Why read Jonah?

Why read Jonah? The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amitai, many centuries ago. What word of the Lord comes to us today? 

It’s a colourful, exciting story, but the word of the Lord to us is not in the excitement, in the wind, earthquake or fire. 

Let me remind you of the story. 

The cruel wickedness of the city of Nineveh has come to God’s notice, so he sends Jonah to do something about it

Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh, so he gets on a ship going in the other direction – to Tarshish. 

Jonah does not do this because he is frightened. 

On the boat he was not afraid to tell the sailors that God, his God, was the God of heaven, who made sea and dry land. And he also told them he was running away from the presence of the Lord. He did not hide the rather odd faith he had – affirming God is Lord, and then running from him in blatant disrespect. 

And when the storm threatened to drown them all, Jonah was very brave. He volunteered to be thrown into the angry sea, telling them it would quieten things down for them – he admitted his responsibility. Jonah was not a coward. 

So if it wasn’t cowardice, why did he refuse to go to Nineveh, to speak for God there? Hold that question, the answer to it may become clear later on. 

Jonah falls into the sea and God provided a big fish to give him an airbnb for the duration. So he survives, in the fish, remembers the Lord, and prays confidently – God will bring his life up from the pit. He even says he is ready to fulfil his vow to God who delivers him.

The big fish has had enough of his guest, and spewed Jonah out on dry land. 

And then as we read, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time – God gives him a second chance. This time Jonah sets off to Nineveh, a great city that takes three days to walk round. And as he goes, he cries out: Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown. Doesn’t that remind you of the environmental prophets of our own day, who say we have just a few more years before we destroy the earth as a place to live? 

We may be dragging our feet, and falling behind on the climate emergency, but Nineveh responded well, led by the king (whose name was not Charles) who told them all: cover yourself with sackcloth and cry mightily to God, turning from the violence that is in your hands, and – who knows? – God may relent and let us live….

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways. God changed his mind about the calamity he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it. 

But poor Jonah was now redundant. He had put his heart and soul into warning Nineveh about its coming doom. He had exposed their sin, told them they deserved God’s destructive judgment. I think he got so deeply into a rut of judgmentalism, he really wanted Nineveh to be obliterated, as some want Hamas or Ukraine obliterated now. That is what they deserved. Removing them would make the world safe for decent people. God would purge his earth of wickedness. 

And so while the people were repenting, and turning their lives around, Jonah sat down outside the city, waiting to see what God would do to it, expecting fiery judgment to fall upon it.

He says to God – this is why I went to Tarshish in the first place, because I know you are a gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. I know that, but I don’t like it. I know you are like that, but I don’t approve of it. I want just judgment, I want harsh punishment on your enemies and mine. I can’t deny what I really want, what I really believe in. So I will sit outside this city, waiting to see what you will do about it. You know God what I expect you to do – do justice, destroy this wicked city. 

And if you won’t do that, let me die, life is not worth living if I have to see these Ninevites escape. 

Jonah is very angry. But the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1.20)

God who is gracious and merciful, God who ‘perhaps’ will relent and let people live, God who called recalcitrant Jonah a second time, comes now to talk kindly, gently, with Jonah: Let me help you in your mixed up misery, says God. Are you really doing well to be angry? Yes, says Jonah, angry enough to make dying a better choice for me. 

Jonah is determined to cut off his nose to spite his face. 

“Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” is an expression used to describe a needlessly self-destructive overreaction to a problem: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” is a warning against acting out of pique, or against pursuing revenge in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one’s anger


God doesn’t talk with Jonah only in words. He does something, he takes Jonah to think and feel his way through a real experience. 

Jonah sits in the hot desert sun outside the city. It is hard on his bald head. So God makes a bush to spring up quickly. It gives him shelter. He is comforted. But then the bush dies as suddenly as it grew, and Jonah is back again, under the sun, wrapped up in his anger, wishing to die. 

God uses the bush to try one last argument with Jonah: You valued the bush which you did not produce and now you are angry that it has gone. That means you care about the bush. You value good gifts of creation. You care about the bush, which you did not produce, it came to you as a gift. 

Now Jonah, think it out. If you care about your bush, can’t you understand why I am so concerned about Nineveh? It is full of human beings I laboured to create, many little ones who don’t know their right hand from their left, innocent young ones, full of wonderful promise. Should I not care about them? Can you change your view of these Ninevites enough to care about them, to want them to live? 

And God adds, I also have many animals in Nineveh. Are you wishing an Australian wild-fire to sweep down upon them? 

You cared about the bush, here one day, gone the next. Why Jonah won’t you join me in caring for all these people, all these animals? 

God invites Jonah to get more fully in tune with God’s love and compassion, God’s respect and care for all that he has made. 

God invites Jonah to turn around, and to join, heart and soul, in loving with God. 

God invites Jonah to understand that doing God’s work preaching to the Ninevites is worth nothing if it is not done with the love of God, which hopes and works for the life of the world (I Cor 13). 

God invites – is Jonah to refuse? God invites, is Jonah to be left treasuring his anger? 

Now we don’t know how Jonah responded, whether he joined with God, or died in bitter sustained hate of Ninevites, quite alienated from God. 

We don’t know what Jonah did next. This story is left with the argument still open – there is God’s way and there is Jonah’s. 

It does not matter that we don’t know what happened to Jonah. The story is for us – the questions and the choice.

By leaving Jonah undecided, hovering between life and death, God and murderous anger, the story comes to all its readers, to us now, and puts us in the quandary: What do you think? Where do you stand? How will you in your living write the next chapter of this story? 

Do we see and understand God’s loving will for the world? 

Is God’s love shed abroad in our hearts, individually and collectively, so that our living is generous and hopeful for all? 

Or are we like Jonah, still held back from living closely with God? 

We live in a world, where there are Ninevehs, and there are Jonahs who want the elimination and obliteration of Ninevehs.

In righteous anger, we judge and condemn others, maybe in small situations, maybe when we hear on the news what governments and nations are doing. 

We lose hope for the world, we lose patience, we will give no more second chances, We want justice, according to our angry destructive sense of justice. We are obstinate Jonah, refusing God who talks gently with us, Do you do well to be angry? (Eph 4.26; Matt.5.21,22).

Nineveh repents, God relents – that is in the story. 

Does Jonah repent, or is he unrelenting, saying No, even when God is giving him every help to change his mind? 

This is a question for us today. 

We read from the end of John’s Gospel, the conversation of Jesus with Peter. Jesus gave Peter work to do – Feed my sheep, feed my lambs. 

But Jesus does more than give Peter work to do. He asks him first, and more than once, Do you love me? 

Peter was distressed when this basic question was pressed – you know all things, Lord, you know that I love you. 

God could have phrased his invitation to Jonah in that way: Do you love me? Then love my Ninevites. Love our Ninevites. There is hope even for them, as they repent, and I relent.

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good.
There is mercy with the Savior,
there is healing in his blood.

3 But we make God’s love too narrow
by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

5 If our love were but more simple,
we should rest upon God’s word,
and our lives would be illumined
by the presence of our Lord.

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

Kahlil Gibran

Text of a talk at Stainbeck United Reformed Church, 21 January 2024

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