Jonah may have shared God’s message for the people of Nineveh, but he didn’t share God’s heart for the people of Nineveh.
Have you ever found yourself knowing what you ought to do, but you don’t want to do it?
Maybe it’s getting up early, so in an act of defiance you hit the snooze button five times in a row. Maybe you bought that gym membership with every intention of using it, but you decide the walk from the car to the office will be enough “exercise” for the day.
Let’s get more personal since most of us are probably church leaders: have you ever seen someone needing help, but you know they are just too much trouble so you avoid them? Have you ever known you were supposed to love someone, but you have a hard time even liking them?
I recently read a familiar story that included some surprising details I somehow had missed over the years. The story revealed that a very successful missionary, in fact one of the most successful missionaries ever, was not simply reluctant, he was suicidal. Jonah would rather die than see the people of Nineveh forgiven by God.
We all know the story. We’ve all seen the flannelgraphs or maybe the Veggie Tales re-enactment. Somehow the fact that Jonah wanted to be thrown off the boat to drown in the sea rather than simply asking for the boat to be turned around wasn’t included in these Sunday School versions. Only after reconsidering for three days in the digestive tract of a giant fish, did Jonah finally share the message of warning from God to the people of Nineveh. Just think, what message would you be able to create without distractions and in this most improbable of places? And what message would be so powerful that 60,000 people would turn to God?
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:5).
One of the greatest sermons in history was only 8 words long.
Ok. Well, maybe Jonah’s message was not that impressive, so it must have been his heart for the people that they felt? Actually that wasn’t it at all. Jonah was beyond irate and beyond depressed at their willingness to turn to God. Jonah wanted to die (again).
Jonah prayed: “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 3:10-4:3).
This moment shows such a stark contrast between a loving and merciful God and His angry and judgmental messenger.
Why did Jonah have such hostility towards the people of Nineveh? Simply put, Jonah saw the people of Nineveh as his enemies. He despised what they had done towards his people in the past. He hated their religion, their politics, and their lack of morality. As a result, Jonah placed a limit on who God should love.
Whether we have intended this or not, the world tends to see people who follow Jesus as sharing the same attitude that Jonah did.
Rather than being exclusive and judgmental, we have to work that much harder to become inclusive and loving. We cannot show the world God’s love if we do not truly love the people in our world.
One of the most important changes we can make to overcome this perception would be to create communities in which people are allowed to belong before they have to believe. Rather than being considered and even treated as outsiders, we need to invite our family, co-workers, and neighbors into our lives and into our communities as friends.
As followers of Jesus, we have been “set apart” and “sent out.” We are “set apart” in our behavior, and “sent out” in our relationships. The more religious we become the more these ideas become reversed. We end up being “set apart” in our relationships, and “sent out” from those we are to love and serve. We are “set apart” in how we relate to others, not to whom we relate.
I know I have been hard on Jonah, but in the end, after Jonah was rescued, he went into the city.
Maybe our question is: where will we go now that we’ve been rescued?