The God of Second Chances #2 (Jonah Sermon #2)
The God of Second Chances: Jonah Sermon #2
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 8, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
Last week, we launched our four-part sermon series on Jonah. We are hoping to highlight the story of the God of Second Chances as we spend time in Jonah over the several weeks.
Jonah, a successful and well-liked prophet in Israel during the reign of the evil King Jeroboam II. He was a political insider, having successfully prophesied that God would grant Israel military power, expansion, and growth, — favor from God in spite of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the Law and to trust God.
Having received a prophetic message to preach against the wickedness and sinfulness of the Assyrian Empire, Jonah decides instead to flee from God by hopping a ship to Tarshish, clear on the other side of the world.
Jonah Wants Retribution
Jonah flees because he believes that God is unjust. If Nineveh is evil, it should be destroyed. What’s the point of delivering the message in person, except for giving the Ninevites a chance to repent? Did you happen to notice that the original prophetic message doesn’t include a call to repentance for Nineveh? It’s just a prophetic judgement against their wickedness and evil.
Jonah may very well be happy to go to Nineveh to preach against it, to announce their impending destruction, but Jonah had no interest in creating space for Nineveh to repent. How did Jonah know that God would forgive Nineveh if it repented, because all Jonah had to do was look around. He was a prophet in Israel during the rule of an evil king, and God was still blessing Israel in spite of its sin, so it didn’t take much for Jonah to assume that the same mercy and compassion could be extended to Nineveh. We will hear Jonah in his own words later in Chapter 4, when he says,
“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1-3)
Jonah didn’t want repentance in Nineveh. He wanted Nineveh destroyed! Anything less posed an existential threat to Jonah and his people, Israel. It’s clear to me from Jonah’s actions that Jonah’s allegiance was with Israel, not with God. I would invite us to try to enter into the story from Jonah’s point of view. As someone who was under the foot of empire, Jonah knew that there was only one way to escape the advance of the empire: it had to be dismantled, it had to be destroyed. The social, political, and economic structures of empire has two goals – expansion and destruction. If the Assyrian Empire wasn’t going to be destroyed by God, then Jonah realized that Nineveh would eventually destroy anything in its path as it expanded.
As we enter the story from this point of view, Tarshish starts to make more and more sense, if Jonah’s goal is to try to thwart God’s mercy and compassion, then you can see why he wants to travel to the other side of the world. If it takes a year to travel from Joppa to Tarshish, and Jonah had a change of heart along the way, it would take another year to return. That’s two years! A lot could happen in two years. Meanwhile, there’s no prophet available to go to Nineveh to warn them! God would have to follow through on his promise and destroy Nineveh. Since Jonah’s allegiance is with Israel, his fleeing feels hopeful to me. His departure for Tarshish buys Israel much needed time.
Running Away, More than Just a Little Rebellion
Let’s return to Jonah 1 starting to read at verse 4,
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish. (Jonah 1:4-6)
More than just rebelling, Jonah fleeing to Tarshish was an active form of willful disobedience. In resisting God, Jonah is hoping to change things. As we have studied Jonah, we have been lulled into believing that Jonah flees for self-protection. Nineveh was the enemy, Jonah flees because he fears for his life delivering a message of judgement. I see it differently, Jonah’s fleeing as a kind of civil disobedience. It’s like the suffering of the protestors who sat in defiance of the law at segregated lunch counters in the South. The protestors were willing to endure verbal and physical abuse, having their food dumped on them, the beatings, the arrests, the threats and promise of death because they believed that their suffering could be used to convict the South and ultimately the entire nation (with the help of TV cameras) of the immorality of the laws of segregation.
Jonah has one goal in mind, he wants Israel to survive. Maybe by running, God will change his mind. Maybe God will find another prophet to deliver the message. Maybe God will just give up. Maybe God will destroy Nineveh like he said he would.
Conflicted, Too Mad to Pray
Did you notice that in verse 6 that Jonah refuses to pray to his god?
The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:6)
The captain of the ship begs the sailors to cry out to their gods for help, Jonah refuses. Did you notice that? Jonah refuses because he is having an internal crisis, he’s arguing with God about God’s mercy and compassion. How could he pray for help when he knows that he’s the cause of the storm. It would be disingenuous.
Jonah is stuck.
Watch what happens next...
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:11-12)
As the winds and waves pick up and continue to threaten the ship and sailors, Jonah knows what’s going on. God isn’t on board with Jonah’s plan to disrupt his mercy and compassion. Jonah knows full well what will stop the threatening storm. Him.God is threatening these sailors and their ship because of Jonah. Jonah does a quick calculation, He recognizes God’s power, he just resents his own powerlessness. “These sailors are innocent. If I’m no longer on this ship, the storm will pass.” As I said last week, Jonah would rather die than do what God has asked him to do. It also seems that Jonah will rather die than repent.
When Jonah asks the sailors to toss him in the sea, he’s hoping that this will save the sailors and that it will continue his plan to disrupt God’s mercy and compassion for Nineveh. Jonah will be dead. No prophet, no message. No message, no repentance. I don’t believe Jonah thought he would be rescued by God. It’s interesting to me that the sailors find Jonah blameless. He is innocent in their eyes, so they are reluctant to do what Jonah says and kill him.
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. (Jonah 1:13)
Remember ancients saw the sea as the place of evil and chaos. Powerful and mysterious, the sea was completely outside of human control. As the storm surged around Jonah and the sailors, they were left with very few choices, they either needed a miracle or an offering. Many ancients believed that monsters, gods, or other forces of evil made their dwelling in the sea, so maybe an offering would appease the gods that lurked just below the surface. Determined to do what they reasoned to be right, they tried to use their strength to get to back to dry land, safety, stability. Yet as they turned to their strength they discovered what every great army, every people group inhabiting a coastline already know – the sea was too powerful, too mysterious to be controlled. Having already prayed to their gods, and imploring Jonah to do the same, they were out of options.
But they could not [row back], for the sea grew even wilder than before. (Jonah 1:13)
The End of the Story?
The sailors didn’t want to die and they didn’t want to kill anyone either. They didn’t want to be in the middle of this disagreement between God and Jonah, since Jonah refused to pray to his God, they washed their hands of him, picked him up and threw him overboard.
Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”
Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 14-17)
The story should have ended right there. Jonah would have died. Presumably, the sailors would have continued their journey to Tarshish, delivered their cargo, and enjoyed a night on the town drinking and retelling the story of the guy they had throw overboard. It’s also likely that Nineveh would have been destroyed.
The God of Second Chances
Jonah should have died. Right here is why I think the story of Jonah is the story of the God of second chances. Jonah should have died, but according to Moses, God is
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)
Let’s continue in Jonah:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)
I believe that Jonah had no idea that God had purposed a large fish to rescue him. Some of us have been taught that Jonah’s faith was so strong that he trusted that God would provide another way for him. He was confident that he could be tossed into the sea and rescued by God. I’ve struggled with the tradition way we see the role of the whale in this story. If Jonah wanted to stop the storm, if he wanted to reverse his fortunes, all he had to do was repent. Repenting for Jonah also meant that he had to accept God’s mercy and compassion not only for himself, but more importantly, for his enemies too.
Yet Jonah doesn’t repent.
It’s striking to me that at no time in this story does Jonah repent.
He doesn’t repent on the ship.
He doesn’t repent in the whale.
He doesn’t repent in Nineveh.
Jonah doesn’t repent at all.
In telling the sailors to toss him overboard, I believe Jonah was content to die. He would rather die than repent. Friends, that’s how deep his anger and disappointment towards his enemies and his God was.
The whale is sent not to punish him, but to create space and give Jonah another chance.
Let me push in here for a moment, while Jonah was rescued from drowning, he wasn’t free. He was sorta trapped in a state of limbo, but since limbo has it’s own special meaning, let’s consider Jonah’s time in the whale, a time-out of sorts. He spends three days and three nights in this whale. Lots of time. Time to consider the extent of his situation, just how he got here. Time to sit with his frustration. Time to sit with his suffering. Time to sit with his pain and disappointment. Time for gratitude to emerge, and that’s exactly what we see in Chapter 2.
STORY: Shortly after reaching the age of consent, I decided it was time to move out of my mom’s house. This was really difficult decision that I didn’t enter into lightly. I prayed about it, I sought counsel about it, and agonized over it. I believed that my decision to leave was the best decision for me. At 16, I wasn’t really concerned about how my decision would impact others. I just knew that I couldn’t maintain the status quo, something in my life had to change. Looking back, I see now that I was hurt, disappointed, and angry, all of which turned into bitterness. Friends, bitterness binds us. If we cling to it, it will trap us, forever keeping us in a cycle of brokenness and disappointment. Bitterness can prevent us from reaching out to God, it can prevent us from fully being ourselves. It robs us, and those around us. It took some time, but I finally realized that I couldn’t move forward until I was willing to reconcile with my mom. It wasn’t an easy road, it isn’t easy now, but just like being vomited on dry land, it’s a start towards a new beginning.
In offering his prayer of thanksgiving, Jonah expresses gratitude. For Jonah it can be a way of breaking the power of his disappointment and his hurt.
However, we should be careful not to interpret Jonah’s prayer as some kind of key that unlocks his time-out. As if Jonah is a wayward child, who at the end of his time-out is asked by God, “Are you ready to say you’re sorry, and do what I’ve asked?”
When Jonah arrives in Nineveh, he is still mad, he doesn’t want to be there, and he’s certainly not repentant for fleeing from God. But here’s there. A first step, among many.
I see Jonah’s willingness to die as a sort of sacrifice offered to God that God rejects.
Twice Jonah mentions God’s holy temple. What’s Jonah getting at here? Is this a metaphor for the God’s divine presence? Or is he referencing the temple in Jerusalem? Are we witnessing a shift in Jonah’s posture? Is he no longer interested in dying, a signaling that he’s hoping to survive this time in the whale and live on? It reminds me of what happens with King Saul of Israel, when God rejects him as king.
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)
Even the best of us, would sometimes prefer to sacrifice than to obey. King Saul refused to obey and was rejected by God as king.
Jonah, he gets a second chance.
Friends, I love this story.
Considering Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving in the whale, where are you experiencing gratitude? It’s easy to focus everything that is going wrong, the suffering, pain, and disappointment we experience daily, yet are we welcoming gratitude to help us live in a world that isn’t as it should be?