Holy (Dis)Comfort: Listening for God’s Word in the Minor Prophets
“Jonah” (selected verses)
June 27, 2021
Before we turn to the narrative of the prophet Jonah,
how many of you have heard the recent tale about the professional lobster diver in Massachusetts?
Just two weeks ago, on Friday, June 11, Michael Packard, age 56, (MICHAEL PACKARD 1)
was diving 45 feet under water off the shores of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
As I understand the story, there is a “shelf” of sorts not far off the coast
where the water temperature changes and the lobsters congregate for some reason.
Supposedly, you can dive to a certain depth in that area and collect your fill of huge lobsters.
While Michael Packard was doing so, he claims that he suddenly felt a huge push
and then found himself in darkness. Confused and disoriented,
he soon realized that he was in the mouth of a whale. (WHALE)
The whale held Michael in the darkness of his mouth for well over 30 seconds,
and then, for some reason, the whale breached the surface and spewed Michael out.
His mate nearby saw him fly up into the air and quickly came to his rescue.
After a thorough inspection at the hospital, Michael Packard walked away from the experience,
bruised but not broken, limping as he spoke to the news reporters. (abc news)
The incredible tale of Jonah was probably recorded in the fourth or fifth century BCE,
a time when the Hebrew people had been dispersed over almost all the known world.
The Hebrew people then lived in nearly every region all the way from Iran to Spain.
The temple was no longer at the center of their religious, social, and political life.
Synagogues, the local gathering places for the faithful, were springing up all over the world.
The sacrificial system was no longer the most important aspect of their relationship with God;
instead, the learning of and meditation on the Torah and other writings became central.
Of particular interest to the author of this wondrous tale of Jonah
was the relationship between the Hebrew people and the foreign nations in which they found themselves.
Just how were the Hebrews to interact with non-believers or with those who believed in other deities?
The narrative of Jonah was probably formed from two separate ancient tales,
one about the fish and the other about the threatened destruction of a foreign neighbor.
These tales were brought together in order to grant the readers of Jonah deep insight
into a powerful truth about the intentions of God.
The Jonah story was written in order to encourage those who would hear the story
to take a hard look at their attitudes towards those they considered to be “outsiders”.
We can read into Jonah’s story at least seven seasons of his spiritual life.
Jonah’s first spiritual season in the narrative, a season of flight,
is one in which some people remain nearly their entire life.
Read Jonah 1:1-3
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, 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.
Sometimes when God calls us, when God lays a claim on us, when the Holy Spirit nudges us,
like Jonah, we are sorely tempted to turn tail and run.
God called Jonah to go east, to go preach in Assyria, to that great foreign city of Ninevah.
But Jonah did not like the Assyrians. Truth be told, he did not particularly want the Ninevites
to know God’s mercy, and so, rebelling against God’s leading,
Jonah went south and caught a boat out of Joppa heading west.
His goal was to sail clear across the Mediterranean to Tarshish, which is in today’s southern Spain.
But as the old saying goes, “you can run, but you cannot hide” –
God knew where Jonah was. As Psalm 139 proclaims:
“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.”
In this first identified season of Jonah’s spiritual life, he is running away from God and everyone else.
He is seeking to do what he wants to do rather than what God was calling him to do.
Is there anyone among us has not at some point run away – or at least turned away –
from God or others? Is there anyone who has not rebelled in some way against God
or some other authority?
In Jonah’s second season of his spiritual life, he is “Asleep”.
While the storm was brewing on the sea, while those around him became sore afraid,
while the sailors began to cry out to their gods, Jonah was fast asleep.
The ship was about to break up in a chaotic storm, but Jonah did not even realize what was going on.
Have you ever had a season in life when you were mostly unaware of what was going on around you,
when you failed to notice, or perhaps did not want to notice, the danger at your doorstep?
Finally, the captain of the ship came below and cried out to Jonah, “What are you doing here asleep?
Get up, and cry out to your god! Maybe your god will save us!”
Responsibility the third season of Jonah’s spiritual life in the narrative
The sailors had decided to cast lots to determine whose fault it was that this great calamity
had come upon them…And the lot fell upon Jonah…
Jonah could no longer pretend to hide from God; he finally had to accept responsibility for his actions.
Jonah confessed that was fleeing from the presence of the Lord and if they wanted to be saved,
they had better throw him into the sea.
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea;” he said, “then the sea will quiet down for you;
for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
Most of us don’t like to admit responsibility for our failures or confess our rebellion.
Most of us do not want to think about the harm that we may have been causing to others.
But when the lot fell on Jonah, he came clean. He accepted responsibility.
Even so, though Jonah accepts responsibility, still he does not trust in God.
He is ready to throw his life away because he feels as though he has failed God and others,
God was not ready to give up on Jonah, but Jonah was ready to give up on himself.
The fourth spiritual season, being saved by grace,
occurs when Jonah finds himself at the end of his rope.
When Jonah found himself flung into the chaos of an overwhelming flood,
when the waters were rising over his head and he was ready to give in to powers greater than himself,
God intervened. God sent a messenger to save Jonah, to lift him up and encourage him.
In Jonah’s case, God sent a big fish, as the story goes,
to swallow him up in order to keep him from drowning.
Who amongst us has not found themselves beyond their own spiritual resources, struggling to stay afloat?
Who amongst us has not realized, at some point in life, that they are not able to save themselves,
but are in need of divine grace in order to go forward?
The fish or whale part of the story is the part that we may remember most about Jonah,
not only because of the preposterous nature of a man alive in the belly of a large fish,
but because at the height of the narrative, Jonah was saved from sure death.
He was spared from the forces of chaos.
When Jonah realized he had been saved, he 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!”
Though Jonah was still in the belly of the fish,
and uncertain how his life might continue, yet Jonah sang praise to God:
And the Lord spoke to the fish, and the fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
In the next season in Jonah’s spiritual life, he discovered renewed interest in fulfilling God’s call.
There at the shoreline, with the waves lapping at his ankles, with his feet back on solid ground,
the call came to Jonah once again…the exact same call…
“Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
And this time, Jonah responded. Jonah got up and went to Ninevah.
After receiving a new lease on life, he set out to do what he should have done in the first place.
When Jonah arrived at Ninevah, it became clear once again, that God was in charge,
and that Jonah was merely an instrument of God’s will.
As the story goes, Jonah gets just one-third of the way into the large city,
not into the central square, but at the outlying suburbs and begins his preaching:
“Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!”
Just five words in the Hebrew language – a short sermon by anyone’s standard.
And in the narrative, the people of Ninevah took Jonah seriously:
“they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth” – the sign of repentence.
Read Jonah 3:6-10
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, no herd or flock,
shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.
Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall 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; he may turn from his 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.
The efficacy of Jonah’s preaching did not have much to do with Jonah’s eloquence
nor the power or length of his sermonizing;
the salvation of Ninevah was purely the work of a gracious and powerful God.
What great news! This would have been a wonderful way to end the story of Jonah!
But Jonah’s tale does not end here.
Disillusionment and depression is the unexpected next season for Jonah.
Jonah became angry and depressed when the wicked Ninevah repented,
when God decided not to destroy the city.
You would think that Jonah would be overjoyed.
You would think that he would celebrate and worship with these new believers and converts.
Instead, Jonah becomes angry and depressed, depressed enough to die.
He became disillusioned with his life and with his call –
nothing was turning out the way that he expected.
Nothing was going the way that Jonah would have liked things to go.
Read Jonah 4:2-3
Jonah prayed to the Lord and said, ‘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,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and 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.’
Truth be told, Jonah was a bit of a drama queen.
Jonah became so upset that these wicked Ninevites had become God-fearers that he was ready to die.
Instead of destroying his enemies, God saved them.
Here is where we realized the powerful message of Jonah for the Jews
who had become dispersed all over the world.
Jonah’s story reveals in no uncertain terms that the grace and mercy of God, of the Hebrew’s Yahweh,
was not going to be limited to people who looked like them or worshiped like them.
The final season of Jonah’s spiritual life could be described as edification,
or instruction in the ways of God and of the world.
When Jonah camps out outside of the city, waiting to see what’s going to happen there,
God comforts Jonah with a wonderful, shady bean plant that grows up in one day.
Jonah loves the bush and appreciates its relief from the heat and sun.
But the next day, God sends a worm to destroy the bush.
Then God sends a sultry east wind, and in the heat and sun, Jonah becomes faint and again wants to die.
For the third time in the narrative, Jonah asks the Lord to die.
“It is better for me,” he says, “to die than to live.”
And the Lord teaches Jonah another valuable lesson.
“Is it right for you to be angry, Jonah, about the bush?”,
Is it right for a you to be angry about the loss of something or someone that I sent to you to comfort you
in the midst of your depression and disillusionment?
“Yes, Lord, it is right for me to be angry about that, angry enough to die!”, Jonah replied.
Read Jonah 4:10
Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor
and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people
who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Jonah is only one of two books in the Bible that ends in a question.
The other is Nahum – and Nahum happens to be an oracle of judgment upon none other than Ninevah.
Nahum ends with the question: Who has ever escaped the endless cruelty of the Ninevites?
Who on earth has not suffered at the hands of the wicked?
The implication at the end of Nahum is that the wicked shall be destroyed.
But Jonah’s story ends with a far different question– should I not be concerned about the Ninevites?
In other words, Who is not included in the grace and mercy of God?
If the wicked Ninevites, and even the animals of Ninevah are included in God’s grace,
then surely the citizens of all those other nations of the world must be included in God’s grace as well!
The Jews of the diaspora – the dispersion of the tribes – would have just as soon stayed to themselves
and ignored the Gentiles among whom they lived, not only in the fifth century BCE,
but also in the first century CE, when the good news of Jesus Christ
began to spread through the synagogues of diaspora.
The attitude of the first century Jews, spread throughout the known world,
would be critical to the growth of the early church among the Gentiles.
In Jonah’s story, it was the outsiders, the non-believers, the secular sailors and the king of Ninevah,
who are offered as examples of faithfulness and humility before God.
It was the Hebrew Jonah, the insider, the prophet of God, who appears foolish in the story,
who rebels against God’s will, and who continues to offers the example of what not to do
when relating to God or neighbors.
As individuals, or as a church, or as a nation,
where are we in terms of our attitudes towards outsiders, towards those who are different from us?
Like Jonah, are we running away from or rebelling against God’s call?
Or are many of us spiritually asleep, unaware of what’s going on around us?
Perhaps some of us are in the midst of accepting responsibility for past actions,
realizing how our actions have caused the suffering of others?
Surely, there are those who are fulfilling their call, who, by the grace of God,
are responding and doing exactly what it is that God has called them to do in regards to outsiders.
Others are finding themselves depressed or disillusioned, even in the midst of being faithful.
Their lives, even though following God’s purposes, may not be turning out as they expected.
And then there are those who are being edified, who are maturing in their faith,
who have been through much in life, but are finding themselves being taught anew every day
about the grace and mercy of God.
An article came out last week that claimed that church membership was at its lowest point ever
in the history of the United States of America.
Participation and membership in the church is waning, especially among younger generations.
What might this have to do with the Church’s openness towards outsiders,
towards those different than ourselves?
The Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.
The Church in America is no doubt in crisis,
facing both fearful danger and tremendous opportunity at the same time.
Will the Church of today act like Jonah?
Or will today’s Church perhaps learn what not to do from this ancient prophet of old?
Whatever spiritual season of life you may facing,
wherever we are as a church or as a nation,
may the good Lord be as patient and as gracious and as merciful with us as God was with Jonah.
To God be the glory.
Rev. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church