God’s Only Option
The book of Jonah is a story about God’s grace and our struggle with God’s grace.
As the story begins, Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh to “cry out against it because God was aware of their evil ways.” But Jonah runs away to another place called Tarshish. Initially we have no clue why. The story doesn’t explain.
You no doubt remember what happened when Jonah runs. He gets on a ship. A storm comes up. The sailors are terrified. Jonah is down below deck just sleeping away the storm. The sailors are fearing for their life and they tell everyone to pray. Jonah eventually fesses up admitting that his running from God was the reason for the storm.
Now, here is where it gets a little humorous. Jonah tells the sailors to throw him in the ocean and the storm will stop. But why doesn’t Jonah just jump overboard himself? Why tell the sailors to throw him? Who knows?! But it could be:
- Jonah’s attitude and priorities. He admits it’s him and tells the sailors how to stop the storm. But he isn’t about to actually help them, to sacrifice himself for them.
- Jonah wasn’t scared, the sailors were. Maybe Jonah trusted that the storm wouldn’t destroy them because it was God’s doing. So Jonah didn’t care about being thrown overboard because he knew God would save him.
I tend to think it’s the latter. Jonah trusted in God’s grace and salvation for himself. And so to him it didn’t matter whether he was on the ship or in the sea. God would take care of him.
Well, eventually the men do throw Jonah overboard, the storm stops, and a great fish swallows Jonah. And Jonah stays in the fishes belly for three days and three nights. Three days is interesting, right? Jesus was dead for three days before the resurrection. This story may be a resurrection story for Jonah!
At the least, we know from the story that Jonah prays, God then speaks to the fish, and the fish vomits Jonah out onto dry land.
God again tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh, proclaims God’s message. And as unbelievable as it is….the entire city repents.
It’s a little crazy to think about a whole city repenting. Why do they believe Jonah? Why do they heed his message? Why don’t they laugh him out of town? What is it about Jonah’s words that get them to actually see their sin? It just seems implausible, unbelievable.
We could march through Dunn or Raleigh or London or anywhere else in the world right now and proclaim God’s words against evil. But most folks would ignore us, laugh at us, talk about us, berate us, or, if we got a little too insistent, lock us up. Think about it…those are exactly the kinds of things that happen today. Entire cities never repent!
But the Ninevites listen to Jonah and heed his words. And we get this great rationale from the king of Nineveh. Perhaps you’ll remember it from Jonah 3:9…
[The king] thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.
Wow! Who knows! Our repentance might actually work! I wish more people would act like this king. He is so willing to concede the possibility of God’s power and truth that he says, “Hey, we might as well repent. It just might work!” I wish the world were this open minded today!
You who don’t believe, you who say you have no faith, you who struggle with religion, just give it a try. It just might work! It just might be worthwhile! It just might be what you need! It just might save you in ways you cannot begin to understand at this moment!
I think the kings statement tells us exactly why Jonah ran away in the beginning of this story. Jonah knew the Ninevites were evil. They were disliked and they didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. But if Jonah proclaimed God’s word to them, God might forgive them! And that wouldn’t do for Jonah because they didn’t deserve it.
And in fact, this is exactly what the story says. Beginning at the end of Jonah 3 and moving into chapter 4, we read:
God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.
Actually, the Hebrew says God repented! God turned away from harm and extended grace. Think on that one for awhile!
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry.
I love the CEB translation and the way it describe Jonah here…
He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.
Why did Jonah flee? He knew God was full of grace and would forgive even his enemy. And Jonah couldn’t live with that. Jonah on the ship and in the belly of the fish was perfectly happy to trust in God’s grace knowing that he wouldn’t be killed. But he couldn’t be part of giving that grace to people who he saw as evil, people who he didn’t like, people who were his enemies.
This story should cause us to think long and hard about people we don’t like, people we don’t agree with, people who we think are wrong, people of different persuasions than us, people we judge, people who we would like God to judge.
God’s grace extends to us all. Not just to me. But to people who I think are wrong and evil.
God’s grace is for everyone. And God is so incredibly generous with grace that it is as if there is no other option from God’s perspective than to give grace. Jonah knew this. He trusted in God’s grace as he ran away. Yet he couldn’t handle God’s grace when it came to others.
So when God sent Jonah to speak a message of truth to the Ninevites in an effort to extend grace, Jonah refused. And it was not until he had a conversion experience in the belly of the fish that Jonah finally obeyed God. Yet even as he took the message to the Ninevites, he was angry about it.
We have only a small amount of the message that Jonah took to Nineveh. Essentially, Jonah tells the Ninevites that they will be overthrown. And there is possibility in this message. The possibility that turning to God can change the outcome, that is, the possibility of grace.
Jonah’s proclamation was not judgement. Rather, it called attention to what lay ahead if the Ninevites continued their evil ways. The message was God’s way of reaching out to offer grace.
Just as Jesus says in John 3:17
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
How often do Christians use Jesus or the Bible to condemn others? In fact, the whole point is that Jesus and the Bible are here to save everyone. Just like Jonah – a man sent by God to save the Ninevites through God’s Grace.
In many ways, Jesus teaches us the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches us when he commands us to love our enemies.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those.
This may just be the hardest thing in the world to do. But it is a consistent teaching in the Bible. God’s grace extends to us all. I am no better than anyone else. No more deserving of grace than anyone else. I am no more right than anyone else….for we all fall short. We should never condemn people because we don’t like them, don’t agree with them, because we are not comfortable with their lifestyle or choices.
Instead, when we feel the need to judge or condemn or withdraw God’s grace from others, then we need to have our own belly of the whale experience so that God can work on us like he did Jonah until we can go out and be a conduit of God’s grace to all people.
This is one of the reasons I love out church mission statement…
Our mission is to serve Christ through mutually supporting one another & embodying God’s grace and love for all.
I don’t want to make light of this message today. Extending grace to one’s enemies – whether an that enemy is an individual in your life— extending grace can be one of the hardest things in to do. This message asks us a lot of hard questions…
- How do we show grace when lives are at stake?
- How do we call an entire groups of people to turn towards God in a way that will actually work?
- What is the appropriate and effective way to name evil in the world?
Answering questions like these is the real work of faith. If we say we believe in Jesus, then we must find ways to extend grace I even the most difficult situations of life.