September 24th 2017
Most of us all know the story of Jonah and the whale, or we at least have a vague idea of what it was about (we think); even people who aren’t “churched,” who aren’t Christians, have some familiarity with it. It’s a story about a little puppet, (a marionette technically, but let’s not get too bogged down with technicalities) who is swept away and swallowed up by a whale… and after several days he builds a fire in the whale’s belly and the whale spits him out. Oh no – I’ve confused it with the Disney story. The other version, (the original version) was about a man, a real man who was swept away and swallowed up by a great fish (if we’re going to be technical, it was not a whale).
Jonah was the man’s name and God spoke to him and told him to go immediately, to a large city called Nineveh, and tell the people there, that they have been living so despicably, God was going to allow the city to be overthrown, as far as the people of Nineveh were concerned their lives would be destroyed – ended. Jonah obeyed God In one small regard, he reacted immediately; he immediately did exactly the opposite of what God had told him to do. He set out for the closest port city, Joppa, and booked passage on the first boat leaving town, to a city called Tar-shish; he wasn’t particular about his destination, as long as it was as far away from Nineveh as he could get. He ran away.
Now comes the part which most of us are at least vaguely familiar with… as soon as the boat sailed out of Joppa, a great storm came up, and if we are being technical, the Bible says God created this storm; “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea.” We’ve witnessed in the past couple weeks just what a raging sea looks like and can do; this ship was manned by experienced sailors, and this storm had them scared out of their wits. They began throwing the cargo overboard to try and lighten the ship so it would not sink. When nothing they did helped, they panicked and resorted to superstition; they rolled dice to decide which one among them was responsible for this unprecedented storm, which was about to take them all down to their graves at the bottom of the sea. They concluded that it must be the stranger (Jonah) who had, by this time, retreated below deck and was sound asleep (in the midst of category 5 storm). They confronted Jonah and he admitted that he was running away from his God. They tried as hard as they could to bring the ship back to the safety of the harbor but the storm was too great.
Maybe out of a sense of guilt, maybe out of a sense of repentance, or maybe out of a sense of self-pity and futility, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard and the seas would return to normal. This hardened crew of seamen did exactly that, they picked Jonah up and heaved him into the raging sea where a great fish swallowed him up! After three days Jonah began to rethink his situation, his outlook changed and in the belly of this great fish he became repentant, and Jonah prayed for God’s forgiveness. Technically, (if we’re still being technical), Jonah’s prayer was a bit self-righteous; he was very repentant until the very end of his prayer, when he adds the words, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I, with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you.” But it was good enough for God (God is so forgiving, even when we don’t deserve it), and the fish spit Jonah out; he has survived this unbelievably frightening experience of the raging storm and the belly of the fish.
Unfortunately, for a lot of us, that’s where our familiarity with Jonah’s story ends. But that was far from the end of Jonah’s story; God wasn’t done with Jonah… or for that matter, with the city of Nineveh.
God spoke to Jonah again, and said, ‘Get up, and go do what I told you to do! Tell the people of Nineveh that their debauchery and wickedness will be the downfall of their city.’ We can conjecture why Jonah hadn’t wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place; Nineveh was a big, prosperous Assyrian city, far from his home in Israel, located on the banks of the Tigris River in the Upper Mesopotamia, (where the city of Mosul, which we here about each day as battles are waged against the Islamic State terrorists). Maybe he didn’t have confidence in himself, maybe he didn’t have confidence in God, maybe he was just plain afraid of the reaction of the people in Nineveh when he delivered this accusatory message, to a people who didn’t even believe in his God. Maybe he just didn’t see himself in the role of God’s messenger – maybe it just wasn’t convenient, maybe it didn’t suit him.
But after what had happened the first time, Jonah wasn’t foolish enough to press his luck. He fell in line and headed immediately for Nineveh, and when he arrived he began, as instructed, to predict the city’s downfall. To his surprise, (and probably his disappointment) the people didn’t react as he expected; they didn’t resist him; they didn’t mock him; they didn’t ignore him. They listened and took to heart what he was saying, they recognized the truth in his words and they began the ritualistic practices of repentance and mourning, similar to the Jew’s own, of dressing in sackcloth, covering themselves in ashes and fasting. When Jonah’s message reached their king, he went even further and declared that everyone should repent and pray for forgiveness. Now God had not asked for repentance from the people of Nineveh as the price to be spared; the message Jonah carried for the Lord was simply and straight forward, the city’s sins had brought destruction upon them – period. But they had faith, that if they repented Jonah’s God might spare them. And God saw what was in the people’s hearts, and God did.
Tony Soprano (the fictional New Jersey mobster from the HBO crime drama series) once had a line spoken to his wife, Carmela – I can’t recall exactly which episode, possibly one when Tony was jealous that Carmela was being counseled by the local priest), but he says, “You’re only religious when it suits you.” That was Jonah – only religious when it suited him. From the start Jonah wanted to be the one calling the shots. He didn’t wasn’t interested in taking part in God’s mission to the Ninevehians in the first place, and now after all he had gone through, God was going let them off the hook simply because they had gotten some old-time religion!
It infuriated Jonah, ‘How dare God!’ after threatening the Ninevehians with annihilation, now God goes and forgives them! “I just knew you were going to do that!” he tells God, and off stalks Jonah, still wanting to call the shots, waiting to see what will happen. He still held out hope that if these pagan Assyrians had been so wicked God was prepared to destroy their city, surely they’d fail in their pathetic effort to repent; and if they did, would God once again decide to destroy the city? (By the way, this is every teenager who doesn’t get their way; I have an image of one particular ‘pre-pre-teenager’ crossing his arms and stomping out of the room).
Although we remember Jonah’s fish story, he is a fairly minor character in the Hebrew Scriptures; outside of the four chapters in this book his name is just a notation in one other verse, where the reign of king Jeroboam is described in 2 Kings. That makes this another of those stories which, to justify its inclusion in the scriptures, must contain an important message or lesson for us. If we recall it only as a stormy sea and fantastic fish-tale, it really isn’t much more than that Disney story so many people confuse it with. But in reality, it is so much more.
It is, on one hand, a story about the Assyrian citizens of Nineveh, whose eyes are opened and hearts were moved by God’s word; in addition, it is the story of how these non-Hebrew pagans understood God’s mercy, when Jonah himself was oblivious to it. But mostly the story of Jonah is not about the Assyrians, about the fish or even about Jonah; it is a story about us. We are that teenager who goes stomping off when we can’t be in control of our God. We want to decide how, where and when God fits into our lives, instead of where God sees us as going. We want to define the rules, of who is worthy of forgiveness and who is not, who gets access to God, who is welcome, who is entitled to God’s grace and – oh yes – who should be “punished”. And if our definitions don’t fit God, then we’ll just redefine God into our image and our own ideas.
That might sound a bit dramatic, even over-dramatic… but look around the so-called American Christian Church today. Division and exclusion are what defines almost every mainline Christian denomination; and the majority of independent churches are independent because they’ll never have to deal with conflict if they only allow people who think and look and talk and pray exactly like themselves into their ‘club.’ We – the Christian Church, are that teenager, withdrawing from the desperate needs of those that God is seeking, and instead using the Church to satisfy and justify our personal spiritual and not-so-spiritual needs. And lest we get sanctimonious like Jonah, pointing our finger at the ‘church’, those same divisions, exclusions and need to condemn, infects our personal lives as well.
The book of Jonah concludes with an open question; God asks Jonah, “is it right (for you) to be angry?” Is it right that you (Jonah) should object when I extend mercy to others? Is it right that you should be concerned with whom I welcome? Jonah, ignoring God’s attemts to reconcile with him, remains silent.
I don’t think Jonah learned very much at all, from that first moment when rather than follow God’s lead, he booked it out of town. I don’t think he gained much from spending three days in the belly of the fish. The question though, is have we – have we learned anything? Have we heard God’s message that God is in control, and when we cannot live within that relationship we are on a stormy sea. The question is, have we heard God’s unrelenting attempts to draw us back, back to what God wants for us… or will we too, remain silent?
— Amen ―
 Jonah 1:4 (NRSV)
 Jonah 2:8-9 (NRSV)