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an unwilling missionary

Last week we took a look at a sleeping Jonah. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Jonah was to warn them and announce mercy and forgiveness if they would repent. God wanted to show mercy to the Ninevites, so Jonah took off in the opposite direction in a ship, for Jonah was not interested in God offering them mercy and forgiveness. God will not be stopped in his pursuit of offering mercy, though, so he raised up a storm to put Jonah back on course to Nineveh. This storm posed a serious danger to the sailors but rather than show concern for them Jonah was fast asleep. The sailors woke up Jonah and pleaded with him to pray.

So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

Jonah 1:6 ESV

Think of the opportunity! These sailors are begging Jonah to speak truth into their situation. They recognize the danger they are in and they also recognize that only a divine rescue can save them. This is the perfect opportunity for Jonah—God’s missionary!—to speak out about the one true God who can rescue them. But does he?

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah 1:7 ESV

No, he does not tell them about the God of Israel who offers mercy and grace to all who will trust in him. We know this because the sailors are left casting lots, trusting in “fate.” Of course “fate” is neither final nor determinative. As Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” They don’t know this because Jonah hasn’t said a word, so God spoke through the lots that were cast, ensuring the lot fell to Jonah.

Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly 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.

Jonah 1:8–10 ESV

The sailors had pleaded with Jonah to call out to whatever god he worshiped, hoping that this god might be able to save their lives. Jonah didn’t worship a god; he worshiped the one true God, the LORD—YHWH. It was only at the point that he had no other option that he finally proclaimed good news to the sailors: the LORD is the God of heaven, the one who made the sea and the dry land. Being the Creator means he had control over them.

The sailors likely worshiped gods like Baal Shamem (god of the heavens) and Baal Hadad (god of the sky and storm) and Yamm (god of the sea and chaos). These gods were believed to have jurisdiction over specific areas of creation. The God Jonah worshiped is the God of heaven, and he is the creator of land and sea. He and he alone can control storms and he can tame chaos and he can raise up the winds and calm them, and he can deliver them safely to dry ground.

What I find remarkable about this part of the story is Jonah’s incredible unwillingness to be a missionary, to be one who speaks of the one true God. That alone is perplexing, but what is truly remarkable is his ability to speak with such clarity and to speak with such precision, directly addressing their fears and concerns. He knew the gods the sailors worshiped and he understood how to speak the truth about God in a way that addressed their fears and concerns and offered them hope. In his brief answer he showed how the gods they worshiped were empty and false and how the LORD was true and offered them salvation. God had clearly prepared him—gifted him, we might say—for this moment. How effective would Jonah have been if he had been willing to speak for God?

None of us is sent alone into the world. God has sent his church, a diverse body filled with people with diverse gifts and abilities and insights. Together we proclaim the good news of who he is and what he has done. Some serve up front and some serve behind the scenes. If we are willing to serve together, the same God who offered salvation to sailors in distress and to the violent and brutal Ninevites who were slaves to their own wickedness is offering salvation and hope to those around us. We, together, are God’s missionaries.

Let’s pray for our church’s witness to our city. Let’s pray that New City will be a light in the darkness, that we would point others to Jesus. People no longer worship Baal Shamem or Baal Hadad or Yamm, but if they don’t worship Jesus whatever gods or idols they do worship are just as empty and powerless. People need Jesus, so let’s pray for the opportunities to share his good news.