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Jonah; not about the big fish?

Sermon: November 8, 2020


Prayer of the Day

God of the seas, sky, and land, When Jonah turned to run from you, you showed him that nothing and no one could hide from your presence. You are in all things, and you love all things. Show us the gift of your presence, and help us to carry your word of compassion and grace to all the world, in the name of the one who carried out your love flawlessly, Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.

If you are like me, you grew up ‘knowing’ the story of Jonah. And, of course, the main part of the story that we all know is that bit about the fish, or whale, that God sends to swallow up Jonah and spit him out at Nineveh. Just think of all the Jonah-themed bible materials, coloring books, pictures that are out there. Why, there is even a Veggie Tales Movie!

But, get this: The book of Jonah mentions “fish” for a total of only two times! “God” is used 14 times; “LORD” is used 21 times. Even “sackcloth” is mentioned three times. So, as dramatic as a big fish swallowing Jonah is, maybe this story is more about God. Maybe this story has something to tell us about who God is, and what God is up to. And then, maybe there is something in this story that is important for us to hear about God, and what it means for us in our lives, as it meant for Jonah and for the Ninevites.

Roger Nam tells us that there are three important messages for us in this story[1]: First: God calls us to surprising, even ridiculous things.

Second: God journeys with us, even in our stubborn rebellion. And third: God’s love is extraordinary.

God certainly called Jonah to do some surprising, and on the surface, ridiculous things: 1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me. And once there Jonah cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 

God was giving the people of Nineveh that chance to repent, to change their ways. And I think that was pretty ridiculous in Jonah’s eyes. For you see, there was no love lost between the Hebrews and the Ninevites. Nineveh was an Assyrian city state with a long history of attacking, conquering, and killing Israelites. And you can hear something of how the people of Israel viewed Nineveh in the prophet Nahum:

“Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder! . . . I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. Then all who see you will shrink from you and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated . . .’” (Nahum chapter 3)

What a surprising call; to go to a people who were your sworn enemy and warn them about their impending destruction, and give them the opportunity to repent, to change their ways! And to actually go and speak to people who are your enemies; to risk looking into their eyes, risk experiencing them as human beings; and bring a word of warning and second chances instead of condemnation and wrath; that is ridiculous.

God does not give up on Jonah, does not let Jonah’s reluctance stop God from the mission appointed to Jonah. Jonah tries everything to get away from God. First, he goes to Joppa to board a ship for Tarshish; which is like trying to go to the other end of the earth, to get as far away as possible from Nineveh. But it didn’t work, God is still present, still calling Jonah.

Jonah even gets the sailors to throw him overboard; not only to save the sailors’ lives, but maybe even to end his life and then the mission would be ended. But, cue the big fish; swallowing up Jonah and spewing him out exactly where God wanted him, on the shores of Nineveh.

Jonah brings God’s message to the people, and something amazing happens; they listen to Jonah’s words and they repent: Jonah cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then 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. 8Human 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. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."

And that brings us to the third important message, which is the most important and has the most to say about God. God’s love is extraordinary. God does relent, God does change God’s mind!

10When 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.

Well, this doesn’t sit well with Jonah:  2He 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. 

To me, it’s funny that Jonah’s words, spoken in anger and challenge to God, proclaim exactly who God is and what God does; God is merciful, God is slow to anger, God is abounding in steadfast love!

In this story, all of creation has a place in God’s heart; the hero Jonah the Hebrew, the enemy Nineveh, even that big fish!

And there is what is important for us. God’s love is extraordinary. We are created in God’s image, and so are those who we consider our enemies. And God is God, and we are not. God’s actions are beyond us, beyond our pettiness, beyond our grievances, beyond our expectations, but rooted in the very being of God, who shows the utmost in steadfast love in the life and being of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Roger Nam cited in

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