“Jonah” – Jonah (selected verses)
October 18, 2020
Special thanks to Jordan, Leah and Rosie for their part in the wonderful skit today,
and many thanks to all the mid-highs and their leaders who are participating in leading worship!
We are so glad that all of you are a part of the DPC family.
And our prayers are with you and all students and teachers
as you navigate the challenges of online learning.
When I was in elementary school, our children’s choir at my home church performed a musical
of the story of Jonah. I remember well a large blue whale that some crafty person constructed,
very similar to the one used in our skit this morning.
It hung behind us during the musical on the stage in our church fellowship hall,
and in my child’s mind, it was huge!
It may have two or three times as large as the one in our skit today.
This “big fish” part of the story is huge and is what so many remember most about Jonah.
But the whale is but only one part of Jonah’s narrative.
Jonah’s narrative is likely a combination of two ancient tales,
one about the fish and the other about a prophet’s anger over the deliverance of an enemy.
Unfortunately, the big fish tends to drown out this other very important aspect of the story.
Jonah’s story addresses Jewish fearfulness of living in towns and cities a long way from home,
and it addresses the temptation toward narrow-mindedness and prejudice regarding foreign neighbors.
Once we get beyond historical questions about the fish,
what we discover is that the story of Jonah is mostly about the wideness of God’s mercy.
When Jonah’s narrative was written, the Hebrew people were living throughout the known world.
By the the fourth or fifth century b.c.e., Hebrew people were living from the far east to the far west.
The temple of Jerusalem was no longer the center of religious, social, and political life,
but local synagogues, focused on the gathering of the faithful and the learning of the Torah,
were springing up all over the world.
Inevitably, being located in these other nations, in the midst of diverse peoples,
questions began to arise in the synagogues about one’s proper attitude towards one’s neighbors.
Just how were the Hebrews to interact with non-believers or with those who believed in other deities?
How were they to interact with those nations who had caused their people great harm in the past?
And if their god, Yahweh, was no longer tied solely to the land of Israel,
what might Yahweh’s relationship be with these other peoples and other nations?
These topics were of keen interest to the author of Jonah.
Before we dive further into the story, there are several important things to note.
First, and most obvious in Jonah’s story:
if God is calling you, if you are feeling nudged by the Holy Spirit to do something
or to reach out to someone, you might as well go ahead and do it.
Running away will probably only delay it.
Second, you might as well be prepared to welcome someone that you would just as soon avoid or ignore.
Jonah didn’t want anything to do with the Ninevites, but that’s the people to whom God called him.
God often calls us to move beyond our comfort zones in following God’s will.
Third, you might as well be prepared to be surprised by those people
whom you would just as soon ignore.
In Jonah’s story, the outsiders, the secular sailors and the wicked king of Ninevah,
became examples of faithfulness and humility before God.
The prophet Jonah is the one who appears the fool in the story.
Not only does he rebel against God, he refuses to let go of his prejudices,
and even begrudges the salvation of an entire city.
Hear the Word of God from Jonah 1:1-3
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Ninevah,
that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board,
to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Did you notice that Tarshish was mentioned three times?
The irony of this text is lost if we don’t know our geography.
Jonah caught a boat out of Joppa, today’s Tel Aviv, on the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean
and headed west towards Tarshish in southern Spain, literally as far away as humanly possible
from Ninevah, which is in today’s northern Iraq.
What was Jonah thinking?
Do you remember the words of Psalm 139?
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Jonah could run, but he could not hide.
Like Jonah, when God beckons us to do something unexpected,
we may be sorely tempted to turn tail and run in the other direction.
Like Jonah, we may not like the persons whom God is calling us to engage.
Jonah did not like those Assyrians and certainly did not want to be their missionary.
Like Jonah, we may be afraid of the “Assyrians”.
Their corruption, violence and wickedness had come to the attention of God,
and Jonah did not wish them well.
So Jonah ran away.
Not long after he runs away, Jonah finds himself in chaos, facing a wild storm.
But when the chaos of wind and wave came brewing, Jonah was fast asleep in the hold of the ship.
Even though the ship was about to sink, Jonah didn’t even realize what was going on.
Finally, the captain came below and cried out, “What are you doing here asleep?
Get up, and cry out to your god! Maybe your god will save us!”
What are you doing here Jonah? Why are you sleeping through this critical time in your life?
This is the same question God asked Elijah on the mountain.
What are you doing here, up on the mountain?
Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal, but he was hiding out in fear from the wrath of Queen Jezebel.
Elijah, like Jonah, found himself ready to give up and even die.
It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors. I Kings 19:4
But God did not allow Elijah to die.
God provided for Elijah a broom tree for shade and sent an angel to feed him.
Later, hiding out in a cave high on the mountain, along came an earthquake, a great wind, and a fire.
But God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.
It was when Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence that God spoke to Elijah again and asked,
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Once Jonah awoke from his slumber, the sailors cast lots to determine whose fault it was
that this great calamity had come upon them…and the lot fell upon Jonah.
To his credit, Jonah accepted responsibility.
He told the sailors that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord.
Then he cried out: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you;
for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” (1:12)
For the first of three times in his short story, Jonah is ready to throw his life away.
Yet, as so often happens, when we find ourselves at the end of our rope,
when we find ourselves in the chaos of an overwhelming flood,
when we are ready to give up and give in to powers greater than our own, God shows up.
God sends some messenger or some angel to save us, to encourage us,
to swallow us up even in order to keep us from drowning.
The messenger of God in this story was a big ol’ fish who ushered Jonah from death to new life.
From the belly of the whale, Jonah cried out to God, quoting psalms of thanksgiving.
“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried and you heard my voice…
The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God…
with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (from Jonah 2)
Later, upon a new shore, with waves lapping at his ankles, the same call came once again to Jonah …
“Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
This time, Jonah got up, made his way to Ninevah,
and set out to do what he should have done in the first place.
When Jonah arrived in Ninevah, he only walks one-third of the way into the city.
Jonah does not attempt to preach his sermon in the central square of the city;
he goes nowhere near the government buildings or the king’s palace.
Instead, he gives a half-hearted effort, offering a short sermon out in the suburbs.
“Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”
This is just five words in the Hebrew language.
But Jonah’s five word sermon accomplished abundantly far more than Jonah could ask or even imagine.
Word quickly spread about his prophecy, and the people of the city repented and turned toward God.
One of my favorite prayers of the Apostle Paul comes from Ephesians 3:
Now to him who by the power at work within is able to accomplish abundantly far more
than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ to all generations.
Somehow, by God’s inscrutable will, the five word sermon reached even the ears of the king of Ninevah.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal shall (eat or drink).
(We) shall be cover (ourselves) with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God.
All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows?
God may relent and change his mind; (God) may turn from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,
God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them;
and God did not do it.
To God be the glory! This would have been a wonderful way to end Jonah’s story.
Great news! Ninevah is saved! Surely the prophet is pleased!
But Jonah did not give God glory. Jonah did not think it was great news.
Jonah became angry instead, and for the second time was ready to give up his life.
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
(I knew you were) slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
(I knew you were) ready to relent from punishing.
And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah had fled towards Tarshish because he was afraid that God would show mercy for the Assyrians.
Jonah did not want the Assyrians to receive mercy.
He wanted them to suffer for what they had done.
The Assyrians had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 b.c.e.,
and they had dispersed the 10 northern tribes.
Jonah wanted them to pay for the cruelty of their ancestors, as described by the prophet Nahum.
Jonah wanted God not only to see their wickedness, and to recognize their wrongdoing,
but also to make them pay for it, and pay for it dearly.
As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog:
“Jonah could not tolerate the idea that God could love (these people) a people Jonah hated…
He sulks because (his enemies) were not ‘rightly’ punished.”
What Jonah forgot, and what we can forget, if we are not careful,
is that, like Jonah and the wicked king of Ninevah, none of us deserve the mercy of God.
As the Scripture says, There is no one who is righteous, not even one…
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… (from Romans 3)
We may be tempted to believe that God is with us and for us, with our group or our party or our tribe,
which we then may take to mean that God is not really with them or their party or their tribe.
If God does something good for them, how can that be?
Vernon continues: “Grace and forgiveness is an unexpected outcome when applied to your enemy.
It is one most of us have trouble tolerating…
How many of us would rather die than see a political enemy thrive?”
We are grateful when we are saved from the sinking ship or from the rising waves.
But we are not so sure that we want God to do so for our enemy.
Jonah is one of two books in the Bible that ends in a question.
The other is Nahum, which is an oracle of judgment upon none other than Ninevah.
The book of the prophet Nahum ends with these words:
All who hear (bad) news about you (Ninevah) clap their hands over you,
for who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?
No doubt, the Ninevites were a wicked, violent, corrupt people.
But God’s grace is bigger. God is a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
And God stands ready to relent from punishing, not just some, but all, even the Ninevites.
The good news of the gospel is that if the wicked Ninevites and even the animals of Ninevah
are included in God’s wide mercy, then surely the citizens of those nations around the world
where the dispersed Jews lived…they must be included in God’s wide mercy as well!
Jonah lived in a black and white world of anger and conflict, of judgment and depression.
If I sin, I should be punished for what I have done.
If I run away from God, I should be thrown into the sea to drown.
If my enemies have sinned, as the Ninevites have, they should be punished for their sins.
They should not be saved. They should not be delivered from their heinous acts.
If they are not punished, then all is not right in the world.
If I am not punished, but allowed to continue on, then I will punish myself with anger and depression.
The book of Jonah ends with a question:
Then the Lord said (to Jonah), “You are concerned about the bush (which gave you shade),
for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, (which is part of my creation)
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…and also many animals?”
The story ends with a question, not a resolution, a question which Jesus addressed some years later
when a troubled crowd, in need of healing, gathered around to hear him speak:
Love your enemies, Jesus said. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (from The Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church