Heed The Important Warning

Jonah 3:1-10

Sunday, January 25, 2015


When I was a child, I often accompanied my parents to the sporting events of my two older brothers. Since one of my brothers is ten years older than me and the other is eight years older, I was quite young during the bulk of their High School days. As a result, my attention span wasn’t very long and I was not overly interested in watching their games. I did enjoy, however, creating a pick-up game of my own with any other children roughly my age who also happened to be in attendance.

It was very common for us to have a football game of our own going on behind the stands or for us to find an empty spot to throw a baseball that we had found out behind center field. In the end, it wasn’t uncommon for me to have been at the field for two or three hours and to go home having no clue as to who had won or as to how the real game had unfolded. In fact, my parents used to laugh that sometimes, I came home in more need of a bath than my brothers who had actually been in the game!

There is something similar that often happens in our interaction with the Holy Scripture. We too often get caught up in the side game and thus miss the main event. What I mean is that we can easily get distracted in our conversations about interesting aspects of various biblical passages and thus get so intrigued by where those rabbit trails lead us that we completely fail to engage with the real thrust or point of the text.

The story of Jonah is a classic example of this truth. When we say the name Jonah or mention the book of Jonah the very first things that comes to most of our minds is the aspect of the story that deals with Jonah being in the belly of the great fish. For three days, he was in the great animal while attempting to escape to Tarshish and avoid God’s call on his life to go and speak a prophetic word to the people of Ninevah.

Without question, it is great fun to ponder what kind of fish Jonah was swallowed by, as the text never really says it was a whale, and to discuss the various scenarios as to how it all could have happened. No doubt, it is one of the most fascinating corners in all of the Old Testament. But, to get caught up in Jonah’s adventure with the whale is to often miss Jonah’s real adventure in Ninevah. It is a way of wrapped up in the side game behind the bleachers while totally ignoring the real game taking place on the field. For you see, as miraculous as was Jonah in the great fish, the greatest miracle of Jonah is what happens in Ninevah and specifically how the people there respond to the prophetic word that Jonah offers.

Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria, at the time, was one of Israel’s greatest enemies. As you will remember, it was the Assyrians who had taken over the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 721/722 BCE. They had taken many of the Jewish people of Israel captive and they had treated them terribly. They lined Jewish fields with salt so that they would not be fertile again and they lead Israelites away into captivity with fish hooks in their noses and in their ears. They were a brutal people.

It was to these enemies that Jonah was sent. As most of you know, his response was one or reluctance. He was reluctant because he didn’t know how he would be treated and he was reluctant because the last people he wanted to offer forgiveness to were the Assyrians – again, Israel’s enemies. This is what leads to Jonah first running toward Tarshish and ultimately meeting the great fish. Tarshish, for the Israelites represented the farthest western regions and thus also spoke of Jonah’s desire to get as far away from God and God’s plans for him as he could.

In the end, Jonah concedes and goes to Ninevah. There, the reluctant messenger has perhaps the greatest success of any prophet in the Old Testament. Whereas, most of the Old Testament prophets were not listened to by their own people, Jonah is not only heard but also immediately heeded by Israel’s greatest enemies – the Ninevites. Again, in my opinion, this is the great miracle of the entire story.

The Ninevites listen and the Ninevites act. Surely they didn’t like what Jonah had to say. Without question, they didn’t appreciate the changes that were required. And, it goes without saying that they probably were not too fond of a foreigner telling them what to do. But, in the end, they listened greater still they obeyed.

Back at Christmas, one of the gifts that came into our house was a soccer goal for Caleb. My task was to put that goal together. What I remember about that little project was taking a quick glance at the pieces when I took them out of the box and then briefly looking at the pictures that accompanied the instructions for assembly. What I did not do was actually read the instructions. Why? Because having looked at the pieces and glanced at the pictures I was fairly confident that I knew what to do.

And that is exactly what led a thirty-minute job to become roughly a two hour ordeal. If I am not mistaken I assembled, dismantled and reassembled that soccer goal about four times before I finally got it right.

What without question, is so frustrating when I think back over that experience is that the clearly, written out instructions were right there in front of me. I wish I could say that no instructions came with the soccer goal. Or, I wish that I could say that they were hard to follow, they didn’t make sense or that they were inaccurate. Or, I wish that I could say that I didn’t have all of the pieces. But, confessionally speaking, I can’t say any of those things. In truth, the instructions were right there in the box. In truth, they were fairly easy to follow. And, to be honest, all of the pieces were right there in front of me. I did have everything thing that I needed to be successful at my disposal. I simply was not interested in paying attention to it. I knew how to do it myself.

We have the same complex when it comes to our lives don’t we? As with the Ninevites, God regularly tries to get our attention; as we come to church, as we have our devotional lives, as we pray, as we find ourselves in conversation with others and in countless other ways and venues. And, by and large, God’s words are clear, to the point and as easy to understand for us as they were for the Ninevites. But, where we are different as have been most people of faith throughout the centuries is that we simply still want to do it our way. Even when we know what to do and even when we know it is what is best for us, we still don’t want to do it.

This morning, on this last Sunday of January, with the bulk of a new year in front of us, I want to ask all of us a simple question. If we could isolate one thing that we know right now that God wants us to do and that God has been trying desperately to get our attention about, what is it? And once we know what that one thing is let us ask a second question, why are we resisting?

Furthermore, if we did actually listen and obey, how would our lives be better even in spite of the changes and the reordering that might be involved?

For most of us, God has become like a home where the television is on all day merely for background noise. We know God is talking. We hear what God says but to say that we are paying attention or to insinuate that we plan to do anything with what hear is a stretch as best. God has become nothing more than background noise who has very little bearing on how we will choose to live our lives.

And, yet, perhaps, as miraculous as was what happened with the Assyrians, maybe God’s next miracle is what God is waiting to do through you or through me. Amen.