Posted on February 24th, 2014 by Tim
We all know the story of Jonah. It’s taught in churches and religious schools, partly because it’s a graphic and exciting story that appeals particularly to children. Well, at least the bit with the storm and the big fish is exciting. We don’t always tell the second part. While theologians may argue over whether it is a true story, a parable or an allegory, this exquisitely crafted play in four acts has much relevance for the 21st century church, and we’re going to consider four contemporary applications of its lessons.
Jonah was a reluctant mission worker. This is the bit of the story we’re most familiar with, how Jonah ran away from what he knew God wanted him to do, and was boxed in more and more till he got on and did it. Most of us who have been Christians for a while will know this sense of how hard it is to run away from God, though we’re not usually boxed in as dramatically as Jonah was! Yet our own experience of God tells us that God knows best how to run our lives. To what extent are we still trying to run away from what God wants us to do?
Jonah was a frightened mission worker. He knew that the Ninevites were a cruel and dangerous people. What were they going to do to him when he told them to change the way they lived? These were the people who invented crucifixion, and an earlier form of execution, impaling on a sharpened stake. Faced with those two alternatives, we might have been buying a ticket to Tarshish too! But to what extent are we afraid of telling people the good news today? What’s the worst they can do to us? Granted, we have to be careful not to lose our visa, endanger local believers, or damage the reputation of our agency, but let’s be bold! Let’s risk the ridicule, criticism and bullying that might result. Are we prepared to take the good news to people even at personal risk to ourselves?
Jonah was a judgmental mission worker. He didn’t think these people were worthy of being forgiven. They were foreign, cruel, evil. Only nice people deserve to be forgiven. He was blinkered by his racial supremacy of being one of God’s chosen people. The other people obviously weren’t chosen. But God had bigger plans. We might laugh at such narrow-minded bigotry these days, but who are the people we don’t think are worthy of forgiveness? Benefit cheats? Illegal immigrants? Arms dealers? Drug pushers? Rapists? Paedophiles? But in God’s eyes, we are no better, but Christ died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8). Are we prepared to take the good news to people we don’t think are worthy?
Jonah was a successful mission worker. We often admire the philosophy of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, or the harvest of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Yet 120,000 people responded to Jonah’s message! When Jonah was faithful to his calling, God delivered the results. It’s not rocket science. God does not want anyone to die, but wants people everywhere to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9). So why would we not want to tell people? The US illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette, who is a vociferous atheist, commented in a blog about how much he respected a Christian who gave him a Bible:
How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
That’s a harsh statement, which strips away the cosy multicultural fudge that we are used to. We might like to think we don’t tell people about Jesus out of respect for their faith choices, or because it’s a private matter, but surely love overrides those and demands that we tell people the good news.