Epiphany 3 • Jonah 3:1–5, 10 • January 22, 2012
by Bruce Schuchard
“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me’” (Jon 3:1–2). But Jonah was not happy. In fact, Jonah was most displeased (4:1–3), disillusioned, and determined not to be the instrument of the Lord’s mercy to that loathsome city, to the horrible human inhabitants of Nineveh, who unquestionably deserved to get what was otherwise coming to them. So Jonah packed his bags and looked for the first opportunity to get as far away from the presence and the purposes of the Lord as he possibly could.
Pick someone who really deserves to get what’s coming to him, a poor excuse for a human being who really makes your skin crawl, who causes good Christian people to rightly recoil in horror. Fill an ancient metropolis with one hundred and twenty thousand (4:11) makes-your-skin-crawl and causes-you-to-recoil-in-horror people like that, give or take a serial killer, a pedophile, and a rapist or two, and what you have is a shamelessly idolatrous Nineveh, reveling, insatiably rejoicing in its wanton capacity to invent ever new ways of sinking into an ever more deplorable depravity, making itself all the more deserving of descent into the depths of Sheol. What you have is Nineveh. But look who ends up later being hurled into the depths, not the Ninevites, but the prophet of Almighty God (1:15).
Sometimes God’s love for the loveless, for those who deserve it not, seems ever so adorable. Good for God! What a good God he is! Isn’t the God of the forlorn wonderful? Sometimes God seems unfailingly endearing, but sometimes he and his ways are unnerving, unsettling. Sometimes God’s love for the loveless is nothing short of shocking. You mean he loves them all? You mean he actually earnestly longs to extend his love and forgiveness to all? Even the ugliest of the ugly, the most reprehensible of them all? All of them? Really?
So Jonah “rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD” (1:3) because he could not fathom, could in no way embrace, that kind of a God. So he rose to flee, so he rose to refuse and abandon it all, and, in doing so, he joined those that he loathed—deserving of Sheol. So Jonah was hurled into the depths, so that he might know, so that he might first be redeemed, so that he might repent and believe, so that he might come to his senses, or at least so that he might come to see that God’s way must have its day.
“And the LORD spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (2:10), so that “the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, [OK, one more time] ‘Arise, go to Nineveh’ . . . So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD” (3:1–3), not because he especially wanted to, mind you, not because he now possessed the heart of his God for the Ninevites. Have you noticed how often it is that the will of God takes us in directions that we never would have chosen for ourselves? Jonah goes, as all must at times go, not because he understands why, not because he knows how it is sure to go, not even because in his heart of hearts he sympathizes, but because God’s way must have its day.
So Jonah “called out . . . and the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:4–5). And “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (3:10). That’s right. He did not do it. And so we rejoice. For in this we see not betrayal but the lengths to which our God is willing to go for the good, the bad, and, yes, even the ugly. For the Lord our God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). If his love is for some, his love is for all, the appalling, the abhorrent, all. Thanks be to God, for it matters not who the sinner is, God’s way has had its day.