In this sermon, we look at the badly flawed Bible hero Jonah. We often stand in judgment of him—because, after all, none of us has ever heard a “word from the Lord” and then resisted doing what God wanted us to do, right? No, Jonah is a lot like us. And almost in spite of himself, through God’s sovereign power, Jonah succeeds in his mission to save sinners who don’t know God. That should give us hope as we go about our mission!
Sermon Text: Jonah 1-2
The following is my original manuscript.
I conducted a funeral last week for a man named Bob. I didn’t know him personally, but Bob was one of the bravest men I’ve ever known people who’ve known—if you know what I mean. Bob was a career army officer who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for heroism. Once he ran through a hail of bullets to save the life of an injured soldier. He received a couple of Purple Hearts.
Bob was an Airborne pathfinder, which means that he was the first one to parachute behind enemy lines. His job was to do reconnaissance, to gather intelligence on the enemy, and to use flares to illuminate enemy targets so that our guys would know where to drop the bombs. I asked another Army veteran a dumb question about this. I said, “How can you light up enemy targets without giving yourself away to the enemy?” He said, “You can’t. Once you lit up the target, you got the heck out of there as fast as possible!”
I shared a story at the funeral, which will stick with me forever. Once, when Bob was in Vietnam, he and two other soldiers were setting up an ambush for 20 Viet Cong. Bob and the other two were lying in their respective positions—silently watching the enemy, waiting to strike. Suddenly, Bob sees a man-eating Bengal tiger coming toward him! A tiger—as if war weren’t dangerous enough without the threat of being eaten by a tiger! Bob was tempted to fire his weapon and high-tail it out of there. But doing so would have put his fellow soldiers’ lives in danger. He refused to do that. He would rather be mauled by a tiger than to put the lives of other men in jeopardy! So he lay there motionless, sweating it out, as the tiger sniffed him and wandered away. Good kitty!
Bob was a hero who was willing to lay down his life for others… And, speaking of heroes, we have Jonah. I know what you’re thinking. See, this is that point at which all of us good Christians are supposed to give Jonah a wag of the finger, to look down on him, to place ourselves above him, because, “After all, unlike Jonah, none of us has ever heard a word from the Lord and resisted it. Or heard a word from the Lord and ignored it. Or heard a word from the Lord and acted as if the message weren’t clear. Or heard a word from the Lord and postponed it indefinitely.” Yeah, right!
In my line of work, I’m around preachers a lot. And I’ve often heard them give testimonies about their call into ministry. And their call story often features some period of time during which they knew God was calling them, but they resisted. I used to say that, unlike them, I was never aware of resisting God’s call. Around 2001, after I was already happily working as an engineer, I heard the call. When I did, I immediately started down the path that eventually led me to this church.
That’s what I used to say, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.
When I was a teenager in youth group, God was clearly trying to tell me something. For instance, I read the Bible a lot. I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I read Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. My youth minister had me lead Bible studies for my fellow youth. I had a youth counselor tell me one time that I should go into ministry. I even told this to my parents, who were not happy. My parents liked for me to be religious up to a certain point, but not to take it too far. One time, I even got into hot water with them one time because I gathered with some of my fellow youth before Sunday night worship service each week and prayed with them in the church’s prayer chapel. My parents were shocked—shocked! They told the youth minister: “Do you know what they’re doing in there? They’re—gasp!—praying!” Of all the things to be worried about for your teenager! My parents were like, “Why can’t you just be a normal teenager and be interested in drinking and partying and chasing girls and…”
My point is I had all these signs of a call from God, even at a young age. I read scripture, and I sensed the call. I prayed, and I sensed the call. Other people said and did things to confirm the call. And I knew that a career in ministry suited my interests and abilities. When at age 31, I had had enough of resisting the call, I told my good friend Mike about it, and he was like, “It’s about time!”
I think Stephanie Newton offers a similar testimony, right? In high school she sensed a call into music ministry. She ignored it for a while in her 20s before finally doing this thing that God was calling her to do. And aren’t we all blessed because of it?
We both heard a word from the Lord and eventually responded… But a word from the Lord doesn’t just come to those of us in professional ministry. For one thing, we’re all—already—ministers. If we’re baptized Christians, we’re ministers. It’s just that some of us are ordained. And some of us lead worship. But most of us, who sit in the congregation every Sunday, are also ministers. And like Jonah, we all will hear a word from the Lord from time to time.
And you may ask, “How does this word come to us?” Well, it’s not for nothing that we have the Bible, which we call the Word of God. We call it that, not simply because God inspired the writers of the Bible to write it down a long time ago—as if the miracle of God’s Word were merely something that took place in the dry and dusty past. No, the miracle of God’s Word is that when we read it, God himself, in the Holy Spirit, meets us within its pages and speaks to us—shares a fresh word with us to help us cope with new situations that we find ourselves in and to give us wisdom and insight for new challenges that we face. God spoke, in the past, and… he continues to speak through his Word.
When I went to the Holy Land last year, one of the things that left me cold was going to the Church of the Nativity, which sits atop the cave where most people believe Jesus was born. You can’t see the cave itself because a church sits on top of it. But you can reach your hand through a hole in the floor and touch the cave. And I did this, you know? But I wasn’t quite sure what I supposed to get out of that. God doesn’t promise to meet us in a supernatural way through touching a rock, but he does promise to meet us through holy scripture! We all have access to hearing a word from the Lord through the Bible. If you’re struggling in your spiritual lives, if God seems far away, if you’re not experiencing the joy and peace that comes from being in a saving relationship with God through Christ, my first question would be, “Are you reading the God’s Word?” Because if not, you’re depriving yourself of the best opportunity outside of worship to hear the Lord speak to you.
When we receive a word from the Lord, we may not like what the Lord is telling us. Jonah certainly didn’t. Why? As we find out in chapter 4, it’s because he didn’t like the Ninevites. They were, after all, enemies of God’s people. In fact, they would later destroy the northern kingdom of Israel entirely. So Jonah feared that his preaching would have the effect of causing his enemies to repent and turn to God.
And you know God… If Jonah preached to the Ninevites, God would probably have mercy on them and forgive them. Because that’s just the kind of God that God is—“gracious… and merciful,” as Jonah says later, “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Who are we to judge Jonah for feeling this way? Many of us remember how we felt on 9/11. I know how I felt. I’m a pretty big coward myself. But in those days and weeks after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentegon, I was like, “Give me a gun and show me where to point it, Mr. President.” I would have answered that call! At least I hope I would! But you know what call I wouldn’t have answered? A call from God to go and preach to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda—I mean, assuming that were possible. And if I suspected, as Jonah did, that God’s secret plan in sending me there wasn’t to destroy them, but to enable them repent so that he could forgive them and save them from the destruction that I believed they they had coming to them…? Like Jonah, I would have said, “No, thanks, God. I’ll pass.”
I’m all for God saving people that I like… I’m not sure how I feel about God saving people I hate.
Jonah heard the Lord speak and chose to disobey. But God wasn’t finished with him. The Bible says that God hurled a terrible storm at this ship. The Gentile sailors, who hadn’t yet heard of the one true God, were afraid that someone’s god was angry at one of them—which was true, when you think about it. So they all prayed, hoping that one of these gods would do something to save them before it was too late.
Listen, I don’t believe in most cases that God sends storms and disasters—natural or otherwise—in order to punish us for being unfaithful to him. If that were the case, when would it ever stop storming in our lives? But I certainly believe that God uses storms and disasters to get our attention and wake us up and bring us to repentance. I can speak from personal experience when I say that sometimes a storm or a disaster in life is the best thing for us. It was for these sailors. It was for Jonah.
So God reveals to the sailors that Jonah is the guilty party. Finally, like a good prophet, Jonah confesses, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.” After he said this, the men were terrified. Why were they terrified? Not because Jonah was running away from his god. He had already told them that, it says in verse 10. If Jonah’s god were only the god of that little town in Galilee where Jonah came from, that’s no big deal. That god couldn’t reach them way out here on the Mediterranean. “But you mean to tell us, Jonah, that your god is also the God of heaven, who made the dry land and the sea? Not only that, you’re telling us that that you thought you could run away from this god… who is in charge of the sea… by getting on a boat… on the sea! Are you crazy?”
Crazy or not, Jonah does something truly heroic—not unlike Bob, the soldier who was willing to sacrifice himself to a hungry Bengal tiger if it meant saving his fellow soldiers. Jonah tells the sailors, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. You’ll be saved if you do that.” Jonah sacrificed his life to a watery grave so that all the men on this ship would be saved—people who didn’t yet know or love or worship God. And these people were saved, not merely from a temporary storm, but I believe they were saved for eternity. Because what does it say happened to them after the storm subsided. For the first time in their lives, they worshiped the Lord, the one true God, with “profound reverence.” And they made “solemn promises,” which is the author’s way of telling us that they would continue to worship and serve God from now on.
See… Isn’t that just like God? Gracious and merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. Always ready to relent from punishing.
Here’s Jonah, doing everything in his power to prevent God from saving sinners who don’t know God—and God is using even Jonah’s act of disobedience to do what? To save sinners who don’t know God. And to save Jonah while he’s at it. And, yes, as Chapter 3 tells us, even to save the hated Ninevites! Do you see how persistent God’s love is! Do you see how God is always going about the work of saving sinners? Do you see how Jonah’s mission, way back in the Old Testament, is really our mission, too? God hasn’t changed!
The people on board this ship weren’t necessarily bad people. In fact, in many ways, they were more righteous than Jonah himself. But probably through no fault of their own, they hadn’t yet been introduced to the one, true God. And they were waiting for someone like Jonah to share the good news about this God with them. And when he finally got around to it—were they ever ready to repent and place their faith in this God! I bet we know people like that in our own life! And I bet, like Jonah, many of us have heard God call us to witness to them, and, like Jonah, we’ve run away from our responsibility. Let’s stop running! Let’s let them know who our God is! Let’s try our best to love them the way God loves them—which is the same way God loves us!
And how does God love us? He loves us by coming to us in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wasn’t guilty of any sin. But he willingly shouldered the burden of our sin and guilt on the cross. And like Jonah, Christ willingly sacrificed his own life to the grave for the sin that he was carrying. And, like Jonah, after three days, he was given new life, so that we could be saved and have eternal life and become children of God through him. Amen? This is the gospel Jesus Christ right here in the Old Testament!
Christians often get hung up on the miracle of Jonah and the big fish. Was it an historical event? Did it really happen like this? Is it true? My thought is that the God of heaven—who made the sea and dry land and who brought back Jesus from the dead—could pull this miracle off without any trouble! I don’t worry about that.
Besides, what’s the bigger miracle? The miracle of surviving inside a big fish for three days—or the fact that this God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land, loves us extravagantly, pursues us relentlessly, and shows us mercy in spite of our sin and disobedience? That’s a God I want to know and love and worship. And I want other people to know and love and worship him, too. How about you?