Reading Ramblings – October 12, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #15 — Jonah: October 12, 2014

Texts: Jonah 1; Psalm 33; Matthew 12:38-42

Context: Jonah takes place near the start of the eighth century BC, perhaps around 790 BC.  Israel and Judah had divided from one another many years earlier, and Assyria was growing more and more powerful to the north of Israel.  Jonah is a prophet in the land of Israel, likely in the reign of Jereboam II.  Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrian empire, and representative of not only heathen and ungodly practices, but also an increasing threat to the security of Israel.  Jonah’s resistance to going to Nineveh may reflect a nationalist bent—he doesn’t want God to pardon the enemy of Israel, and would rather see Assyria left in sin and judgment. 

Jonah 1 — Jonah’s story is one of disobedience and reluctance.  Jonah rejects God’s calling to Nineveh and flees to Tarshish, an uncertain location that might be Tarsus in Asia Minor (where St. Paul will hail from hundreds of years later), or else the Phoenician colony of Tartessus in Spain.  The precise location is not as important as Jonah’s refusal to go to Ninevey, an arduous journey north and east to the upper reaches of the Tigris River.

Jonah is surrounded by better examples of faithfulness.  The men of the ship pray to God and seek his forgiveness for throwing Jonah into the sea.  The people of Nineveh will repent and God will relent from judgment.  Even the great fish will perform a necessary role in saving Jonah.  Jonah is reluctantly obedient, and then frustrated and disappointed that Nineveh responds to the Word of God.  In the midst of this he becomes a sign that God will not be refused, and that God’s call on his people is not easily avoided.

Psalm 33  — It is right to praise God in a variety of fashions, both with the shouts of our mouths as well as a variety of instruments (vs.1-3).  God deserves such praise because He is always good and faithful in all things, the source of all justice and righteousness (vs.4-5).  He is also the God of creation, the one who created everything and everyone from nothing, a feat in and of itself enough to make everyone tremble before him (vs.6-9).  What God purposes to do will be accomplished.  There is no power on earth that can frustrate the plans of God because God is all-seeing and all-powerful (vs. 10-17).  As such, God’s faithful people are never out of his sight, never forgotten or abandoned.  He is fully capable of delivering us from all our tribulations, even death itself (we would say that He has done this through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God).  He is where we should place our faith and trust and hope, rather than the confidences of the unfaithful (big armies, physical prowess, or the protection of a war horse—vs.16-17).

Matthew 12:38-42— Jesus makes one reference to Jonah, a teaching remembered in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  Jesus compares himself to Jonah in terms of a sign.  Jonah’s miraculous rescue from the depths to come to Nineveh to warn of God’s impending wrath may well have been a powerful enough sign to warrant an entire city repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness.  Likewise, Jesus’ own rescue from the depths of the grave after three days will be a sign that every person must confront and either reject or accept in faith.

Jesus knows that many people who witness his miraculous resurrection, or hear of it from eye-witnesses, will not respond as faithfully as Nineveh.  Many will reject the sign, reject it as impossible or improbable or unlikely or irrelevant.  Such is a fatal mistake.  Nineveh herself will point an accusing finger at these people on judgment day.  Surely they were given a greater sign than Nineveh was, yet Nineveh humbled herself.  What arrogance it must be to reject the sign of the crucified and resurrected Son of God!

However Jesus may also be making another reference to Jonah, preserved in Matthew 16:17.  After Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus responds to Peter “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!”  Simon Peter’s father is generally referred to as John, not Jonah.  There are grammatical explanations for why Peter’s father is referred to as Jonah here rather than John, but perhaps Jesus is not attempting to indicate Peter’s biological father, but his spiritual one in the prophet Jonah.

Peter has just professed the true identity of his rabbi, certainly an act of faith.  We trust that Jonah was a prophet and the son of a prophet.  Yet at a crucial moment Jonah rejects his prophetic faithfulness and runs away.  Likewise, Peter will run away when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then claim no knowledge of him when questioned later that same night.  Both Jonah and Peter are restored in their roles.  Jonah repents and goes to Nineveh.  Peter will be restored by Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection (John 21:15-19).

In larger terms, we might say that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is every bit as improbable and difficult to accept as Jonah’s three days in the fish.  In each situation God works in an unexpected and hard-to-believe way.  He does not allow us the purely intellectual luxury or rationalizing these events.  We can’t explain them.  Can’t duplicate them.  And as such, they remain as fixtures of God’s miraculous presence in our world.  They call us to faithfulness and humility, to repentance and to worship of a God so good that He even wants to forgive those who are opposed to Him and his people.  There is nobody that God is not interested in giving a second chance to, nobody that is safe from God the Holy Spirit and the improbably possibility of faith being birthed where before was only unbelief and rebellion.

It is easy for you and I to give thanks for this in faith in our own lives.  It can be harder for us to admit that those people who we least wish to be charitable to are also invited into this same faith through these same signs.  Our prayers should be that they will receive that gift of faith as we have!


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