"Half-Hearted Yes" on Jonah 3 by Joe Ellis - Nov. 19, 2023
You are going to notice a playful tone to this sermon. This is super intentional because there is a sort of playful humour that runs throughout the whole book of Jonah. It’s especially here in chapter 3. The gift of the book of Jonah is that it shows how the playful, funny side of God can come alongside His deep heart for Justice (after all, He did want the violence in Nineveh to stop at once); and it shows us how his playful, funny side comes alongside our own total reluctance to do what He says. It also shows us how his playful, funny side comes alongside us in a deeply, compassionate way when we’re feeling down, angry and discouraged. The Book of Jonah is a very good antidote to those of us who think that the matters of Father, Son and Holy Spirit must be handled with deepest and utmost seriousness. God is serious, but He is also playful and caring. He gets that we’re imperfect disciples, and sometimes He’ll have a little fun with that.
Now let’s turn our attention to chapter 3, and start by noticing a few things that are absolutely wonderful, which would be a shame to miss. Since the beginning of the book, Jonah has been ignoring God, even though Jonah is a prophet. (Well, that’s an understatement! He has been ignoring God as he’s been running away from God). But now, notice Jonah’s finally giving God some attention, and doing what God has asked! Jonah goes to Nineveh. Let’s give Jonah credit, because Nineveh is so repulsive to him. Nineveh is a city in the Nation of Assyria, a nation which has been so brutally violent and oppressive to people that are not Assyrians. Finally, Jonah plugs his nose and hikes to Nineveh where he preaches the most half-hearted sermon that’s ever been preached. Jonah does not like these people. In fact, Jonah despises these people. Jonah is really hoping that nobody in Nineveh will pay any attention to his terribly lame sermon. Jonah wants to be ignored, because if Jonah is ignored, then he gets to have a front row seat to watch God destroy that wretched city — and won’t that be fun!: “Sodom and Gomorrah Part II.” Listen to Jonah’s sermon: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. Jonah doesn’t even mention God’s name — how is any Ninevite supposed to know what to do with this bizarre sermon? If I were a Ninevite, I would probably cross to the other side of the street and keep on going. But somehow, miraculously, the people of Nineveh are touched to their core! Somehow, despite Jonah’s worst efforts, they understand that it is YHWH who is going to overthrow Nineveh because they have been acting so wickedly. Jonah’s terrible sermon spreads faster than fire on a prairie. The king even hears about Jonah’s lousy sermon — (and this is my favourite part, maybe of the whole book): not only does the king put on sackcloth, not only does he command every human in the city to put on sackcloth, but he also commands all the cattle and sheep to wear sackcloth as well, which is ridiculous! Not only does the king command all his people to fast, but he commands the cattle and sheep to fast along with them! “Don’t you dare let your donkey break his fast, even if you hear him crying in the sad ways that hungry donkeys tend to cry.” The Book of Jonah reads, delightfully, almost like a cartoon.
The author is having far too much fun telling this story, and that’s because the author is wanting everyone to hear his point loud and clear. This is the point: Jonah is meant to be the embodiment of the people of Israel at that time. Jonah is meant to represent the fact that the whole Nation of Israel has utterly missed the boat on their calling. God had set Israel apart to be a light to the nations. He called them to proclaim the goodness, kindness and supremacy of the Lord, their God, — Israel was to witness to God’s goodness, and justice and mercy and invite the world into this relationship. They were to be a witness of this even to the most hated nations like Assyria. Jonah represents the nation of Israel at the time, who had no desire to live into the invitation that God set out for them — or they accepted the invitation to be a light to the nations with the eye-rolling, half-heartedness that Jonah is showing off in this chapter.
So, the Jonah story is a rebuke to the nation of Israel for not living into their calling of being a witness to the nations, but that’s not the main point. The main point is that even if Israel is unfaithful to its calling to be a light to the nations, YHWH will not be unfaithful to those nations! YHWH will reveal His glory to the nations even if His messengers are terribly unworthy and run away from the task. That is the whole point of Romans chapter 3:2-4a where Paul says, “The Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar.” No, God became human out of faithfulness not only to the Jews (Jesus took on the job of fulfilling the task of the Jews), but God is also showing His faithfulness to the whole human race. Since God so loved the World that He sent His one and Only begotten Son to die for us. The larger than life response of Nineveh, with all their sackcloth and fasting, is a preview of the Pentecost type of love of God for all nations that He poured out with His Holy Spirit. The repentance of the king, his people, and even their animals, is certainly not a response to the soul stirring preaching of Jonah, or his brilliant missionary strategy, or his austere devotional life. The powerful response of Nineveh is due solely to Father, Son and Holy Spirit’s love for them.
Now let’s notice something — Jonah’s story, as well as the rest of Scripture, remind us that God is faithful to people that we regard as strangers, likely strangers that we don’t particularly like. So, after God caused Jonah to be vomited out by a fish, God sent Jonah to unlikable strangers. God sent Jonah to witness to those who were not lat all ike Jonah; to strangers who were also his enemy; to strangers who also spoke another language; to strangers who lived in another culture. Jonah wanted nothing to do with those sorts of people.
Do you ever feel like Jonah? Sure we do. God sends Jonah with a message to a stranger that’s not super appealing, and he declines the invitation with a murmured, ‘No thanks’. I look in the mirror and see Jonah often. Yet the lovely power of The Book of Jonah is that it expands the imagination of what is actually possible. We really need to let the book work on us.
Consider this story happening in your life. Maybe the stranger is not across the sea. Maybe the stranger is actually your literal next door neighbour, and you run into him while taking out your garbage. This isn’t a neighbour you sort of like. This is the neighbour you hope will move. You talk for a little while, you have Jonah’s story in mind, and you mumble, “Forty more days and your life is destroyed.” — No, we’re New Testament people, so more likely you will mumble, “Jesus loves you.” And, if the God of Jonah is at work, you might see a change come over your neighbour’s face. Maybe you see a moisture in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Maybe you hear him garble, “Well I better be going” as he hurries back inside. That afternoon you notice he and his dog are wearing sackcloth on their walks. His cat kept you up at night, because she’s fasting as well and is letting the whole world know about her owner’s change of heart. You start asking, ‘What did I do?’
And here again is what the story of Jonah drives home: you didn’t really do anything. But God does like to partner with us on His missions, regardless of what shabby missionaries we turn out to be. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the chief missionaries.
A few days ago I was thinking about this — that it is how the Lord’s faithfulness will bring people to come to know Him. I was thinking about how little we actually bring to the table, and I was happy because I could trust that Jesus would steadfastly spread His love to people who don’t know Him (despite me). He is the one who convinces kings to have their sheep join them in wearing sackcloth. That’s not my work. So, I was trusting that if He wants to birth something new in this church, it would be His work, not mine.
Then, that morning as I was driving the kids to school I went past the bus stop and I saw someone standing there who wasn’t very much like me. Later that day, God brought that person to mind again, and I think He asked me in a Book of Jonah sort of way, “Hey Joe, I’ve brought your friend at the bus stop to church a handful of times. Did you notice? How many times have you had coffee with him? Joe, if I bring people to your community, will someone give them the time of day? How will others rearrange their lives to welcome them into our life?” That was a very playful, Jonah sort of rebuke.
That’s the tension that the book of Jonah does not let us wiggle away from. On the one hand, this is God’s story from start to finish. On the other hand, He wants us all to play an active role in His story. He will not let us squirm out of it. And the honesty of Jonah is that we might very well feel like squirming out of the story, because God very often calls us to people who aren’t like us. Why? Because that’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
The letter of Ephesians 2:14-16 couldn’t really spell it out any more clearly: “Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile everyone to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
But I want God to reconcile me with people like me. I want God to send me to a bunch of future best friends — guys who are wearing Patagonia, brew beer, and who also have a boat I can borrow in the summer. But that’s not the hope of the Gospel. The Gospel doesn’t say: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of people who are really going to make your life better.’ Of course there are plenty of people that I think would be fun to get to know that don’t know Jesus, and God loves them too. But the Jonah story invites us to consider how we will respond when God calls us to people that we have very little in common with. Paul says, “I became all things to all people” in 1 Cor. 9:22. He took the lesson of Jonah to heart. What will we become when God invites us to learn what delightful people strangers turn out to be? What if God is asking you or me to make some room in our lives for some people who wouldn’t neatly fit into our life as it currently is?
Something that I am wondering about for myself, and also for us as a church community is what kind of new life, what kind of mission God is stirring up in us? We’ve come through a difficult time together, and we’re still here. What are the small acts of faithfulness that God is calling us to as individuals and together as a church community to jump start deep change, deep repentance, deep renewal for ourselves and for our neighbours? Will you join me in this wondering, in this wondering prayer? Or maybe like Jonah, it’s clear to you what the next step of faithfulness is, but you’re running, resisting or hiding. As the story of Jonah makes clear, God is the one who advances His mission — it wasn’t Jonah’s great sermon that inspired the king so much that he felt led to get his sheep to wear sackcloth. That was all due to God’s playful sense of humour. Jonah could say no to God’s call. We can also say no. We can say ‘no’ simply by piling up busy things in our lives so that we don’t have space to actually say ‘yes’. But, the book of Jonah invites us make space and watch how Father, Son and Holy Spirit respond when we finally say ‘yes!’ — even when it's a half-hearted ‘yes.’