“Run! Run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!” When I was a kid that was the taunt we’d use while playing tag. I thought about that while reading Jonah this week. God asks him to do one thing. One thing! And he taunts God,
“Run! Run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Jonah-man!”
How’d that work out for him?
To contemporary ears, Jonah’s “occupation” as a prophet is not clear. The structure of the verbiage in Hebrew would have been familiar to the original audience. His name also may have been familiar.
The Jewish Study Bible notes,
“The name of the prophet is identical with that of a prophet mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 …It seems possible and even likely that the text here serves to encourage readers to identify the two, or at least to fill the mentioned gap with their knowledge about the prophet in Kings. (1)
So, God was only asking a plumber to plumb or a rancher to harvest when he called on Jonah to prophesy to the people of Nineveh.Still his reply was, “Run! Run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Jonah-man!”
So what’s wrong with Nineveh and its people? What’d they do to tick off God?
“Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” Jonah 1:2 CEB
God wants Jonah to give the people of Nineveh a warning that God is angry with them. Later in the story when Jonah finally relents to do as God calls him to do, the message will be more specific.
We will later learn that God has a timeline for the destruction of Nineveh. Several scholars noted that this is not unlike God’s decision to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is, the people had turned away from God and God’s expectations for them. In the case of Sodom we have clues from other books of the Bible and within the text itself that indicate Sodom’s sin. They failed to welcome the stranger and care for the poor and needy according to Ezekiel. (see Ezekiel 16:49-50)
The prophet Isaiah emphasizes their brazenness and arrogance about not doing God’s will,
The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. Isaiah 3:9 NRSV
We know what Sodom did. They failed to care for the poor, welcome the immigrant, and they were proud of it.
“Run! Run fast as you can, you can’t catch us we’re Sodom & Gomorrah.”
How’d that work out for them?
But what did Nineveh and its people do wrong? We don’t know except that they turned away from God. Some scholars argue that Nineveh’s future actions are the reason for their threatened destruction. You know like “pre-crime” in the old movie Minority Report. Nineveh is named as the capital city of Assyria in other parts of the elder testament. Assyria is a brutal enemy of Israel.
Still, in the book of Jonah, Assyria is never mentioned. Like most scholars, I was unconvinced by the argument that God plans to destroy a large city for future sins. This is particularly true when you consider God’s reaction to Jonah’s eventual prophesy to the people of Nineveh,
When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes.
7Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!”
9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish. Jonah 3:4, 6-9 CEB
Unlike the people of Sodom, the people and the animals are repentant and remorseful. They are sorry for what they have done.
No running. No arrogance.
How’d that work out for them?
So, what about Jonah? What the heck is his problem? I think Jonah is like us. Sometimes he just doesn’t wanna even when he’s perfectly capable of doing so. We know Jonah was a prophet. Presumably he had done some work for God before but what was his response?
“Run! Run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Jonah-man!”
Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was afraid of the reaction he would get from the people of Nineveh. Careers as prophets often OFTEN end early and with death. Folks don’t like it when you call them out for their misdeeds and misbehaviors.
When was the last time you emotionally welcomed someone who said to you, “I need to tell you about the mistake you made” or “God is angry at you for what you did!” Did you even believe that the person had your best interests at heart?
Maybe when Jonah ran in the opposite direction of God, he was just confused. Maybe he wanted to retire.
But that’s the thing. We cannot retire from being Christians. We cannot retire from following God’s call for our lives. Our calls change and evolve but God always ALWAYS has expectations for us. God has general expectations for all of our lives:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 NRSV
Jonah was not terribly humble. The folks of Sodom and Gomorrah blew it on all three counts. Interestingly in this story it is the men on the ship and the people of Nineveh who are humble.
Hmm. The outsiders of the faith — not the insiders — are most faithful.
God also has individual expectations for us. The Apostle Paul talks about this at length in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person. 1 Corinthians 12:4-10 CEB
How do you discern God’s call on your life? How do you know if something is a spiritual gift?
First, it is something you can do. Jonah was capable of prophesying to the people of Nineveh but he chose to run.
Second, it is often something that makes you come alive. That is, it is something that usually gives you energy rather than sapping your energy even if it is hard work.
Third, it is something that others notice as one of your gifts. It is something that you are often successful at, though not always. Jonah’s short and to-the-point message to the Ninevites was well-received.
Finally, it is something that nags at you. God doesn’t give up on us when God wants us to answer our call. Our gifts, our calls can and often are things we don’t want to do or we can’t picture ourselves doing.
God is funny like that. It is also true that we get tired. We get overwhelmed and burnt out if we do not allow ourselves Sabbath time even — AND MAYBE ESPECIALLY — from our spiritual gifts.
Personal story: I hate the amount of time Maggie and I must be apart. That is not too strong a word. We endured this when I was in seminary, when she was in seminary. We’ve been coping with it for over 3-1/2 years since you called me as your pastor.More than once I’ve been tempted to run in the opposite direction just as Jonah ran in the opposite direction.
But let me tell you something that I know to be true.
I am where God has called me to be. I love this town. I love you. I love all of you, even those with whom I disagree at times. Maggie — my beloved wife of 37-years — is a phenomenal hospital chaplain. (No, I’m not biased.)
We are both where God calls us to be.
At other times in our lives when we’ve run from our calls we found ourselves snug in the belly of a big fish. It didn’t work out well for us. Sometime, ask Maggie about Tower Grove House.
Our God is a persistent God. God is persistent in God’s extravagant love for us and God is persistent in insistence that we respond affirmatively to God’s call.
Run! Run as fast as you can but God will catch you. You’re not the Gingerbread Man.
Anybody know why the big fish swallowed Jonah?
[pause for an answer]
It wasn’t a punishment. No, the big fish SAVED Jonah from drowning. God saved Jonah, whom he love so that he could fulfill his call and use his spiritual gifts.
Did the men on the ship want to throw Jonah overboard?
No. They did not. They were contrite and prayed to a god who was not their god begging forgiveness before they threw Jonah overboard.
The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. 14 So they called on the LORD, saying,
“Please, LORD, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the LORD: whatever you want, you can do.”
Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. 16 The men worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made solemn promises. Jonah 1:13-16 CEB
They did as God called them to do, even when it made no sense to them.
Like the people of Nineveh after Jonah chastised them, they were contrite and changed their behaviors.
Even after Jonah gives in and does what God calls him to do, he’s not happy about it. Actually, he was angry at God. He complains to God about saving the people:
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD,
“Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land?
This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:1-3 CEB
Here’s the thing: We don’t have to like what God calls us to do. God loves us anyway but God is persistent. God will remain in relationship with us.
Like Jonah, sometimes we just don’t wanna. We run. We try to hide. We get angry. We are unhappy with God. That’s ok. In the words of the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, “God can work with that.”
If God is willing to act like a twenty-first century counselor to Jonah:
The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing? Jonah 4:4 CEB
Then God will patiently help us understand our anger if that’s what it takes.
God will encourage a big fish to swallow us if that is what will save us.
…The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Jonah 1:17 CEB
That my friends is the Good News for today. God loves us. God will do what it takes to help us become the people we were created to be.
Run! Run as fast as you can, God will still love you. God will never stop gnawing at you to affirm your gifts.
(1) Jewish Study Bible The Jewish Study Bible (JSB) Copyright © 2004 by Oxford University Press All rights reserved. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 1.5