Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10
So, Jonah. My favourite prophet.
Not, let me stress, because of the giant fish. Honestly, I so wish that bit of the story wasn’t there. Because, of course, it immediately captures the attention. Ask anyone who’s grown up in Sunday School about Jonah, and I will bet anything that the first thing they remember is that he was swallowed by a whale.
The whole Jonah/whale thing is so deeply ingrained that even on a Facebook group for ministers following the narrative lectionary (a great group, because unlike most online forums, it’s very theologically diverse; united only by the text that we are preaching on) I saw people asking “why would we spend a whole week preaching on a Jewish fairytale about whale”.
And I just want to take people by the shoulders and shake them and say “that’s not the point of Jonah! It’s not about the fish!”. The story of Jonah is really not about a strange form of aquatic transportation.
The story of Jonah is about international conflict. It’s about the attitude of the people of the one true God to foreigners who worship other gods. It’s about hope and faith and repentance and forgiveness.
But most of all, it’s about Jonah.
And that might seem obvious, I mean, it’s the book of Jonah, right? But most of the books of the prophets aren’t really about the prophet. They’re about the prophecy, about the world events, about the judgement of God, the call for justice, the rebuke to the wicked. In most of the books of prophecy the actual character of the prophet is really not very important. We don’t even know much about them. Jeremiah, maybe, we get a bit of a sense of the man behind the words, but most of them are portrayed as simply conduits for the word of God.
The book of Jonah is really about Jonah.
Because Jonah was a bit different from the other prophets of God.
Lots of God’s prophets were reluctant to do the things that God sent them to do. Hardly surprising, since for the most part their job was to tell people that they were in the wrong, that they had offended God, that they needed to change. It wasn’t a safe or comfortable job, to be God’s prophet, to speak the truth to the powerful. They were often ostracised, frequently killed, almost never recognised.
And Jonah, called to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah – the enemies of God and of Israel – might have had good reason to fear that this was not a safe assignment. To head off in the opposite direction, as Jonah did, might be considered an entirely reasonable thing to do.
But one thing Jonah wasn’t, was a coward. When the storm arose and he was faced with the consequences of his choice to flee from God, he offered himself up to be thrown overboard. He didn’t flee from the comand of God because he was afraid of what the Ninevites would do to him. His reluctance, it seems, stemmed from an entirely different concern.
For when, finally, (post-whale), Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they accept his message, they repented, and God had mercy on them.
And that was Jonah really feared.
Jonah, was the reluctant prophet, not because he feared what might happen to him, but because he knew that God would forgive, and didn’t want him to. Didn’t want this foreign city to be given another chance. Didn’t want God’s grace to extend to the enemy.
Didn’t want the sort of God that he had.
Jonah wanted to serve a God who was powerful, but tribal. He wanted to serve a God who would be for us, and against them. He wanted to serve a God whose response to atrocities committed against the people was one of anger and judgement. The sort of God who would go to war to punish anyone who threatened us, threatened our way of life. The sort of God that the stories of his history spoke of; the God of Moses, drowning the Egyptian army when they were in retreat, the God of Joshua, committing genocide against the people of Jericho.
But that wasn’t the sort of God he had. And he knew it. And he didn’t like it.
He got the God he didn’t want.
Jonah wanted a God who would play by the rules of the story he lived in: the story of tribes and nations at war with one another, in which the role of our God is to deliver us victory over our enemies. The story in which our role is to keep ourselves, our culture, our nation, from being infiltrated; to keep out those who would be different, who would worship other Gods, or worship Gods by other names; to fight against those whose way of living didn’t mesh with what we know as Godly.
But he knew – and this is really the incredible part of the story of Jonah – he knew that God was bigger than he wanted God to be.
He knew that the God he served was not just a God like all the other nations worshiped writ large; that his God was somehow bigger; not just stronger, but qualitatively more. That others worshipped tribal or national gods, but he served the one true God, the God of all nations, all tribes, all peoples.
And somehow Jonah had understood that this God he served did not look on the Ninevites as enemies – though they were – or as wicked evildoers – though they were – but as people who could be good. People who were able to hear God’s word, and to change.
And that was the last thing that Jonah wanted. He wanted a God who would make sure his people won; not one who would muddy the waters by inviting the enemy into the fold.
Which is why I so like Jonah. Because he is so much like one of us. He’s not one of those prophets who just seems to be completely in line with what God wants, totally committed to the things that God values. Jonah has this deep understanding of God, and he actually doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like that God is forgiving. He doesn’t like that his enemies; the people who have hurt him, hurt his family, hurt his nation; the people who have struck terror into his heart and into his culture, his context; he doesn’t like the fact that God cares for those people, those infidels, those pagans, those terrorists, those enemy combatants.
Jonah doesn’t want God to love Jonah’s enemies. But at the same time, he knows that God does.
Which is why I believe that Jonah is really a prophet for our times. Because we live in such a divided time. Whether it be pro or anti same sex marriage; whether it be brexit or remain; whether it be Trump or Clinton; we live in an age that seems defined by our polarities. And each one of us; at least, each of us who is a person of faith, would seek to find God on our side, fighting in our corner, agreeing with our concerns.
Abraham Lincoln is said to have said (it’s probably apocryphal, the best quotes always are) when asked if God was the side of the Union “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side”.
And that’s a pretty good attitude. But it’s not enough.
The challenge that Jonah faced; the challenge, I believe, that we face in the modern world; was that even though God was clearly on Jonah’s side, God was also for the Ninevites. Not for them, in the sense of siding with them, hoping that they would win; but for them, recognising them as people; loving them as God’s creation; caring about what would happen to them; longing for them to repent, to change, to be reconciled to God.
And Jonah had the honesty to admit that he didn’t want that to happen. He wanted some good smiting, some destruction of the enemy.
He wanted a God who was on his side. But he served a God who cared for both sides.
I wonder if we can find what it means to serve such a God.