Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Jonah, the Person

Last week, when I was being driven through the town of Obala, I saw a man who reminded me of Jonah. In the middle of the street stood a middle-aged guy in a flowing green robe, with a red turban on his head. He held a wooden cross in his hand. As vehicles passed, he waved the cross as if he were giving a blessing.

He saw me in the front seat, and exaggerated his blessing toward the green Toyota Land Cruiser. But he was not joking. No hint of humor flashed across his face as we passed. He was dead serious. He was blessing our car, doggone it.

The mentally damaged people of Cameroon have nowhere to go, except these busy streets. In Yaounde, there are a number of regular homeless people who wander in various states of dress and undress. It still shocks me to drive down the street and encounter a completely naked man or woman, but it happens often.

I can’t imagine that these sorts of people are carrying a message from God in their mouths, but then again, I’m sure the folks of Nineveh couldn’t believe that this scraggy-haired guy named Jonah was the real deal, either.

Because I do picture Jonah as wild-eyed and unkempt. After all, he’d just spent three days inside a fish, soaking in bile. That’s not the sort of thing that one bath will cure. And prophets are not the sort who take pride in the way they look. They figure that God’s Word ought to be enough; you don’t have to impress the people with your sense of faith at the same time.

I can’t imagine Jonah bought a new suit for his trip to Nineveh. He probably didn’t even change his sandals. He wanted to get this thing over with … and soon!


Everyone who feigns to speak for God puts his neck out there, regardless of what he or she is or isn’t wearing. I’ve been doing this for awhile now, and I have gradually learned how to speak the truth and not worry about what other people think. This is the hardest lesson to learn in ministry.

The pulpits are full of people who simply want to curry favor and be adored for their fantastical insight into theological truths. Nobody requests a prophet; churches only want priests, ministers who will stand between God and the people as a kind of buffer. Prophets also stand between God and the people, but rather than protecting the people, they rather intensely focus God’s wrath and judgment upon the situation. And that’s uncomfortable.

There have been times when I have felt myself prompted by God to say hard things to a congregation. But surprisingly, the hardest things I have ever said to a church had nothing to do with politics, war and peace, or sex: the most difficult subjects have had to do with internal congregational circumstances.

In Cameroon, the hardest sermon I have preached came in the closing worship service at the Pastors’ Conference in January. I dared to say to the pastors that I felt like not all of them were “serious” about their ministry, their work, and their involvement in the Mission. I challenged them to either drop out, or go forward.

In these times, I probably was acting like a prophet. But there is a very real danger and risk in making these kinds of speeches. In the back of the prophet’s mind is the worry that he might … just possibly … be wrong.


That’s what made Jonah so blooming angry. When God changed his mind, he didn’t only exercise his freedom as the one God of all creation – he also ruined Jonah’s prophetic career. Jonah had made a spectacular prediction and broadcast it to the world: “In forty days, Nineveh will be overrun!”

Forty-one days later, Nineveh was prospering. The catastrophe never came. To the outsider and interested observer, that prophet Jonah was flat-out wrong.

I am sure that, up to this point, Jonah’s record was spotless. What he said came true – this is, after all, the proof of a prophet’s true calling. The prophet whose predictions turn out to be false, is a false prophet. That is the kiss of death.

Where else could Jonah go? He didn’t have a guaranteed appointment as a nomadic messenger-boy. He couldn’t go back to a career in woodworking or sales.

I think he deserves some sympathy when he sulks under the bean plant at the end of the story. If the people of Nineveh are spared God’s wrath, then who would believe Jonah’s predictions of doom the next time round?

“There’s that old lunatic rambling on about the end of the world again … he was sure wrong about Assyria, wasn’t he?” And they’d laugh and walk on down the sidewalk.