The Reluctant Evangelist
Text: Book of Jonah
Disappointment over what seem like few results from our efforts in evangelism are commonplace. No matter what particular method of evangelism we choose to employ it seems that the disbelieving world persists in being unresponsive to all our efforts. The number of unchurched people in the United States has doubled in the past ten years while most mainline denominations continue to experience an erosion of church attendance and membership rolls. George Barna, author of more than two dozen books about ministry, the culture, and church dynamics, tells us that not a single county in the U.S. shows an increase in the Christian population.
Imagine, then, the success of one’s evangelistic preaching being so incredible that every man, woman, and child repents of the evil they have done and earnestly seeks God’s forgiveness and cleansing. Wouldn’t you consider that hard to believe, even for our great God and Savior? Yet that is exactly what is reported in the book of the prophet Jonah. Jonah is known mostly for having been swallowed by a whale (or great fish), but that is not the point of the book of Jonah. In fact, if you think it’s not possible for a man to be swallowed by a great fish and be vomited back out again relatively unscathed, what do you make of the repentance of the whole city of Nineveh (which still exists in present day Iraq)?
In this short Bible story, we have a most remarkable sermon for all to read. And if you think that earlier in Israel’s history it was difficult for them to see beyond their own geographical and religious borders, then check out this story.
God tells Jonah…
“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).
Known for its wickedness and its large size, Nineveh was not exactly what Jonah had in mind for a “call.” So his immediate response is to book passage on a ship headed in exactly the opposite direction. The author editorializes accurately:
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish…to flee from the Lord.
I don’t know whether Jonah had been to seminary or not, but anyone who thinks he can run away from the Lord needs to go back to his catechism lessons. On second thought, come to think of it, I’ve tried the same thing myself, and I have been to seminary. Who is this short story about, anyway: Jonah or us? When I was in seminary our professors taught us to look for ourselves in the Bible. I remember one professor actually wrote a book about the Bible entitled The Book That Reads You. That’s what makes me so uncomfortable when I read this story. How often have I tried to run away from God, repented, then gotten mad at God because he didn’t run the world the way I thought he should?
Anyway, God sends the perfect storm and soon everyone’s throwing cargo overboard in hopes the ship can be saved. And Jonah, well, he picks this time to take a nap below deck, which makes us wonder even more about him. Next, the captain shows up, wakes Jonah, and tells him it’s time to pray, since he seems to have experienced an advanced case of narcolepsy. About this same time the sailors are trying to figure out what is causing the calamity, and in the process of casting lots, guess whose “lot” comes up? You guessed it, our sleepy friend.
The curiosity of the sailors was getting the best of them as the storm raged, so they asked what he did for a living, where he was from, and after he gave them the orthodox answer they were even more terrified.
“What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so) (1:10).
Next they pose a question:
“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us? (1:11).
Jonah then confesses that it’s all his fault (give him credit for that) and volunteers to be thrown overboard. But the sailors were a compassionate lot and started rowing for shore instead. When that was no help they finally asked God to forgive them, and they tossed Jonah over. This is where the great fish comes in, swallowing Jonah, who now camps out in his stomach for three days during which time he prays to God for pardon in not accepting his call. Seeing Jonah’s sincere repentance, before you know it God tells the fish to vomit Jonah up onto dry land (2:2-10).
Now God sends Jonah the same call a second time, and this time Jonah obeys. Can you believe what happens next? After Jonah tells the people of Nineveh where they’re headed, they listen, believe, and repent. Even the king sits down in the dust and issues a proclamation that every man, woman, and beast must fast in repentance and call upon God in the hope that he might yet change his mind and give them another chance. Guess what? When God saw what they did, he had compassion and cancelled the fireworks.
Now you might be thinking that Jonah was delighted with what God had accomplished through his reluctant efforts. Think again.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.
Now he’s complaining that this is just what he thought God would do, and that’s why he didn’t listen to him in the first place.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
So now he asks God to take his life.
God simply asks him why he thinks he’s got a reason to be angry, and Jonah goes out and sits down on a hill overlooking the city to see what will happen next. God makes a vine grow up to shade him from the blazing sun. That cheers Jonah up, but the next day God sends a worm to chew up the vine, so Jonah was back to his grumpy old self again as soon as the sun gets to beating down on him. He asks God to take his life again.
If Jonah’s more concerned about a shade vine than he is about a city of 120,000 people who are pretty ignorant, then he ought to go back to Bible school or get a theological dictionary and look up the meaning of grace.
So what is the book of Jonah all about anyway? Certainly it isn’t about whether or not a great fish can swallow a person. That’s a distraction. The clear teaching of the book is that God thinks it’s time for his people (Israel then, the church now) to act a little more like him and show some compassion for people who may not have been born with a catechism book in their hand. It’s all about priorities, and nothing’s more important to God than people, lots of them, even the sinners. If we’ve got problems with inconsequential things at church or on the mission field, or if we just got up on the wrong side of our theological bed, then maybe it’s time to get over it and wake up and smell the coffee.
In other words, God’s mission is to change lives. If that’s not what we’re about then maybe it’s time for us to get converted!
- Why do you think Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh? After he did go, why was he was disappointed with what God did?
- If Jonah represents a reluctant Israel in his time, who do you think he represents today? (Are we getting a little uncomfortable?)
- Have you ever been disappointed with God’s extreme grace? Why?
- What is God saying to you in this short story? What is God asking you to do? Are you reluctant?