Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah … saying, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah set out to flee … from the presence of the Lord.
And the people of Nineveh believed God. … 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 … 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 1:13; 3:5, 4:12, NRSV
Give us a sign.
One day, some Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus for a miraculous sign. Impress us, Jesus. Convince us, Jesus. We've heard rumors of your sleight-of-hand with water and wine, your conjuring tricks with bread and fish, your banishing stunts with demons and pigs. The word's out that you're Messiah: but we demand credentials. Give us a sign.
Jesus rebukes them: "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt. 12:39, NIV).
A curious sign, this. Why not the sign, say, of Elijah? Now there was a prophet—calling down heaven's fire, outrunning horses, staring down kings. Why not Isaiah? A towering, glowering man, I picture him, all sinewy muscle and wild-eyed zeal. Why not Daniel? Serene and shrewd in the face of folly and evil, holding tight the truth amid a world glutted with pagan traps and trappings.
But Jesus said Jonah: the runt prophet, the rebel prophet, the sulking prophet.
Of course, the sign of Jonah is two-fold: it's an image of Jesus' dying and rising (Matthew's emphasis, 12:3840); and it's a warning to the Israelites that, though even wicked Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, they are in danger of refusing one "greater than Jonah" (Luke's emphasis, 11:2932).
But I wonder. For Jesus to compare himself with Jonah at first offends. Jonah was a rebellious, petty, sullen man, self-serving and self-protecting. His sense of what matters was terribly skewed. But maybe that's exactly the point: the sign of Jonah is an image, not just of dying and rising, not just of hearing and heeding, but also of incarnation and crucifixion—of Jesus coming to be with us, to share in our fallen humanity, to empty himself, to become sin for us. Jesus, just as he identified with us in the stable and on the cross, chose as his mascot the prophet most like you and me.
Jonah is us. Those other prophets—so free and bold, so daunting and undaunted, so flinty and unflinching—they are larger than life. The story of how God spoke to them, how they spoke to God, how they spoke for God: it's as intimidating as it is inspiring. Who can equal them? Who can walk astride the earth like Isaiah? Who can command and demand and reprimand with Elijah's authority? Who can endure the heavy hand of God like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea? Those prophets are men apart.
And then there's Jonah. See him: hands plowed deep into his pant pockets, shoulders folded down in a perpetual slouch, face cast in a hardened sneer. He complains about the weather. It's too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. He complains about the government. He complains about his neighbors. He complains about his church. The music's loud. The preaching's dull. The young people leave messes, they're unruly and irreverent. The services go on and on. He doesn't complain about his neighbor's cat: instead, he poisoned it.
Isaiah is who we want to be. Jonah is who we are. Jonah is lord of the half-hearted, tribal chieftain of those who want God only on their own terms. I don't find him attractive: I find him all too familiar.
God calls him to rise up, go. He rises up and goes all right: "But Jonah set out to flee … from the presence of the Lord" (Jon. 1:3, 10, NRSV). He's not simply evading the task: he's fleeing God. And now we touch something in Jonah that is elemental, part of the roots of our humanness: we really don't want God.
For years, I've read devotional books and gone to workshops and conferences designed to deepen my life in God. I have an entire shelf of books just on prayer—its purposes, its nature, its aims. I have gleaned a litany of techniques for praying with focus and passion. I have learned what to relinquish and what to embrace as I approach prayer and practice it. Reading these books has been an apprenticeship to masters. If I had spent similar time and effort learning, say, the craft of violin-making, I would by now be able to make curvaceous, dark-burnished, sweet-toned instruments that wept or laughed, effortlessly, just to touch them.
But I'm not praying much better.
After I had read many of these books, I realized something. The books mostly assumed, and so did I, that I really wanted to get closer to God. The basic conviction behind those who write such books, and those who read them, is that every Christian's primary stance toward God is Isaiah-like: "Here I am. Send me!" But that is not my primary stance. Nor is it probably yours. My primary stance—and yours perhaps—is Jonah-like: "But Jonah set out to flee … from the presence of the Lord."
Why do Jonahs do that?
Jonah had good historical reasons, good personal reasons, for not wanting to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. Assyrians were cruel with bloodthirst, both capricious and calculated in doing evil. Their specialty was sacking and burning. They were a looming threat for the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and within 70 years of Jonah's ministry would carry Israel into exile. They were not good people. Think of someone who has hurt you, betrayed you, who threatens to devour you. Think, if you can, of someone you hate, or have good reason to. That's an Assyrian. Jonah was sent to their capital.
The story of Jonah confirms a dark suspicion we have about God. The suspicion is, God will always ask me to do the thing I least want to do, go to the very last place I desire to go. If I say I won't go to the prairies or India, God will send me there. If I tell him I hate Bosnians, or Tutsis, or French Canadians, that's exactly to whom he'll send me.
Let's state the suspicion in theological terms: God is a hard taskmaster, harvesting where he has not sown, gathering where he has not scattered seed. Maybe, in our bones, most of us fear God in the way we fear cyclones and Cyclopes, tigers and tyrants: not a wisdom-giving fear, but a skittish, nerve-sheering fright. God is out to get us. God wants to send us to the hellish Ninevites, and if we bolt, to loose the hell of storms and swallowing sea beasts upon us. Why, except that he's a demanding boss?
I heard Paul Yonggi Cho speak a few years back. Yonggi Cho is pastor of the largest church in the world. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, he told God, "I will go anywhere to preach the gospel—except Japan." He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people, and to members of Yonggi Cho's own family, during World War II. The Japanese were his Ninevites. But God called him to preach in Japan. Oh, you're a hard one, harvesting where you have not sown. He went, but he went bitter. The first speaking engagement was to a conference of 1,000 Japanese pastors. He stood up to speak, and what came out of his mouth was this: "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you." And then he broke and wept. He was both brimful and desolate with hatred. At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Yonggi Cho, knelt at his feet, and asked forgiveness for what they and their people had done to him and to his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: "I love you, I love you, I love you."
Here's something: God does not look on the outward appearances. He looks at the heart. And sometimes, he calls us to a work we do not want to do in order to reveal our heart—to reveal what we really believe, our deepest yearnings. How powerful, anyhow, is the blood of Christ, Reverend Cho? How far does the gospel of peace, the ministry of reconciliation, reach? Can it heal hatred between Koreans and Japanese? Can it make a Jew love a Ninevite? Can it make you be reconciled to … well, you know who?
Maybe that's the problem. As it turns out, Jonah is not afraid God is too hard. His suspicion, actually, runs in exactly the opposite direction: God is too soft. "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee. … I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (4:2, NIV). What use is it denouncing murderous Ninevites if they simply can repent and God will show them mercy? What kind of fool, run-amok God would do such a thing? He's neither tame enough nor tough enough.
The portrait of God that emerges from the story of Jonah is a God both too hard and too soft: too hard on us and too soft on our enemies. He's stern toward his children and indulgent to ward strangers. He scolds all the wrong people, pampers all the wrong people. He gives fatted calves to prodigals and not so much as a goat to his dutiful sons.
You've been teaching Sunday school for 12 years without a break. The only time anyone noticed was when you were sick one Sunday and forgot to phone for a replacement. The Sunday-school supervisor, curt and cold, said she thought you were thoughtful enough to know better than that. The next Sunday, everyone's astir: a real-estate broker, notorious for his swindling, just converted and baptized, shared a moving testimony. The church got a cake for him and em braced him like a son.
It's hard to follow a God who does those kind of things. It's hard to obey a God like that.
Obey. I used to think Jonah's central lesson—its moral, the nugget to mine for sermons or Sunday school—was how important it is to obey God. After all, disobedience is costly for Jonah: a sea storm, a near-drowning, a fish belly. And, in the end, the same unbending command: Go!
But I don't think that's the story's main thrust. For one thing, God uses Jonah's disobedience rather effectively. The reluctant prophet becomes the accidental evangelist. He boards ship with pagan sailors to Tarshish. Jonah's not interested in these men. He's avoiding not just God, but everyone. He goes down into the hold of the boat to sleep. But God sends a storm. The sailors—decent men—try everything to save the boat from going down. Then, when all that fails, they wake Jonah up and ask him to pray. That doesn't work either. They cast lots to find out who's causing the trouble, and—wouldn't you know?—the lot falls on Jonah. "Who are you?" they ask. "What do you do? Where do you come from?" (Often pagans have to force us to identify ourselves.) Jonah answers, with what sounds like staggering smugness, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land" (1:9).
They keep trying, with all strength, courage, ingenuity, to save the ship, themselves, Jonah, but nothing doing. So, at Jonah's bidding, they toss him overboard. Earlier, these men prayed earnestly to their own gods (1:5). But in our last glimpse of them, we see their boat, their faces, blur and darken as the water surges up above Jonah's sinking body. They fear and make sacrifices and vows to Jonah's God, the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. God uses Jonah's disobedience, openly confessed (1:10), as an opportunity to reveal himself to pagan sailors.
God is not interested in our obedience so much for his sake. He can just as well use our disobedience. Obedience is for our own good. But in the end, obedience by itself is not much good. Jonah, under compulsion, finally does the will of God: trudges off to Nineveh, preaches as he's told. He is obedient. But he's more miserable in his obedience than in his disobedience. In the ocean's depths, in the fish's belly, in his disobedience, Jonah feared death and prayed for deliverance (2:7). But under the wilted vine, with Nineveh saved, in his obedience, Jonah longs for death, and prays for God to deal it swiftly and unflinchingly (4:3). "Trust and obey, for there's no other way, to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey." Jonah didn't write that song. Jonah doesn't sing that song. Jonah hates that song.
Is God solely, or mostly, interested in our obedience? No. There is something deeper down than that. Obedience, actually, can harden us to God more than disobedience can. If you doubt it, compare the older son with the younger one in the parable of the prodigal; compare the Pharisees and religious rulers with the tax collectors and prostitutes in the stories about Jesus. Or just look at Jonah. Obedience by itself can make our heart withered and bitter and barren as a husk.
What is God mostly interested in? Strangely, anti-climactically, it has to do with concerns: the objects, the depth, the rightness of, the right to, our concerns—and his. No sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah. But is this sign not also God's extravagant, unbroken concern for both the evil and the complacent, for Ninevites as well as Jonahs, for prostitutes as well as Pharisees, for my enemy as well as for me?
I'm just old enough to remember that at one time, not long ago really, the central task for the faithful preacher of Jonah was to convince hard-bitten, science-bred parishioners that there are fish in the sea big enough to swallow a man whole, and to explicate just exactly how a man could survive intact three days inside such a fish. The main hermeneutic for the book was not theology, but ichthyology—the scientific study of fish. So now let me confess my secret heresy: the fish question is beside the point.
The real puzzle of Jonah—its perpetual source of wonder and doubt—is this: why is God so deeply concerned about, not just Nineveh, but this man Jonah? This sulking, griping, stingy, self-absorbed little man—why him? Why would God pursue him to the ends of the earth, to the bottom of the sea, to the outskirts of Nineveh?
I bought a rhododendron bush two summers ago. I paid $8.99—a cut rate, because it was well past planting season, and the plant's leaves had a blight, a charred brittleness at their edges. But the earth around here is endlessly fertile, and I figured it would do fine. I was right. I planted the rhododendron at the front of my yard, and it flourished. The leaves turned a waxy dark green, and the next spring it flamed bright with pink-red flowers. A burning bush.
I live in a cul-de-sac that's perfect for playing road hockey: flat, wide, little traffic. Teenagers from all over the place descend on the street on summer evenings and have noisy, tussling hockey games. One morning, after the neighborhood teens had been playing road hockey the evening before, I went out to water my rhododendron. I looked down and saw that a large branch from the bush had been broken off, leaving be hind ragged edges. I picked up the branch, and a wave of bitterness and anger came over me. Should I phone the city, I wondered, and have hockey banned on my street? Should I go out when those teenagers return this evening, and scold and threaten them?
"Mark," the Lord seemed to say to me, "do you have any right to be angry?"
But the Lord said, "That's just a cut-rate bush that you neither made nor tended. You merely planted it, and it grew. But these boys are my creation, made in my image. Should I not be concerned about them?"
Should God not be concerned about Nineveh, or New York, or Duncan, British Columbia?
Should he not be concerned about teenagers playing road hockey, breaking bushes?
Should he not be concerned about smug, sullen prophets?
Should he not be concerned about middle-class, middle-aged pastors who stew over broken rhododendrons?
Should he, plain and simple, just not be concerned?
More and more, I see my whole view of God depends on how I answer that.
No sign will be given to you except that of the prophet Jonah.Mark Buchanan is pastor of the New Life Community Baptist Church, Duncan, British Columbia.
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