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The book of Jonah
The book of Jonah seems to be about many things
It's about missions
It's about struggling to believe and trust God
Yes, its about all these things
But recently I realized that it is also a book about race.
In fact, Tim Keller writes a book about Jonah and he puts race at the very top of the list of what this book is about.
Now before we go in, I want to just set everyone's expectations here. This is not a go and do message. That will come later. This is more a - I want to tell you a story- message. I love stories. And really it's a story for the heart.
V.1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me. But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
When we read this book it's like a cute story that you tell your kids, you know, and their favorite part is the whale that comes and swallows Jonah. But lemme say - this book was a shocker in its time! This book was offensive to the people who first heard it!
You see Jonah was the first Hebrew prophet called to leave Israel and go to a Gentile city. Up until then the prophet had been sent only to God’s people. Only to their own people group.
Plus, Jonah was an intensely patriotic person. We see him mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 which tells us that he ministered during the reign of King Jereboam and Jonah supported his aggressive military policy.
So Jonah is intensely intensely patriotic
He love the Jewish people
He loves them so much
That it was to the point of being ethnocentric
To the point where he didn’t care about other people groups
To the point of disdain.
Jonah is like that relative in the family, you know, who says stuff they shouldn’t say…you know what I mean…
Don’t get me wrong now…
OT prophets are people of the utmost integrity
They are deeply deeply religious people and have a special connection with God in order to be His mouthpiece. All that is true with Jonah. Deeply deeply religious…check. Special connection with God…check. But let’s be honest, he was also deeply flawed and had a bias against other people groups.
So why would God choose him? We’ll come back to that question…
Even more shocking is that the God of Israel wants to warn Nineveh which is the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was one of the cruelest and most violent and most oppressive empires of Ancient times.
So Jonah gets this word from the Lord to go to Nineveh. Now we don’t know what his internal dialogue was like from chapter 1, but if you skip ahead to chapter 4 you kind of realize what must have been going on. Jonah was like, what? Are you kidding me? He had a hard time trusting God… like I bet you are going to forgive them aren’t you?? Them. “those people”
So what does Jonah do?… he runs.
Jonah arose to go in the opposite direction. Tarshish according to the ancient Israelite was as far West you can possibly go and find civilization. Imagine him buying the ticket going, “One ticket to NOT Nineveh, please”
V.4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners are afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah has gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!
A storm is raging and the boat is sinking, and get this, Jonah goes down into the, it's called the hold, and get this…he goes down to take a nice long nap. This is the picture of the deeply religious man from the privileged community… and while the storm is raging, the boat is sinking, yeah, I think I’ll go down to the hold now, and take a nice long nap! This is exactly how I felt, if I am honest. Sheltered in place amid racial injustice and the world literally on fire. And I wanted to shelter in place and hide away, and somebody wake me up when it’s over, right?
It’s like, Jonah what are you doing?
And that’s what the captain is saying. He wakes him up, says- What do you mean, you sleeper? How can you be asleep at a time like this? I mean, do you not care that the ship you are on is about to sink?
Or put it this way… if systemic racism against Blacks exists in our society,
then isn’t this a problem for everyone in the boat?
For one moment Jonah is in the same boat with these sailors- and the storm that threatens one person threatens the entire community.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from?
This is funny. Jonah originally was called to go and minister to the Ninevites, you know, to “those people” and so he runs away only to interact with more of “those people”. How we interact with people of other races is a big theme in this book!
The sailors cast lots, modern day equivalent, OK everyone take a card, whoever draw the queen of spades is the culprit… and the lot fell on Jonah…thank you Lord (sarcasm)
All eyes are on Jonah.
All right, tell us your story…
And so Jonah bares his soul.
The men say, they ask Jonah, What do you think we should do?
And Jonah says, Throw me in the ocean.
And now for the first time Jonah finally starts to take responsibility. But it is not because he is looking at God per se, it is because he is looking at men, at real people, maybe for the first time Jonah stopped othering people. To other a person is to categorize people and to focus on all the ways they are different from you and then reduce them to those characteristics. It is to dehumanize. Maybe for the first time Jonah sees the imago Dei, the image of God in other people. These men are the same as me…
Jonah says throw me in. The sailors object. No. They row harder but to no avail. Jonah says again, Listen to me, you need to do this to live, throw me in!
Sailors reluctantly do as Jonah requested. They throw him over and sure enough the wind is calmed down, and the sailors are just AMAZED and they make vows to the God of Jonah.
And chapter 2. Jonah is swallowed up. It was probably by a whale. Like a sperm whale could have, no problem. And for three days and three nights Jonah is sheltered in place. And he prays. And the prayer kind of goes like this, Lord, I have done nothing to deserve this. Thank you for saving me. Now it’s more than that, but definitely not less.
Three days later, this is where the Bible is actually more interesting than the kid’s version. It says, The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
And the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”
And this time Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
Now people are thinking, this is the turning point right? Well, hold on…not exactly. Keep reading. Sometimes it takes deeply religious people a while to get there.
So… Jonah goes to Nineveh and he starts preaching about the wrath of God. And an unexpected thing happens. The Ninevites believe Jonah, and everyone, from the King all the way to the lowest servant, the entire city repents, the text says “they turned from their evil way”.
Now the city does something unexpected, right? They turn from their evil ways. Now God does something unexpected, right? The text says,
When God saw what they did… God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
And He explains later on to Jonah that He had pity on Nineveh. In other words, God relented because he had compassion. The word compassion in latin is patti cum. It means to suffer with. To be so attached that their pain is yours.
For God to say he has compassion on a people group other than Israel is no small thing. It means he is attached to them. He has hitched His happiness to theirs.
This is a little crazy for God to say this. Let me explain. You and I have needs, right? And so we get emotionally attached to things and people who meet those needs. But God needs nothing. So how could he get attached to us? The only answer that makes sense is this: he chooses to. He is a compassionate God. And so he relents.
Now this is very good right?
You expect Jonah to return to his own land rejoicing right? Mission accomplished. The entire city repented and was saved. Wow, Jonah! Thank you. I’d like to thank my mother, I’d like to thank the whale…that God sent.
Here is how the story ends.
But it (the Lord having mercy on the Ninevites) displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish.
OK, here it comes, here’s the real reason. Here’s the reveal:
for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, show to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. When was that ever something to accuse God of. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
OK, so let me get this straight. If God was merciful and gracious to Jews and to yourself when you were tossed in the sea- you would rejoice. But when God is merciful to the people of another race- you’re angry?
Oh my gosh! Wow. Why did God choose Jonah to be his prophet? He is privileged, a leader among the privileged people of God. He is obtuse, self-absorbed, he is a bigot, and he has HUGE blindspots.
Why O God did you choose Jonah?
Here’s one reason.
Jonah is such a bad prophet that it makes you long for the true prophet.
Jonah would not shed a tear for those people
Jesus was known as a man of sorrows.
For every one time it is mentioned that he laughed
There are twenty times it is mentioned that he cried.
Jesus is the weeping God of Jonah 4 in human form.
He is the prophet Jonah should have been. And he didn’t just weep for other people He died for them. He died for us!
Jonah went outside the city to watch it burn
Jesus went outside the city to bring it life!
Here’s the second reason why God chose Jonah.
I realize it wasn’t just a mission through Jonah.
It was “mission” to Jonah.
And you know this by watching how the story ends.
Jonah is sulking.
It's like crazy hot, and Jonah God provides a plant with big leaves and it gives Jonah shade.
When you’re deeply depressed little pleasures mean a lot.
But then God sends a worm to eat away at the roots of the plant and the plant dies and Jonah flies into a rage.
And God at the end sort of goes, Jonah, you weep over plants but my compassion is for people.
Imagine God saying to us, you weep over looting but my compassion is for people…
And at the end of the book it’s like: Jonah should I not love this city? And should you not join me?
And Jonah has his arms crossed.
Shaking his head
What is he going to do?
We don’t know
And that is how it ends
You see the book is not just a mission to the Ninevites
It’s a mission to the heart of Jonah
Racial injustice has been around for a long time. But I will be honest with you, it is only recently that I have started to really care. I was sharing with my wife, Rana, recently, like trying to figure out like why are we feeling it this time around. And she says to me, it’s because of the young people in our church. And I knew when she said it, she was right. I think that is one of the coolest things about being an intergenerational church. All the generations learn from each other. I care because I am connected to them, the same life blood that flows in them flows in me. A month ago, I spoke with Quess on the phone. This was after Ahmaud Arbery was shot. He says to me that he’s been an emotional wreck all week long. I felt guilty, like- why don’t I feel that? I was embarrassed to say, you know, I’ve been hiding away all week long. I’m like Oh my gosh- I am Jonah! And the next week, Caitlyn another young adult that we are close to was very very hit by everything. And then I decided, OK, I’ll watch the George Floyd video. And my heart just broke. And I finally understood. My heart changed.
So who is Jonah?
Don’t you see, I am Jonah. I was. It takes deeply religious people a while…
But God is too holy and too loving to destroy bigots like Jonah. But He is also too holy and too loving to allow Jonahs to remain as they are.
He says to Jonah and to us: Should I not love this city? And should you not join me?