There is no other book among the 66 books of the Bible that is like the book about Jonah, the prophet whom God called to share a message of repentance with Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, the arch enemy of Israel. Today’s scripture lesson from Jonah 3:1-5, 10 is the centerpiece of the book of Jonah, in spite of his reluctance answers God’s call to go to Ninevah and preach a message of repentance.
To fully appreciate Jonah’s response to God’s call, it is important to understand the story of God’s call of Jonah that is told through the four chapters that focus on Jonah, the reluctant prophet.
The first chapter of God’s call of Jonah begins with God’s command for Jonah to “Go to the great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2). Jonah is reluctant to share the message God gives him to share with Ninevah because Nineveh was the capital of the ruthless Assyrians Empire that had terrorized the Israelites. Jonah is so reluctant to share the message God calls his to share that he pays fare on a boat that sets sail in the opposite direction from Ninevah. However, in spite of Jonah’s reluctance, God stands firm in God’s call as a storm threatens to swallow the ship that Jonah is on. Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed into the belly of a fish God provides. It is here that the first chapter concludes as Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish that God provided for the reluctant prophet.
The second chapter of the book of Jonah begins with Jonah praying to God from inside the belly of the fish as Jonah reconsiders God’s call to go to Ninevah. The result of this time of reconsideration is Jonah confesses that “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9) as the Lord commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land so Jonah may deliver the message of repentance to Ninevah.
The third chapter of the book of Jonah tells of how the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, “Go to the great city of Ninevah and proclaim to it the message I give you.” In this chapter, where today’s scripture reading is found, Jonah, the reluctant prophet does what the word of the Lord commands him to do. With the minimal amount of effort Jonah can mustard, he walks through Ninevah and preaches one of the shortest sermons of the Bible, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown.” To Jonah’s dismay, the Ninevites believe God, proclaim a fast, and put on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. God upon seeing the response of the people of Ninevah, relents and does not bring on them the destruction God had threatened.
All of which leads to the fourth chapter of the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, in spite of the people of Ninevah’s repentance, becomes angry with God, praying to the Lord and saying, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my country? This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In spite of Jonah’s request to die, God teaches Jonah a lesson about God’s grace as Jonah sits in the heat of the day after a plant that offers shade to Jonah wilts.
There is no dramatic conclusion to the book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet as Jonah sits in the unshaded heat of the sun, stubborn to the end, angry over God’s mercy being extended to Ninevah and at the same time being extended to Jonah. Frederick Buechner wrote of how the book of Jonah tells of God’s mercy being extended to Jonah, in spite of Jonah’s reluctance to preach a message of repentance to Ninevah.
Within a few minutes of swallowing the prophet Jonah, the whale suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it’s not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.
When God ordered him to go to Nineveh and tell them there to shape up and get saved, the expression on Jonah’s face was that of a man who has just gotten a whiff of trouble in his septic tank. In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and thus off his beat. In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased him more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.
It was as the result of a desperate attempt to get himself out of the assignment that he got himself swallowed by the whale instead; but the whale couldn’t stomach him for long, and in the end Jonah went ahead, and with a little more prodding from God, did what he’d been told. He hated every minute of it, however, and when the Ninevites succumbed to his eloquence and promised to shape up, he sat down under a leafy castor oil plant to shade him from the blistering sun and smoldered inwardly. It was an opening that God could not resist.
He caused the castor oil plant to shrivel up to the last leaf, and when Jonah got all upset at being back in the ghastly heat again, God pretended to misunderstand what was bugging him.
“Here you are, all upset out of pity for one small castor oil plant that has shriveled up,” he said, “so what’s wrong with having pity for this whole place that’s headed for Hell in a handcart if something’s not done about it?” (Jonah 4:10-11).”
There is no other book in the Bible that is quite like the book of Jonah. Other books are attributed to other prophets, but there is no other book where God calls a prophet to deliver a message in spite of who that prophet is. While there are other books where other prophets are reluctant to answer God’s call, Jonah is the only book where a prophet submits to God’s call after being swallowed for three days and three nights by a God appointed fish.
The message of the book of Jonah is divine confirmation that God calls us in spite of ourselves. It is divine confirmation that God will pursue us even when we try to run away from God’s call upon our lives. Where is God calling you to share the message of God’s mercy? Where is God calling you in spite of yourself?
In Spite Of
by Pastor Marc Brown
January 21, 2024
Accompanying Scriptures: Jonah 3:1-5,10
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for January 21, 2024
Scripture Lesson Jonah 3:1-5,10
The Good News “In Spite Of”
Music “Grace Alone” by Jeff Nelson and Scott Brown
Closing Music “Grateful Praise” by Paul Taylor