“One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: ‘Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.’ But Jonah got up and went the other direction…” Jonah 1:1-3 The Msg
When I think of the word “hero”, I don’t typically think of Jonah. The poor guy gets a bum rap, but he brought that on himself. He was human, like us, after all. He faced his share of disappointments, a number of which we can read about in the book named after him in the Bible.
When we first meet him, he has just heard a message from God, the Creator of everything that exists, the Almighty Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Go to Nineveh and tell them they better turn from their wicked ways or it’s ‘hasta la vista baby’ to their entire existence.” Disappointment #1: Jonah is given a task he doesn’t like. Maybe he was hoping God would send him to minister in the luxurious coastal towns of good repute where the people were kind and pleasant. The Bible tells us that he immediately got up and started walking in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
His dusty, sandaled feet carried him to the coastline where he boarded a ship and headed out to sea. Disappointment #2 is around the corner for our slightly tarnished hero: you can’t run from God. He got caught. God whipped up a torrent to toss that ship so ferociously that the sailors began to fear for their lives. Jonah finally opened up and told them he was running from God. He even offered to “take one for the team” by allowing them to throw him overboard. I don’t know how long the sailors debated about this but it seems not very long because soon Jonah was treading water in the ocean, face to face with the cavernous open mouth of a giant fish. Hello, disappointment #3: no more nice dry nap in the depths of the boat for him.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like laying in the fish’s insides. Slimy? Most definitely. Stinky? Without a doubt. After probably gagging and crying and panicking, Jonah responded to this latest disappointment by sending God a truly heartfelt prayer. Not only did He make sure God knew that his head was wrapped in seaweed for the entire three days but he admitted he had gone down as low as he could go. He really had, and not just because he was riding around in deep waters inside the fish. Venturing off the path God showed Him was certainly not turning out like he thought it would. Instead of freedom and control over his way he was lost, sure to die inside a hellish, damp tomb.
I guess God decided he had learned his lesson because he instructed the fish to relinquish his man-sized morsel and spit him onto the beach. God then gave the message to Jonah once again, “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.” This time, of course, Jonah obeyed. The city of Nineveh was huge, a three-day walk from one side to the other. Jonah ventured inside one day’s walk and then stood on the corner shouting the fate of the Ninevites if they didn’t turn to God…right then. I wonder if he preached passionately from the heart or with rolled eyes, “yeah, God said you’re gonna die if you don’t feel sorry right now, sheesh!” News of this reached the king, who immediately became repentant and ordered all the people to follow suit. The entire city turned to God! How awesome is that? Jonah must have been thrilled to have been used of God in such magnitude, to see the result of his obedience. Not really. Instead, he faced disappointment #4: the Ninevites decided to follow God and God spared them.
Aren’t pastors or evangelists supposed to be happy when someone accepts their message and joins God’s team? Jonah was so ticked they escaped annihilation that he marched out of the city and up onto an overlook to sulk. God caused a lovely, shady plant to grow up and give him shade for which he was so thankful. Then, at God’s prompting, a little worm crawled up and chewed the stem of the plant, killing it. Jonah threw a tantrum over the dead plant because now his bald head would probably get sunburned. God laid into him, “you care more about this dead plant than the hundreds of thousands of people who were just rescued.” It’s hard to believe someone, especially a man of God, would be sorry that God was rich in love and mercy for people, that He was compassionate and willing to give people another chance. In that moment, God must have felt disappointed.
Even though Jonah falls a little short on character, he did obey God and was the catalyst for an entire city’s salvation. And, we don’t know what all he did in the rest of his life. Perhaps he redeemed himself by asking forgiveness and getting a new attitude. I guess we can learn what to do and what not to do from his story. Whether or not what God leads us to is what we expected or think we want, we really should obey. You never know what wonderful things may happen if you do, and if you don’t…you probably don’t want to know.