Would you ever say that to God?
God said to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah!”
And Jonah said, “I don’t want to!”
Well, he didn’t exactly SAY that to God – but that’s what he was thinking.
Back in Jonah’s day – this was a LONG time ago, about 800 years before Jesus was born – the greatest city in the world was Ninevah. Everyone had heard of Ninevah. And everyone knew it was an evil place.
So, God had a job for Jonah.
“Jonah,“ God called, “Get up! Go to Ninevah!“
“Tell the people there that I know all about the terrible things they are doing. They think no one can see the evil things they do. But I see!”
But Ninevah was a big, scary place, and Jonah didn’t want to go!
Besides, the Assyrians lived in Ninevah, and the Assyrians were big bullies. They were always beating up on everybody, especially Jonah’s people. They deserved to get in trouble from God.
If Jonah warned the people of Ninevah, they might change their evil ways – and then God might forgive them (God is always forgiving people!) – and then they might get away with all the terrible things they have done.
That wouldn’t be fair!
So, do you know what Jonah did?
He ran away.
Jonah went down to Joppa and jumped on a ship that was sailing for Tarshish. Tarshish was a city in Spain, or maybe it was what we call the whole country of Spain now, I am not entirely sure, but whatever, it was about as far away as a person could go. Jonah thought, “God will never find me there.”
But God knows where every gnat, ant, and bug on the face of the earth is. He knows when a mosquito lands on your nose. He knows where it came from, and where it goes. Of course God would know where Jonah went!
So the ship put out to sea, with Jonah hiding from God below the deck.
But God wasn’t going to let Jonah get off that easy.
Just as the last bit of land disappeared from view, God sent a terrible storm.
Sometimes God has to send storms of one kind or another to bring us back to him. But no matter how terrible the trouble, God’s power is always greater. God is always with us – sometimes in amazing ways.
Jonah was about to learn that.
It was the worst storm the sailors on Jonah’s ship had ever seen. The sky turned black. The winds roared. Rain stung the sailors’ faces. Wave after wave lifted their ship high into the air and sent it crashing down again.
The sailors were terrified!
They were sure their ship would break in two, and so they started grabbing all the stuff they didn’t need and throwing it over the sides to keep from sinking.
Meanwhile, the one thing they really needed to throw over the side was asleep below the deck. It was Jonah.
The captain crawled down under the deck and shook Jonah, “Wake up, man! We are all going to drown! Pray to your God to save us!”
Above the deck, the sailors were fighting the storm with all their might. “Why are the gods so angry with us?” they shouted to each other.
(They were smart enough to know that there was a god who made the earth and the sea and everything in it – but in their time of trouble, they didn’t know who he was. A lot of people are like that.)
“Let’s draw straws,” one of them shouted through the storm, “Maybe this god – whoever he is – will show us who is causing all our trouble.” And so they all scrambled below the deck and got some straws ready.
Jonah drew the shortest straw.
“This is all my fault!” Jonah said.
“My name is Jonah, and I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord God, the God of Abraham, the creator of the earth and the sea and all that there is.”
“What have you done to make your God so angry?” the sailors asked.
“Um… well…. (Jonah didn’t want to have to admit it)… I am running away from God.” Jonah said, and he told then the whole story – well, as best he could, shouting over the raging storm.
“What can we do to save ourselves?” the sailors cried.
“Throw me into the sea and you will be saved,” Jonah said.
Jonah knew it was the only thing they could do. He would have to take his punishment. One person would have to die so that the others could live. Many, many years later Jesus was going to do the very same thing. Only, he took OUR punishment. He died for us, so that we could live with him forever.
But the sailors weren’t willing to throw Jonah into the churning sea. They thought if they tried real hard, they could save themselves without God’s help. And so they rowed with all their might to try to get the ship back to dry land.
But it was no good. The winds just blew all the harder, the rain stung their faces all the more.
Finally, they cried out, “Please, O God of this man Jonah, forgive us for what we are about to do!”
And then the sailors picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea.
At once the winds stopped, the waves rolled away, and the sea became as smooth as glass. Now those sailors knew who the real God is, the God who can calm the seas.
They thanked God for saving their lives, and they vowed to follow him from that day on.
Jonah saved their lives twice that day! He saved them from the storm (well, GOD saved them – Jonah helped), and he saved them from something much worse than that – a life without knowing God.
Meanwhile, Jonah was sinking down into the cold, black waters.
But Jonah couldn’t get away from God THAT easy! Even down in the deep, dark sea, God was with him.
And so God sent Jonah a fish – not a fish sandwich for lunch, but a big fish – and Jonah was the lunch.
The fish swallowed Jonah with one big gulp.
Instead of Jonah catching the fish, the fish caught Jonah. God seems to have a different idea of fishing than we do!
For three days Jonah sat in the dark, wet, smelly belly of that fish. But he was alive! And so Jonah prayed;
“When I was in trouble,
Even from the belly of a fish,
The water swallowed me up,
And then I remembered my God.
I called out to him,
My God saved me!
And so I will give him
For our God saves!”
Then God whispered to the fish, and the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.
That fish was probably glad to get rid of bony old Jonah, making all that noise in his belly.
Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, and stepped out alive again – just like Jesus would spend three days in the belly of the earth, and step out alive. How great and powerful God is!
Then God said to Jonah, “Okay, Jonah, get thee up! Now go to Ninevah!”
This time Jonah went the right way.
Ninevah was a big city. It took three whole days to walk all the way from one side to the other. It had walls all around a hundred feet tall, and so wide three chariots could ride, side by side.
THAT is a big city!
Jonah walked into the center of the city and he shouted out, “In 40 days God is going to destroy this city you think is so great!”
Now, that’s not the kind of thing most people want to hear. And Jonah must have thought that no one would pay much attention to him.
But Jonah was in for a surprise.
The people of Ninevah listened to Jonah. The evil there must have been so bad, that everyone knew they couldn’t go on like that. They needed someone to show them the way out. And Jonah showed it to them. They could turn to their loving God.
And so, from the greatest to the least, they got rid of all their evil things (just like the sailors threw overboard the things that were making them sink when they were in trouble) – and they begged God for his forgiveness.
When the king heard the news of this, he didn’t get angry as you might have expected.
Instead, he tore off his royal robe, and put on an old robe made of the cheap, scratchy stuff they made sacks out of. He took off the robe of a king, and put on the robe of a beggar, to show he understood that God is the real king, and compared to God, he was nothing but a poor beggar.
And then the King made a decree. There would be a fast. No one was to eat or drink, not even the animals of their herds. Everyone was to put on sackcloth, and cover themselves with ashes, to show how dirty they must be in the sight of God.
“Let us call out to God!” The King decreed. “Let us all stop the evil things we have been doing. Let us stop hurting each other, and maybe God will have mercy on us. Maybe he will forgive us, and not destroy our city like we deserve.”
When God saw that they really were turning from the evil way they were living – and that they weren’t just saying it – he had mercy on them.
God decided he would not destroy the city after all.
God saved their lives!
When God first called Jonah, Jonah did the exact opposite of what God asked him to do. But God didn’t give up on him. God used him to accomplish his plan. It was just a little more painful than it had to be!
But now, Jonah was mad.
These people did mean, rotten and nasty things. They were famous for it! They didn’t follow God, and still they had everything they wanted. It wasn’t fair!
“How come they should get off so easy!” Jonah grumbled to himself. Secretly he had been looking forward to watching God really punish them good.
Now God was giving them a second chance.
“I knew this would happen,“ Jonah said to God. “I knew you would let them off the hook!”
I guess Jonah forgot just WHO got let off the hook in the first place.
“I knew it!” Jonah said to God. “I knew that you are full of everlasting love, and that you are always ready to forgive and to hold back from punishing.”
So Jonah walked to the edge of the city and sat down to pout. Maybe the city would go up in a ball of fire anyway. That is what he was hoping to see.
Now, the sun was burning down on Jonah. Sweat was rolling down his face and stinging his eyes.
So God made a bush grow up next to where Jonah was pouting, to shade him from the sun.
Jonah was thankful for the bush and the comfort of the shade.
But the next morning, God sent a worm to eat the roots of the bush. The bush withered and died. When the sun came up, God sent a scorching eastern wind, heated by the desert. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head until Jonah nearly fainted.
Jonah cried out to God (well, whined, more likely!) “Why don’t you just take my life now, and save me from this misery!”
Poor Jonah. He was having such a rough time!
“Jonah, Jonah, Jonah!” God said to him. “Do you think I have stopped loving and caring for you? I could never do that!
“You are so upset because I let a little bush die – but you want me to destroy the whole city of Ninevah! Aren’t all these people worth far, far more than a little weed?
“Didn’t I forgive you, even though you tried to run away from me? I love you so much!
“Even though these people didn’t know me, and they sinned against me, I love them as much as I love you.”
And then at last, Jonah understood that God truly is slow to anger, and always willing to forgive us when we turn to him.
Now he knew that our wonderful God truly is tenderhearted and forgiving, and overflowing with a love for us that will never end.