This morning we begin a 4 week series looking at the book of Jonah – a familiar story that has much to teach us about the sovereignty, and justice and mercy of God. Jonah 1.
By way of background we need to be aware that Jonah ministered between 800-750BC during a time of relative peace for the northern kingdom of Israel. However a major threat from the north was posed by Assyria, whose intentions for domination of the region were obvious.
Jonah was a contemporary of Elisha, Amos and Hosea. Earlier in his career he had been used by God to bring good news to Israel, in particular he encouraged King Jeroboam to restore Israel’s borders to their former glory (2 Kings 14:25). I’m sure this positive prophet became popular in the royal court and no doubt enjoyed the good favour of the people as well.
However no sooner had Israel achieved the promised security than she began to gloat over her success and became exceedingly complacent about her favoured status with God (Amos 6:1). Religion became focused upon the Day of the Lord (Am 5:18-20) in which other nations would be engulfed in darkness while Israel basked in God’s light.
In any age what does God require of us?
Micah writing a generation after Jonah put it this way: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8. This may have been written after Jonah but summarises what has always been true for God’s people and remains so: justice, mercy and humility.
Attributes that were rare in Israel in those days. In response to growing arrogance God sent Amos and Hosea to warn his people that he would not spare them much longer (Am 7:8, 8:2) but that they would be sent in exile beyond Damascus, i.e. to Assyria.
So Assyrians were not exactly popular in Israel at this time.
And that’s where Jonah comes back into the picture because it’s to Assyria or more precisely the major Assyrian city of Nineveh that God sent Jonah to also warn them of imminent divine judgement.
What are you afraid of? Death! Spiders! Opinions! Nothing!
Today we talk about ‘fear’: We need to be in fear: ‘fear of God’. Now I’ll be lambasted for that statement – it’s old fashioned and is said to misrepresent God; however I want us to think about it: “what does it mean to fear God?”
I want us to do more than think about it. I want us ‘get the fear’.
When we think of Jonah we struggle to get past an image of a great whale, however the whale, or fish, is but a prop in the story, a story that speaks to us of an issue that all need to address in their lives; the sovereignty of God. We – in all aspects of our lives – need to remember and demonstrate in our living that God is sovereign. We need to get the fear because God is to be feared!
Let’s begin by considering what is going on here.
God speaks to us “The word of the Lord came to Jonah…”
God and Jonah were in a relationship, they knew each other. Well God knew Jonah and Jonah knew God as well as any created being can know God. As we know from 2 Kings it was not unusual for God to speak to Jonah. Jonah after all was a prophet, a conveyor of the Word of God so we should expect this.
God speaks to us : bringing warning: “the word of the Lord came to Jonah … ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it…”
The truth that God wanted Jonah to speak was a word of warning. God who after all is all-knowing was aware of the wickedness of the people of Nineveh and he was also aware that justice must be done. There are consequences for behaviour – justice demands that the wickedness be stopped.
Proverbs 11:19-21 (NRSV) puts it like this…
19 Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,
but whoever pursues evil will die.
20 Crooked minds are an abomination to the Lord,
but those of blameless ways are his delight.
21 Be assured, the wicked will not go unpunished,
but those who are righteous will escape.
However God is also loving and merciful and wants to send Jonah to the great city to warn it. By implication there is hope for the people of Nineveh for God is giving them a chance to change their ways – this becomes clear in the latter part of the book.
Likewise, today when people who are warned to stop being foolish and to start trusting in Jesus, choose to persist in their own ways, they leave themselves open to receive the just judgement that will come.
However when we hear about Jesus, when we recognise his authority, when we decide to stop living in disobedience and start living under the cover of Jesus’ authority, then we are found not guilty in the judgement and live forever with God.
So God is a God of justice and mercy and a God who speaks into our lives to call us to right living, and sometimes more specifically God speaks to individuals.
In this case God speaks words of command to Jonah.
What is it that motivates us to obey when we receive a command?
Consequences – Fear; peer pressure; respect for the individual or institution; agreement with the direction of the command
But what motivates us when we receive a command from God?
Awareness that it really is God!
But sometimes we still disobey – right! Like Jonah did.
Jonah knew this was God speaking, he acknowledges it was the ‘Word of the Lord’ yet what did he do?
Exactly – he ran away – he attempted to get as far away as possible – in the futile hope that God would let him go. Nineveh was pretty much as far east as you could go in those times – Tarshish a fishing village on the coast of Spain even further to the west; a year-and-a-half journey away from the doing of God’s will.
Why would Jonah do this? he had a good relationship with God! he’d obeyed him before! so why disobey now?
God was asking too much! It was one thing to preach good news to his own people; quite something else to go to your nations greatest enemy and give them a chance of repenting…
Maybe he was afraid of the reception he’d get! maybe he was afraid of the reaction of his own people!
Whatever was behind the reason he refused it boils down to the fact that Jonah placed a higher value on himself than he did upon God. You could say he did not fear God – maybe because he feared the reproach of man more than God. Here’s what Jesus said to his disciples about this…
Luke 12:4-5 The Message
4-5 “I’m speaking to you as dear friends. Don’t be bluffed into silence or insincerity by the threats of religious bullies. True, they can kill you, but then what can they do? There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.
The fear of people is foolishness – where in contrast the fear of God is wisdom. (Proverbs 15:33)
So what does it mean to FEAR GOD?
To fear God means to reverence God, esteem God, to be aware of God’s great and awesome power and authority. God created everything in the universe, from the largest planet to the smallest atom, out of nothing. God is bigger and more powerful than anything we can imagine. If we fear God and acknowledge the fact that God gave us our life and can take it away in an instant, we will humble ourselves and do whatever it takes to serve and please God.
Fear-of-God is a school in skilled living—first you learn humility, then you experience glory. (Proverbs 15:33, The Message)
Jonah had some humility to learn; despite being advanced in some ways God knew that Jonah had to go back to school to re-learn the basics: obedience and humility.
God bought correction to Jonah in a most severe but effective way. The storm at sea reminds us that our actions sometimes hurt others also, and we are also reminded that it was never God’s intent to destroy Jonah or the sailors.
God was waiting to hear Jonah confess his guilt – it took a while but finally Jonah says “I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you” (v12).
Seemingly even that was not quite enough – for reasons known to God the storm did not abate until after Jonah had been thrown to the waves – almost sacrificially. One man dying so that others may live!
In this God’s justice was fulfilled; apparently for one reason only: to reveal the mercy of God.
Understand this: God’s discipline is not motivated by anger or retribution. God disciplines because God loves. Proverbs 3:5-12
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
Run to God! Run from evil!
Your body will glow with health,
your very bones will vibrate with life!
Honour God with everything you own;
give him the first and the best.
Your barns will burst,
your wine vats will brim over.
But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline;
don’t sulk under his loving correction.
It’s the child he loves that God corrects;
a father’s delight is behind all this.
Even as Christians, we know we have the Holy Spirit living inside us guidance, giving us strength, but sometimes we turn the other way, sometimes slip into sin anyway – sometimes we embrace it with open arms.
What does God do with that? I guess he could simply walk away, muttering ‘another one bites the dust!’ is that a response of a loving God?
Rather God will remind us, send other people to us to challenge us, there will be signs everywhere.
Bit like this scene from Bruce Almighty? Click on the link to view it. Give me a signal. Send me a sign – Bruce Almighty
Signs everywhere – but Bruce just didn’t get it. The reality is we too can be like Bruce, and even when we do see the signs Jonah-like we sometimes choose to walk the other way.
But walk away as fast as we like and we’ll find God won’t give up on us. He will be there, putting the signs in our way, drawing us back where we belong.
Arohanui - Ian