Who Exactly Are We Supposed to Forgive?

Ah Jonah, the classic water story in the Bible.  I love the story of Jonah on so many levels and it isn’t one that comes up in the preaching schedule with any regularity so let’s have some fun with it tonight.

Jonah is an Old Testament story of disobedience.  Jonah is an Old Testament story of redemption.  Jonah is an Old Testament story of trying and failing to understand God.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/253748-who-exactly-are-we-supposed-to-forgive.mp3?]

It begins with the hero of the story, Jonah, getting a command from God to go to Nineveh and explain to them why they’re a horrible city and will be destroyed.  Jonah does not want to go.  To Nineveh.  Instead, Jonah leaves his home immediately and heads in the exact opposite direction, going down to Joppa so that he can hop a ship to Tarshish.  Now Nineveh was located in what is now eastern Turkey and Tarshish was located in what is now southern Spain.  Jonah was willing to travel 2500 miles west to avoid travelling 500 miles east to Nineveh.

He seriously did not want to go to Nineveh.

Jonah hops on a ship bound for Tarshish and runs into some problems.  A storm blows up on the Mediterranean sea and everyone is running around trying to figure out who they should blame.  Jonah decides it is his fault and that they should throw him overboard.  The good sailors of the ship initially refuse but ultimately toss Jonah overboard.  When they do the storm abates and they are saved. Exit the sailors and their good ship.

Poor Jonah however, has just been tossed into the sea.  The situation should look pretty bleak for him and it should be the end of the story but wait, there’s more.  Jonah gets swallowed up by a large fish.  How have you seen Jonah depicted sitting inside the fish?  The standard depiction of Jonah inside the fish, sometimes translated as a big whale, is like a big cave with Jonah sitting there patiently for 3 days.  I’m not sure that’s exactly how that works.  I’m guessing being inside a big fish for three days represents a very uncomfortable position to be in.

In any case, and this is where we join Jonah in tonight’s text, Jonah is inside the fish and in spite of all the discomfort that comes to mind when you spend three days inside a fish, Jonah lifts a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord, closing with, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”  Whereupon, Jonah is promptly hurled onto the beach.  So to speak.

Okay, this could be the end of the story too.  Disobedient child of God, is punished, then repents, and is then redeemed, emerging from the water as a new creation.  Yay Jonah, yay God!  But wait, there is more!

Jonah does finally get to Nineveh to do what he was told to do in chapter 1, verse 1.  And quite amazingly, the Ninevites hear Jonah’s message and choose to get their act together and they decide to straighten up and fly right.  Okay, so now we have a disobedient Jonah that has repented and is redeemed and now we have an entire nation that has repented and redeemed.  Surely, THIS is the end of the story.  Surely, THIS is the end of the story.

Wait… There’s more….?

Yes, we finally get to the crux of the story.  Disobedient Nineveh repents and is forgiven and the one who should be shouting for joy is angry about it.  Jonah is not happy about this development and is really why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh to tell them to straighten up and fly right.  He was afraid of exactly this happening.  He was afraid that if he told them to get their act together that they would and that God would forgive them.

What?  Jonah doesn’t want forgiveness for the Ninevites.  No, not so much.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and Assyrians had been trashing on the Israelites for a very long time.  Sent them into exile, trashed Jerusalem and the temple, all kinds of stuff.

It is kind of like if North Dakota came down and by act of armed force trashed Lincoln and Spirit of Hope and then made most of us to move to Indianapolis.  Would we be chartable toward the people in Bismarck?  Would we seek forgiveness of the people that live in Bismarck?  Would we be inclined to travel to Bismarck to be the change agent that leads to their repentance and forgiveness?  Or would we head for Miami?

It isn’t so much he doesn’t want to travel the 500 miles or so to Nineveh.  It isn’t so much that he doesn’t want to bring a harsh word to Nineveh, though that would be my first reaction given the history.  Who wants to go to a foreign city and tell them how bad they are?  We may THINK we want to do that but rarely do we really want to do it.  The issue is that Jonah didn’t want forgiveness for the disobedient Ninevites.

In many ways, Jonah’s story is our story when you think about it.  How many times in our lives have we wished ill toward someone who has hurt us?  How many times WILL we wish ill toward someone who had hurt us?  Not an uncommon kind of thing.

And our way out of it begins the same way Jonah did.  In prayer.  Jonah is trapped inside the belly of a big fish which I’m guessing is a metaphor for feeling squeezed by our life circumstances.  And in the middle of that feeling Jonah begins his prayer, “I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;”  He recognizes that he tried disobedience and that didn’t work out so well so he turns it over to God in prayer.

He still doesn’t get it.  He is still annoyed by the whole Nineveh being forgiven thing.  But he is following God’s path instead of his own.  And no doubt there will come a day when, by the grace of God, forgiveness will be okay.

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