The story of Jonah begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’” Jonah, as you probably know, ran away rather than go to Nineveh. This begins the prophet’s odyssey which includes storms on the high seas, perilous rescue by a great fish, entering the enemy’s capital and ends up with Jonah mad, arguing with God. Quite a journey!
That journey is the point for us. We’re supposed to take this journey with Jonah and somewhere along the way, discover with an old comic character, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”
Jonah’s story is the story of those whom God calls to partner with Him. At first, we may be excited that God has called us, even though we have to get out of our comfort zones to follow. But sooner or later we face Jonah’s dilemma. That dilemma occurs when we come to the realization that God determines the agenda and His agenda is the only agenda that matters. So, do you continue on the journey with God or not?
Jonah was a prophet who had delivered the word of the Lord before and seen God move according to the prophesy he had given. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah prophesied that Israel would expand her boundaries under the leadership of Jeroboam II. God used this king, even though he was not a very good king, to help rescue Israel from destruction.
As a result, Jonah was probably well liked by the people. His prophecy was evidence God was on their side. Who knows but possibly this was the first step toward Israel achieving the greatness God had promised them. In addition, Israel was experiencing peace and prosperity like they had not seen since the days of King Solomon. Trade increased, people made money and life was good. Other prophets like Amos and Hosea painted a different perspective of Israel’s prosperity. But really, how could you not believe God was favoring you when you saw all the prosperity and dramatic economic expansion?
Still there was this problem off to the east. Assyria, with their capital city of Nineveh, was also growing in power. Anyone could see that as Israel grew in power in the region that sooner or later they would have to confront Assyria. Israel was not threatened yet but they knew Assyria was the enemy. They had bad memories of Nineveh. King Jehu had paid tribute to Nineveh in order to buy them off. No one wanted to go back to the days of shamefully having to bow down to Nineveh’s power.
Besides all that, Nineveh was obviously a people God would not want to prosper. They worshipped false gods and were a brutal people. From inscriptions of that period we learn how the Ninevites treated their enemies. They would take the nobles and flay their skin to drape over the piles of corpses. They mutilated captured soldiers, cutting off their nose and ears and gouging out their eyes while they were still alive. Finally, they beheaded them and put their heads on stakes surrounding the captured city. Those they chose to keep alive had their lower lips pierced with fish hooks on lines and were led back to Nineveh to be tortured, sold into slavery or killed. If it came down to a choice between Nineveh or Israel, surely God would surely pick Israel every time.
God told Jonah to go to these people and deliver a prophesy. So far so good, the word was that Nineveh's wickedness had come up before God. That's prophetic talk that God was bringing judgment. So why was Jonah so upset that he would run from God? Why wouldn't Jonah want to deliver this warning to this great city?
Because Jonah knew a prophetic warning of judgment from God always carries with it the opportunity of repentance. And if these people repented, as bad as they were, God would spare them. He was just that kind of God. Jonah could not let that happen. The only option open to Jonah was to run the other way, not deliver the word of the Lord and that way secure Nineveh’s destruction and doom.
Jonah was trying to control God. He had already made the decision that these people should be judged and no possibility of any other outcome was acceptable to Jonah. He just could not imagine another outcome other than Nineveh's destruction and Israel's advancement.
Before we start to judge Jonah let me ask you something, “Who’s your Nineveh?” Who is that person who has so wronged you that you can’t imagine any other outcome of their life except God's punishment. Or who is that group of people that is obviously so far from God that you don’t want to hear about them unless it is to hear of how miserable their lives have become?
Our “Nineveh’s” are those people we have totally written off and can not even imagine anything for them apart from judgment. They are those we have no time for unless it is to watch them from a faraway spot just so we can observe their lives falling apart. Don't get me wrong. These “Ninevites” in our lives deserve what they get. There is no denying they are toxic people and have so messed up. They have brought on themselves any kind of punishment they get.
But as long as we run from a God who would offer them the opportunity to repent, we are already bound by their behavior and their brokenness. As long as we will not be open to the truth that God’s love for us is also offered to them, we will remain miserable. We will be miserable because our heart is not God's heart. Jonah ends up angry at God with the Lord leaving him with a question: “And should I not be concerned with that great city?”
Jonah said he served God then tried to run away from the God he said he served. Jonah could not allow God to be God. Jonah saw only one possibility for the Ninevites and that was God’s judgement. Why? Because Jonah had been deceived by the lie that for him to be accepted by God others had to be rejected.
The truth is that the same mercy that God extends to me He will also extend to others through me. For Jonah it was either God rejected Nineveh or there was no way that Israel could be God’s special people. When Jonah's lie was confronted by God's truth...he was caught in a dilemma of choice. Jonah’s dilemma is this: Will I allow my heart to be shaped by God’s heart regardless of how God chooses to respond to others.
The story of Jonah is sadly our story…my story. We design templates of how God operates and how other people are to be evaluated. Then God comes along and will not fit in with our preconceived notions of who we are, who God is and who the other people must therefore be. God refuses to be boxed in by our expectations and judgements about others.
Fortunately, this same God who will not be boxed in by us still comes to us…again and again. Offering us His covenant love as a gift. This same God will come out to us while we throw our fits and get so angry with God that we wish we were dead rather than let our hearts be transformed to have the same love for others that God has for us.
If you receive that covenant love from God you will face Jonah's dilemma…because God will call us to offer that same of covenant love to others. It’s now our dilemma.