This book is rapidly becoming one of my favourites - if that's not an inappropriate approach to God's word. The book of Jonah is short, snappy and full of surprises. It seems that if you mention Jonah to most people they immediately think of a big fish... Is that the point? Is it a story of underwater adventure?
Episode 1 - God saves the worst sinners
The story kicks off with God commissioning Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh, the captial of Assyria (modern day Iraq). We're not told why at this stage, but Jonah decides to run in the opposite direction. Opposite in the extreme - he catches a boat from Israel to Spain to flee from God.
On the way to Spain the LORD sends a great storm to stop Jonah in his tracks. In the midst of the storm we are introduced to the sailors. They are a crowd of rough and ready pagans who will call out to any god who might keep them from perishing. Jonah meanwhile sleeps below deck.
He is woken by the crew and they force a confession from him. Who is his God? The LORD of the heavens, the land and the sea. Jonah's God is the covenant God (the LORD) and he is the one who rules everywhere. Jonah claims to fear this God but is also trying to run from him. Rather futile.
Jonah tells the crew to throw him into the Med to save themselves. They are hesitant but ultimately do so. The camera moves from Jonah to the sailors and we find them fearing God, making sacrifices and vows to the LORD. They become believers. God saves even the worst of sinners - what grace!
Episode 2: Salvation comes from the LORD and IS the LORD
We left the previous episode at a cliffhanger. The Sailors become believers but what happened to Jonah? We find him rescued from death by a fish sent by the LORD. Some doubt the historicity of this, but Jesus tells it as history.
The centre of this episode is a Psalm by Jonah - his Salvation Song. He recognises he was dead but the LORD saved him. He longs to see the presence of the LORD and find the grace that the LORD gives. Jonah's words point us towards salvation being the LORD - it is gaining him, knowing him - being in his presence (that which Jonah was attempting to avoid). This is life: knowing God!
At the highpoint of the book he concludes that Salvation not only is the LORD, but also salvation comes from the LORD. This is not simply that God saves, but also that God decides who gets saved. Jonah ran from his mission to preach to evil Nineveh and so God saved the sailors. Next God saved Jonah... what next! Having experienced the grace of God for himself Jonah is recomissioned and this time he goes to preach - and it seems that he ought to be more aware that salvation is God's to give.... in line with God's command he preaches to Nineveh - "Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown". Another cliffhanger.
Episode 3 - Grace to repentant sinners
As the story unfolds to the original audience there are highs and lows. Jonah is sent! Jonah dies... Sailors are saved... Jonah is saved! Jonah preaches judgement on Nineveh. But what happens next? Against all expectation everyone in Nineveh turns from their evil ways. From high to low - all 120,000 people. They turn to God for mercy hoping that perhaps he will save them. And he does.
Later Jesus cites these events many times. He argues lesser to greater to announced a final warning to the world. Nineveh heard Jonah preach and they repented. And God saved them. The World has had Jesus preach, die and be resurrected... will it come to God for mercy, or remain at enmity with God and so face final judgement?
Repentance is difficult for us because we love to make excuses for ourselves. We are natural self-justifiers. But repentance lays that down and seeks only mercy. Repentance means admiting we've wronged God but it is the way to life. Grace is by definition, undeserved.
Episode 4: God is outrageously gracious
Jonah's simple message leads to 120,000 people receiving God's mercy. How would you react? Joy? Celebration? Jonah is "exceedingly displeased". He takes issue with God. Jonah declares that he knew this would happen! That's why he ran to Spain, to prevent it. And yet as he ran God saved the sinful sailors. And then God saved Jonah. And now God has saved Nineveh. And Jonah is angry - sufficiently to request that God take his life away from him.
The crucial issue seems to be that Jonah doesn't think God ought to be gracious. He seems able to accept grace for himself but not for others. God attempts to demonstrate grace to Jonah one last time but he remains furious.
Can we handle the grace of God? Grace that means we have no case in our defence before God, except God himself. Grace that is freely given by God to whomever he pleases. Grace that flows abundantly because God is in the business of being gracious. Imagine what could be possible... Imagine what God might do. His grace is outrageous!
A series of four cell notes on Jonah, currently being used by Reading University Christian Union will be online by the end of May 2005.