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Grumbling About God's Mission

Date: Aug. 16, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Jonah 1:1-16

Key Verse: Jonah 1:16

At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

Have you ever had to do something that you really didn’t want to do? I remember when I was in high school and I had to write those timed essays. I hated those things. You had to read the passage and write an essay based on what you read. I would always get flustered at those types of essays because I felt that, since there was no time to think about the topic, there was no value in writing an answer. Under stress, you couldn’t do a good job. What was the point? It bothered me so much that I spent more energy trying to avoid the essays. Sometimes I would just sit in anger, refusing to do the work. Even now, there are times where I just don’t want to do something, so I refuse or leave. We may have all been there before. Most of the time, the things we don’t want to do are something that someone asked us to do. Someone may have asked you to help them move. Other times, they are something that we have to do, like going to class or work, or doing those things remotely, as of late. In those times, we might not like what we have to do or are asked to do. We might even grumble about having to do whatever we don’t want to do. I’ve got kids who stubbornly refuse to do certain things and grumble about it for hours on end. It is not a unique scenario. We all grumble about something. In today’s passage, we see a man who was directed by God to go do something, but he didn’t want to do it, so he ran as far away as he could.

Today we start our study of a new book, Jonah. It is an Old Testament book that is actually well known. A reference to Jonah even made it into the first Avengers movie. Most of the world knows about Jonah being swallowed up by a big fish, but that tale is only a small part of the book of Jonah. So, Jonah was a prophet who prophesied during the rule of King Jeroboam II, who reigned in Israel, the northern kingdom, between 793 – 753 BC. He is referred to here as Jonah son of Amittai and is also referenced elsewhere in the Old Testament in 2 Kings 14:25. This would make him a contemporary of the prophets Amos and Hosea. There is a lot of controversy concerning the book. It is unknown if Jonah himself wrote the book or if it was written after the exile of the Israelites was over, since there is much about God’s love for the Gentile world, which played more prominence in the post-exilic time. Also, as you might know, the Bible is filled with different types of literature. Some of the Bible is historic, but other parts are songs or warnings against a group of people. Many Biblical scholars debate which type of literature this book is. Is Jonah a fictional story, a parable or is it historical. The big fish is a stumbling block for many. How could Jonah survive being swallowed up in the belly of a big fish for three days? However, much of the Old Testament and rest of the Bible are filled with miraculous accounts and Jesus, himself, seemed to refer to Jonah and what happened to him as a historical event. Since Jesus treated Jonah this way, who are we to argue with Jesus?

The book of Jonah has a few themes in it, but repentance and God’s love for the world are among the top. When we look at the prophet Jonah, we can’t help but see the humanity of the book. Jonah was a reluctant prophet and even by the end of the book, he is not reconciled with God, he sits angry with God. Jonah was a prophet who grumbled about God, and that is the theme of our study of Jonah, Grumbling About God. As we study the book of Jonah, we will see how Jonah is upset with God, but more importantly, we will see how God deals with Jonah’s grumbling. We will see God’s true heart for Jonah and all the people of the world. In this first passage, we will see God call Jonah for a task, but Jonah’s response is very much grumbling about God’s mission for him.

Our passage starts out, “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.’” (1-2) The book begins with a proclamation that the word of the Lord came to Jonah. This is a typical refrain for those God has called as a prophet. God spoke to the prophets via dreams, visions and, sometimes, directly. Many times, after these words, prophetic words are given detailing what the Lord said. Here, however, the words come with a direction, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (2) The Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it. This is interesting because, most of the time, prophets proclaimed the word of the Lord to Israel or Judah, to a nation of the Lord’s people. However, here, the Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, which is a Gentile city the capital of the Assyrian Empire, who have been an enemy of Israel for quite a while at this point. It was a strange request for an Israelite like Jonah. Even more interesting is the fact that the message Jonah was supposed to give was considered preaching against Nineveh. He wasn’t to bring a message of hope, but one of condemnation. In the year 612 BC, Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes. The city wouldn’t last forever. Jonah was to essentially pronounce judgement on Nineveh because their wicked ways became God’s focus. God was fed up with Nineveh.

Now, when confronted with such a mission, Jonah didn’t pack his bags and head for Nineveh. Instead, he went the other direction. The passage says, “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.” (3) Jonah ran away from the Lord. He wanted to go to a place called Tarshish. Now, Jonah was from a town called Gath Hepher, which was in the land of Zebulun. It was located twelve miles west to what would be called the Sea of Galilee and about three miles north-east of Nazareth. Nineveh was over 500 miles to the northeast of Gath Hepher. It was a good distance away, but Jonah decided to run away and go as far away as possible, which was Tarshish. The exact location of Tarshish is unknown, but it is widely believed to be Tartessus in southern Spain, which was a Phoenician mining colony near Gibraltar. It was on the other side of the Mediterranean. It would be like being told to go to New York and you decide to go to Los Angeles instead. It was the exact opposite direction God told him to go. Jonah found a ship in Joppa and he tried to run away from what God called him to do. Jonah really didn’t want to proclaim any message to those in Nineveh.

He got on the ship and set sail to go to the opposite side of the sea. “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.” (4) The Lord sent a huge storm on the sea. It was so bad that the ship was close to being destroyed. Now, this can look like God’s anger towards Jonah. You can see this storm as God’s anger. It looks like he is upset that Jonah was trying to run away and do the opposite of what he told Jonah to do. In this light, God looks like a parent who found out that his child is being completely disobedient. During this summer of the pandemic, I have been reading the Chronicles of Narnia with my two older kids. They have a direction to read one chapter a day and we will discuss the chapter after they are done. They have this direction, but I also explicitly tell them each day to read the chapter. When I come back up from work, there are times where I find out that they didn’t obey that direction. I get pretty upset about it, at times. It was direct disobedience. That is a minor issue, though. Here, we have something with much greater meaning. Jonah was to go to Nineveh to preach against it, but he ran away. He was explicitly disobedient, and the storm could look like God’s anger.

Yet, knowing just a little bit about God, we can know that God is not upset at Jonah and trying to kill him in his anger. If God were trying to kill Jonah, then he could do so with great swiftness. Instead, I think that God was trying to let Jonah know how important the mission was. Now, God could use anyone to proclaim his message, but he chose Jonah. When Jonah ran away, God could have used someone else, but it was important that Jonah be the one to deliver the message to Nineveh. So, this storm was to get Jonah’s attention and to show him how serious God is about getting the message to Nineveh.

It was a great storm. The sailors were full of fear. “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. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.” (5) This was filled with pagan people who each worshipped a different god. The each cried out to their own god for help, but none came. They tried to lighten the ship by throwing all the cargo overboard, but to little avail. While this was all going on, Jonah was below deck, fast asleep. The passage says that he was in a deep sleep. It kind of reminds me of the time where, on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus fell asleep on a boat and a storm was raging around them and that boat was in danger of sinking, too. Here, the sailors were very seasoned and used to all sorts of weather conditions, but they were losing their minds in fear and did everything they could to prevent the ship from being destroyed.

However, the captain found Jonah below deck, sleeping and had some words for him, “The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.’” (6) The captain wanted everyone on board to call out to their own god. Maybe one of them would have mercy, but the passage never says that Jonah did so. The sailors were so desperate, that they wanted to know who was responsible for the storm, which honestly, sounds like a silly thing. It was a storm, who is responsible for a storm? At any rate, the sailors cast lots to find out who was the one that brought the calamity upon them and the lot fell on Jonah. Casting lots is similar to rolling of a die or flipping a coin. It was like using chance to determine something, but the thought behind it was that a deity would control the casting of the lot and could not be influenced by human hands. This lot fell on Jonah this time, signifying that Jonah was the cause of their troubles.

“So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’” (8) The sailors wanted to know everything about Jonah to find out why this storm was so perilous and strong. Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (9) Jonah said that he was a Hebrew who worshipped the Lord, the one who made the sea and land. With these words, the sailors were even more afraid. Even though the sailors were from different countries and worshipped different gods, there was a common thought in the Near East at the time that the supreme god was the master of the seas. It really freaked out the sailors to learn that he may have upset the supreme god. Who could calm the supreme god? None of the other gods could hold sway over he who is supreme. The people on board knew that he was running away from the Lord, but they finally put the pieces together.

“The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’ ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’” (11-12) I find the sailors’ question to Jonah interesting. They ask, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “What should we do to you?” They didn’t just ask what they should do, but what they should do to Jonah. It is a bit ominous. Jonah responds in an even more ominous tone, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” Jonah knows that the Lord is the cause of the storm and knows that it will stop once he is off the ship.

Here we can see a bit more of Jonah’s heart and how hard it was. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he would rather die than go there. He just tells them to throw him into the sea, but that would have been a death sentence. He had no life preserver or raft. He wouldn’t survive in the sea for all that long, even if he was a decent swimmer. Jonah wanted to choose death over obeying the Lord. That seems a bit extreme to me. He never called out to God. He never asked for forgiveness. He would rather die than do that. What is that so? Like I mentioned earlier, God told Jonah to preach against Nineveh. He was to bring a message of judgement to Nineveh, but Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s enemies. You would think that a prophet of Israel would like to go to one of Israel’s enemies and cast judgement on them, but there is something in God’s direction that bothered Jonah. We don’t find out the exact reason until chapter 4, but we can infer a few things in this passage. If God truly hated Assyria and those in Nineveh, why would he warn them about his coming wrath? Wouldn’t he just destroy them without warning? Why give a warning, then? It is because God loved the people of Nineveh, too. He wanted them to know that he is upset with them because of their wickedness.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he didn’t like the fact that God loved Nineveh, too. Israel was very proud to be called God’s chosen people. The Lord loved Israel and tolerated a lot from them, but there were times where the Israelites thought that God loved only them. They were God’s special people, but they were not God’s only people. All people are God’s creation and he loves each and every one of us. But the obedient children can become upset that the father loves even disobedient the children. They can become jealous. We see that in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees thought themselves better than other people because of their obedience to God’s words. They thought that the Lord loved them more than the disobedient. Jonah didn’t want to acknowledge God’s love for the people of Nineveh and he stubbornly refused to obey God himself. He preferred to die than show God’s love to the enemy of Israel.

Contrast this stubbornness and lack of compassion with the sailors. They refused to throw Jonah overboard. They tried to row back to shore, but the storm became worse. They had compassion on Jonah, even though he was the cause of their trouble. Even the captain went around making sure everyone was ok. He had compassion for everyone on board his ship. Even when the sailors felt that they had no choice, they had compassion. They cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” (14) The considered Jonah innocent, which he wasn’t. He was disobedient to God, but they didn’t want his blood on their hands.

But they gave in. “Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.” (15) Eventually, the sailors threw Jonah into the sea and instantly, the sea grew calm. It reminds me of when Jesus calmed the storm. At Jesus’ word, the sea grew instantly calm. It shows the supernatural power of God. In both cases, the Lord has mastery over even the forces of nature.

Upon seeing the radical change in the weather, the sailors responded, “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” (16) This is, again, a great contrast to Jonah. The sailors had saw what the Lord could do and the revered him and worshipped him. On the other hand, Jonah knew what was happening and refused to turn to God. Jonah refused to repent for running away, but he held steadfast in his decision to run away from God’s mission. Jonah resigned himself to die instead of responding to God. God wanted Jonah to follow his mission, so he tried to shake him and show him how serious he was in wanting to send Jonah to Nineveh. It was important for Israel and the whole world see the love that the Lord had for all of his people.

Our wickedness grieves God. If he didn’t love us, then he wouldn’t even bother us. His interest in our lives is proof that he loves us. Do you ever pay second thought to things you don’t care about? Do you care about the bugs you squash when you walk or drive your car? No, you just plow right on through them without second thought, except for maybe an “Eww” when a big one splatters on your windshield. You don’t care about those bugs. God could be the same way. He could just be like “Eww”, but instead he cares of each one of us, and sometimes that can be a hard thing to hear.

Unfortunately, history is filled with Christians that refuse to follow God’s mission and reject his compassion for people. There are times when Christians focus on the sins of others and get caught up in how far they are away from God. These people may even be enemies of Christians and God. They persecute believers and belittle our beliefs, but God loves them too. They sinners, as we are. We Christians love to hold up our high morality but tend to forget our own sinfulness and how the Lord’s grace came to us. We are called to preach to those who do not believe, but instead we stand condemning those who have not met Jesus yet, like we are so special to have come to believe. We believe not because of anything that we have done, but because of what Jesus has done.

I am incredibly saddened that Evangelical Christian has become synonymous with hatred, bigotry, racism and disunity. Evangelical literally means good news or gospel, but there is little good news with evangelicals nowadays. We have become like Jonah, refusing to have compassion on those different than us. We grumble about God’s love for people and seek to poke holes in their faith, rather than celebrate their salvation. We should cheer when a lost sinner repents and turns to God, but there are times where we grumble about letting them into our exclusive club. It is the picture that we have painted to the world, but Jesus said that the world should recognize us by our love and compassion. Jesus died for all because there were none worthy. Even the best of our piety is like filthy rags to God. Jesus died on the cross so that people of all types could come and find their home in heaven. Who are we to question God’s love for other?

We have to be out there with God’s word in our heart, but also with his love, compassion, grace and mercy. We have to be a light, not because we are more moral, but because Jesus loved us first and we should have that same compassion on others. We cannot lose sight of the mission. Our mission is not for us to find salvation, we already have it in Jesus. Our mission is to proclaim the good news to those who have not heard it. This means to who are ignorant of it in all ways. We previously studied Philippians, which was written by the apostle Paul. Before Paul came to believe in Jesus, he was a Jew who persecuted Christians. He would lock them up and approve of having them killed. He was an enemy of Christians, but while on his way to Damascus to arrest believers there, he was stopped on the road by Jesus himself and was blinded for days. In order to regain his sight, a man named Ananias came to Paul and placed his hands on him, but he was very reluctant to do so. Paul was the enemy, but God had plans for him. Paul saw the error of his ways, came to believe in Jesus, and became one of the greatest champions of Christianity in history. Who are we to know that God’s plans are for people? We are told to go and preach, to share the good news to those who need to hear it, both the down-trodden and the enemies of God.

We can be like Jonah and grumble about God’s mission for us. We can refuse to follow God because he has love for people that do not follow God, or we can learn for God’s own compassion and have compassion for those who need it. We are called to be like Jesus, and he loved even the worst of people. He shared meals with prostitutes, tax collectors and all sorts of lowlifes. He wasn’t afraid to look dirty because he knew that that is what needed to become clean. They had been written off by the religious leaders, but they needed personal touch. They needed to feel loved. They shouldn’t be ignored. People like that need to feel the good news that God loves them, and Jesus died for them. Let’s go out and accept God’s mission to preach the good news to all who need to hear it.

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