, abused by free society, Valjean knocked at the bishop’s door, begging; the bishop invited him in, fed him, warmed him, and gave him a room and a bed for the night. And what did Valjean do? Having woken up in the middle of the night because the bed was too comfortable, he slipped out, stole the six silver place settings and the ladle, and fled.

Of course, the gendarmes catch him and drag him back to the bishop’s house. Expecting to be returned to prison, instead Valjean hears the bishop say this: “Ah! here you are! I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get 200 francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” The bishop sends the gendarmes on their way, then turns to Valjean and says this: “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man. . . . Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

That is the imprudent, transforming, difficult mercy of God; Valjean, overwhelmed, accepted it and was transformed, becoming the good man the bishop saw he could be. This is the marvelous, infinite, matchless grace that overwhelms our pride and all our defenses. It isn’t easy, because we can’t control it and we can’t take it on our own terms; it isn’t always what we want, but it’s ever what we need.


(Jonah 1; Luke 8:22-25)

Jonah may be the most mis-remembered story in the whole Bible. Anymore, you can’t assume that people really know anything much about the Bible at all, but even now, you mention Jonah, I think most folks will immediately come up with Jonah and the whale. And then, of course, you have the killjoys who get all bent out of shape because “it wasn’t a whale—the Bible says it was a big fish, and a whale isn’t a fish!” Which completely ignores the fact that three thousand years ago, they didn’t have our taxonomic classifications; they didn’t have the concept of “whale” as “not fish.” It lived in the water, no legs, it swam, it was a fish. Period. But while everyone’s distracted by that red herring, the real whale here—the meaning of the story—swims off unnoticed.

Which is too bad, because this is an amazing book, if a rather unsettling one when you really understand it. Nineveh, you see, was one of the great cities of Assyria, and one of the places where the king of Assyria had a palace—not his main residence, but one of the places where he and his court would reside during the year. Assyria at this point was the main foreign threat to the people of Israel and Judah—it was a growing empire, and highly aggressive—and it may well have been the most evil political entity in human history. They worshiped Ishtar, the goddess of war, who was an extraordinarily cruel deity, and their leaders were bloody conquerors who delighted in the carnage of battle; worse, the end of battle did not bring an end to their cruelty, for their treatment of captives could easily inspire a whole series of horror movies. Politically speaking, Assyria was less a government than a cancer.

And yet, at this time, things weren’t going well for them. They’d had a couple weak kings in a row, and they’d even suffered some defeats in battle—which, when your whole nation exists to win battles, you can imagine the crisis of confidence that caused. They’d had some famine and some other negative omens, and so there was noticeable popular unrest; clearly the gods weren’t happy with them, and they were trying to figure out why. It was a teachable moment for Assyria, a time when they were open to ideas they would otherwise have rejected out of hand.

And so God tells Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and tell them they have to repent”—and Jonah flips out. He hates Assyria, which is understandable; he doesn’t want to be the agent of their repentance, because he wants God to destroy them. And so he up and does a bunk; instead of heading east, he anticipates Horace Greeley by a couple thousand years and heads west, out to sea. We need not think that Jonah actually thought he could outrun God, or that God couldn’t send someone else to Nineveh; but presumably he figured that God at least would send someone else, and let him off the hook.

Now, sometimes God lets us run, and sometimes he doesn’t; here, of course, he doesn’t, and so the great storm comes on Jonah’s ship as he sleeps. The sailors immediately start trying to figure out who offended which god and how they can make amends, and the Lord points them straight to his runaway prophet. When Jonah’s lot comes up, they don’t immediately assume he’s to blame for the storm, but clearly he’s the one who can tell them who is, so they ask him a bunch of questions that all boil down to this: “Who is your god?” Which god is angry, and why, and what can we do to appease him?

Give Jonah this much credit, he gives it to them straight: “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He admits that he’s a prophet, that he’s running away from God, and that the storm has come upon them as a result of his defiance. The sailors are, quite understandably, terrified and infuriated—how could he do such a thing? And how could he mix them up in it, putting their lives at risk? Clearly, he deserved to be punished—but none of them knew what punishment his god would consider to be sufficient.

So, since he was the religious expert, they asked him: “What do we need to do to you for your god to calm the storm?” And here we see Jonah’s agenda, because all they need to do is turn around and take him back to port so he can go to Nineveh—but he doesn’t tell them that; he’d rather drown than do that. He’s willing to die so that the sailors might be spared, but not to keep living if it means that Nineveh might be spared.

The sailors don’t like his answer, though. Jonah is the outlaw prophet of a god they don’t know, they have no way to be sure he’s telling them the right thing to do, and they don’t really have any reason to trust him. Gods don’t like people messing with their prophets, and if his god holds them responsible for Jonah’s death, he might drown them all anyway. They try to row back to shore, but the storm keeps getting worse, until finally they give up and toss him overboard—begging the Lord not to be mad at them, because it isn’t their idea . . . and as soon as the prophet hits the water, the storm stops. As frightened as they were during the storm, they’re even more freaked out now, because any god who can do that is a god to be feared. I don’t know if they offered a sacrifice to God right there on the deck or if they waited until they got back to port, but that was absolutely the #1 thing on their agenda, because Jonah’s God had gotten their attention; he was clearly a god to be worshiped, and not one they could afford to ignore.

Now, there are a couple things that come through loud and clear in this chapter. One is that God desires to show mercy to Nineveh; we’ll come back to that later on in this series. The other, which I want you to focus on this morning, is a very high view and a very powerful picture of the sovereignty of God—the fact that God is in control. God rules everything—full stop, end of sentence, no exceptions. Every thing, every person, everywhere, at every point in time, it’s all and always God’s.

And God uses everything—our obedience, as with the sailors, but also our disobedience, as with Jonah. In fact, and we’ll talk about this in a couple weeks, there’s good reason to suspect that Jonah’s rebellion was part of God’s plan—that God chose Jonah not despite the fact that he would rebel, but in part because he would rebel. Every second, God is completely aware of, and in control of, every detail, everyone and everything everywhere in creation—and every second, he is at work in every bit of it to accomplish his purposes. He uses all of it, and wastes none of it, ever.

Now, maybe there’s a Jonah here this morning; maybe some of you see yourselves in the prophet who tried to derail God’s plan by defying his will. If so, let me tell you, it won’t work. If you aren’t where God wants you, he can always send a fish—and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather avoid that, because there’s no first-class service on a fish. But even if he lets you sail on west, it just means he has another way to do what he is absolutely going to do.

Or maybe you see yourself in the sailors—just trying to do your job, caught in the middle of somebody else’s storm. If that’s you, take heart, because the sailors weren’t accidental bystanders in Jonah’s story; God had them there for a reason, too. They were people who didn’t know him—but by the end of their encounter with Jonah, they did, and they were worshiping him. It was a scary blessing, not an easy one, but God used Jonah to bless them nonetheless, through the storm. We’ve talked about this before, how often God’s road to blessing leads through the storm, through difficulty and trial, not around it; but I can assure you, even in the storm—even when it’s not your fault, not of your own making, not anything that seems to have anything at all to do with you—God is in control, God is still God, and he is still at work to bless you. Indeed, he is using the storm to bless you, though you may not be able to see that now; he is still the God who can speak peace to the sea and calm the storm, as he did for the sailors, and for his disciples so long ago—and in his good time, he will do the same for you.