Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jonah - The LORD's reluctant messenger

The story of Jonah describes how the LORD persuaded an inflexible, religious Jew  to carry out His work of forgiveness and atonement in Him for an evil, rebellious, stubborn group of Gentiles.  

I have set out this sad and unresolved story in 15 steps, with a note of commentary on each step:  

1. The LORD makes a surprising choice: 
Now the Word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.'  

2. Jonah runs away from this, to him, unacceptable task:  
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the Presence of the LORD. 

3. The LORD challenges Jonah to accept that his inflexible, selfish, refusal will result in the death of innocent Gentile bystanders, the ship's crew:
But the LORD sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. Then the mariners were afraid; and … they said to …Jonah, "Please tell us! For whose cause is this trouble upon us?" So he said to them, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." Then …he said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me."

4. Jonah is rescued, saved by the LORD because:
a.    The LORD has an unfinished task for Jonah to go to Gentiles, and
b.    Jonah sacrificed himself to save the ship’s crew of Gentiles
Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish’s belly. so the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

5. The LORD revisits His original instruction to Jonah who reluctantly responds….in order to avoid another unpleasant experience:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you."   So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the Word of the LORD. …and he cried out and said, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

6. The result of Jonah’s message is what the LORD had wanted, and hoped:
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. God saw the Ninevites works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

7. Jonah should, at this point, have acknowledged his selfish, inflexible, and mistaken attitude, and agreed with God.  But instead, Jonah embarks on an exercise in self justification and self pity. These are not good attitudes that will encourage and facilitate the forgiveness, restoration, and atonement of the Gentiles:
It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the LORD, and said, "Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore, O LORD, please  take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!"

8.  The LORD ignores Jonah’s ridiculous suggestion to take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!…..and He addresses Jonah’s basic, and bigoted, problem of self righteous anger:
Then the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" 

9.  Jonah refuses to answer the LORD’s question, and petulantly flounces out to watch what the LORD will do to the Ninevites:
Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.

10.  The LORD continues to love and accept Jonah, despite the fact that Jonah was behaving as an inflexible religious Jew….and He protects Jonah from his misery:
And the LORD God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery.

11. Jonah’s reaction was as grateful as he had been when the fish vomited him onto dry land. But the LORD was planning to help Jonah face his anger:
So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered.

12.  Jonah’s reaction is a repeat of his reaction to the LORD’s forgiveness of the Ninevites:
When the sun arose God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, "It is better for me to die than to live."

13.  So the LORD repeats His question to Jonah:
Then God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?"

14. Jonah refuses to move from his entrenched, stubborn position that death is better than agreement with the LORD. Jonah was certainly determined to maintain his indefensible position:
Jonah said, "It is right for me to be angry, even to death!"

15.  Finally, the LORD gives Jonah an explanation for Jonah’s experience with the plant…..and why He has had pity on the Ninevites, out of His boundless store of mercy and compassion for ALL people:
But the LORD said, "You have had pity on the plant for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than 120000 persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left; and much livestock?"

And so the story ends. How did Jonah respond to the LORD’s final explanation?   

Did the LORD achieve His aim in helping Jonah understand His boundless mercy and compassion for ALL people….or did Jonah refuse to listen, and thus be consumed by the bitterness of his anger, and the selfishness of his self destructive attitude?  

I wonder……

Are there any lessons for us in this sad story?  
Ah well...that depends on whether there is any anger, selfishness, bitterness, or resentment in us.....? 

The story of Jonah revolves around his reaction to, and understanding of, the mercy and compassion of the LORD towards ALL people:
To both Catholics AND Protestants
To both Jews AND Gentiles
To both Christians AND Muslims 
To both believers AND atheists............

I suppose that the issue is whether we are prepared to answer the LORD as Isaiah answered Him in Isaiah 6.8 when he heard the voice of the LORD, saying: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." ....

Or whether we respond as Jonah did, and enjoy, or endure, a time of darkness in the belly of a fish  and a vehement east wind with the sun beating on our heads, so that we grow faint, and wish death for ourselves.

The choice is ours!!

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