“Reluctance and Love”
January 25, 2015
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
A couple of weeks ago during the children’s message, one little girl
asked me—out of the blue—“Why did Jonah run from God?” We weren’t talking about
Jonah or running from God, so it was a bit of a surprise.
All I could say at the time was that it was a great question—one I’d
been thinking about recently myself. And I steered the discussion back to the
topic at hand, which was the baptism of Jesus.
Jonah was on mind because I had been thinking about this Sunday and working on this sermon.
Now Jonah was God’s reluctant prophet. Most people know that he was
swallowed by a—well not a whale, but—by a really
large fish. And we’ll come back to that. But fewer people reflect—as that child
did—on why that happened, and why Jonah was running in the first place.
On these Sundays after Epiphany, we often read scripture lessons about
the call of God, or about Jesus saying to various people, “Follow me.” This
morning we heard that part of Jonah’s story that usually isn’t taught in Sunday
School. In it “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get
up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell
In many ways I much prefer this story of Jonah to Mark’s account of the call of
Simon and Andrew, James and John, which tells us that they immediately left their nets and followed. Jonah’s story seems more
Sometime earlier, God first told Jonah to go to Nineveh, a great city in
the Assyrian Empire—in what is today Iraq. Jonah was to warn the people of this
wicked city that God's punishment was at hand.
Jonah, hearing the call of God,
Jonah, angry that God would show mercy on such people,
Jonah immediately hops on a
ship heading for Tarshish, in southern Spain, probably the farthest point away
from Nineveh to which he could sail.
And here we have an answer to the question: Jonah was running from God
because he wanted nothing to do with the mercy of God—certainly nothing to do
with sharing the mercy of God with those whom he didn’t like.
The trip, as you know, doesn’t go as planned. Running from God is like
Bad weather comes up. The sailors in the storm tossed boat discover
Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of their danger. At his suggestion, they
throw Jonah overboard and then pray to his God as if their lives depended on
it—and, really, they did.
Scripture tells us that “God provided
a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” We might desire something better than that
for ourselves in difficult situations. Jonah probably did. But a fish is what
Inside that fish for three days and three nights, Jonah prays to God. We
read that prayer together this morning. The notes in my Bible say that it is a
psalm of thanksgiving, instead of an expected petition for help.
Now prayer can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Stuck in the
belly of a fish, prayer might be the last thing you'd think about—if it wasn't
One thing is certain, however, for Jonah and for us. No matter how deep
the fish dives and no matter how dark it is inside, no depth or darkness is
enough to drown out the sound of prayer.
So Jonah—yes, even Jonah, who is running from God—ends his prayer ends
with the affirmation: "Deliverance belongs to the LORD."
If the story of Jonah were simply a cautionary tale about the dangers of
trying to run from God, perhaps we could learn the lesson. Jonah, however, is less
about our reluctance than about God’s love.
After Jonah prays, we are told, the LORD spoke to the fish, and it
vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. When you think about it, that fish was
probably as glad to be rid of Jonah as Jonah was to be out of the fish.
That encounter with the fish isn’t really the awful part of the story
from Jonah's point of view.
What really upsets him is what those Ninevites do once Jonah gets to
You know, Nineveh really was an evil place. Another prophet, Nahum,
called it a vile and bloody city. When Nineveh's end came, would anyone feel
Certainly not Jonah. And as far as he can tell, God won’t have any
Nineveh was as large as it was evil. It was so great in size that the
narrator of the story—probably exaggerating a little, like with that fish
story—says it took three days to walk across it. When Jonah finally appears on
the scene, his heart still isn’t in his work.
He only begins to go into the city. And when he opens his mouth to give
the people God's warning, well, he isn’t very forceful.
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s all he says. And
in Hebrew, that message only took five words. It’s as if Jonah stood in earshot
of a few people, shrugged his shoulders and said: “In forty days you’re
goners.” If nobody listened, that would be all right with Jonah.
If you’ve ever had an enemy, you probably know what it’s like to hope
for ill fortune to befall someone. Madeline L’Engle reflected on this, saying:
“When somebody has hurt us or done something wrong most of us are too filled
with outrage to want that person to repent. We want that person to feel
terrible, but not to turn to God and be made whole and be forgiven. Much of the
time we show that we do not know the meaning of forgiveness any more than Jonah
did in his vindictive outrage at the people of Nineveh.”[ii]
The half-hearted prophet finally visits the great city. Maybe you can
understand his reluctance. Nineveh was evil. The people might have laughed at
Jonah, or beaten him up for what he said, or just ignored him.
But the people of Nineveh do something surprising.
Repentance happens even to the worst of us. Somehow, often in spite of
all the preaching and scolding, what can only be called the grace of God breaks
in. We change our minds and head in a different direction. Like the people of
Nineveh, we take a second chance.
I don’t think it’s because anyone actually believes Jonah. His words are unconvincing. The people of Nineveh believe God.
Through those weakly mumbled words the Word of God somehow gets out.
That, of course, is the only hope that those of us who preach have. We speak,
but only God can make those words touch the hearts of those who hear.
Not just the people who happened to be nearby when Jonah spoke, but
everyone right up to the king and his nobles—everyone repents. They put on
sackcloth, they fast, they don't even drink. And it isn’t just the people. For
good measure all of the animals of Nineveh are covered with sackcloth. What a
sight! The cattle confess, the fowls fast, even the rabbits repent!
The king says “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence
that is in their hands.” Everyone needs to turn—and apparently everyone
does. In showing the power of a group of
people to turn around, this story prevents our faith from succumbing to
cynicism and despair about the world. Perhaps if we stand up for what is right,
entire communities can change. Perhaps entire nations can change.
This great city takes a second chance and discovers something—a new hope
that allows them to look ahead.
In a way that's what repentance is about. We cannot change the past, but
through repentance each one of us is given the power to shape the future.
Individuals and communities can, if they wish, foil destiny and celebrate free
Repentance takes a chance on what might lie ahead, asking along with the
king of Nineveh, “Who knows? God may relent and change God's mind.” There is
nothing mechanistic here. Repentance doesn’t automatically guarantee rescue.
Turning in a new direction comes with a question—“Who knows?”
Looking to the future, Ninevah repents.
A big fish. An evil city changing its way. Amazing.
And yet, there is something even more astonishing in this story.
God repents—God! The mind of God is changed by the actions of sinful
An impassive God, a God unmoved by human action is foreign to the Jewish
and Christian scriptures. Again and again we encounter the God who changes
plans for destruction because God's love for all the creation is far greater
than God's anger.
When you think about it, this is far more astonishing than being
swallowed by a great fish. And for many people today, harder to believe. God is
willing to put the past behind and look toward the future.
Elie Wiesel puts it this way: "The lesson in Jonah is that nothing
is written, nothing is sealed: God's will itself may change. Even though
punishment has been programmed it may be cancelled. Therein lies the beauty and
grandeur of the Jewish tradition: Every human being is granted one more chance,
one more opportunity to start life all over again. Just as God has the power to
begin, we have the power to continue by beginning again—and again.”
It is not the sackcloth and ashes so much as what the people did that
touches the loving heart of God. And that, of course is just what Jonah feared
all along. He knew that God is always ready to change God's mind and not carry out
The God that Jonah served so reluctantly is merciful. In Hebrew, the
root of the word for mercy means “womb.” It speaks of the motherly love of God
who cares for all creation, including, as the end of this story tells us, the
people of Nineveh who, evil as they were, didn’t seem to know their right hand
from their left and for the many animals there as well.
Nineveh the great city, greatly wicked, repents. We might expect that to
But here's the surprise: God, whose forgiving love is even greater,
repents as well.
And then there’s Jonah.
He's been through a lot—storm and fish and repentance. I didn’t read the
final chapter of Jonah this morning, but I encourage you to do that this week.
The whole book is just a short four chapters, so you might want to read all of
it. But at least read chapter four. At the end of this story Jonah sits in the
hot Middle Eastern sun. He is astonished that God actually would forgive. He is
angry—angry enough, Jonah says, to die.
Each individual, each age seems to identify unforgivable sins. The story
of Jonah reminds us that in mercy God knows all and forgives all.
Fortunately, God has the last word—with Jonah and with us.
While Jonah sits outside Nineveh, stewing in anger because God can be so
kind, a bush grows up and provides him with some shade. It is a small gesture
from God, who still loves Jonah in spite of his recalcitrance.
But the next day, just to make a point, God has a worm attack the plant
so that it dies. And so Jonah sits with the sun beating down on him wishing he
were dead not only because God loves the people that Jonah despises but also
because that bush has been destroyed.
You know how it is. God rarely does anything directly. But when we look
at our lives, certainly there are times when events help us to understand the
unending passion that God has for all creation—even for us.
So God reminds this angry prophet that Jonah didn't labor for the plant,
he didn’t help it grow. The bush showed up overnight and then was gone.
So shouldn't God be concerned about Nineveh, the great city, in which
there are more than a hundred thousand persons who don't even know their right
hand from their left, and also many animals—some no doubt still in sackcloth?
God's last word is a question that each one us is called to answer:
Should not God be concerned? Should not
God be concerned about all those whom we consider unlovable? Should not God be
concerned about all those whom we consider enemies? Should not God be concerned
about all who hunger and thirst?
Poor old Jonah. Maybe you’re like a lot of other people who find him
disagreeable—somewhat petty and a little too self righteous. But don’t scorn
Jonah too much, lest you withhold from him the mercy he would withhold from
Who knows? The great city of Nineveh could repent. Even God could repent
and do something different.
A Jewish commentary says that when Jonah saw the mercy of God toward the
repentant Nineveh, he sought divine forgiveness for his own flight. I like to
think so. I like to think that even Jonah could discover the warm mercy of the
God of second chances and turn in a new direction.
Because, who knows? If Jonah could, maybe, just maybe, we will too.
[i] Limburg Hosea‑‑Micah,
[ii] Madeleine L'Engle, A Lent Sourcebook, pg. 96.