[These thoughts were sparked a bit tangentially from a good sermon on Jonah, delivered 6/15/2008 by Chad Hertzell, one of my church's elders.]
Jonah has to be one of the strangest preachers, ever.
As a pastor, I often lamented the lack of visible effect of my sermons — or puzzled over the disproportionate effect. That is (to take it chiastically), some sermons that I felt I had simple massacred, or bobbled, or fumbled, seemed to be used for a particularly rich blessing to the folks present. On the other hand, sermons that seemed rich and edgy and on-target and powerful... not so much!
As a rule, I preached through books. So, by no design of my own, we would come on a section which should finger an area of sin or resistance in some regular attender — and then either that person would not show up, or the Word would evidently sail right past, a clean miss. And I'd worry, and puzzle, and agonize.
But I never, ever preached a message, saw the Word go home to great and glorious effect — and then got angry at God because of it!
Yet of course that is exactly what Jonah did.
And what a doof he was: God tells him to preach to this one group of Gentiles, and so (famously) Jonah runs away — and ends up preaching to another group of Gentiles (1:9ff.)! It isn't much of a sermon: it's terse, it's brief, it's virtually forced out of him. But it is 100% true, and God apparently uses it to bring these men to saving faith (1:14-16).
In spite of Jonah.
And then after Jonah's own volte-face in chapter two, he is re-commissioned to preach to Nineveh. This time he does it. But not very well! Again, it's a terse, sparse sermon, as reported in the 3:4. It's a mere five words in Hebrew, eight in English: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!"
Not a lovely sermon, not a winsome sermon. But it was the message Yahweh had given him to preach, and he preached it faithfully — and Yahweh used it to produce a massive repentance throughout the city, as they grasp at a straw of hope (3:5-9). The straw of hope was real (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-8) and, however deep or shallow their turning, judgment was averted.
Was Jonah happy? Wouldn't you be? I speak to my pastor-readers, or anyone who's ever told an unbeliever about Christ. Would you be happy to see one hearer repent? Five? Five thousand?
One hundred and twenty thousand (4:11)?
I think you or I would be delirious with joy and praise and gratitude.
But of course, Jonah was not at all happy. He was smoldering, ugly, angry at God; and he got himself a nice little public, for-all-time hiding for it (chapter 4).
From this little tale, I adduce two thoughts.
First thought: why hasn't some ambitious religions entrepreneur made a best-selling book of this? He could call it, Your Best Preaching Now! Or The Prayer of Jonah. Or The Secret Message of Yahweh. Or A Stingy Homiletics.
The message of that barn-burner of a book could be,
"Figure out what God wants you to do, listen for the voice of God — and do the opposite! Preach angry! Preach short, graceless, dessicated little dehydrated sermons! Preach a hard message that nobody wants to hear! And make it harder! Don't pray for conversions! In fact, pray against conversions! You'll experience unparalleled success and explosive growth!"Maybe you're laughing, maybe you're groaning. But you know that the premise of many very popular books has even less textual basis in the Bible than that.
Jonah serves as another example of the importance of reading each part of the Bible in light of the whole Bible. He also serves as an illustration of how dangerous it can be to mistake description for prescription.
Second thought: no wonder the center of the book is Jonah's confession in 2:9b — "Salvation belongs to Yahweh!" Isn't that the real message of Jonah's wretched example? The results (both in the boat, and in Nineveh) are in no way proportionate to Jonah's consecration, his holiness, his love for God or man, his oratory, or any series of gimmicks or enhancements you could imagine.
From Jonah's example, I can discern only one positive lesson for application: when you preach, preach God's truth. Jonah did do that. Not well, not eloquently, not eagerly, and not with a good spirit. But he did do that much.
But beyond that, the real lesson I glean is this:
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)Now, I'm just going to ask you mentally to plug in here all that the whole Bible says about what a preacher's heart and attitude and spirit should be, about what focus he should have, and about what he should aim to accomplish in his preaching.
But — catch this, it's the big point — we should do that not because it's the method that will work. We should do it because we love God, and that is the orientation that reflects and pleases Him.
Because in the final analysis, it isn't the method, anyway. Look at Jonah! It's GOD who saves. Salvation belongs to the Lord!
You and I might as well face it: on our best and holiest and most consecrated, God-centered, Spirit-filled day, preaching the most exalted, beautiful, Heaven-breathing sermon we will ever preach...
...at our very best, we're just clay pots, conveying a fantastically extravagant treasure not of our making.