By Paul Koch –
The story of Jonah is a story that has long captivated the imaginations and wonderings of God’s people. It is a story depicted in art forms, both ancient and modern. You can see the image of Jonah and the great fish in everything from ancient icons of the church, to renaissance paintings, to intricate tattoos on the arm of the guy sitting next to you at the bar. You can find this story told and retold in illuminated manuscripts of antiquity on the one hand, and in children’s books and Veggie Tale’s movies on the other. Perhaps after Hollywood’s success with movies Biblical like “Noah” and “The Exodus,” we might see a big screen blockbuster of Jonah in the near future.
After all, who doesn’t love a story of a man, swallowed whole by a big fish, only to be spit back up on dry land to go and preach the Word of God? But the fish and Jonah’s three day journey in its belly is only part of the story. In fact, if all we remember about this story is the fish, then we will miss the whole point altogether. The miraculous big fish is a means to an end. It isn’t the end of the story. Jonah begins with a command from God to go to a place called Nineveh, for the evil there had becomes despicable before the Lord. But Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites; in fact any good God fearing person would rightly despise the Ninevites. They were a wicked people, corrupt through and through, and Jonah knew what would happen if he went.
You see Jonah was no dummy. He was a prophet of God. He had been called before to speak the Word of the Most High. When that Word is spoken, there are ramifications. He knew that if he was to preach to these horrible people, they just might repent. If they repented, then God would turn from his wrath and be merciful. It had happened before. In fact it was the hallmark of the Israelites relationship to their God: repentance and mercy. But these Ninevites, why there weren’t even part of God’s chosen ones! They hadn’t suffered with Jonah and his people. They weren’t delivered from Egypt and a house of slavery. They didn’t bear the mark of the covenant. So he decides to flee. He doesn’t want a God that turns from wrath: not in this instance and not with these people. He wants justice. He wants the law to destroy them and leave them in ruin.
The thing is, like old Jonah we too like the wrath of God. Not that we necessarily like God’s wrath for us, but certainly there are many that we would gleefully desire to see get what they deserve. I sometimes wonder if this is part of the reason why the teaching of the rapture became so important to people. It is a way of saying, “Look I’ll be whisked out of all this, but you: why, you will get what is coming to you. In case of rapture this car will be vacated, but good luck if you happen to be crossing the street in front of me.” In fact, perhaps even the belief in purgatory smacks of such stuff. Instead of paying for it all now, you have to pay off your sin and wickedness after you’re dead. Such language is not the language of mercy but of justice: an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knows the character of his God and he doesn’t want them to receive mercy.
The ugly reality is, though we rejoice in God’s mercy for ourselves, we often find His mercy offensive when it falls on those we despise. I’ll never forget my very dear friend Dale calling me one night when I was down in Georgia. He had just found out that a member of his congregation, a trusted man who had been an elder and congregational president, was in jail. The authorities at his daughters’ school found out that he had been habitually abusing them for years. It grew more and more difficult for my friend because even though this man was in jail and will probably never be free again, he left a wake of destruction behind him. Dale was placed in a position to try to hold together broken and hurting children and an angry and rightly violent mother. He was trying to preach the gospel to them, to keep them near the gifts of God; but one by one they were slipping through his fingers. All I could do was be with him in his helpless grief. But you know what made matters worse? That horrible man who was locked away, you know what he did? He repented. He was broken by his sin and clung to the cross of Christ alone for assurance, for hope, for mercy! What right did he have to mercy? What right did he have to receive the assurance that eternal life was his?
But we know, as Jonah knew, the character of our God. His mercy in the face of our sin is the very heart of our faith. We know that time and again, though it was just and in accord with the law, our God has turned from His wrath; He has turned to be merciful. The Word of his forgiveness is bigger than the brokenness of this world. The Word of His forgiveness is greater than the transgressions of the Ninevites and greater than the sins of the abusive father. The Word of forgiveness is even greater than your sins, the sins that linger within you, or the ones that you dare not speak of because you think that they are beyond the pale for a child of God. But I declare to you this day, you are not beyond the mercy of God. For God’s greatest turning happened for you. It is found not in Nineveh but at a place called Calvary.
There, outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, God’s own Son was raised up for you sin. There, if ever God should have shown His mercy it would have been just. For This One’s sins were not his own; His failures were not of his doing. They belonged to you and me and the rest of mankind. But just as He turns His face of wrath away from us in His mercy, so he turns His face of mercy away from the cries of his own Son. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the most offensive and shocking turning of our God. Here, the world is turned upside down. Here, life and salvation are found as the ungodly are made righteous and the sinners declared to be saints.
So Jonah tries not to go to Nineveh, but God is not easily swayed. When he finally arrives in the great city, he’s worn out and weary and smells like fish vomit. His sermon is the most lackluster sermon you’ve most likely ever heard; though perhaps it is the shortest. He simply says, “Yet, forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Over and again throughout the city the same simply word. He’s not trying very hard. He doesn’t really want to be there, but he doesn’t want another ride in the belly of a fish. So he speaks the Word he is given to speak. And what do they do? They repent. According to the text the Word is believed. Faith comes by hearing and they put on sackcloth, call for a fast, and they repent.
God does exactly what Jonah knew He would do. He turns from His wrath. Now if we read on, we find that Jonah is not too happy about this. But that’s the point; the mercy of God doesn’t rest on how happy Jonah is about it. The mercy of God is outside our control, our designs, and cleverness. The Lord God Almighty, the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth, is not within our sphere of influence. And yet this very God, without any merit or worthiness in any of us, comes to us again and again. He comes into our doubts and our sins. He comes into our grudges and hatred. He comes into our sense of justice and fair play, and he speaks to you a Word of mercy.
In the wonderful gift of Calvary, God has turned his wrath from you. So this day you are free. You are not beyond His love. You are not outside of His grace rather you are forgiven! Yes you, each and every one of you, are forgiven.