The Relentless God
Scriptures: Jonah 1-4, selected verses
The Lord called, and I went ... the other direction. Don't get me
wrong. I don't mind preaching to people. I've been a preacher all my life. But I wasn't about to preach to those vile, blood-sucking, no-good pagans from Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, our mortal enemies. Do you know
what the Assyrians did to my people? They marched into our land, burned our crops, tore down our homes, killed our men, raped our women, separated the children from their families, and drove half of our people into refugee camps in other countries. I was not about to bring the word of the Lord to scum like that.
Besides, it wasn't safe. Sending me to Nineveh was like sending a
sheep to the wolves telling them to repent.
Ah, but sometimes the Lord won't take no for an answer. So I decided
it best to get out of town for a while. Nineveh was to the east of Israel, so I set sail on the first ship I could find going west.
It was just my luck that a storm came up. It was calm when we left
the harbor in Joppa, but by the time we hit open water the wind was whipping through the sails, and waves were washing across the deck. The sailors, who were from all over the world, started praying to their different gods. The captain actually woke me up and said, "Start praying." I think he was trying just to cover the religious waterfront. Still, it seemed ironic that a pagan sea captain had to tell me, a clergyman, to pray.
No one's prayers made any difference. The ship began taking on water,
and the sailors decided to draw straws to see who was responsible for the storm. Obviously this was one of their silly pagan superstitions--thinking that a person could be responsible for a storm. Naturally, I refused to participate until the captain pointed a dagger at my throat and said, "Draw."
It was just my luck to get the short straw. The other sailors
gathered in a circle around me. "Look," I said, "you don't think I'm responsible for this storm, do you?" "Not you," one of them said. "But what about your God? What God do you worship?"
"I worship the Lord, the God who made the land and the sea." "Umph," he said. "What did you do?" "Well," I stammered, "if you must know, I'm a preacher whom God tried
to send to Nineveh. But I didn't want to go, so I got on this ship."
The captain looked at me incredulously: "You believe in a God who made
the land and the sea, and you thought you could get away on a boat?!"
I hadn't thought of it that way. "Look," I said, "why don't you just
throw me overboard. I'd rather die in the ocean than die going to Nineveh?"
But they refused. Instead they got on the oars and rowed as hard as
they could to bring me to shore. It was stranger. Pagan sailors, who didn't even believe in God, were risking their lives to save me from him.
They rowed for hours, but it was no use. The ship kept taking on
water, and finally I said, "Look, just throw me overboard. If you don't, we'll all go down anyway."
Reluctantly the captain agreed. Then whole crew got down on their
knees and prayed to the Lord, not to their various pagan gods but to the Lord. Everyone prayed, except me. All I thought about, as they carried me to the edge of the ship, was hoping finally to find peace.
It was just my luck to get scooped up by that fish. I know some of
you have trouble with this part of the story. You find it, shall I say, hard to swallow. Well don't ask me what happened. All I know is that I landed in some foul-smelling chamber with just enough air to say a few prayers. Then I passed out. The next thing I knew I was lying face down on a beach covered with seaweed. Then an old familiar voice spoke to me. It said, "Jonah, go to Nineveh."
"All right," I said, "You win; I'll go." But I never expected to get
past the gate. Since when do the Assyrians open their gates to a Jew? But they did. I walked right in, and spent a whole day walking through the city shouting, "Forty days! That's all you've got! Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown." It felt kind of good to say it.
If you don't believe the fish story, you'll never believe what
happened next. When the king of Assyria heard my preaching, instead of arresting me and cutting off my head, he got down off his throne, took off his royal robes, put on humble beggar clothes, and started praying to the Lord, asking for forgiveness. The whole country started praying to the Lord.
I've never had a sermon work like that. And the sad thing is I didn't
want it to work. I didn't want these Assyrians to be repent and be forgiven. I wanted God to ground them into dust, the way they had done to us.
"It's not fair," I told God. "They rape us, they pillage us, they
slaughter our children, and now you're going to let them off with hardly a slap on the wrist. It's not right!" And for the second time that week I lay down and wished I would die.
I might have, too. The sun beating down on me was hot enough to cause
sunstroke. But then this plant began growing beside me. It grew up and spread its leaves over me to give me shade. I hadn't asked for the plant, any more than I asked for the fish. It was just given to me as gift.
That's when it occurred to me: it wasn't luck that produced that storm
on the sea. It wasn't luck that sent a fish to swallow me up and spit me out on the shore. It wasn't luck that conducted me safely into the heart of an enemy capital and caused its people to repent. Those were the works of a relentless God, a God determined to save the people of Nineveh and me in the process.
"It's not right," I told God. "You expect to take some godless pagans
have spent their whole lives cheating, hurting, and exploiting people-heathen idol-worshipers who have broken promises, betrayed trusts, pursued their selfish ambitions and not given one particle of their money, time or effort to serve you or help other people-you expect to take people like that and offer them forgiveness and love and eternal life, if they will only accept it?!"
It's not fair. It's appalling. It's grace, the same kind of
relentless grace that saved a wayward prophet from drowning in self-pity.