I have never given this sermon from a pulpit. I wrote it while I was working with Mike Glenn at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee one summer. Mike was preaching on the minor prophets in a series called Truth in a Minor Key for a few months and I was helping do research for it. One day, we were sitting in his office talking about Jonah. It was the next sermon he was preparing for. He asked me plainly: how would I preach this sermon? We talked about it for a minute, and then the next day I came in with this text.
Jonah is one of my favorite parts of the Old Testament. I think the character of God shines through so profoundly here that in the brightness we sometimes miss the point. This sermon is how I would preach on Jonah, but it is also how I respond to the question, “Did Jonah really happen?” or “Is it literal?” or “Did a fish really swallow Jonah?” I think all of those questions miss what the book is trying to say. Read more to see why.
I wrote this in 2011, but I did not feel the need to change too much for the reposting. Any changes are indicated in a blue gray italics.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God made humanity and we mess up, mess up, and mess up. We run away, run about, and run to anything but God, enslaving ourselves to all manner of things.
In the beginning, God called a man, a man named Abram. He changed his name to Abraham and called his wife Sarah and he told them they would have as many children as there were stars. As many as there are stars, as many as there are hairs on your head, as many as there are grains of sand on the seashore, that many children he said they would have.
Then, God lived with these people, these people who passed down the promise from generation to generation. God lived with them while they were prosperous and when they found themselves enslaved. They cried out to God and God heard their cry. God called a man, a man named Moses and he led them out of Egypt, where they had been slaves.
But God did not make them kings. Instead, God led them in the wilderness to prepare them for what was to come. Instead, they wandered for forty years, hoping for a land that wasn’t here yet. Moses died, their generation died, and the promise was passed on to another generation yet again. And this generation was led by a man, a man named Joshua, a man named Yeshua.
Things went well for a time, but not for long. The people were not a content people, and soon Joshua died. And they became possessed with the idea that the promise — the promise that they would be as many as the stars in the sky — that the promise would be fulfilled by the possession of land and cities. So they conquered and fought, and the days were dark, dark and bloody.
These violent days dragged on and on, and the people forgot that they were not kings. They forgot that their king was God. They looked at their neighbors and saw that they all had kings, and told God they wanted their own. So their King gave them a king, just like they wanted. And they had Saul, but Saul could not be king.
Saul was gripped with violence and anger, and they needed a new king. So, David became king of the nation called Israel. David became king and they thought all was well. But David became king, killed a man, and took his wife. He had sons who killed sons, sons who raped sisters. The kingdom begins to fall apart. And a son by the wife he stole becomes king.
But even the wisest man on earth did not understand that promise, that promise that they would number like the stars. He tried to take on all the knowledge of the world, not just the knowledge, but all the things of the earth. Solomon sat on great wealth and took many wives, but his great crime was taking many gods. And then the nation was torn in two.
In the North there was Israel and in the South there was Judah. And they hated — hated — each other. Brother hated brother, sister hated sister, father hated son, and mother hated daughter. The arrogance of one nation became two and they thought the promise had to do with borders, with race, with land, with ethnicity, with religion. They did not understand that the promise had nothing to do with them but everything to do with God.
And that is where our story picks up. We don’t know really anything about Jonah. He is mentioned in passing elsewhere, but it is in this little tale that he tells us the most. Now, Jonah was from the North, from the Kingdom of Israel. You all know the story now. God calls a man, a man named Jonah. He tells him to go preach to the people Nineveh.
Jonah does not want to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the empire of the hated — hated — enemy. It was the epicenter of debauchery and idolatry and all that a good Israelite hated. Jonah hated Assyria. So he tried to run away.
He got on a boat, sailed on a sea. But you can’t run away from God. He tried to run but got swallowed by a fish. Three days later, he gets spit out on the shore … the shores of Assyria. Nineveh is not too far, and God calls a man, a man named Jonah. God tells him to preach to Nineveh.
Jonah does it, he does it with hatred in his heart, Jonah preaches to Nineveh. He preaches to the people he hates, tells them how to avoid destruction, tells his enemies how much God loves … them. And they repent! The Ninevites repent! The king issues a proclamation and the whole nation and all its animals are put in sackcloth and ashes to weep at their destruction. They thought it was the end, and they knew they were wrong. They were sorry, they repented.
Jonah huffed and puffed, mad as hell. And that brings us to our passage: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country?’” My own country? What does he mean? He means that these people are not his people, that he did not have to leave his people for … them.
“That is why I fled to Tarshish 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.” I know, he says, you are merciful, loving, kind, embracing … to us. But, no, God not to them. You can give grace, mercy, plenty, and love as much as you please … as long as it is to us. But not to … them.
So Jonah gets angrier and angrier, “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” It is better for me to die than to see them loved. It is better for me to die than to see them accepted. It is better for me to die than to have to love them too.
“And the LORD said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’” Is it right for you to be angry because Ilove them too? Is it right for you to be angry because I love them? Can I not love whom I love, have mercy on whom I have mercy? Can I not love them, every one? Can I not count all the stars?
“Then Jonah when out of the city and sat down eat of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.”
Even though, Jonah, even though you don’t want me to love whom I love, I will still love you. I will protect and provide for you, because I love you. But I love you enough, and I love them enough, that I need to teach you a lesson.
“But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’” Angry enough to die. I am angry enough that you could love this much. I am angry enough that you could love the enemy. If you’re going to love them I might as well die. Just kill me now.
“Then the LORD said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” One. Hundred. And. Twenty. Thousand.
Let it hang in the air for a moment. 120,000 people. Take all the people in this building and double it, double it again, and again, and again. You’re still not there. 120,000. 120,000 people God just can’t love. He couldn’t. They’re the enemy. God can’t love them! If God loves them, then … well … he’s not a patriot. If God loves them, he doesn’t support our troops. If God loves them, he doesn’t love us.
You see, Jonah wasn’t written when Jonah was alive. There were kings, kings of the North and kings of the South, of Israel and of Judah. But they were not the only kings. There were other kings, kings of Egypt, of Babylon, of Persia … of Assyria. And the time came when Israel got in the way of some other kings.
You see, over seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Assyria came and decimated Israel. They swept in from the North in deadly chariots with weapons the Israelites had never seen. They came bearing the banner of their gods and their country and wiped out Israel. And Israel was never seen again. The tribes of the North were lost to history because the Assyrians killed them. They wiped them out.
Assyria was the enemy. Jonah was written when people were starting to come back to Palestine. It was written when people started to rebuild. Folklore boiled down from song, put into a book, Jonah tells the story of Israel. Israel, who did not believe that anyone but they were the children of God. Israel, who thought that to count the stars did not stretch much farther from Samaria, nowhere beyond their borders.
To the new Israelites who came to rebuild, to the new Israelites who wanted nothing to do with anyone not from their land, that is to whom this story is addressed. God says, I love them, too. It’s disgusting, revolting, despicable, they say, that God could love them. They killed us, they attacked us, drove us out of our land! They took our homes, our money, our jobs, our lives, God cannot possibly love them. They exaggerated and distorted, made a mockery of the objects of their hate, and said “God could not possibly love them.”
But God says, “Yes.” God says, “Yes, I love them and I count them among the stars in the sky. I love them just like I love you. Should I not care about them, too? I made them just like I made … you.”
Again, Israel doesn’t listen. Again, the people don’t heed these words. They start to hate again, brother hating brother, sister hating sister, father hating son, mother hating daughter. They hate the Romans, they hate each other. They hate the Romans because they have power, they hate each other because they can’t agree on how to worship, how to pray, how to even bathe. So they, hate, hate, hate.
But God loves, loves, loves.
So God called a man, a man named Jesus, a man named Yeshua. And this man was not man, but this man was God. God broke into our world, snapped history wide open. God came down and came to say, “I. Love. You.” You and you and you and you and you. No matter who you are, I can count you among the stars.
God said to Abraham that his descendents should be as numerous as the stars, but no one ever understood. There is always a them, a them that can’t be counted. They can’t be loved. They are beyond it, they are too broken, too far gone, too evil. They are the enemy. You know who they are, don’t you? You name them, no one else does.
They might be in the heart of Israel, our brothers and sisters who live and die in violence and oppression in Palestine because we don’t love them. They might be in the soul of Kabul, our brothers and sisters live and die under injustice and unrighteousness because we don’t love them. They might be in the very gut of Mexico, our brothers and sisters who live and die in poverty and pain because we don’t love them. They might be down the street or just next door, our brothers and sisters who live and die on food stamps and welfare because we don’t love them. They may live down the hall, our brothers and sisters who feel alienated and alone because we don’t love them.
But you know what? God loves them. God loves them enough and he says, “You call my people them, but I count them among the stars.” “Do not dare call unclean what I have called clean.” “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, all are one …”
In Christ Jesus.
You see, people get wrapped up a lot in whether Jonah happened or not. I think the answer is pretty obvious. Look around. Look around the world and down the street. Jonah didn’t happen. Jonah didn’t preach in Nineveh. And when Jonah preaches in Nineveh, he preaches with hatred in his heart, and that’s not preaching. That’s called hate-speech. Jonah didn’t preach in Nineveh, the author says by not saying, and Israel did not go to Assyria, so Assyria went to Israel. And they did not come with words, but they came with the pain, violence, and destruction that was all they could ever hope to know.
Because Jonah didn’t preach in Nineveh.
But there is good news. Jesus preaches in Nineveh. Jesus preaches in Palestine. Jesus preaches in Mexico. Jesus preaches in Tennessee. Jesus preaches in Brentwood. Jesus preaches down the street, down the hall. Jesus preaches. Why? Because we may hate, hate, and hate, but Jesus loves, loves, loves. He loves you so much, he came to die. He loves them so much, he came to die. He loves us all so much, he died and rose again.