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Most people have at least heard of Jonah and the big fish. Jonah and the big fish is even mentioned in Pinocchio. People know that the Bible says that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and then was spit out on dry ground three days later. That’s an important part of the story, especially because Jesus tells those who were asking for a sign that he was the Messiah that the only sign he would give them would be the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the fish for three days and came out alive, he would be in the grave for three days and come out alive. As Paul says, there is nothing more important than the fact that this sign was fulfilled. Jesus did rise from the dead on the third day just as he said. He is the Messiah. He is victorious over sin. He has destroyed the devil’s work. He has even defeated death. He won the victory, not just for himself, but for all of us.
But there is more to the story of Jonah that applies to us still today. It has to do with the reason Jonah ended up being swallowed by the fish. If I asked you why he was swallowed by the fish, you could probably tell me that it was because he was running away from God. God had called him to deliver his word to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Jonah didn’t want to do that, so he got on a ship going the opposite direction. He tried to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. Of course, he couldn’t hide from God or escape his reach. God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship. After the sailors tried everything to keep the ship from sinking Jonah admitted that the storm was his fault because he was running away from God. He told them that the storm would stop if they threw him into the sea. Reluctantly they did, and the storm stopped. Jonah was drowning, sinking to the bottom of the sea. But God sent a big fish to rescue him. The fish took him back toward Nineveh and spit him out on dry ground.
What was the reason Jonah was so opposed to going to Nineveh? Was it just because they had a reputation of being very violent and ruthless people and he was afraid for his life? Was it just because they were enemies of his own country, Israel? We might think that those were good reasons, but those aren’t the reasons Jonah gave. After Jonah preached in Nineveh proclaiming that the city had 40 days to repent or God would destroy them all, he was upset that they listened! He left the city. He set himself up on a hill overlooking the city hoping that God would not accept their repentance and would still destroy them. Jonah prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
The reason Jonah didn’t want to go to preach to Nineveh was that he was afraid they might listen, and that God would be gracious and not destroy them.
What a terrible attitude to have! But are we any different? I wonder how many people have that attitude about the president? I wonder how many are thinking, if not saying, “he’s getting what he deserves. I hope he dies of Corona.” There is very little grace given to others in our world today. People are cheering when police officers are ambushed. In general, people are mean spirited, foul mouthed, and quick to wish evil on those who disagree with them.
We are not immune. Think about some of the things you like or repost on social media. It’s easy to get sucked in. Think about the first thought that comes to mind when you hear that someone has won the lottery. Is it to be happy for them? What about when someone you know gets a wonderful gift at Christmas and you get an ugly sweater? What about when your favorite team loses to their biggest rival? Are you angry? Do you wish something bad would happen to them? Are you able to be gracious?
Consider how gracious God was to Jonah. Jonah did the opposite of what God told him to do, like a little child who purposefully runs the other way when you call them to come to you. God would have been perfectly justified if he would have let Jonah drown. But the Lord provided a big fish to rescue him.
When Jonah was upset that Nineveh repented; when he stationed himself on a hill watching and hoping that God would destroy the city; God would have been justified if he would have sent the fire and brimstone Jonah was hoping for on Jonah instead. But God provided a vine, a plant that grew up in one day and provided shade for Jonah. And Jonah was very happy about the plant.
The Lord kept doing gracious things for Jonah even though he didn’t deserve them; even though he deserved the opposite. Then the Lord turned the tables on him. The Lord provided a worm that killed the plant and destroyed the shade Jonah was enjoying. The Lord provided a scorching east wind as well. He made Jonah so uncomfortable that he grew faint and wished he were dead. Jonah was ready to hear the lesson God wanted to teach him.
God asked, Jonah, Is it right for you to be angry about the plant? Jonah said, I do have a right to be angry—angry enough to die! Really Jonah?
You have been concerned about this plant. You did not work for it or make it grow. Surely you realized that it was a miracle that I provided it for you, just as I provided the big fish that kept you from drowning. After all, it grew up in one night and perished after one night. It was just a plant. So should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people. . . and also many animals? Think about it Jonah, is a plant really more important than people? Shouldn’t you be happier that the lives of so many people are spared than you are about a plant that gives you shade? It’s the same question the landowner asks those who questioned his grace. Are you envious because I am generous?
Jonah knew that he had experienced God’s grace. God provided a miracle, a big fish to keep him from drowning when he knew he didn’t deserve it. God gave him a second chance to do what he had asked him to do, to go and preach his word in Nineveh. When he was angry and still refused to be gracious toward Nineveh, still wished for their destruction, God provided another miracle, a plant that grew big enough in one night to give him shade. He had confessed that God is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love. Should God not show that same grace to others that he had experienced himself? If God did show that same grace to others would it take anything away from what God had done him?
We don’t know if Jonah learned the lesson God wanted to teach him. Did he learn that those who have received grace can be gracious to others, that they will rejoice when God is gracious not just to them, but to others? The book ends without telling us, but we might hope that Jonah is the author and that the Holy Spirit moved him to write this book so that we might learn the lesson that he learned.
Jesus also thought that this was an important lesson for everyone to learn. He not only included it in his parable of the landowner who chose to pay those hired last the same as those who were hired first. He also included it in the lesser known portion of the parable of the prodigal, or lost son. Remember that the older son reacted the same way Jonah did, the same way those hired first did. He didn’t think his brother who wasted all his money, had disrespected his father, and had broken all kinds of commandments with wine, women and wild parties, should receive grace. He should have to pay for what he did. He didn’t deserve to be forgiven.
But isn’t that the point of grace? None of us deserve to be forgiven. Every one of us has sinned and God would be perfectly just in making us pay for our sins. And the payment for just one sin is the same as the payment for hundreds of sins. The payment, the punishment we all deserve is eternal suffering, eternal separation from him and everything good.
Like Jonah, we have experienced God’s grace. We have experienced the joy and peace of knowing that our sins have been paid for in full by the one who gave and fulfilled the sign of Jonah, the one who died, spent three days in the grave, and came out of the grave alive, victorious. We have experienced what it means that God has not given us the punishment, the hell, we know we deserve. Instead he has given us the heaven we don’t deserve. He has given us forgiveness, peace, joy, and the certain hope of spending eternity with him in glory. If others receive the same grace from God as we do, it doesn’t change our situation in the least. We remain his forgiven children and heirs with Jesus of eternal life. If we complain that they don’t deserve it, God can hold the mirror in front of us and remind us that neither do we.
May it never be that we are envious because God is gracious. Instead, may we be like the angels in heaven who rejoice over every sinner who comes to repentance and faith. If only we could see today a whole city, 120,000 people, brought to repentance and faith in Jesus; if only we could see our enemies brought by the proclamation of God’s word to repentance and faith, how wonderful that would be! As you rejoice in God’s grace to you, rejoice in God’s grace to others, and let that enable you to be gracious in all you say and do.