Called to Obey

Book of Jonah
Series on the Church as Called
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Jonah is a great narrative for our time, filled with irony and humor. It asks us to suspend our historical, critical minds. The book of Jonah begs us to hear a outrageous story and learn a lesson from it. We often are so busy asking questions of historicity and are so serious about the facts that we effectively avoid considering the questions that the scripture asks us about our character, about our obedience. Well of course, we don’t want to think about our own obedience to God.

Obedience is an unpopular word in our culture. It feels so old-fashioned to say, “We are called to obey God.” But we are. For our own good, as well as for the good of others. We are called to live lives pleasing to God, not to do what we want. Life is better when we do what God says and go where God says go. Jonah helps us to laugh at ourselves for the ridiculousness of going our own way, the other way, running away from God. Jonah is the reluctant prophet. He did not want to go to the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, to try to rescue people in a place where Israelites had been grossly mistreated. It is easy to see why he played the avoidance game with God, until God saved him with a three-day entrapment in the belly of a big fish. I don’t care whether you believe a person could live in the belly of a big fish for three days or not. What matters to me is that you care enough about the power and authority of this scripture to allow your soul to be shaped by it in Christian faith and obedience.

The lectionary (the ecumenical set of readings we follow) would have us read most of chapter 3, but I had decided early in the week that we had to read all of chapters 3 & 4. Then as we came closer to Sunday, I became convinced that we needed the whole story, the book of Jonah – which only takes about 3-4 minutes to read.

As the text is read by several voices, I invite you to reflect what God is calling Jonah to do and why he is running? Think about why Jonah gets mad when God’s desires are fulfilled. Notice how the outsiders in the story (the sailors and the Ninevites) are more faithful than the insider, Jonah.

Pay special attention to the boundless mercy of God, which begs Jonah to move beyond his prejudices, fears, and presuppositions to a more profound awareness of the power, providence, and great mercy of God. See Jonah’s struggle to obey God and consider your own struggle.

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NRS Jonah 1:1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish."

7 The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, "Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" 9 "I am a Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. 11

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Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you."

13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the LORD, "Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you." 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. 17 But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?' 5 The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. 7 As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!" 10 Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

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3:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

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5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.


7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

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4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." 4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live." 9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." 10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

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The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (pause, then slide)

What is God calling you to do? Where is God calling you to go? To whom does God want you to reach out and speak of mercy and love you have experienced? Why do you not want to do this? I’ll give you a moment to consider...

God is calling me not to the Ninevah of my own neighborhood and city. I’m nervous to establish real relationships with the people around me. Many of them scorn people like me, ministers of the Gospel. They think I’m narrow-minded or judgmental, like all those Christians they’ve heard about. They think I’m “holier than Thou.” They think I’m boring and super-spiritual, certainly not any fun. They will not want a relationship with me. And if they do want a relationship with me, they might ask too much of me. I might not have enough time or energy for them. I probably cannot answer all their questions or solve their problems anyway. It is hard to defend one’s Christian faith, as it is a world view, a perspective on truth, a relationship, not a provable data. It is hard to share faith. It takes a long time to build the kind of friendship that allows for that kind of deep sharing.

After all, God, my main responsibility is to the relationships I have with people already in the church. Isn’t it? Besides it probably would not make much difference. Those people in my neighborhood – they’re not interested in the Gospel, in the church. To each his own. I mean who am I to tell them the best news I’ve ever heard, the news that liberates me from the values of broken, lustful, materialistic world, news that reminds me of your boundless, steadfast love, news that has given peace to generations of Christians. They wouldn’t want to hear this news, would….. they, so why should I waste my time building friendships with them? (pause)

Then again, I don’t really want to create storms in the lives of those with whom I take refuge, while I’m avoiding the people God calls me to care for. I don’t want to land in the belly of a big fish, so to speak. Maybe I should try to do what God calls me to do. Obey. Live out this love that has been given me. Share it with others. Obeying God is not easy, but storms and slimy isolation are not great alternatives.

God, why do you have to love everyone? I mean, wouldn’t it be better if you called us your favorites and we could forget about all those people who are late to the party of Your grace and love?

Okay, okay, I’ll go to Ninevah in neighborhood. I’ll get out of my little shell and share your love. Yes, I will. I will trust and obey.