Jonah 1:1–17 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” 3 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. 4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 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. 6 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.” 7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 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?”9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) 11 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?” 12 “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.” 13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then 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.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. 17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
There are a lot of oddities surrounding the book of Jonah. Really there are. Like, for example, how Jonah’s not really about a fish, but everybody talks like it is. Or we could talk about how odd it is that there is basically no prophecy in a book from a prophet. Read the rest of the Old Testament and that’ll stick out at you like a sore thumb. All the prophets speak to people for God. They preach sin and they show Christ. They give law and they give gospel. But Jonah? Nah. You know what you’ve got in Jonah? You’ve got what’s called narrative or story. And there’s lots of it. Story, story, and more story. Let’s be clear though. That oddity is not just an oddity. It’s far worse. We have to understand that to understand this book. The narrative here isn’t just some choice of genre or a literary move of the author. It’s an indictment. It an indictment of what Jonah should’ve been, but wasn’t. You don’t even have to get out of chapter one to get that. Because already here Jonah has had the chance to speak and what does he do? He’s like a vault. Nothing cracks him open until his entire ship is moments away from becoming fish food.
I point that out to show that Jonah’s not just odd. He’s bad. He’s really, really bad. If he had been the prophet at the burning bush, he would’ve poured water on the flames. If he had been the prophet that had seen those angels called seriphim, he would’ve tried to shoot them out of the air with arrows. Seriously, he was a bad, bad prophet. And, again, I don’t think I’m overstating my case. I think I’m merely making the biblical one that’s right here in this chapter. You can’t miss the way the narrative sets up. In verse one Jonah is told, “Get up and go.” (v. 1) and the narrative very explicity points out he does the exact opposite. He “got up and fled.” (v. 1) and as many people very properly point out he goes in the opposite direction of Nineveh. It’s not just his contradictory behavior that’s troubling though. It’s how adamant and hardened he was in it. Did you notice, for example, that he chartered a whole boat just for himself? Can you imagine how many sea going fears he had to crush in himself to make that choice - a landlover like him? Can you imagine the kind of personal financial outlay it took for him to charter that boat and employ all those guys for his trip away from the Lord?
But it’s not just that. It’s worse. When you read the narrative closely you can’t help but notice that the narrator wants you to see Jonah as the most hardened and lost person on board that ship. One Word of the Lord from Jonah to that crew had all those pagans on that ship immediately converting to faith in the Lord, but the guy who had originally received the Word of the Lord? The one who was currently a Christian? He was the worst one. He was the baddest of the bad. He was adamantly rejecting it. Did you catch that? The sailers knew this storm was an act of God. They weren’t weather dummies. They knew this was special. So they pray and they care for their shipmates by lightening the ship. And what does Jonah do? He heads below deck utterly uncaring about his shipmates and falls into a depressed and evil sleep. And then did you notice that when the captain - the big guy on the ship - very specifically heads below deck to wake him up and ask the Christian what the deal was and to tell the Christian to pray to the only true God did you notice what the Christian did? Exactly. He did nothing. And did you see the pure narrative genius of including the sad fact that even the lots in the story speak more quickly and more directly than Jonah does?
But you know what the worst part was? What motivated Jonah to behave this way. You know what it was? It wasn’t fear. That’s what a naiver commentator might think. It’s not fun or easy or even safe to go to sinners and tell them about their evil. Particularly when the sinners are prone to violence, which these sinners were. Nineveh was, in fact, well known for its bloodthirsty and bloodchilling practices of flaying people, putting skulls on poles, and generally murdering just about everybody they didn’t like. And if you’re not careful you might think that what sent Jonah scurrying was fear. Like maybe he was reacting to the Lord’s call thinking this was a kamikaze missionary effort. But that wasn’t it at all. You know what Jonah was reacting to? Mercy. Jonah knew that his God was far too compassionate. Far too tender. Far too nice. Far too forgiving. Jonah knew that once he went and told the Ninevites that the Lord was noticing their evil that he’d probably then pour out his Spirit on them and they’d repent and then those nasty people would have the Lord too. And he just couldn’t have that.
And why not? Because Jonah couldn’t imagine how it was ok for people that bad to be saved. He just couldn’t. He couldn’t see himself in them. He couldn’t identify with them. He couldn’t see how his wickedness may have been different, but no less evil. He couldn’t see himself in Nineveh. I’m not sure exactly why that was. What I do know is this: there’s a cold, cynical, and critical spirituality that can quickly grow in Christian hearts. You know when it happens? It happens when we forget. When we forget what a mess we once were. Or perhaps it’s not even possible for us to remember that far back. You had parents who loved the Lord. They doused you with the Spirit through the Word early on so it’s tougher for you to see how much darkness was driven out or we take for granted how far we’ve been brought. And so you're a Jonah who looks down on Ninevites. The bad mothers. The adulterers. The hypocrites. The murderers. Those awful pharisees around you. Those people who are always looking down on everybody else. Pick the sin you most hate in others and you’ve found the Nineveh you can’t identify with.
You know why we’re so prone to pulling a Jonah like that? Because we all think we deserve the Lord’s mercy more than the next guy. It’s incredibly important to us. Because then we don’t totally have to believe in mercy. We can still kind of believe in ourselves. It’s why we Christians can be the loudest ones on Facebook screaming to high heaven about a gorilla tragedy before we’ll praise the Lord that that precious child was saved. Because then we can claim superior human status to that poor mother. It’s why us folks who have deep, deep spiritual baggage in certain areas of our lives will always be the ones to most quickly and powerfully condemn the moral failures in the sex lives or reproductive lives of others. Because then we can keep our mantle of moral superiority. That’s why Jonah couldn’t go to Nineveh. It would say too much about him. It would say that the worst could be saved. It would say that people who never sought the Lord could be found by him. It would say that bad, bad people are the people the Lord loves to find and to forgive. And that would make us Jonahs one of them. And we can’t have that.
Jonah couldn’t either. So down he went. It’s always like that when we flee the Lord’s mercy. It’s always down. Down he went into the innermost part of the ship. Down he went into a deep, awful sleep. And then when none of that worked, he went ahead and decided to go down all the way into the depths of the ocean. He said, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea.” (v. 12) Which, by the way, tells you how much Jonah was fighting mercy. Understand that Jonah didn’t need to tell the sailors how to get him over the edge. They were smart sailors. They would’ve known quite well how to get him into the sea. This was Jonah giving directions on how to sacrifice him. Do you see that? This was him saying, “Lift me up to God so he sees that I know I’ve been bad and so God understands I’m sacrificing myself for these guys.” Make no mistake. This is Jonah trying to atone for his sin of running. Trying to make up for his wrong, selfish thinking. Trying to reconcile himself to God through great personal sacrifice. Like he had to do it himself. Like he had to make up it up to the Lord through his efforts - through his radical, life sacrificing gift.
And what does the Lord do about it? What he always does. He gives mercy. He did the whole chapter. It’s amazing to think about. The Lord is dishing out mercy all over the place. You can’t miss it. And it’s so, so good. Think of it. There’s mercy even for Christians who go haywire. I mean we need to be honest. Jonahs have no excuses. We’re the ones who know better than anybody else. We’ve had the Word of the Lord come to us. If there’s anybody on earth who doesn’t deserve mercy it’s us. It’s us the people who have received mercy again and again and again and again and who still manage to show occasional stunning streaks of sin who really don’t deserve any more mercy. It should run out. I really do believe that. You think ISIS needs mercy? Or Nineveh? Or the people who run Planned Parenthood? Or the folks who kill gorillas? You know who I think needs mercy? I think us Jonahs do. Because we’re the church. And we know better. We have the Spirit and the covenant and the promises. When we sin, there is no one on earth who deserves mercy less. And yet? The Lord relentlessly pursues even us - the worst of sinners - with mercy.
Just look at how relentless the Lord is toward Jonah. He’s like a heavenly hound. Jonah runs. So the Lord comes after him with a cyclone. Jonah falls asleep. The Lord sends a ship captain. Jonah refuses to repent. The Lord has the lots leave him red handed in front of everyone. The Lord just won’t leave him alone with his mercy. And then what happens? Jonah tries to run from the Lord’s mercy one more time. “I’ll sacrifice myself for my own sin. Lift me up and toss me over,” he says. And the Lord won’t even let him have that. He scoops him up with a great fish. You know what I love the most about that? It was all planned. I mean think of the chances. Not just any fish would be equipped for swallowing a man whole. Not just any fish would provide sufficient oxygen and space. Not just any fish would be in the vicinty of that vessel and at the right time and the right place take a drowning man and give him life. It was perfectly timed, perfectly planned, and definitely divinely “appointed.” (v. 17) Mercy was planned. Down to the storm. Down to the second he was tossed overboard. Down to the fish. Down to the man.
And that’s why Jesus talked about Jonah. Did you know he did? Because Jonah-sized mercy was what everybody was going to get from him. Stunning, relentless, all- encompassing mercy. Mercy that was prepared especially for the worst, most egregious sinners in every story. Jonah-sized mercy. You know how much mercy God gave Jonah? Such is the tender mercy of God that he used Jonah’s most rebellious act to point us to the one act in human history that wasn’t rebellious: Christ’s self-sacrifice. All of humanity was sinking in an ocean of self-centeredness, hypocrisy, immorality, murder, and phariseeism and what did the Lord do? He planned. He prepared. He appointed what Jesus called the sign of Jonah. Down Christ came for all of us Jonahs. Down to the innermost place of a virgin. There he slept on a boat in a vicious storm not to escape, but in trust. Then when the storm of God’s wrath was fiercest and worst he lifted himself up to God on a cross saying, “I’m doing this for them all,” and tossed himself into the sea of God’s wrath. Planned. Appointed. Prepared mercy. From him. He’s not going to let us do it. It comes from him. From the Christ. Christ swallows us up out of the storm with his mercy.
And you know what happened when that great fish showed up? The seas calmed. And there we all were - all of us Jonahs - untouched and safe, possessing God’s planned, appointed, and prepared mercy in Jesus. Down to every last storm we’ve caused. Down specifically to you. That’s the mercy that’s here. Mercy especially for those of us who are Christians. Those of us who should have known more and tried harder and been better. Those who least deserve it. Planned, prepared, and appointed mercy. And I couldn’t be more thankful. Because I’m a Jonah. And if you’re honest, you’re one too. And since you are you need to know that no matter how low you may try to go or how fast or how far you may try to run there Christ will be to swallow you up with mercy. Perfectly planned. Perfectly timed. Perfectly prepared. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe Jonah is about a great fish – one called Christ who’s always there in your life swallowing you with mercy however Jonah you may be. Amen.