Jonah: A Lesson on God’s Mercy (Part 2)
These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, August 14, 2016, as part of “The Message.” The discussion was based upon a reading from Jonah 2:1, 10, 3:3-10 where Jonah is vomited out of the fish and he goes to Nineveh to share God’s word.
My youngest two daughters are at an interesting stage of their development. They are learning that they have some amount of agency. They are beginning to understand that when mamma or dadda ask them to do something they can either obey or not. While most of the time its cute, there are times when its rather frustrating.
When we’re trying to get out the door in a hurry and we’re trying to get shoes on everyone, it is particularly annoying when they run the other way. It can be even more frustrating when the legs that worked perfectly fine to run away turn limp when you need them to stand and walk to the door.
Jonah acts much like my daughters. His legs work perfectly well when he’s running from God. His motivation is high. He’s creative and energetic. And, when he finally acquiesces and agrees to do what God has called him to do, it’s as if his legs are broken or at least dragging the floor in quiet defiance. The speed, agility, and creativity he used to flee God is not harnessed to share God’s word with urgency and inspiration. Even though Jonah gets up and goes, he does so reluctantly.
Jonah has been reluctant from the start. Remember. He was called by God to “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to [God’s] attention” (Jonah 1:2, Common English Bible). He got up, but he ran in the opposite direction making his way to Joppa where he chartered a ship to take him to Tarshish. The Lord sent a violent storm that nearly capsized the boat. Jonah is thrown overboard by the sailors, the storm ceases, and Jonah is swallowed by a large fish. And, in the first part of Jonah’s story, we learned that “we can never run so far away that God isn’t there to save us.” Fear does not know how to evade as well as Love knows to pursue. But, there’s yet another lesson to be learned.
The second scene places Jonah in the belly of the fish where he prays. The Lord hears Jonah’s prayer and commanded the fish to throw Jonah up.
While getting his land legs back, the Lord’s word came to Jonah again, just as it had before, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you” (Jonah 3:2, Common English Bible).
God is persistent in the call; and, as is so often the case, “the persistence of God wears down resistance… [Nevertheless] human defiance still persists. Resistance hides within resignation.” Jonah gets up and however unwillingly goes.
We don’t know how long it takes Jonah to get to Nineveh after being spit up by the fish; but my guess is longer than it should have. Like a child who drags his feet when told to do something he doesn’t want to do, Jonah finally arrives at the gates of Nineveh.
Nineveh was an enormous city which took three days to journey across (Jonah 3:3) and had an estimated population of about 120,000 people who, according to the Lord, work evil. Jonah had undoubtedly heard stories of the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the “evil” Assyrian empire. Other prophets would foretell of its destruction (see the prophecy of Nahum). Jonah was no doubt scared; and, Nineveh was the last place he really wanted to be.
He enters the gates and begins to prophecy, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4, Common English Bible). It is, perhaps, the shortest prophecy given by any of the prophets. Jonah stumbles over his words. He doesn’t use the proper form. He doesn’t use the standard prophetic formula. He doesn’t preface or post-script his remarks with “the word of the LORD,” or “thus says the LORD.” Think about that, how would the Ninevites know that Jonah’s words are even from God? We don’t even know if these are the intended words God has given Jonah to share. The narrator confirms that Jonah made the journey “according to the Lord’s word” (Jonah 3:3), but we don’t know if he spoke the word given by God for the Ninevites; nevertheless, the Ninevites repent. They change their hearts and lives: all of them.
Jonah had not made it but a day’s journey—a third of the way through the entire city—when the people, all of them including the king, believe God. It is a powerful reminder, a good lesson, in how cracked, even reluctant vessels can be effective instruments in sharing God’s word. Almost in spite of Jonah’s lack of enthusiasm in sharing God’s word, the people hear it and repent. They find salvation in spite of Jonah’s lack of enthusiasm in sharing God’s word. “When God saw what the people of Ninevah did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10, New Revised Standard Version). The people of Nineveh experience God’s mercy.
And herein we learn our second lesson: God doesn’t need perfect vessels to carry his Word to those who need to hear it. God doesn’t need the most faithful or righteous of individuals to share God’s mercy. All that God needs is for people to be present.
God can use our reluctance and our awkwardness. God can use our brokenness and our imperfections to share God’s word in a way that changes people’s hearts and lives. And that’s Good News.
Have you ever felt unqualified or even reluctant to share God’s word?
Nonetheless and nevertheless God can use you! For God’s word, says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (55:11, Common English Bible), “will not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend.”
So the question isn’t can God use you, it’s where might God be calling you to go? God used a reluctant Jonah to convert an enormous city. Can you imagine how God might use you—us—if only we, like Jonah, would arise and go.
Where is God calling you to share God’s word that people might change their hearts and lives? that people might find salvation and experience God’s mercy?
 Phyllis Trible” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p515.
 Ibid., p511.