Jonah's Advice on Living the Great Commission: A sermon based on Jonah 1
When I last preached, two weeks ago, we looked at the Great Commission, Jesus’ final words in Gospel of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” That Sunday, we put these words of Jesus in conversation with the book of Exodus. Now, over the next four weeks we will be doing a similar thing, except with the book of Jonah. We’ll place each chapter of the book of Jonah in conversation with each line from the Great Commission. Today, we’re going to look at the first line of the Great Commission in dialogue with first chapter of Jonah. I think that both the first line of the Great Commission, and the first chapter of Jonah (as well as the book as a whole), have something to tell us about what it means to be God’s elect.
Talking about God’s elect is a big deal in Reformed circles. John Piper defines unconditional election as “God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy.” This definition of what it means to be God’s elect has mostly to do with who God chooses to save. And while I agree that God is entirely responsible for our salvation, I don’t believe Piper’s definition of election why God elects a certain people. Think of the federal election. If someone is elected as a member of parliament, that doesn’t just mean that they get to go to Ottawa after the election, although that’s part of it. A person is elected in order to do a particular task. Often, when we think of God’s election, we think that if a person is one of God’s elect, it just means that they’re going to heaven when they die. But that’s not what the Bible means when it speaks of God’s people as being elect. God elects his people for a particular task. God’s Elect people have a job to do, its to bring everyone else back into relationship with God. To understand this more fully, we need to go back to the book of Genesis.
The story of Adam and Eve, the parents of all humanity, is the story of how all of humanity got off track and needed rescuing. When Adam and Eve were in the garden they encountered the serpent. The serpent sowed seeds of doubt in Adam and Eve, suggesting that they couldn’t trust God. The serpent said, “For God knows that when you eat of the fruit, your eyes will be open, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” What the serpent did is suggest that God did not have His best in store for Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve believed the serpent, and something fundamentally became warped in our human DNA, so that all subsequent human beings were infected with a deep soul suspicion of God. We call this sin. You can read about its effects in any newspaper, when you see the degradation of the planet, our fellow human beings, idolatrous religions. Everything that is wrong with this world is the fruit of that predisposition not to trust God. Because of sin, humanity needs rescuing.
That’s where election comes in. God came and elected, or chose, one person out of all humanity. He didn’t elect this one person to be saved, and leave everyone else behind. No, rather, he elected this person and his descendants for a particular job. Let’s listen to God’s first words to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” That’s the election of Abraham. Abraham was elected, or chosen by God in order to be a blessing to the nations. To convey that this is a sure thing, God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising Abraham that this will indeed be so. Abraham’s family will be made into a great nation in order to be a blessing to the nations. God reiterates this calling again and again throughout Abraham’s life, promising that this will be so. Abraham’s family was chosen to bring all humanity back into relationship with God. That’s what it means for Abraham’s family to be a blessing to the nations. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of how this plays out.
But as you keep reading the rest of the Old Testament, a distrurbing reality begins to emerge. The elect people of God, the people are supposed to call the nations back into relationship with God, these people are afflicted with the same sin as everyone else.
God saw that the nations were in need of rescue, so he chose Abraham’s descendants, Israel, to be the way he rescued the world. But it turns out that Israel was also in need of rescue! Its like Abraham’s children were on the fire truck sent to rescue the world, but when the fire truck left the station, they went in the wrong direction, drove off a cliff and fell into the sea. The rescue operation needs rescuing!
That’s the picture of the book of Jonah. God’s first words to Jonah is the same as his first word to Abraham. God’s first word instructed Abraham to go from his place, for he had a special task, to be a blessing to the nations. God’s first word to Jonah was also “Go”, followed by specific instructions for carrying out Abraham’s task of bless the nations. God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah, the Capital city of Ancient Assyria, the nation that later entirely destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and seriously threatened the southern kingdom of Judah. But around a century before that catastrophe would happen, God sent Jonah to Assyria saying that their wickedness has come God, and trouble awaits them if they didn’t change their ways. Jonah was sent to be a smoke alarm. His job was to make people aware of the trouble they were in by communicating God’s message: “Announce judgement against its people because their wickedness has come to my attention. So Jonah was sent to be a smoke alarm, giving the warning, “Look out, the direction you are heading is destined for disaster!” So, Jonah goes immediately, but heads in the opposite direction of Nineveh. The fire truck has left the station, but its heading in the opposite direction of the fire. Then Jonah hops on board a ship that takes him about as far away from Nineveh as its possible to go. Jonah represents God’s elect people running from the task that God elected them to do.
So Jonah is on the ship, thinking he’s running away from God. But that is certainly easier said than done. God hurls a powerful wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arises that the ship’s in danger of breaking apart. Terrified, each sailor cried to their own god, continuing in the idolatry that Jonah was supposed to warn them against. Instead, Jonah is in the hold below the deck, deep asleep. The ships captain approaches, bewildered that Jonah could be sleeping, and tells Jonah to cry out to his God. The captain begs Jonah to do the very thing that Jonah was elected to tell the nations. Cry out to the one try God! The storm keeps raging, and the crew desperately cast lots to find out who can tell them why they’re in such dire straights. The lot falls to Jonah, and they ask him “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us?” But look at the next line on the slide, remember that Jonah was sent to Ninevah to warn them that their evil had come before the Lord? Well now Jonah is guilty of the same evil that he was sent to rescue the pagans from! The rescue operation needs rescuing. The fire truck is on fire and is careening out of control. All of humanity is in the same boat. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In short, we all need rescuing.
So, Jonah tells the crew that he’s a Hebrew, he worships the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. Jonah also tells them that he’s running away from the Lord, and at this all the sailers are terrified. “What should we do!” In the story of Jonah, we see a picture of the plight of humanity. All have sinned and rebelled against the God of heaven. The rescue operation needs rescuing and everyone is in danger of sinking together. The judgment of God is storming against humanity, and the ship is threatening to break up. The Gentiles cry out what can we do? Jonah cries out, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you!” The sailers resisted this dire option as long as possible, but when it looked as though they have no other choice, they begin to pray to the one true God: “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” And Jonah is thrown into the sea, a great calm comes over the waters, and the sailers feared the LORD even more, they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. Somehow, in spite of the fire truck going in the wrong direction, careening out of control into the sea, God’s elect somehow able to accomplish the job they were elected to do: foreign nations were brought to worship the one true God.
But that’s just one ship. What about the ship of humanity? Reading Jonah, begs the question, “What if God’s elect people, like Jonah, continue to neglect their job of bringing the rest of the world back into relationship with God? What if the fire truck that God sent to rescue humanity continues to be careen out of control and on fire, and plunges over the cliff, leaving the rest of the nations at risk of being engulfed by flames?” How will God remain true to His promise to rescue the nations through his elect, the children of Abraham?
That is the question that God sent Jesus to answer. It was as though God enlarged for Jesus his commission to Jonah, and said, “Go at once to the World, my beloved World, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” And Jesus, who was embodying all of the elect, did not go in the opposite direction, he did not go careening out of control, plunging off the cliff into the heart of the sea. Jesus came to do the job of God’s chosen people once and for all. Jesus came and announced God’s salvation to those near and far away. Jesus came to address the problem of the evil that was afflicting all of humanity: the evil that resides in all of our heart, both Jew and Gentile. In Jesus, God came and stepped into the boat of our humanity, as the storm of Judgment threatened to break the us apart. Jesus came and took all that judgment on himself, and was thrown overboard into heart of the sea. Jesus came and took on Himself all the wrath that was destined to destroy the ship. He condemned sin in the flesh, so that we might become like those on Jonah’s boat, we might join the ranks of those who worship the living God. The problem of sin, the sin that derailed humanity, was dealt with by Jesus on the cross. When we confess Jesus as Lord, when we believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, we find that His power silences the winds of judgement, and we can rest in peace with God.
And then Jesus gives us, his chosen people, a job to do. In the great commission, Jesus says to us the same Word that God said to Abraham and all the prophets. In the Great Commission, we hear Jesus say to us the same Word that God Says to Jonah. In the Great Commission we hear Jesus say to us the same Word that he has said to all His Elect: “Go!” Jesus says to us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” And he blesses us with the power of His Spirit, so that we don’t become like Jonah, running in the opposite direction away from God. Jesus blesses us with the power of His Holy Spirit, so that we can go out into the world and live, announce and embody His message that God loves this world, and is drawing his children to Himself. That is what it means to be elect. It means that we have a job to do, and our job is to convey to the world the never ending, unconditional love of God.