It’s unsettling when you finally realize that you’ve haven’t had all the information you’ve needed.  You go into a business transaction and make a lousy deal because you’ve only had part of the information.  You live your life, working under certain presumptions, only later to find out that some of your presumptions were based on only half of the story.

So here we are with Jonah.  You’ve been going through your Christian life with only half of the story.  Oh, you know the story of Jonah–at least some of it.  God tells Jonah to go preach in Nineveh.  But Jonah doesn’t want to do that.  So he boards any ship that happens to be going in the opposite direction of Nineveh.

But God is no so easily dissuaded.  He sends a powerful storm that furiously tosses the ship to and fro on the sea.  The sailors on the ship see that they’re all about to die.  In a breakdown of honesty, Jonah comes cleans and tells the sailors the storm is his fault.  He then says that if they would throw him overboard, the storm will stop.

The sailors hardly give it a second thought.  They quickly agree and toss him overboard.  But before Jonah drowns in the sea, a giant fish comes and swallows him, and he survives in the belly of this big fish for three days.  That’s the most-bizarre part of the story–at least it is at first glance.  That’s the part that everyone remembers.  But then we forget the rest of the story, if we even learned it at all.  So, let’s not forget the rest of the story.

The story continues.  God directs the giant fish to swim over to the land and spit Jonah out.  And by now Jonah realizes that he’s not going to get away with not doing what God told him to do.  So, reluctantly, Jonah treks the 400 or so miles to Nineveh.

Jonah is now convinced that he has to do what God told him to do.  But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.  And he doesn’t!  That doesn’t even mean that Jonah has to do an excellent job of it.  And he doesn’t!  Jonah only does the minimum.  He does just enough to get by, just enough to keep God from convincing him to do a better job.

So, Jonah crafts a sermon to preach.  He makes sure it has what God wants it to say.  But that’s it.  Jonah will use none of the art of rhetoric.  He will use none of the power of human persuasion to help make the message heard.  After all, Jonah simply doesn’t care.  And so in the Hebrew language, Jonah preaches a five-word sermon.  Even in English, it’s short.

Jonah proclaimed, “In 40 days, Nineveh will be demolished!”  If you were a Ninevite and blinked your eyes or had a stray thought, you never would have heard the sermon.  Yet, even despite such a short, unexplained sermon, the people of Nineveh, including the King, believed what God proclaimed to them through Jonah.  They turned from their sin and turned to the Lord.  Now even if we stop there, the story is still impressive.

But wait!  We’ve skipped over some obvious questions!  Why did God want to send Jonah to Nineveh anyway?  And why didn’t Jonah want to speak God’s Word to them?

We start first with the second question.  Why didn’t Jonah want to preach God’s Word to Nineveh?  It’s because Nineveh was in Assyria, and Assyria was Israel’s enemy.  God had called Jonah to proclaim a message to save the life of Israel’s archenemy.  Assyria was already working to exterminate Israel off the face of the map.  And God wanted Jonah to do something that might save them?

It’s no wonder that Jonah fled in the opposite direction!  He was running away in patriotic dread of a brutal and relentless military machine, which was closing in on God’s people!  But there was more to it than that.  Jonah had also co-mingled patriotism with God’s salvation.  God’s own banner wasn’t the Israelite flag, just like His banner is not the American flag.  God is greater than any one nation.

Jonah and the Israelites knew that Nineveh was just about as close as you could get to being evil on this earth.  Assyria was the Third Reich of its day, and Nineveh its principal city.  They were the enemies.  They were like the Soviet Union to us during the Cold War.  As far as Jonah was concerned, they were all despicable.  He would have preferred to see God destroy them all!

That’s why Jonah didn’t want that Word of the LORD to get to Nineveh.  He wanted them, instead, to burn in God’s wrath.  But why would Jonah even refuse to preach God’s Word?  It’s because he knew and believed that God’s preached Word could bring about their salvation.  He knew the Word of God had the power to do what it says.  That’s why Jonah preached the shortest sermon he could think of, hoping that no one would hear it, and they would all be destroyed.

Today, we’re on the other side of the scale.  Unlike Jonah, based on how we act, we don’t believe the Word of God has the power to bring about salvation.  Oh, we say we believe that.  That’s what the Bible teaches.  But we don’t act as if that’s true.

This is what I mean.  Look at church attendance.  If God’s Word has the power to bring about salvation, then why isn’t attendance going up?  Yet, week in and week out, people come in here and are rarely moved beyond their complacence.  They come looking for what they want, and not what God wants to give them.

And so, how do we react to this reality?  Do we react based on what we say we believe?  No, we walk by sight, and not by faith.  We do what we think will work instead of what God says we are to be faithful in doing.  After all, we can’t measure faith, but we can measure attendance!  And then Church changes into something else, driven by what we can measure instead of God’s Word, whatever will bring in the people.

Well, Jonah didn’t have that problem.  He knew what God’s Word could do!  We might have responded to God by saying: “I’ll preach a sermon.  It won’t do any good anyway.  People are going to believe whatever they’re going to believe.”  But how did Jonah react?  He said, “There’s no way I’ll preach that sermon, because it has the power to change people’s lives.”

That’s why Jonah fled and, at first, refused to preach a sermon of repentance.  That’s why he later preached a sermon of only five words.  That’s why, in Jonah chapter 4, Jonah sat outside the city limits of Nineveh and settled down to see a fireworks show.  He figured: “This city is corrupt and sinful; they’ll never listen to God’s message of repentance.  I preached to them the worst possible sermon.  So in 40 days, I’ll get to see a show of shock and awe, of God raining down His judgment!”

But as short as the sermon was, the Ninevites took God’s message seriously.  They repented and turned their lives around!  So, we now begin to see who the real sinner was.  It wasn’t just Nineveh, but also Jonah, and by extension, Israel!

So, we now get to our first question: Why did God want Jonah to go to Nineveh?  Why?  Because God loved the people of Nineveh, no matter how messed up they were.  No matter how godless they were, and even though they didn’t know or believe in the God of Israel, God was still their Creator and God.  In the future, God would still send His Son, Jesus, to save even the Ninevites.  That’s why God still wanted to see them repent and turn to Him.  That’s why God had sent Jonah.

So, this leads us to a third question.  Why did God pick Jonah, of all people?  Obviously, Jonah wasn’t a compassionate or forgiving person.  Obviously, he didn’t want to obey God’s command to go and preach to them.  And obviously, he wasn’t much of a preacher, because his sermon was terrible!  “In 40 days, Nineveh will be demolished!”

But the rest of the story shows us that God thinks and acts differently, in ways we could never understand.  God has a heart full of love and mercy, even for the worst of people, even for people whom you and I would never consider forgiving!

God’s heart of forgiveness helps shape our hearts to look at others with new eyes.  It helps us to realize that we can think of others, even those we may despise, as someone for whom Christ died.  Such people need God’s forgiveness as much as you do.  God gives His love and forgiveness to that person, just as He does for you and me.

What took place with Jonah wasn’t just for the Ninevites; it was also for the Israelites.  The message for Nineveh was also for the people of God.  When the people of Nineveh repented, God used that as a lesson for Israel.  Israel’s refusal to repent was inexcusable.  Like Nineveh, they, too, would be brought to ruin if they continued to have hardened hearts.  God looked with favor on Nineveh’s repentance–but not on Israel’s refusal to repent.  As it was then, so it is today.

Nineveh continues to be an example for God’s own people, that we, even today, need to repent.  Yes, God calls you and me to repent.  God is ready and waiting for us to turn from our sin and seek His forgiveness.  And He’s ever quick to forgive us and restore us as His dearly loved children.

Jonah wanted God to be a God of justice.  He wanted those no-good Ninevites to get what they deserved!  But if it were in God’s nature to be that way with the Ninevites, then God would also be that way with the Israelites.  We, like Jonah, need to take the log out of our own eye before we worry about the speck in someone else’s!

So, why do you gripe about God blessing someone else more than He’s blessing you?  Instead, why not thank God for being gracious and merciful?  Why not thank Him for blessing you with what you don’t deserve and what you could never earn?

Don’t you see what’s going on with Jonah?  The story is not about us, or about how perfect, or even how flawed, we are.  It’s not about whether God is going to destroy our enemies as they deserve.  It’s not even about how much you and I also deserve to be destroyed.

No, the rest of the story is about how loving, gracious, and merciful our heavenly Father is.  Indeed, as Jonah recognized, God is “merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster” (Jonah 4:2).  Because of His Son, Jesus Christ, God shines His mercy on you, even though you only deserve His righteous anger.  In the end, the story of Jonah teaches you to say, “What a merciful and loving God we have.  He loves even me!”

So now that we’ve heard this story, and learned about the rest of the story, let us do just that.  We now stand and confess what a merciful and loving God we have, using the words of the Apostles’ Creed.  Amen.