We all know the story of Jonah in the Bible. God asks Jonah to do something. Jonah doesn’t want to do what God asks. Jonah runs away. Jonah gets swallowed by a whale, and then gets puked up. Finally, Jonah goes off to fulfil God’s mission (all-be-it slightly begrudgingly).
So yep, we can all recite it. We know God is gracious to the Ninevites and Jonah is grumpy as a result. We can all see ourselves in Jonah as he sulks and moans at the end of the story. It’s about God being in control; God ruling and having his way, and us, as modern day versions of Jonah, knowing our place in the midst of his vast awesomeness.
But there is also another point the story makes that often we overlook, miss or don’t see. The real story of Jonah isn’t about Jonah at all. It’s about God’s love, forgiveness and grace for Jonah’s enemies. And that is something we could do with getting our heads around today.
We can pretty much assume Jonah hated the Ninevites. Ninevah was said to be the largest city in the world at the time this story was written and it was the capital of Assyria, a nation regularly at war with Jonah’s country, Israel. They worshipped different God’s, held different ceremonies and believed very different things.
To Jonah, God’s judgement on the Ninevites would have been welcome. He would have loved to see them get what they deserved for their evil ways – he just didn’t fancy being the one to tell them that God’s judgement was coming (quite understandable really).
Eventually, after his encounter with a big fish, Jonah makes it to Ninevah and, led by the King, the people sincerely repent, promising to change. God has mercy and withholds his judgement. Nice story right? Well…
Jonah is angry at God’s mercy. In fact, many of us would be too, if we really understood it like Jonah did. Today, modern-day Ninevah is a city in Iraq called Mosul. In the last year Mosul has been emptied of all Christians by the extremist Muslim group Islamic State. They’ve committed atrocities. They’ve killed, stolen, incited fear and acted out of hatred. They destroyed churches, made Christianity illegal, sold slaves and currently uphold an extremely strict, corrupted view of Islam.
How Jonah felt about the Ninevites, many Iraqi, Syrian and Western Christians (that’s us) feel about Islamic State. We’re not just afraid of them. We hate them.
This is what the story of Jonah is really about; God’s incredible, unintelligible grace and mercy.
But God wouldn’t send us to the barbaric Islamic State would he? And if he did, would he forgive if any of them repented? Based on the experience of Jonah and the Ninevites, what do you think?
This is what the story of Jonah is really about; God’s incredible, unintelligible grace and mercy. And for those of us who have glimpsed some of it, those of us who are Christians, there is a warning in Jonah. We don’t get to say who receives or deserves God’s grace. We aren’t the ones who decide. No matter how angry it might make us, God is God and his grace is bigger than our hatred, fears and hurts. So big in fact, that it can extend to those who kill and persecute Christians (just look at what became of Saul in Acts).
God might not send you to Mosul or Ninevah, but we do need to be prepared to say ‘Yes’ to him when he asks. And like Jonah we need to be prepared to go to whoever he sends us to. That might mean taking an honest look at ourselves and our faith to ask if we really could share God’s love with those we may dislike, fear or even hate. In most cases it might mean being prepared to forgive, to let go of what has been done to us, and let God have control. That doesn’t mean endorsing the wrong things people do, but it does mean recognising that God is bigger, and that we don’t get to decide how his grace is given.
So, if you were a modern day Jonah, who would God be sending you to?
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.