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. They got hung up on the whale scene. They read the story not as a parable, but as a historical narrative. 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 even asked the pastor to make an announcement to the church about their findings. Well, the pastor got 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 don’t know, but I have a notion that these folks probably missed the whole point of the story of Jonah.
A Native American was talking to a group about his tribe and before telling them a story he said, “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” A story can be true whether it actually happened or not. This is a parable with a powerful message.
The setting is that God is about ready to destroy the city of Nineveh because of their wickedness. While there are any number of texts in the Bible that depict God as a punishing God and that sanction divine violence, these texts are telling us, not about God, but ourselves. These texts show us the way we project our biases, anger, fears, misperceptions, and negative qualities onto God.
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 – the point here is that it’s the farthest place from Ninevah. 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 in this story it is.
So God sends “a great wind,” upon the sea. The ancient Hebrews believed in God’s direct involvement in the affairs of the world. So God sends the storm and it is some storm because the sailors, who certainly knew all about storms were scarred out of their wits. Jonah, however, was sound asleep, which may suggest something about his state of mind. Maybe he despaired of life. Maybe he just 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 screaming, “Why aren’t you praying?” What would you have said? I like 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 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. “What do we need to do?” they implored.
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.
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, genocides take place, evil, sick, people do terrible things to the innocent. I wouldn’t let earthquakes and Tsunamis devastate whole 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 in love with the creation, a God for and with the creation, a God who suffers when the creation suffers.
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 it. He doesn’t say that he will proclaim the message with compassion, but he says he will do it. God decides to settle for what God can get, so 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: “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 we are.
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
will be overthrown.” Nineveh
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 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 were 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 too, or at least some of you are.” The church member replied, “Yeah, I know, but he seems really sorry about it.” Jonah was like the first guy. Jonah wasn’t sorry.
Jonah wasn’t sorry when he announced God’s judgment. But he was sorry about the results. He was sorry that the whole city dropped to their knees in repentance and averted calamity. It’s quite comical really in the way it is told. Even the animals repented. Even the animals were covered in sackcloth. I know some Baptist preachers if that they had that kind of success would be putting their resume together.
Jonah, however, was not thinking of such things. The text says that this upset Jonah so much he said, “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 quite a few 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.
Jonah trots outside of town and plops down to wait in the hot sun. God causes a plant to spring up 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 he wants to die - 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. This is God not giving up on Jonah; just as God refused to give up on the Ninevites. Just as God refuses to give up on you and me.
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, that God will only accept a certain kind of people. 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 seen, I’m sure, the bumper sticker, “God loves everyone, but I’m God’s favorite.” We joke about it, but a lot of Christians really believe that, unfortunately.
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.
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Gracious God, 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 steadfast love. Amen.