May, among Australian Baptists, is “mission month” where we raise awareness and support for Global interAction, the Australian Baptist cross-cultural mission organisation. So as we kick off in May, our studies will be around the theme of mission. But now for something completely different:
The famous Monty Python fish slapping dance (see video above) encapsulates, for me, the book of Jonah. Why? Not simply because he’s swallowed by a giant fish at the end of it. But because the book of Jonah was written as one big, fishy slap in the face to Israel. A wake up call about what it means to be God’s special people. At some level at least, it’s a biting satire about how Israel had failed to live up to her calling as a light to the nations.
And this week, we’re going to have a look at the book of Jonah. To see what God might say to us, as his special people. How he might challenge us in our role as light to those around, through the words of this Old Testament prophet named Jonah.
Actually, it’s probably not Jonah’s words that are going to speak to us, as much as his actions. ‘Cause Jonah’s not your average prophet.
Now it’s true, many OT prophets were told to act out their messages. Ezekiel had to lie around for over a year playing with toy soldiers, and eating food cooked over a dung oven. Poor old Hosea had to go and take a prostitute for a wife, watch her run off with other men, and then go and woo her back.
But Jonah’s different. He’s not told to go and act out an object lesson. He’s just given a simple message to deliver. But when he fails to deliver that message, he unwittingly becomes the object lesson. Unlike the other prophets, we don’t learn much from what Jonah says. Rather, we learn from what he does, and what happens to him.
Without knowing it, Jonah acts out the message for God’s people through the events of his own life. He himself is the prophetic demonstration. In one sense, Jonah is Israel.
So what is this message Jonah acts out? Let’s start the story.
Scene 1: God’s Call
At the start of the book, Jonah’s given a simple instruction from God:1:2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Sounds simple enough. But also quite scary. You see, Nineveh wasn’t in Israel. It was the heart of the Assyrian empire. Full of people who were from a different culture, a different religion, and might not take too kindly to a message telling them God wasn’t pleased with them.
It’s a bit like being told to go and stand in front of a Hindu temple or an Islamic mosque or an atheist’s convention handing out gospel tracts that aren’t all that tactfully worded. Definitely awkward, and potentially provocative. So Jonah does the smart thing and heads off to Tarshish instead.1:3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
Does he really think he can run away from God? Maybe. Back then, people thought of gods as being tied to particular locations. Your nation’s god works well in your home land, but his record in away games mightn’t be that good. “If I go far enough, maybe he won’t be quite as able to reach me?”, thinks Jonah.
Or maybe he’s just running away from what God wanted him to do. Tarshish, in modern day Spain, is about as far as you could go in the opposite direction, before you reached the end of the earth. And as far away from any Ninevites as you could get. What’s more, it’s a pretty nice spot, too, with nice beaches: like the Club Med of the ancient world. It was where the wealthy went for their holidays.
So it’s kind of the equivalent of being told to go preach in an underprivileged, multi-racial, multi-religious area of the city, but instead running off to an affluent, beachside suburb for a surf. It’s as far as you can go in the opposite direction. It’s having a holiday, rather than doing God’s work. And it’s the last place you’re going to run into any Ninevites, if you get my drift.
But this call of Jonah is a commentary on Israel’s call. Here, Jonah’s been called to do something extreme – to go to a foreign land with a message of judgement. So he runs away. By contrast, all Israel’s been called to do is to live as God’s people, the way he intended, in the sight of those around. Simply to be a light where they are. Is it really that hard? And yet – like Jonah – most of the time they’ve simply run in the opposite direction.
And what about us? Most of us haven’t been called to preach outside a mosque. Or hand out tracts in North Korea. Simply to be a light where we are. To live our lives, as God’s people, in a way that’s obvious to those around us. Is it really that hard? And yet – how often do we run in the opposite direction?
To think about
Where have you been called to proclaim the often-provocative message of the gospel? (Because we all have been called, in some way.)
Are you fulfilling your calling, or running away?