We make our beginning in the Name of God the Father and in the Name of God the Son and in the Name of God the Holy Spirit and all those who follow God’s lead, even to their own Nineveh said … AMEN!
The Ninevites were bad people, to quote Charles Dickens you must remember that or nothing good will come from what I tell you, they were very bad people. Jonah had every reason in the world to avoid going to Nineveh. Side note, up until the 1800’s scholars chocked the entire Jonah story up to fable, one reason being that they felt that Nineveh was a myth, that it had never existed. Well surprise, archeologists found it and it does exist. In fact it was a very important city, to deny it existed, as many skeptics today try to deny many aspects of the Bible, would be to deny a great deal of antiquity.
Nineveh was a great city for it’s time. The writer of Jonah says: “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.” It’s estimated that it had a population of 120,000 people. By today’s standards, that’s really a small city, York has a population of about 50,000, Boston has about 600,000, New York City over 8 million. But for a time when most people farmed or raised livestock, most people didn’t live in a city, it was pretty huge. We have to remember that cities really didn’t become so massive until the industrial revolution and even then not until the early 1900s, when people went to cities to work in factories. Are there difficulties with the Jonah account? Yes. There are really no whales in the Mediterranean and it’s hard to reconcile what kind of “fish” would have swallowed Jonah. There are accounts of men, in the whaling ship days, who were swallowed by a whale and recovered, but can’t really make that case with Jonah. But when we are talking about God, who made all and sustains all of creation, I think it’s a small thing that He created a fish to turn Jonah around.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and as I said, they were, straight out, bad people. A Wikipedia article quoting King Sennacherib about a recent military victory: “ “Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city.” The Wikipedia article also refers to stone carvings of “many battle scenes, impalings and scenes showing Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him.”1 These were not nice people. Jonah had every reason in the world not to go there, chief among those reasons was, that he may not come out alive. That was a very real concern. But, as the Chronological Study Bible points out; “Two features stand out in the book’s theology. One is the universal love and compassion of God for all nations. Another is the sovereignty of God.”2
A case could be made that Jonah was written about 700 BC. As I said the Assyrians were widely hated. The Chronological Study Bible states: “Few armies were as hated as the Assyrian army. Even in a time and culture that was not known for respecting human life, Assyrian tactics and policies toward their enemies were notoriously brutal.”3
So when we wonder what the point of this story is about, it certainly has to do with faithfulness and obedience. When God calls us to do something, many times He sets up the circumstances to make sure that His something gets done. If it takes an extraordinary story of a man being thrown into the ocean, swallowed by a big fish, delivered up to the destination that He wants Jonah delivered to, to drive home the point that God’s will is to be done and He can put us where He wants us, then so be it. Even if it’s to a people who are widely hated. You also have to remember that at this point in history, the people of Israel saw God as the universal God, as the creator of all, but still, somehow, thought of Yahweh as their God, exclusively in favor of Israel. Nineveh was the center of worship for the goddess Ishtar, who the Ninevites worshiped. Odd contrast, the Ninevites considered her the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex. I suppose you could reconcile some of those together, but for pagan “gods”, that seems to be a rather wide portfolio. Obviously war, among other things was a priority for the Ninevites/Assyrians. Going to a pagan people to tell them about the real God must have struck Jonah as plain crazy.
Rev Stephen Gaulke writes in Concordia Pulpit: A Sunday school teacher asked her class, ‘What can we learn from Jonah?’ One girl blurted out, ‘When whales swallow people, they get real sick?’”
“I was with a group of pastors when I heard that silly Sunday School story. One pastor told the punch line, ‘People make whales really sick.’ Another pastor joked, ‘That’s funny, I always thought the point of Jonah’s story is you can’t keep a good man down!’
Jonah went to Nineveh not because he thought, ‘I’m a good guy.’ He painfully knew, ‘ I was the bad guy, running from God?’ And Jonah joyfully believed, ‘God loves me anyway. The Lord forgives me, gives me new life. He’s the God of second chances!’
What do you think? ‘I’m better than the person God wants me to help? No. The only difference between us and them is that we know who gives life, who forgives!’”4 And I might add that in gratitude, if the Father wants to use me or you, anyone, to see God’s forgiveness and salvation, can I really in good conscience refuse to do what God is guiding me to do? No!
Jonah by his actions said to God; “Forget it, I’m not going to Nineveh. Those people are evil! Go ahead and destroy them! They deserve it! They don’t deserve grace, they deserve to be nuked and I’m not going!” I really can’t say that Jonah was wrong. I can’t say that if God put me on a boat to North Korea or some place in the Middle East, I would certainly have mixed emotions, if not outright rejection of the idea. But God does push on us, if we are a disciple of Christ, if we have received grace and forgiveness from our baptism and from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, if God sustains us and His Son saves us, shouldn’t we follow where He leads us?
Our Gospel reading today is Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John saying: “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” Certainly Jonah’s story is a graphic illustration. As it says in your call to worship: “We hear of God’s call to Jonah in the Old Testament and how, after trying to run away, he was given a second chance. Before he became a ‘fisher of men’, he literally became fish bait! God calls us both to salvation for ourselves and to be fellow [fishermen and women] speaking God’s grace to others.” Those ‘others’ may be people who are different, they may be people we think could be violent or hurt us, they could be people that we just don’t personally like. But all people are God’s creation and in His sovereignty He chooses those who will be saved. He may use you or me, in order to save those people. Jesus was tortured and crucified in order to be the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. Jesus’ sacrifice restored our relationship with God, this gives us hope and the promise of eternal, resurrected life. So the question is, if Jesus did all that for us, if we are His, if we are His disciples, do we really have the right to blow Him off and refuse to go to our Nineveh? Jonah did go to Nineveh, he preached what God told him to preach, the Ninevites did repent of their sin and God did not destroy them. Jonah was faithful and used by God to save many people.
For this week’s assignment, read the whole book of Jonah. Get a real feel for how Jonah felt about his calling. Are there things that God calls you to do that you think are unreasonable? They may be unreasonable to you, but if this is in God’s will, the only unreasonable thing is your refusal to follow God’s leading. He will supply you with what you need to follow Him. He will give you the faith to trust that what He’s asking is according to His will. Are you really going to run off to Tarshish and refuse Him?
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Shalom and Amin.
2Chronological Study Bible pp 576-577
3Ibid p 576
4Stephen E Gaulke Concordia Pulpit Volume 25 Part 1 pp 14-15