This morning I want us to take a look at a story that many of us have heard since we were kids.
Roger Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, tells us that “The book of Jonah is one of those unique Old Testament stories that easily transfers to children’s Sunday School. This has resulted in a cottage industry of Jonah-themed Bible materials for children, whether flannel board materials, coloring books and, of course, the creation of the first VeggieTales movie, which grossed $25 million in box office sales.”
Today, however, we are going to take a look at the Jonah story with fresh eyes and like many of the stories of the Bible we will see that it’s not really a children’s story about a man in a big fish.
It’s a story about the grace and justice of God. It’s a story that stretches our understanding of the width, breadth, and depth of God’s love. It broadens by a mile our original definitions of justice and mercy. We imagine a merciful God but then God shows greater breadth to that mercy that we could have imagined, and then a justice that is broader still.
Now that we have a little context, let’s dive in.
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 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.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
7 The sailors[a] said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “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.”13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 [b] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
The title of this section of Jonah is “Jonah Tries to Run Away from God”. How does that work out for anybody in the Bible or now? Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and he doesn’t want to. So he flees. The more you learn about Nineveh, the more you understand where Jonah is coming from. Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a violent people who regularly killed Israelites. In fact, it would be the Assyrians who would come and destroy the northern kingdom is Israel. These are truly enemies for Jonah. One commentator suggested that this would be similar to God asking a Jew to go, preach to a guard at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. No wonder he doesn’t want to go give them God’s message.
This story reminds us to be wary of any faith that tries to narrowly define who is in and who is out of God’s kingdom. It reminds us that God repeatedly tells us to welcome the foreigner, the stranger, that we ultimately are Gentiles grafted into the vine of God’s kingdom. And of course, it begs the question: Who is your Nineveh, the people you really don’t want to believe could be part of God’s salvation plan? In this week of the election, is your Nineveh Democrats or Republicans? Is it immigrants? It is Muslims? Who is your enemy? The Feasting on the Word commentary says, If God intends real salvation for all the peoples, then in all seriousness, we must at least talk to our enemies …… In this deadly serious mess, the only way to avert total catastrophe is to talk. What an appropriate message during this week of the election when the rhetoric on both sides has become so divisive, and it seems that people can’t even comprehend talking to someone on the other side. The only way to avert total catastrophe is to talk to one another.
But all of this is centered on us. How do we respond to God’s call, how are we like Jonah? What if we read the Jonah story and asked a different question? What does this story tell us about God? What about God is revealed to us in this story?
The first thing revealed about God’s nature in Jonah is that God calls us to surprising, even ridiculous things. What is the most shocking, ridiculous thing you can think God might call you to? That’s what is happening in this story. God doesn’t always work in clear, straight paths that make sense. Sometimes God works in astounding, confounding ways. And sometimes God call us to join him in these surprising things.
Let’s read Jonah 3 now and see some more about what this story might reveal about God’s nature:
3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 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. 8 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. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 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 he did not do it.
I know that we are skipping the time that Jonah spent in the big fish, which is the part that we focus on most of the time. Some have said that it seems implausible that a big fish would swallow a human whole and then spit them out on the beach three days later, often the image of a whale is used, like Pinocchio we think of Jonah with a candle sitting in the belly of the whale. One commentator said that the idea of Jonah spending three days in a whale and coming out unscathed is more believable than what happened when he reached Nineveh.
Can you imagine all those cows and horses in sackcloth? What I wouldn’t give for a Polaroid of the whole city, including the animals covered in sackcloth. I read this week that Jonah is considered the most proficient of all the prophets. He speaks a total of 8 words and the whole city repents. No other prophet can say that.
For a second time, God gives Jonah the message. The second thing we can say about what we learn about God is that God journeys with us, even in our stubborn rebellion. When we try to run, God is there. When we are in the pits of despair, God is there. When we come to our senses and return to God, God is there. God journeys with us, no matter where we are or how much we are currently rebelling against God.
Let’s finish the Jonah story:
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He 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. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush,[a] and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 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. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
We finally hear from Jonah why he fled to begin with. Because he knew that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And Jonah didn’t want any part of that if it was extended to his enemies. Here is what we learn about God. God’s love is extraordinary. God’s grace is for all. In this story, the just thing would be for Nineveh to suffer. They had caused and would in the future cause so much suffering for Jonah’s people.
God is asking for the right to love our enemies regardless of the consequences. When God’s grace and God’s justice come into conflict, grace wins. Love wins. Sometimes that means that we are going to get burned, we are not going to get the justice we want. The God who calls us into surprising adventures, who journeys with us even as we rebel, who chooses to extend love and salvation to all people, that God whom we worship and serve has chosen grace - for us and for all, our friends and our enemies. This is the good news that we proclaim.
May it be so.