I guess we’ve always enjoyed the fantastic when it comes to entertainment and the stories we tell. In the realm of film and video, new animatronics and digital technology has meant that the fantastic can become more real life, we could imagine an island full of dinosaurs, our beautiful countryside could become JRR Tolkein’s middle earth complete with epic battles that pit computer generated armies of Orcs, Trolls, Wargs, Olephants against men, elves and dwarfs. Equally fantastic realm of Narnia, or the world of Avatar, and seeing The Titanic once again float(At least on the screen) . People defy gravity. The fantastic has almost become commonplace.
But I can’t help but wonder if we are living in a time when the fantastic has stepped into the real world and become very much common place. You just have to look around you and almost on a regular daily basis new technology and discoveries and breakthroughs are reported to us as totally changing the way we live. Ten years ago mobile phones were as big as a brick and a novelty item, now the idea of video phone calls that we’re the realm of science fiction classics like star trek with its sub space communications are a reality. I lost my sight a while ago due to diabetes and people tell me that what the doctors were able to do for my eyes just wasn’t possible even a few short years ago, in fact would have seemed miraculous.
It’s fantastic what we are learning. Our ability to look at the smallest building blocks of life at a cellular and DNA level and gaze increasingly further and further out into the vastness of the universe leads us to constantly have to reevaluate how we think and understand life the universe and everything. At these edges of science people are once again comfortable to talk not in terms of evolution by chance the possibility of design. When science first looked off into space and observed nature and proclaimed they couldn’t see the finger print of God perhaps it was just that they hadn’t looked far enough or close enough. What to them seemed too fantastic to believe now becomes believable as they gaze on the fantastic
AS a story one of the main things that makes the book of Jonah so memorable is that it is saturated with the fantastic and to tell you the truth I don’t know if I believe it is fantastic reality or just a fantastic story. I do know most people remember the book for the great fish. The fantastic miraculous way God chose to save Jonah from drowning. We all wonder about the large creatures that lurk just below the surface. If you’ve been out whale watching in Kaikoura you’ll know the feeling of being dwarfed by the immense size of the whales that stop off there like its a takeaway bar on the side of the highway on which they travel the vast distance from Tonga to the Antarctic. They are fantastic. Or if you’ve ever seen a sharks fin rise out of the water when your in it... that’s not so fantastic.
When you read the chapter three there is something even more fantastic than the fish. A lone Hebrew prophet comes to the great city, the city of Nineveh, a city great not only in size but importance and on his first day preaching in the city can cause the whole city to repent from its evil ways and show its remorse before God. Maybe the picture conjures up images for you of that lone street evangelist talking to an empty square, sharing good news when no one is listening, they and we simply drop our heads and walk by embarrassed. Or the rather shabby, scruffy, wild-eyed crazy person shouting the end of the world is neigh and we wonder at how Jonah could have such an impact. It can only be God’s spirit at work. The people of Ninevah hear Jonah’s simple message ‘In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed’ and respond. Firstly it’s a people movement, then at an official level as the King hears and responds. All the people are ordered to wear sackcloth and the people and animals to fast. These are ways of showing they are sorry for their sins and to repent before God. God sees their heart felt sorrow and saves the city.
It’s fantastic that God shows compassion to Nineveh. AS you read through the book of Jonah you will see that there are two words used for God. When God speaks to Jonah we have the Hebrew YHWH which we translate LORD. This was the name by which Israel knew their God. It is the ‘I AM’ of the burning bush. It designates a knowing of God and a being his people. When the people of Nineveh react and repent to Jonah’s message the Hebrew word El Elohim is used which means God most high. What strikes me here is that God had compassion on the people of Nineveh even when they do not know him but simply respond to the little they knew. We see the compassion of God that as they responded even a little way to him he showed them his compassion and saves them. The picture that comes to mind is that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Who sees his son far off in the distance and does not wait for him to come close but rather abandoning his dignity hitches up his robes and runs into the street to meet him and welcome him back, such fantastic compassion.
It would have been fantastic for Israel to see their enemies responding so positively to the LORD. Israel had heard many prophets speak to them down through the years and they had seen again and again God’s mercy and grace and they were a stiff-necked people. The people of Nineveh hear one message and they react and repent. It is as shocking as Luke’s gospel that shows scoundrel Zaccheus, not the pious rich young ruler, as the example of what it meant to become a follower of Jesus. Maybe in our day it would be as shocking as a masked terrorist missile launcher in hand who repents and renounces violence in response to God’s grace while an American preacher still calls for ‘God’s wrath and vengence’ over 9/11.
Moviegoers today talk of getting tired of the special effects and the fantastic and what they seek is the human story. In the book of Jonah amidst the fantastic it is Jonah’s relationship with YHWH, the LORD that’s the real story. This is the core drama. In the Narrative it’s worked out in four main scenes. Jonah running away from God on the boat to the western reaches of the Mediterranean, Jonah inside the fish thanks God for saving him, Jonah obeys God preaches in Nineveh and God saves the city and Jonah alone with God sitting in the desert waiting to die.
If it were a stage show the first part of this chapter would be like the main character standing in front of the curtains hearing again from God to go and say what the Lord tells him to Nineveh. Then the curtains role back and there he is in Nineveh. Like all Hebrew narratives it concertinas time to cut to the important parts of the story. In this God gives Jonah a second chance. Jonah had blown it and yet God gives Jonah one more go. When you have a look at the scriptures we see that God’s people and servants down through the ages are fallen sinful people, people that have stuffed up big time, made mistakes done wrong things are flawed and broken yet God is gracious to them and God calls them to share that grace with the world around them, even the enemy they cannot love. Brandon Manning tells the story of a valley girl, that’s the cultural sub group that comes from the Fernando valley near Los Angeles, whose response to reading the Gospel of Luke was “Wow, Like God’s really into ragamuffins”.
It’s fantastic but yes God is into broken and hurting people. He is prepared to entrust his mercy and grace to people who have let him down have tried to run away, maybe even have spent all their lives running from him. Peter the only other figure in scripture who seems to have experienced the dramatic Spirit inspired response that Jonah did, when he was at Cornelius’s house and the spirit fell on the gentiles even before he’d finished preaching, was the one who had denied Jesus three times.
It encourages us to realise that God is able to use even us with all our faults and foibles our dislikes and even our prejudices and boundaries to bring the good news of God’s compassion shown in Jesus Christ to the world he loves. He didn’t even wait till Jonah was perfect or had got his faults sorted out.
AS Paul says in Romans 5, It is God’s desire for all to be saved. It is still the fantastic compassion of God that not only his favoured people but all people come to Know Jesus Christ. But how will they turn to God if they have not heard, how will they hear if no one is sent. The compassion of the story of Jonah is that God sent someone even disobedient uncaring hateful Jonah and the spirit worked in people’s lives. It’s fantastic maybe even to think that we too could have the impact that Jonah does hearing and obeying God’s call to speak his word in our world today.
What’s even more fantastic in the book is Jonah’s response to God’s compassion. A prophet, who is indeed rare in the Old Testament in that he’s listened to and causes great social change, is angry with God, it's like he shakes his fist at the heavens. He knows God is a compassionate God but Nineveh… I mean how could God show such mercy and compassion to Nineveh, Israel’s sworn enemy? I just knew you’d do that God he shouts at heaven. I just knew it, that’s why I didn’t want to come that’s why I tried to run away. It is this fantastic response that is the climax of the book that is supposed to challenge us the most. The book is full of God’s compassion but where is our compassion? It causes us to look at ourselves and wonder at how we respond to God’s mercy. How we respond to God’s call to proclaim his love and grace in the light of our likes and dislikes. It calls us to go beyond our boundaries to the open handed compassion of God.