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Jonah and the Gourd

Recently we marked the first day of fall (September 22). In scientific language, our planet was in the autumnal (fall) equinox. The word “equinox” comes from Latin aequus, meaning “equal,” and nox, “night.” On this day as the Sun crosses the celestial equator (an imaginary extension of Earth’s equator line into space), we have the same amount (12 hours) of night and day. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the nights now begin to be longer than the days. Are you embracing the changing seasons?

Painting by Maarten van Heemskerck , “Jonah Under His Gourd,” 1561 A.D.

Coincidentally, on September 22 the Christian Church also commemorates the work of God through the prophet Jonah. Jonah is often remembered for in conjunction with the whale that swallowed him and miraculously three days later, vomited up the prophet alive. The heart of that book of the Bible is the story of how God deals compassionately with sinners.

For this reason, the Lord sent the reluctant prophet to Nineveh to announce: “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Amazingly this Gentile city, enemies of Israel, repented from the greatest to the least. “God relented of the disaster that he said he would do” (3:10). The word Jonah used for “overthrown” can also mean “to be turned around”—God’s Word held true in a beautiful way. Jonah didn’t want a turn around. He believed that Israel (and he himself) was more worthy of forgiveness than other nations. God’s love for sinners offended the prophet. He did not embrace Nineveh’s transformative change. In hopes for a return to divine judgement, Jonah pitched a tent outside the city to see what would become of the city. Despite the poor attitude, the Lord abounds in steadfast love, even for the self-righteous. Therefore, the Lord appointed a plant to grow over Jonah and provide comforting shade. This was intended as an instrument of instruction to “save him from his evil” (4:6). You may recall older translations that identified the plant as a gourd.

As quickly as the plant grew, it withered and decayed. Again, Jonah was offended. So the Lord asked, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11).

In other words, people are infinitely more valuable than plants. And eternal life is far more critical than short-term comfort. By the end of story, Jonah’s heart is the place of greatest need for transformative turnaround. His comfort would not come in vengeance or fleshly comfort but in grace alone.

How does this relate to us? We may feel anger when witnessing the diverse evils arising in our present world. We could suspect our civilization is in a fall-like season. Like Jonah’s gourd vine (and our gardens) is our culture withering and decaying? We, like the prophet, serve a God who is gracious and merciful. In all things, the Lord is continuing to teach us. Just as Jonah and the Ninevites before us, we have not merited the Lord’s favor. He has called us to proclaim His Word to this world. We pray that this World not only “overthrows” sin and evil but also works a “turnaround” on human hearts.

Ultimately our attention and hope are not in the cities of men. But we follow the One who walked outside the city to endure the darkness of our sins. We look to Jesus whose life withered on the dead wood of the cross. We marvel how He worked the miraculous “sign of Jonah.” After three days of in the belly of the earth, he rose triumphantly and thus turned around our futures forever (Matt 12:40). In him there will be new life for us and all the world. He has opened a way to the ever blooming gardens of Paradise.

Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Jonah, You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true faith and demonstrating through miracles Your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness. Grant that Your Church may see in Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in Your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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