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Monday, November 24, 2014

10 Lessons from Jonah for Thanksgiving

When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs the other direction he heads far East toward Tarshish, on the coast of Spain; Nineveh, the principal city of the Assyrians, was far East in the opposite direction.  Considering that being a Hebrew and walking into the capital city and telling them that destruction was on the way would be like one of us going over to a Middle Eastern extremist group and giving the same message, one can understand Jonah’s reservation. Not only this, Jonah probably wanted God to punish this cruel and wicked nation. The problem was, that’s not what God had told him to do.  God will consistently move to see that His ultimate will is done: “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.” [1:4]

The other members on the boat were not Hebrews, and when asked who he was, Jonah told them that he was running away from the God that made the heavens, earth, and sea, which was threatening to sink the boat they were in,   Jonah tells them to throw him overboard.  They resisted, but the storm only grew worse.   “Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.  At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”[1:13-16]

 Notice that Jonah could have resisted and caused the death of all, but he doesn’t. This is the first glimmer of hope that he is having a change of heart.  Notice also that God can use even the bad circumstances to bring others to Himself.  

God sends a fish, granted a large one, to swallow Jonah and he stays there 3 days and nights.  It is there in the belly of the fish that he repents and prays for mercy. His prayer, recorded in chapter 2, is an amazing testimony of faith and trust in the goodness of God, despite the circumstances, for toward the end it turns into a prayer of praise and thanksgiving, even though he is still in the belly of the fish:
“When my life was ebbing away, 
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.
 “Those who cling to worthless idols
    turn away from God’s love for them.
 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” [2:7-10]

Jonah could have been upset that though he escaped from the storm, he is swallowed by the fish, but God used this in his life to bring him to repentance. Jonah’s perspective changed: what could have been viewed as only making the situation worse, or no better, is now seen as God having mercy and saving him from the storm.  Repentance and gratitude begin to change his heart toward praise. God again directs and the fish deliver him to the shore.  Jonah was not useful until he became grateful.

God takes the initiative again by issuing the same basic command, almost as if nothing had happened. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” [3:1-3]

Surprisingly, miraculously the people of Nineveh respond.  One of the greatest revivals in all of Scripture occurs when this entire city repents and seeks God. When the people repent, God responds: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” [3:10] God could have sent an angel, or even another prophet to Nineveh, but doesn’t. Why? God wanted to teach Jonah about love and mercy and how deep His character and love are. He also wanted to show that salvation is for all who repent, regardless how pagan and evil.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end here. Had the principle lesson been about the revival, the book would have ended, but it doesn’t. We do not have to read much into the story to realize that Jonah really had not paid much attention to the people responding and repenting, but God did. Look at Jonah’s response to God:

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [4:1-3]

Jonah goes off farther East, hopefully to watch the fireworks as God destroys this enemy of the Hebrew nation. The Assyrians were a cruel and evil nation, raiding smaller countries around them and turning the inhabitants into slaves. Jonah hated them, and probably wanted to see God’s judgment on them, but God had other plans.

God’s plans for the angry prophet were not quite over. God prepares and gourd vine to grow which shades Jonah from the heat as he waits. Then God prepares a worm to eat the root of the vine, and then a hot dry wind to finish it off. In less than 24 hours Jonah goes from happy to angry over the vine. Listen to the dialogue between God and Jonah and how God teaches him how He cares for all people:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” 
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” [4:9-11]

Jonah’s priorities were out of line. He cared more for his own convenience than he did for the souls of men. God uses the vine to illustrate Jonah’s selfishness and lack of love.

Jonah is a great little book, but what does this have to do with Thanksgiving?  Precisely that it was at the point of giving thanks, even before he was released from the belly of the fish, that Jonah was in a position to be used as God desired.  The following are some lessons that we need to take away as we read the book:

1. God will accomplish His will. He is willing to move heaven and earth to get it done. He desires that we obey Him willingly, but will use our rebellion against His will to teach us that obedience is always better.
2. Jonah was not useful until he became grateful.
3. God takes the initiative. Nine different times in the story God moves; He is not distant and far away when trouble comes, but rather as close as the nearest prayer.
4. God will bless even the unrighteous to bring them into a relationship with Himself.
5. Repentance and gratitude begin a work in our heart that can help us as we obey.
6. Many times we fail to see how merciful God has been with us. The “belly of the fish” we find ourselves in may really be a blessing in disguise.
7. God can and does use even the most mundane and ordinary things to accomplish His will. Never say that you are not “important” enough, or spiritual enough to be used by God. He used a storm, a fish, a gourd vine, a worm, and a dry wind to accomplish His task: He can use even us!
8. God will use the ordinary around us to reveal where our character does not reflect His nature.
9. God cares for all people, everywhere, for “He is not willing that any should perish.” [Matt. 18:14]
10. Years later, Peter is going to be in Joppa, the very town from which Jonah fled God’s will, and will have a choice to obey, even though it didn’t seem quite right, and he makes the correct decision to obey.

Are you in the belly of a big fish right now?  How will you choose to respond? What can you give thanks for right now?