Jonah: Not just a Fish Tale.

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Hope you are having a nice, relaxing Sunday!  We just returned from church and ate some pizzas from the freezer and are all snuggled up on our couches for some family quiet time.  We reflected on the way home about the sermon on Jonah which made we want to mention a few things about it here as well 🙂

Our pastor has been preaching through Jonah for about the last 2 months – yes, it is only 4 chapters – shedding new light on it for me personally and I think for the rest of the family as well.  He mentioned early on how there is only one verse that really talks about the “big fish,” yet, we often come through our childhoods (whether or not we ever attend a church) with the general impression that the story of Jonah is mostly about Jonah and the Whale.  Most children will remember only the whale mobile they made, or the paper plate whale, the finger puppet whale, or maybe even the ship tossing in the ocean during a storm if they did some sort of craft with that.  If the child does go to church and reads about Jonah again  when a bit older, the most that is usually noticed is that Jonah disobeyed God at first and then obeyed after God saved him from the “belly of the whale.”

I won’t go into the points he’s made in past weeks, although they were very helpful, especially because I don’t remember them well enough to do them justice.  But today, he was talking about the last few verses — about Jonah and his anger versus God and His inestimable grace.

Jonah was very angry it says that the people of Nineveh had repented and now were being shown grace by God.  The pastor compared this to most of us and how selfish we can often be – not being happy for other people when they receive blessings.  He mentioned how Christians can sometimes feel “put out” when people are converted on their deathbeds because – here is someone who has been indulging in whatever lifestyle he chose, and now he gets his free ticket to heaven; whereas, here am I, daily struggling to say no to sin, giving my time and money and resources to God’s church, and this guy who repents at the last minute gets the same thing I do??  Is this at all how we should feel or behave? Of course the answer is no, but we as humans are still selfish, and often envious, when we think others have gotten a “better deal” than ourselves.  In contrast, we should be thrilled in general and, specifically, we should rejoice for and with that person for the promise of heaven which is now theirs.  This is the struggle shown so clearly in Jonah – here he had wasted his time preaching to the people of Nineveh forever and they had ignored him (maybe treated him poorly) and now God was going to accept their repentance and extend them grace rather than destroying their city??  He was selfishly angry, and God calls him out for it.

Jonah was displeased with the salvation of Nineveh and cries out to God – explaining why he ran away in the first place (rather than obeying God and going back to Nineveh to prophesy to them) saying, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2)  See, Jonah knew that God might withhold his anger, and Jonah hated those Ninevites!  In his eyes they didn’t deserve to live, so he didn’t want to give them that one last chance to repent.  The pastor brought up the story of the man in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred a total of 77 people, apparently with great joy.  I mean, who would want to be the one to go to THAT guy in his prison cell, and to have to spend time with him day after day as he continues unrepentant (he apparently witnesses the testimony of survivors with no trace of emotion and was emitting shouts of joy during the massacre at a youth camp), telling him to turn away from his sin and to believe on Jesus for salvation from sin and eternal life?  What if you were a family member of one of the victims? You certainly would not want to go in there and preach to him of the love and forgiveness of God!  And yet, this is what Jonah was called to do essentially, and what Christians throughout time have been commanded to do.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, so we ALL need to hear this message, and none of us “deserve” to hear it any more than another.

The story in Jonah continues – in which God causes a tree to grow to give Jonah shade.  Then He causes a worm to eat it so the plant will die, and Jonah again is at his wits’ end – this time out of pity for the plant, the Bible says – to the point of saying that it would be better if he could just die.  God points out his hypocrisy in saying, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons” – basically you care more about the survival of this plant than you do about 120,000 human souls?? So Jonah’s anger was  towards the compassion God showed to people he thought unworthy, and because of the apparent “lack” of compassion God showed to this “innocent” plant.  The ridiculousness of the comparison shows the reader how out of place Jonah’s anger was, telling each of us in the same way that we are not to begrudge others of the grace of God.  We can see Jonah’s feelings all around us still, though, in people who appear to care more about animals and trees than they do about other human beings.  We can also see it in ourselves when we don’t feel happy for the blessings other people receive, especially when we think we are more worthy of said blessings than they are.  One of the points here in Jonah may well be to tell us that, even if there are people we don’t like or don’t think deserve our love or God’s grace or whatever, those people are still infinitely more important to God (and should be to us) than the most majestic plant or animal on earth.  They are human beings, made in God’s image, and if God commands us to tell them about His love, then we should, because all of us are literally in the same “boat,” doomed to be swallowed by a great fish if not for the intervening power of God’s grace in our lives.

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