Obeying God and Hating It (the story of Jonah)
A pastor I know tells about a Bible study group in a church that he served a number of years ago that decided to study the book of Jonah. Well, this group got hung up on the whale scene. They read the story not as a parable, but as a historical narrative. And they concluded that Jonah must have been swallowed by a sea grouper because a whale’s mouth is not large enough to ingest a human. They were so excited about their discovery they even asked their pastor to make an announcement to the church about their findings. Well, the pastor was able to get around it by telling them that he didn’t want to take credit for their research, and they should find some other way to share their conclusions. I have no doubt those folks probably missed the whole point of the story. I don’t know why some religious folks have such a hard time accepting that fiction and parable and metaphorical narratives are better conveyers of spiritual truth than history.
What I am about to say I hope will not sound egotistical. So I will preface it with this. I get a lot of things wrong. God knows that, my wife knows that, the people who know me best know that, and I suspect some of you know that too. Especially if you have been here for all 15 years of my pastorate. But one thing I am very confident about is knowing how to read the Bible. And if you will hear what I have to say, if you will listen, I can teach you how to read the Bible too. Most Christians today, sadly, don’t have a clue how to read the Bible. The Bible is a holy book. It’s our sacred text. But it’s also a human book. And despite what some big-time Baptists who have big churches say, God did not write the Bible. God is the subject of the Bible, but not the author. Fallible human beings are the authors, who had no more of an inside track on God than you do or I do. They were people of faith on a journey of faith just like you and me. If you can understand that and accept that it will help you immensely in reading the Bible and applying the Bible in healthy, redemptive ways.
Some of these writings in our sacred texts are the most highly enlightened, inspired, and potentially transforming texts that you will find anywhere. And some of the writings in our holy book are rather petty and punitive and even terribly wrong. The Bible reflects the struggle all of us have in living by faith and trying to figure out God’s will. The Bible read rightly will lead us to ask the right questions. What it doesn’t do is give us all the right answers. And so we must learn in reading the Bible to rely upon our own spiritual experience, critical study which includes literary study, church tradition, and all the disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on. We must utilize reason, common sense, and even basic intuition in reading the Bible. Some biblical texts reflect the common, popular beliefs and practices of that time and culture. Other biblical texts express non-conventional, counter-cultural, highly enlightened beliefs and practices. These “breakthrough” texts, as I like to call them, have the most potential to renew, heal, and transform our lives.
The story of Jonah is a counter-cultural story. It is a breakout story. It still reflects some of the conventional and popular beliefs of the day, but the main point, the main theme and emphasis of the story is a breakthrough story; it is truly revolutionary and potentially transformative.
The story of Jonah is great drama. There are lots of interesting characters: a huge fish, some foreign sailors, a city of wicked people, a violent storm, a plant, and a worm. All of them end up doing exactly what God asks them to do except the preacher, except God’s prophet.
After Jonah gets his assignment, he heads toward Tarshish. No one knows where Tarshish is – this is parable not history. The point here is that it’s the farthest place from Ninevah. Ninevah is where God wants to send his prophet. Usually if we want to flee from God, God lets us, but apparently if you are a prophet of God and you have been given an assignment by God, well, that’s a different story, at least it is in this story right?
So God sends “a great wind,” upon the sea. The story reflects the common belief of the time that God controlled the events of nature – the ancient Hebrews believed that God controlled the wind and the storm. So God sends the storm and it is some storm because the sailors, who certainly knew all about storms are scared out of their wits. Jonah, however, is sound asleep, which may suggest something about his state of mind. Perhaps he despaired of life and didn’t’ care.
The sailors call to whatever god they think might be able to save them. When they see Jonah asleep, they wake him up, “Why aren’t you praying?” What would you have said? I like the late Dallas Willard’s little definition of prayer where he says that prayer is, “Conversation with God about what we are doing together.” If we are not doing anything together, then there is not much to talk about is there?
The sailors decided to cast lots to discover who was bringing this disaster upon them. This was, again, a common way of discerning the will of the deity in ancient times. We even find the disciples doing this in the book of Acts. Well, Jonah won the lottery, though it was not the kind of lottery one normally would want to win. So they ask Jonah more questions, “What do you do? Where do you come from? Who are your people?” When Jonah tells them that he is a Hebrew and worships the God who made the land and the sea, it terrifies them and they ask what they need to do to pacify this God who is stirring up the waters. Again, the ancients believed that gods controlled the elements of nature and you had to pacify these gods. (By the way, some versions of Christianity haven’t moved passed that really. A number of Christians today believe Jesus’ death was a sacrifice God required in order to appease, to placate, to pacify God’s wrath and avert God’s condemnation. Not any different really than the ancient view of pacifying the angry deity.)
Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea. The sailors didn’t want to throw Jonah into the sea, but when things got desperate out went Jonah. Here Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish. And here Jonah prays. When you are closed in, swallowed whole, feeling engulfed by the circumstances of your life and darkness is all around, why not pray for help? It can’t hurt. Of course, if you are mad at God you might not want too. But then, if you’re desperate maybe you will anyway.
There was a time in my faith journey years ago when I was mad at God for not doing more in the world. I mean, if I was God I wouldn’t let babies die. I wouldn’t let genocides take place. I wouldn’t let evil, sick, people do terrible things to the innocent. I wouldn’t let earthquakes and Tsunamis devastate whole populations. I wouldn’t let storms like Harvey and Irma ravage the earth and human populations. And then I began to realize that maybe it was not God who was the problem. Maybe it was my perception of God that was the problem. And gradually I began to let go of this image of a controlling God and started to think more of a God intimately bound with the creation, a God coming to be “realized” in a sense through the creation, a God incarnate in creation, a God in love with the creation, a God for and with the creation, a God who suffers when the creation suffers. So I went from being mad at God who I thought controlled the world to falling in love with God who suffers with the world. I began to see the cross of Jesus not as a propitiatory sacrifice, but as a symbol of the crucified God, the God who joins us in our suffering.
Jonah prays and tells God that he will go. In the last line of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, he says, “What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah doesn’t say that he will like doing it; he just says he will do it. He doesn’t say that he will proclaim the message with compassion, but he says he will proclaim the message. So God decides to settle for what God can get. The great fish vomits Jonah up on the shore and the text says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. I’m glad the word of God comes to us a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and a fifth time . . . God says to Jonah, “Get up. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to them the message that I tell you.” I wonder how often God has to settle for what little love and compassion God can get out of us? Like Jonah we stew in our biases and try to justify our prejudices and we take ourselves way too seriously. The good news is that God will meet us where we are and love us as we are. Now, God doesn’t want us to stay there. God wants us to grow up. God doesn’t want us to remain immature children. God wants us to become God’s friends and share God’s compassion and develop a wider view, but God will meet us where ever we are on our life journey. And if we are going to be partners with God, we need to learn how to meet people where they are the way God does.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that she has this image of Jonah rolling into town, putting up a big tent, sprinkling sawdust on the ground, arranging the benches, and spreading the word about a big revival meeting. Thousands show up; even the king is there in his purple robes. Jonah pulls out his white handkerchief, clears his throat, and speaks into the microphone, with one hand holding his big black Bible and the other shaking his finger in the air: “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s the message.
This is a short sermon isn’t it? One gets the impression that Jonah is doing the least he could get by with. There is no alter call, no call to repentance, no warmth, no love, no identification with their plight. Just an announcement of what he hoped God would do – overthrow them, destroy them, wipe them off the face of the earth.
I’m reminded of the church that fired their pastor because every week he stood behind the pulpit and told them they were all going to hell. So they got rid of him and got another preacher. One of the church members was telling a friend about their new pastor. “He’s nothing like the other guy who told us we are all going to hell; you should come here him.” So his friend goes to hear him. After the service the friend says, “I don’t get it. You fired the other guy because he told you you were going to hell. But this guy said you’re going to hell.” The church member replied, “Yeah, I know, but he seems really sorry about it.” Jonah is like the first guy.
Jonah isn’t sorry. Sometimes I will hear from someone via social media who thinks I’m going to hell, and you know, they are not sorry about it at all (lol). Jonah isn’t sorry about announcing God’s judgment. But he is sorry about the results. He is sorry that the whole city drops to their knees in repentance and averts the calamity that is about to come upon them. It’s quite comical really in the way it’s told. Even the animals repent. Even the animals are covered in sackcloth. I know some Baptist preachers if that they had that kind of success they would be putting their resume together.
Jonah, however, is not thinking of such things. The text says that this upset Jonah so much he says, “Just let me die.” The text says in chapter 4: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in 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.” What a beautiful, enlightened, breakthrough kind of text, right here in the Old Testament. (Actually, there are a number of such texts like this in the OT.) God is gracious, abounding in loyal, steadfast, enduring, covenant-keeping love, slow to anger and ready to relent from punishing. Can you just imagine Jonah getting all upset, still ruled by his prejudice, still controlled by his hate, saying, “God, this is why I wanted to get away. Why didn’t you just let me go? Why did you bring me here to see this? These people ought to be wiped off the face of the earth and now you are not going to do it. Just let me go die, God.”
Jonah trots outside of town and plops down to wait in the hot sun. God causes a plant to spring up (here is God controlling nature again – just remember this is a parable) and grow overnight so tall and broad that it gives Jonah shade from the hot sun. But as quickly as God raises it up, God strikes it down. And Jonah is so upset again. This is God showing Jonah how selfish he is, how biased and hateful and ugly he is. This is God trying to convert his own prophet. Just like God tries to convert us, Gods daughters and sons. This is God not giving up on Jonah; just as God refused to give up on the Ninevites. And just as God refuses to give up on you and me.
I used to sing when I was a kid in Sunday School: “Red and yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight, God loves the little children of the world.” Most of the church members didn’t believe it, but we sang it anyway. We are all little children, sisters and brothers. And God doesn’t give up on any of us. There may be folks you wish God would give up on. But your vindictiveness and dislike isn’t going to change the reality that God loves them as much as God loves you. And God isn’t going to give up on them any more than God is going to give up on you in trying to change your heart so you will feel what God feels.
God’s love and grace are all inclusive. We can be bitter about it, like Jonah, and wish God was more narrow and exclusive and prejudiced like we tend to be. We might wish that God would only accept a certain kind of people – people who accept what we believe and teach. And there are a lot of Christians who picture God just that way. God loves our tribe, our group, our church, and if you want God to love you then you have to think and believe like we do. You have to be saved with our kind of salvation. I’m sure you have seen the bumper sticker that says, “God loves everyone, but I’m God’s favorite.” We joke about it, but unfortunately, a lot of Christians really believe that.
Could we dare ask God today to help us see through and beneath all our layers of fear and bias and bitterness, so that we might see a God who loves all people, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, not just with our kind of folks, but with all kind of folks. And might we too ask God to help us rid ourselves of our bias and prejudice, so that we might share God’s love for all God’s children, even those who are very different than us, and even those we do not like.
We can get upset about so many things and often our frustrations reflect how far away we are from your heart and passion. We care more about what gives us comfort than what breaks your heart. Show us how to love all people the way you love all people. Show us how to love this world, this creation, this earth, the way you love this earth. Help us to grow up so that we might become mature partners with you and serve as agents and missionaries and ambassadors of your inclusive, steadfast love. Amen.