Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1–5, 10 | Psalm 62 | 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 | Mark 1:14–20
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15).
Repentance is a complicated word… one with lots of baggage for some of us. Reminding us of the times when people have used religion as a weapon to heap guilt and shame on our shoulders. Or when some twist faith into a formula… making it seem as though: “if you just say these words, in this way, then somehow God owes you paradise”… as if the Living God just wants us to “say sorry”, and then we can go about our own business.
When this is how we think about repentance, no wonder so many feel so uneasy about it.
But in the Scriptures, repentance is truly Good News… an integral part of the Kingdom of God, and a vital step forward in the pathway to life.
And one could argue that our world could use a whole lot more repentance these days… learning to step back and change course… to acknowledge when we have got it all wrong, and do what we can to start making things right, instead of always shifting the blame elsewhere… digging in and doubling down on our actions that bring disaster… and writing off those who fail to live up to our own standards, whatever they might be.
But to appreciate the life-giving role played by repentance… and to have the space and ability to practice it… we need to believe it will actually be received. That those we repent to will not just strike us down for our sins, but extend to us the forgiveness that we all need.
Far beyond a tool to crush our spirits, or a formula to try and manipulate each other, or the divine… repentance is God’s gracious gift to us, as the Scriptures remind us this morning.
Notice that in Mark’s Gospel, the very first words that Christ utters to the world is a call to repentance: “The time is fulfilled,” He proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus then goes about inviting others to follow Him into this new reality… this new Kingdom way of life… unlike anything that they had known before.
And in the Old Testament, the story of Jonah is one long invitation to repent, and to receive God’s gift of New Life… an invitation we’re going to explore together a little bit closer this today.
Bu t before we do so, I have a few question for all of us: When is the last time you thought about the whole story of Jonah? Have you ever sat down and read the story from start to end? What is this prophetic book really all about anyway?
Don’t worry if you’ve never looked at the whole book of Jonah before, because today is your lucky day! We’re going to read through the whole book of Jonah together this morning, and listen to its unique perspective on the good news of repentance… Good News for our world, and for us, God’s people today.
For many people, the main thing that comes to mind when they think of Jonah is probably the bit about the whale… or more precisely, the “great fish”. Or maybe, from our very short reading today from Jonah Chapter 3, we might guess that it’s a fairly straightforward story about God’s good prophet telling the Assyrian ‘bad-guys’ in Nineveh to straighten up, and then they all fall in line.
But while both these dramatic scenes are a part of the picture that this book paints for us, we miss out on the main message of Jonah… the Good News that it has for us and for our world, when we don’t step back and take into account the story as a whole, and how it all fits together. That’s why we’re going to read through the whole book of Jonah together today.
Don’t panic though! One of the great things about Jonah is that it’s not a very long story. It’s only four short chapters, and about 1,300 words total in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. And while we could spend all year exploring this strange but powerful prophetic book, this morning I just want to highlight a few of its most important themes to reflect on together… specifically, how repentance fits into the work of the Living God in the world, and what it means for those of us who have responded to the call to follow Jesus Christ today.
So this morning, pay close attention to who is repenting in the story… who turns their lives around to follow the ways of the Living God in the world… and who does not.
The book begins with the LORD, Yahweh, the Living God who has revealed Himself to Israel sending the prophet Jonah to challenge the wickedness of the great Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh. Jonah 1:1-2,
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
There’s nothing too surprising here. The Ninevites, and the Assyrians in general, were the “big bad guys” of the near ancient world… their empire made it their business to swallow up all of their neighbours, with unheard of levels of violence and brutality.
From an Israelite perspective, if God was going to call out any nation’s wickedness, it would make sense to single out the Assyrians. But then something that is surprising happens.
Jonah 1:3, “3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”
Instead of following God’s clear instructions to challenge Nineveh’s great wickedness, God’s messenger takes off in the opposite direction… taking a boat to Tarshish… which is thousands of miles away at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea… just about as far away from Nineveh as an ancient Israelite could imagine.
So from the start, it’s God’s own prophet… the one whose job it is to help others discover God’s good will, who has turned away from the LORD. It is God’s chosen messenger who it turns out now needs to turn around… to repent.
Jonah 1:4-6, 4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
Here's another ironic twist: it’s the pagan, Gentile sailors who see the signs of divine judgement at work, while God’s prophet is fast asleep, oblivious to what’s going on, and unconcerned it seems with avoiding disaster. And when he wakes up, his response is no help at all.
Johan 1:7-10, 7 The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
What’s going on here? In the face of what seems like certain disaster, Jonah claims to be a faithful servant of Yahweh, the Creator of Heaven, Earth, the Sea, and all that is… while doing exactly the opposite of what God said to do. Notice that at this point he has made no attempt at all to turn around, and seek God’s forgiveness and help, by the way… unlike the pagan, Gentile sailors around him.
Jonah 1:11-17, 11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Again, we find a dramatic reversal at work: pagan, Gentile sailors, not exactly an ancient Israelite’s model of morality, are seeking to do the LORD’s will, pleading to receive His mercy, and give their lives to Him in wholehearted worship. While God’s prophet, Jonah, insists instead on being thrown into the sea… to have his life ended rather than turn around and repent to the Living God.
But instead of meeting his end right away, Jonah finds himself swallowed up by a great fish… a creature of the sea, the realm of chaos and death. Only then, when his own destruction seems the most clear, Jonah turns to the LORD, and we hear his prayer in the poem of Chapter 2:
2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
5The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
God’s saving mercy finds Jonah, his utterly unfaithful prophet, at the end of his rope… and against all odds and expectations, the LORD rescues his undeserving servant.
And here we return to our reading today from Jonah Chapter 3, and hear about how God’s flawed messenger finally does what he’s supposed to do, and then how Nineveh responds. Jonah 3:1-4,
3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Not much of a message, is it? “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Is this really all that God wanted to say to the great city of the Assyrians?
There’s no mention of why the city would be overthrown? There’s no clear challenge of the wickedness of this violent, oppressive, self-centered empire? No mention at all of the LORD? And no mention at all of what could be done to make things right again?
After all that trouble, once Jonah finally gets to Ninevah, all he does is call for their destruction. And in yet another ironic twist… this great wicked city completely turns around and repents.
Jonah 3:5-9, 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
What an amazing reversal… an incredible change of course for the great enemies of Israel, and the most feared and wicked pagan nation they had ever encountered. With barely a warning at all, the people of Nineveh, even their King, humbly turn their lives around and seek the mercy of Yahweh, the Living God of all, that Israel knew and served.
And what’s more, another amazing change takes place: 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
In response to the repentance of the Assyrians, God decides not to go through with His plans to undo them. Even the worst, wicked ones, it turns out can repent and find God’s forgiveness. Sounds like Good News to me, and a great end to the story.
But that’s not how the story ends. There’s one more character who has not yet really turned around… Jonah.
Chapter 3:10-4:3, 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Here we finally see what was going on in Jonah’s heart… why he fled to Tarshish, and why he refuses to rejoice when Nineveh turns itself around: he wanted Nineveh to burn. He didn’t want them to be forgiven, to find a new path towards life. Jonah saw them as the ‘bad-guys’, as too far gone to turn around… and who needed to be taken out.
And in his heart, Jonah accused God of being too willing to forgive. Complaining that the LORD was too gracious and merciful, too slow to act in anger, overflowing with steadfast love, and too ready to relent from punishing.
The heart of God’s chosen prophet, His messenger, turns out to be completely unlike the LORD… and so he’d rather end his life then see his enemies find forgiveness.
Think about this story in the light of our world today… with all the conflicts we see at work around us. Not just the open wars, that lay waste to whole cities and countries… but also to the many divisions that are tearing our world apart, in big and small ways. The communities, relationships, families shattered by self-centeredness, wickedness, prejudice, and rage. And think about how we Christians as God’s people today have become complicit in these conflicts too… seeing all those who oppose our ways of seeing things as the ‘bad guys’, who deserve to be taken out. Consider how even we the Church can easily be consumed with anger, hate, violence, and cruelty.
Then think about God’s own heart. Think about His response to the truly wicked city of Nineveh… how He wanted, not their destruction… but that they would truly turn around and leave their old ways behind. That those who were destroying their neighbours would stop, and instead care for them, and build them up. That those who oppressed others, would instead humble themselves, and lift up the lowly. That all those who have hard hearts, and are eager to see the ruin of their rivals would repent, and come to share His divine mercy, forgiveness, and steadfast, saving love.
And so, Jonah serves as an example of how even God’s chosen people, who have been called to become like Him… who claim to know and serve Him, and to walk in His holy ways, can completely turn our hearts away from God’s heart. And his story is a grand invitation for all of us to repent… to turn around and let His love guide us.
But the story’s not over yet. How does God respond to Jonah’s anger? How does this story end? The LORD uses the rise and fall of a plant, a small bush, to drive home the message of His own divine mercy.
Jonah 4:4-11, 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
And that’s how it ends. With a question from God, and an invitation to share His divine compassion. If Jonah can care about the fate of a single bush, can’t God, the Creator of All, care about everyone? Even the fate of a city so wicked and turned about, that they seem too far gone to save?
Can’t God care about… our enemies? Those you and I might see as beyond all hope? As undeserving of forgiveness? Can’t God long to turn their lives around by His rescuing love?
This is the story that Jesus calls all His disciples to embrace, and to leave our old stories behind. This is the story of God’s great love for His whole lost and broken world, tearing itself apart, again and again… the story that led Jesus Christ to the cross… to die for us sinners, and to set us free from our wickedness… and rise again as the Saviour of the world.
The book of Jonah is an invitation for all God’s people of all times… to turn around, and learn what it means to repent and truly follow the Living God: to share in His holy love, revealed to the world once and for all in Jesus Christ. A love that’s strong and wide enough to truly embrace everyone. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School