We all know the story of Jonah — the reluctant prophet tasked with taking a message of good news to his nation’s enemies. A reluctant prophet who comes good in the end — except he doesn’t; not really.
The book ends as it begins, with a rebellious prophet whose heart is not really in his calling. It is a small book, but one that poses large and significant challenges to us as we consider the ongoing mission of God to the nations and our own part in that.
The call to mission cuts across our prejudices
Jonah refused his commission because it meant divine compassion for his nation’s enemies. And that was something he had little heart or stomach for. God’s blessing on Israel was on his agenda; mercy to the nations most certainly wasn’t, especially those intent on harming his own people.
We must not think we have no mission blind spots, no lack of compassion towards particular groups of people, whether it’s the gay couple who have recently moved in next door or the hardened atheist in the office who’s always spoiling for a fight.
Our hearts are likely to be as divided as Jonah’s. Do we genuinely pray with compassion for all sorts of people? Are we truly willing to reach out to them with the gospel?
The refusal to do mission brings calamity upon us and our neighbours
The church cannot expect to live in a comfortable relationship with God whilst ignoring his agenda for mission. Jonah quite deliberately turned his back on the Lord’s call and headed west. But the Lord’s heart for his mission (and, indeed, for Jonah) is such that he cannot allow Jonah to just go on his way.
And so the Lord goes after Jonah, bringing a furious storm upon the ship, endangering not only Jonah’s life but those of the sailors too.
If we refuse to follow God’s agenda for mission, we will eventually know his discipline. The story of Jonah alerts us to the very real possibility that our neighbours and our society may well be caught in the crossfire as the Lord reclaims his church to their calling.
Which leads me to ask — is some of the distress that we see around us in our society not only a wake-up call to greater urgency in mission, but also the by-product of our failure to do so?
The storm came upon the boat, putting the lives of the sailors in jeopardy because Jonah refused to take the gospel to Israel’s enemies. Do we not need to ask whether the same is also true for us?
The Lord God will do whatever is necessary to engage his people in mission
One of the most sobering aspects of this scene is the way the sailors and the captain seem to show more spiritual awareness than Jonah.
Jonah is happy to sleep through the storm and has to be goaded into prayer. When he finally owns his sin and tells them to throw him overboard, they initially refuse and only do so at last with the greatest reluctance.
The Lord shames his prophet through the compassion and relative spiritual awareness of pagans and then saves him from death by a giant fish. How unusual the Lord’s ways can be! But such is his commitment to mission that he will do whatever is necessary to awaken his people, even shaming us by the compassion of others and at times getting our attention by unusual circumstances.
There are many genuinely compassionate people in our society, yet they are not Christians. Do we feel the challenge their lives bring to us? Or are we still sleeping through the storm?
It is possible to do mission, even successfully, yet without genuine compassion
Is Jonah a hero by the end of the book, the repentant runaway who now preaches with passion and compassion? I think not. Yes, he goes to Nineveh, obeying the word of the Lord, but his heart isn’t in it. That’s more than obvious from his reaction to the way the Ninevites respond to the message.
Here is a servant who is angry with his Master. Here is a herald of grace who deep down finds God’s message repugnant. His reaction to the death of the vine shows that he is self-centred to the point of wilful obstinacy.
We are perhaps more like Jonah than we care to concede. His story shows how perverse our hearts can be and how gracious our God is. Despite his people’s disdain and reluctance, he will ensure his mission succeeds, with or without our heart’s consent.
The only loser in this story is Jonah himself. He is the villain of the piece. To know that the Lord is ‘a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’ and not to rejoice in it, and even to oppose it, is the sign of a very sick heart.
The telling history of Jonah closes, as Jesus’ parable of the lost son does, with a question that searches both Jonah and the hearer. Does Jonah have a right to be angry? Will he go on excluding himself from a true enjoyment of the amazing grace of God?
The Ninevites turned; the younger brother turned; and there are people today who are turning. Does that truly delight our hearts? Do we preach and yet refuse to ‘party’ (Luke 15:25-28)? Is our commitment to mission more than skin deep? Is our obedience grudging or grateful?
The author is minister at Pontefract Congregational Church and a member of the Council of UFM Worldwide. He is married to Anna and has three children.