Jonah and the Disciples

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Today, we are hearing the story of Jonah in two parts, the first two chapters that Taylor just shared with the children – I hope you were listening closely.  And in a moment, I will read what comes next.

But before I do that, I want to say a word about the book of Jonah as a whole.  Jonah is one of the twelve smaller prophet books at the back of the Old Testament with those unusual names such as Nahum and Habbakuk, and which you are liable to skip over if a couple of pages stick together because they are so small.  Jonah is different from all of the other prophets, however, for three reasons. 

First, unlike the other prophet books, Jonah has very little to say here on behalf of God – really only one sentence.  The book tells us much more about what Jonah did than what he said.  Second, Jonah is the only one of the prophets who speaks to foreigners, the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.  It should be noted, that the people of Nineveh are not only foreigners; they are powerful enemies and conquerors of Israel.

Third, there is the humor – not the first word that usually comes to mind when describing the Old Testament prophets.  The writer of Jonah is not afraid to exaggerate to make a point and has a sense of humor.  The writer says that it takes three days for Jonah to walk across Nineveh – a modern walker would not need nearly that much time to cross over a far larger modern city like New York City.  Then, when the people of Nineveh repent, Jonah tells us that not only do the people wear sackcloth, so do the all of the animals.

And then there is the whale – the detail that captures the imagination of every child.  The whale is actually sent to save Jonah – and give him three days to reconsider how he wants to respond to God’s call before Jonah is spewed out by the whale onto the beach.  In the words of one of my favorite Biblical commentators, “there’s nothing graceful about this [for Jonah].  It’s…salvation by projectile vomiting.  It might even be resurrection with a whole lot of slime.”1  In any case, Jonah is back on land and God is ready to speak to him.

The book of Jonah is more of a story with a moral point, like one of Jesus’ parables, than it is a historical account like 1 Samuel or a collection of prophetic sayings like Isaiah.  And while Jonah’s story is a “whale of a tale,” it is not just a fish story or a children’s story.  It is an adult story, and there may be more of Jonah in each one of us than we might like to admit.

Let us then pick up Jonah’s story midway, beginning with chapter 3.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

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

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah 3:1 – 4:2, NRSVUE

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” Even after Jonah has proven himself to be a reluctant and disobedient prophet, trying to duck his assignment and sail as far away as possible from Nineveh, God still comes back to Jonah.  Even after Jonah has proven himself to be a foolish prophet, thinking that he can somehow flee from God’s reach or hide from God, God still comes back to Jonah and gives him the same assignment: speak to the Ninevehites and tell them they need to repent.

This time Jonah does what God says.  He walks across the great city of his enemy crying out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  You can just imagine him them eagerly getting up each day and counting off the days to Nineveh’s destruction: “40, 39, 38, 37.”  But before he can complete the countdown, the king orders the people and animals to be covered with sackcloth and for everyone to turn from “their evil ways and the violence that is in their hands.”  “Who knows? The king later says.  “the God of the Israelites may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 

And then there is another great surprise. God does change God’s mind: the people of Nineveh are spared.

At this point, you would think Jonah would be ecstatic.  You would think he would be racing to the Temple to thank God for God graciously giving Jonah a second chance to carry out his assignment.  You would think that he would be grateful to God for protecting him while he was walking across the city of his enemy yelling out that they all had to repent.  You would think that he was be singing praise to God that his little speech had caused the people of Nineveh to repent.

But no – not Jonah.  Jonah is not thankful or joyful or awed.  Instead, he is…angry.  And he is not just a little angry.  The Hebrew suggests that he is “burning with anger.”  Why?  Because God is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2).  Jonah was looking forward to seeing Nineveh destroyed and now God is taking that pleasure away.

What a contrast Jonah makes to the disciples in Mark 1.  When God calls Jonah, Jonah tries to run off in the opposite direction and hide from God.  When Jesus calls these four fishermen here in Mark 1, they drop their nets and follow Jesus immediately.  It takes Jonah three chapters and a second chance before he shows up in Nineveh.  It takes the disciples only a few verses to respond to Jesus, and they do not have to be asked twice.

And yet, while Jonah may seem to be an example of how not to live as a man or woman of God, there is a lot we can learn from Jonah.  In fact, much of what we learn from Jonah is what the disciples will later learn from being with Jesus.

Lesson one: There are no missions impossible when it comes to God’s missions.

Jonah seemingly has an impossible task.  Who is he but a nobody?  In contrast, the Assyrian Empire was a superpower at the time, with a stronger economic base and military prowess than any other kingdom.  And they were not believers of Israel’s God.  No wonder he fled to Tarshish.  And yet, when Jonah preaches his simple sermon, the people of Nineveh, from the king on down, repent and change.

We too can feel like we are very small and the world is very big.  One response is just to give up.  Especially when you are a Christian in North America or Europe and you see the church apparently shrinking in numbers and resources.  Or we may decide that it is too much to try to focus on communities and the “big issues,” such as poverty or injustice.  Better to concentrate on our little family or individual sphere, our happiness, and our peace.  As one person commenting on this text writes: “The world conspires to make Jonahs out of all of us.  The world beats us down and tells us that you can’t change the big picture, so just fall in line and make the best living that you can for yourself and your family.”2

But what Jonah and Jesus’ call of the disciples reminds us, is that the reign of God is at hand, even when we cannot see it.  We are small and relatively powerless, but God does not expect us to change the world by ourselves.  All we are called to do is listen and obey, to play our small role in the theater of God’s plans.  God, the playwright, alone can see how everything can fit together to work for God’s purposes.  We do our part and God will take care of the rest. 

Jonah is weak – but his words with God’s help are enough to change a people.  The church that began with these four disciples on the Sea of Galilee now consists of 2 billion people stretched across the world.  Our work is far from done, but when we are doing God’s work, nothing is futile and we are never without hope.

Lesson two: God sticks with those God has called.

Perhaps the most important verse in the whole book of Jonah is the first one we read today: “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”  How would you describe Jonah?  Stubborn?  Disobedient?  Reluctant?  Fearful?  How would you describe the God we see in action in Jonah?  Persistent.  Incredibly patient.  Gracious.  Merciful.  Jonah gives up on God, but God does not give up on Jonah.

And while the disciples look a lot better here in Mark 1, we know they will blow it as well if you read ahead in Mark’s gospel.  James and John will argue over who is the greatest and who gets to sit next to Jesus.  Andrew will disappear when Jesus hangs on the cross, and Simon Peter will deny even knowing Jesus, not once, but three times.  And yet, God sticks with them – as God sticks with Jonah.

We may have a whole host of reasons why we are not worthy of being a disciple of Christ.  We are not good enough, we think.  We do not pray enough.  We do not give enough. We do not trust enough.  We are too anxious or too impatient.

But that is not how God sees us.  God sees all that and still thinks we can be prophets and disciples doing God’s work and speaking God’s word.  This God we worship and try to obey, this Jesus we try to listen to and follow, is remarkably persistent, incredibly patient, amazingly gracious and ever merciful. 

God does not want us to stay the same. But God does not wait to love us or use us, until after we have our acts cleaned up.  Jesus wants his disciples to change and grow, but he does not wait to until his disciples are perfect before calling them to follow.  He calls us now, because he knows it is only when we spend time with him that we will change and grow.

And when we fail, when we fall down, as we inevitably will do, God gives us another chance, as God gives Jonah a second chance.  And not just a second chance, but 70 x 7 chances.  Jesus lifts us up again and again, as he will lift up these four disciples when they fall.

Lesson three: God’s grace can upset us. 

God’s grace certainly upsets Jonah.  He, who a second chance from God, is mad that God has given the Ninevehites a second chance.  Jonah is angry at God – not for giving him such a tough and dangerous assignment, but for making that assignment successful.  The people of Nineveh repent and are spared.  Jonah’s problem with God is that God is “not our private deity who aims to wipe out our enemies.”  Jonah’s problem with God is that God seems to have room in God’s heart for everyone, even those we consider enemies.3

It is easy to laugh at Jonah and criticize him, but isn’t there a little of Jonah in all of us?  Certainly, God’s people have been tempted throughout history to try to limit God’s grace and love.  Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders for spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners.  And then Jesus was criticized by the rank-and-file people for sharing a table with a wealthy Pharisee.  The first great controversy of the church was whether the church was to include Gentile as well as Jew.

There is something in human nature that wants to limit God’s grace and is tempted to find God’s grace disturbing.  We claim God’s grace for ourselves and our sin, but begrudge that God’s love and grace might extend to people we do not like or approve of, people whom we call our enemy – just like Jonah.   Sometimes it seems like some Christians even relish others going to hell or being “left behind,” because “they deserve it,” just as Jonah seemed to relish Nineveh being destroyed.

The problem it seems is that God sent Jesus Christ into the world for the whole world.  God keeps loving people, keeps inviting people, keeps offering second chances, keeps extending grace.  It is not like God is a sentimental old fool who in the face of evil and sin just says a big “whatever!”  The people of Nineveh are called to repent and give up their evil ways – and they do.  But the message of Jonah, like that of the gospels, is that the love of God is for all people, that the judgment of God is for all people, and “that the Creator in heaven wants nothing more than to stand face to face with every creature beginning with us, but not ending there.”4

Friends, God still calls Jonahs, Jesus still calls disciples.  What we can do may seem so little.  Who we are may seem so frail and flawed.  But by the grace and power of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, there is no telling what God can do in and through us.  Not just for our sake and those we love.  But for the sake of those we find hard to love.  Indeed for the sake of the whole world.

Thanks be to God!

  1. Anna Carter Florence, A Is For Alabaster: 52 Reflections on the Stories of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2023), 28. ↩︎
  2. Todd Weir, ↩︎
  3. Peter Enns, Curveball – When Your Faith Takes Turns You Never Saw Coming (New York: HarperOne, 2023), 41. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎