It amazes me that the Book of Jonah is in the Jewish Scriptures. Think about it: every pagan in the story is more righteous than Jonah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the great capital of the Assyrians, and preach his word to them. Instead, Jonah got on a boat that was going in the opposite direction. When a storm is about to capsize the boat, Jonah suggests that the pagans throw him over. After working unsuccessfully to get to shore, they reluctantly heed Jonah’s advice. After a three day submarine ride, Jonah finally decided to go to Nineveh and preach God’s word. You get the sense, though, that he enjoyed the dire message a little too much: "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." It was a message to repent or else. What a wonderful response to his preaching: “when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” The whole city believed Jonah and did what God required of them. That pleased Jonah, right? Wrong. Jonah hated the Assyrians. They repented, God relented, and Jonah got royally ticked off and eventually asked God to just go ahead and let him die. In fact, he admitted to God that the reason he didn’t go to Nineveh in the first place is that he knew that God was a compassionate God and feared that they might listen to his sermon, repent, and not be destroyed. It’s as if the preacher said, “Hey, I’d preach the Good News to you but, if I did, you might believe it and be saved instead of going straight to hell like you deserve.” God save us from preachers like Jonah.
Psalm 51 is such a contrast. It goes to the heart of who God is and what he wants from us. God wants to show us mercy, wipe out our offense, wash away our guilt, cleanse us from our sins, create clean hearts within us, renew our spirits, and give us his Holy Spirit. What he wants in return is steadfastness, humility, and contrition. No matter whom we are (even those dreaded Assyrians!) or where we are in life, God will not spurn a humble and contrite heart.
The people in Jesus’ day loved Jonah. Does it come as a surprise, then, that they had trouble with Jesus? Although Jesus proclaimed Good News, healed the sick, and cast out demons, the people still clamored for a sign. Jesus responded in two ways. First, the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah, meaning, another person who is swallowed up for three days, this time in the earth. Second, their judges in the age to come will be the very people who repented at the preaching of that hate-filled Jonah. How ironic that the Ninevites repented at the preaching of such a racist but the people of his day wouldn’t listen to the Good News preached by Jesus.
It is sad to meet people who think that God is like Jonah, sitting up on a celestial hill overlooking the world and barely able to contain himself until the day when he can turn everyone into toast. Not all choose this God out of ignorance, however. The people of Jesus’ day actually preferred the God of hate-filled Jonah over the God of mercy proclaimed by the psalmist and embodied in the life and preaching of Jesus.
Every generation, every individual, must choose between the God of Jonah and Jesus. Whom will we serve?
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