|SERMONS-Signs of Jonah|
Dr. Ralph Blair
A Sermon Preached at City Church, New York, June 23, 2002
What do you think is America’s No. 1-selling children’s video? It’s a Bible story starring a talking tomato and cucumber. And in October, more than a thousand big screens across the country will be showing the VeggieTales version of Jonah and the Whale.
But a sermon on "Jonah and the Whale?" This stuff of tacky tchotchkes and bubble bath for kids? A sermon on a silly story about a guy who gets swallowed by a whale? And any Bible Quiz nerd knows it wasn’t a whale anyway. It was a "big fish." So – don’t "save the whale" part. But then it’s a silly story about a guy who gets swallowed by a big fish. So it still sounds far-fetched, even – dare we say – fishy. Sounds like something right out of The National Enquirer!
Actually, the book of Jonah is a sensationalistic expose. But maybe there’s a very good reason it’s survived for some 25 centuries. Maybe there’s a very good reason it’s read every year on Yom Kippur, holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Nothing comic or kitsch in that! Maybe the book of Jonah is, after all, more for grown-ups than for kids.
The book of Jonah is a carefully composed satire that features an 8th-century Jewish prophet. It’s a parable, really. And as such, it has one main point. That main point is this: To be outraged over God’s grace to outsiders is outrageous!
Jonah’s our fellow New Yorker. And not just because "Jonah" means "pigeon." Like pigeons, he "flies the coop." Like us, he’s flawed. His flaw is so common, Jonah may as well be Jones. Yet, the warning is this: Don’t "keep up with the Jonahs." Watch out for the signs of Jonah in your life!
"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying: ‘Get up and go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their evil has come up before me.’ But instead, Jonah took a ship bound for Tarshish so he could get away from the Lord and get out of the Lord’s mission to Nineveh."
A children’s Bible story book says: "When God said ‘Go!’ Jonah said ‘No!’" And "No" is a complete sentence, as Anne Lamont notes. Here, it’s a complete rejection of God’s will.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – modern Iraq. She was Israel’s deadly foe. So Jonah’s happy to agree with the Lord that Nineveh is indeed evil, but he’s not happy that pagans are to be given the Lord’s word in order to repent and be saved.
Shown the indisputable evil of Nineveh, Jonah failed to learn the first lesson of such divine disclosure. In the words of the 18th-century founder of the Hasidic movement: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him." [Baal Shem Tov]
So, instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah "flies the coop" to the west. In doing so, he becomes the only Old Testament prophet to so rebelliously refuse the call of the Lord. He boards a boat bound for the other end of the known world, a destination for defiance that could not have been more remote.
(By the way, Jonah took flight in the same Mediterranean Sea on which John Henry Newman wrote his poem about Jonah – printed on the front of today’s order of worship.)
Jonah’s resistance to the Lord’s will was rooted in his hatred of the pagans the Lord loved. They were, after all, Israel’s enemies.
As an orthodox Israelite, Jonah knew of the irresistible grace of the Lord. He knew that the power of the Lord’s prevenient grace paves the way through proclamation to repentance. And, in the case of Nineveh, he couldn’t stand it. We are Jonahs, too. We can’t stand it when God’s grace goes to those we don’t like – let alone to those we see as our deadly enemies.
Now as a prophet of Israel, Jonah knew full well that – as he’d later acknowledge – the Lord is the Creator of all those seas he planned to use as his escape route from the Lord. The Psalmist says it’s impossible to ever get beyond the jurisdiction of the Lord – even "if you settle on the farthest side of the farthest sea." How could Jonah have thought he could actually move even a millimeter away from the Lord’s worldwide judgment and mercy? But when we have reason enough to rationalize a self-serving jealousy, even the irrational seems to make sense. Self-righteousness rips good sense to shreds.
So Jonah tried to flee from the Lord and gracelessly resists his calling to take the Lord’s grace to pagans. But that irresistible grace of the Lord never lost track of him. He was intercepted by "a violent wind the Lord unleashed at sea" – the Wind of the Lord’s own Spirit over the Lord’s own sea.
"The huge storm so scared the sailors that each prayed to his gods and tossed cargo overboard. But Jonah was asleep below deck."
Desperate sailors are doing double-duty. They’re trying to lighten the storm-tossed ship and, at the same time, sacrifice to their gods. But down below, the self-exiled quitter is in such a depressive stupor that he can’t get up out of bed. The Hebrew term indicates the depth of his disobedient and disillusioned distraction. It’s the very opposite of the scene of a slumbering Jesus, at peace with God, in a storm-tossed boat of a later day. The chaos of Jonah’s disobedience threatens to engulf everyone. That’s true of disobedience, whether in public or private life, at church, at work, wherever – and whether in the greed and lust of the few that devastate the many or in retaliating remedies that do the same.
So the captain enlists a listless Jonah to pitch in and pray: "Get up and call out to your God." The verbs "get up" and "call out" here echo the Lord’s call to "get up and call out" to Nineveh. Here’s this pagan sea captain ordering a prophet of Israel to talk to the very One the prophet’s not speaking to these days! Are we like Jonah here too? Pagans all around us are praying to silly self-constructions and praising false gods while we resist prayer and praise to the one true God. We pout in self-pity because we’re mad at God. We’re mad that God is love. And we resist God’s call to be a blessing to people we’re mad at -- people God loves. That’s madness. So we’re depressed, too.
Why does this polytheistic pagan sea captain tell Jonah to call out to the God of Israel? Well, he desperately wanted some god’s attention and thought it couldn’t hurt to appeal for aid from even a foreign god! The captain’s hope: "Maybe he’ll take notice of us." This pagan shows more confidence in an unknown god than the prophet shows in the God he knows. But for Jonah, there should be no "maybes" about it. Of course He’ll notice! He sees everything on His storm-tossed sea! If these sailors know this is no ordinary storm, Jonah, too, can figure it out. Jonah knows which way the Wind of the Lord is blowing.
Meanwhile, the frantic sailors struggle on. Casting all that stuff overboard hasn’t worked. So they cast lots to their gods. That’s an ancient "throw of the dice" to see who’s at fault. They discover it’s this guy down in the bottom of their boat. He’s the one down at the bottom of this evil. And by the way, the same Hebrew word is used for the evil of Nineveh!
Jonah and Nineveh were guilty of the same evil? Yes. Maybe not the very same manifestation, but it’s the very same motivation: Pride, Envy, Self-righteousness. Wouldn’t Jesus one day say that the many manifestations of evil all proceed from the same heart of evil? Wouldn’t Paul one day trap his fellow Jews by castigating the Gentiles to point out that the Jews were guilty in the same way? And today, we understand psychologically that people are prone to judge others for that of which they, themselves, are guilty. That’s actually how they can believe the worst about others. They sense it in themselves even though they won’t actually admit this. Do we know ourselves well enough to know that this is true? So it isn’t strange to read that the rebel prophet of Israel and the rebel pagans of Nineveh practice the same evil rebellion against the Lord.
"The sailors asked Jonah, ‘What is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country?… What have you done?’"
Having discovered Jonah to be the immediate source of the problem, the frightened sailors realize there’s more to it. "What’s your business?" Jonah’s business is supposed to be the Lord’s business. But he’s not doing business with the Lord these days. "Where do you come from?" Jonah’s supposed to be coming from the Lord with the Lord’s message to Nineveh way back there in the opposite direction. But instead, he’s coming from his own ill-conceived self-centeredness. And the message is now blowing back against him. "What have you done?" Indeed. What has he done? And – they might have added: "What have you left undone?"
"Jonah acknowledges: ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’"
He calls himself a "Hebrew" – a term Israelites used with foreigners. And even though Jonah has been doing his damnedest to damn the Ninevehites by getting as far away from the Lord as he could get, he now finds out from bitter experience that the Lord is inescapable. And, sooner or later, so is the Lord’s truth and grace we try to outrun. So, in desperation, the One whose call he’s been refusing is still the One he calls his Lord – however stiffly. He identifies his Lord as the One who made the sea – the sea that’s now so dangerous – and the One who made the dry land that now seems so safe. Even the dry land of Nineveh! He knows he’s up against more than a storm at sea. He’s up against the Sovereign of all seas. And it’s all because of his sin. And his sin is dragging innocent sailors down into the depths with him.
If non-Christians catch us in disobedience, what is our reply to their question: "Who are you? What is your business? Where are you coming from? What have you done?" Is our verbal witness as much a contradiction to our behavior as Jonah’s? Is Jonah’s conscience revealed in his confession of faith – no matter how much it’s at variance to his commitment? Is our conscience better revealed in our confession of faith or in our commitment of faith? Some talk the talk. Some walk the walk. Some can walk and talk at the same time.
Jonah seems to see that it is his fault they are all in this mess. Faced with the inescapable evidence, but still not acting on it, Jonah pleads: "Get rid of me." Instead of taking the initiative and jumping overboard, Jonah passes the buck to the sailors for solution. He expects them to clean up his mess. And in doing so, to make themselves complicit in his death?
At this point, these pagans show more mercy for Jonah, their enemy, than Jonah has had for the pagans of Nineveh, his enemy. The sailors assume, of course, that, if they were to throw Jonah into the sea, his death might be avenged by his god. So they try their best to save themselves without sacrificing Jonah in the process. They continue to struggle valiantly. But it’s to no avail.
Finally, calling on this unknown Lord to forgive them for what they’re about to do – which is more repentance than Jonah had had – they throw Jonah overboard. And immediately, as Jonah sinks down under the waves, the waves settle down around the sailors. And the sailors praise Jonah’s Lord for answering their prayers and they gratefully add Israel’s God to their pantheon.
Now we’ve all heard Dr. Boyd assure us on so many Sunday mornings that "all seas are the seas of God, and if we sink we sink but deeper into Him." So Jonah was not going to be allowed to sink beneath the reach of the Lord, any more than he had been allowed to sail beyond the reach of the Lord. The Lord is wherever we are.
"And the Lord called a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish for three days and three nights."
Perhaps you never thought that "sink[ing] but deeper into Him" might mean sinking into the stomach of a fish. But we’d best not try to hold God hostage to our own notions of how best to "sink but deeper into Him."
Pagan sailors obey the call to rid themselves of the one who refused to obey the call to preach to pagans. A big fish obeys the call to swallow the one who refused to obey the call to fish for repentance at Nineveh. Sometimes, we who think we’re on-call for the Lord can’t hold a candle to those we think aren’t on-call at all.
Now, saved from the storm and safely stowed in the stomach of the fish, Jonah has a few days and nights free for reflection. That’s more than many readers do. As Thomas Carlyle complained, too many of us get stuck in speculating over what’s going on inside the stomach of the fish instead of seeing into the mind of Jonah. So let’s go deeper, and listen in to what’s going on inside Jonah’s head and heart.
"And Jonah prayed to the Lord: You cast me into the heart of the sea and all Your waves washed over me. And I said, ‘I am cast out of Your sight. How shall I ever look again on your holy Temple? [Jonah seems to think that the Lord can’t see him just because he can’t see the Lord!] The seaweed was wrapped around my throat. … And from the depths I called to You and You lifted my life from the doors of death.’"
Jonah’s prayer of relief recounts that he called out and was answered – though not in the way he’d thought he’d be answered. He called out to the Lord who had called out to him, and though Jonah had not answered that call, his own call to the Lord was answered. The Lord answers our call even when we refuse to answer the Lord’s call. But we don’t call the shots. We’re told that even before Jonah called out, the Lord had already called on the fish that then faithfully answered the call to catch the drowning prophet.
"With a song of praise, I will sacrifice to You. Salvation comes from the Lord!"
That’s how Jonah concludes his prayer. "Salvation comes from the Lord!" Indeed it does. But might this be only pious posturing? After all, it was this message of generous grace that made Jonah balk at preaching it in the first place. He could not stand the Lord’s sending him to enemies that might repent and receive this salvation that comes from the Lord!
Well now, having been given undeserved deliverance instead of deserved death, would Jonah now be able to see himself in the mirror of fellow sinners rather than caricature them as the evil other? Would gratitude for his own deliverance produce a grateful desire for their deliverance? Says Flannery O’Connor: "It is hard to make your adversaries real people unless you recognize yourself in them – in which case, if you don’t watch out, they cease to be adversaries." Jonah had been watching out for his own ill-conceived welfare. Watch out, Jonah. You might just get another chance to watch out for the welfare of others just like yourself. But to do that, you have to go back and begin again where you went wrong.
So the fish, no longer able to stomach this guy, throws up. And Jonah lands on the beach.
"The Lord called to Jonah: ‘Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to them as I told you to.’ This time, Jonah went to Nineveh. And he preached these words: ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed.’ Upon hearing that, all the people of Nineveh believed the Lord. … And the king of Nineveh proclaimed that all the people and even all the animals should fast and put on sackcloth and sit in ashes of repentance. And the king demanded that the people give up their evil ways. Said he: ‘Who knows? Maybe God will change his mind and relent so that we won’t perish.’ And God saw their sorrow for their sins and God saved them."
So far as we know, the Ninevites did not become monotheistic Yahwists, but remained polytheistic, syncretistic pantheists. But they did respond to Jonah’s preaching with repentance – the way the Lord wanted Israel to respond, the way he wanted Jonah to respond, the way he wants us to respond.
But sadly, the good news of the repentance and deliverance of Nineveh is taken to be bad news by Jonah. He still refused to "get it." The Hebrew is very clear: Jonah interpreted the Lord’s great mercy to Nineveh as great evil. The very thing Jonah had feared would happen has happened. The Lord has granted deliverance for his enemy. But Jonah has learned nothing from his own deliverance to help him empathize with theirs. So he does what we all do when we see good things happening to bad people. He gets jealous. He feels sorry for himself. He goes into a rage. He pouts. He stews in self-righteousness.
"Jonah ranted and whined at the Lord: ‘I knew this would happen. This is exactly what I predicted. This is why I fled from You. I knew You’re like this – too compassionate, too slow to anger and too ready to show mercy to sinners. Well, I can’t take this! I can’t stand it! I won’t stand for it! I can’t live with this! Not this! Take my life! Leave me alone!’"
What hysterics! What hypocrisy! Doesn’t he see the irony? When we behave this way, do we see the irony? So graced himself, yet so graceless. So graced ourselves, yet so graceless. Saved by the Lord’s mercy, he demands that mercy be withheld from others? Do we know people like Jonah? We do if we know ourselves. We insist on mercy for ourselves. We demand revenge on others. We can’t stand it when good things happen to people we can’t stand. We smack our lips when bad things happen to those we’d like to smack across the lips. Our friends do it. Our foes do it. The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. And it’s the Lord’s grace that let’s us know we do it.
In His mercy, the Lord simply asks: "What right do you have to be angry over My mercy?" It’s a thought-provoking question the narrator redirects to us.
And Jesus would one day echo this as the landlord’s words to whining workers in a parable of the Kingdom of God: "Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Or are you jealous because I am generous?" [Matt 20:15]
But Jonah ignores the question because there is no possible rebuttal to its sound reasoning. Jonah keeps resisting and so he refuses to grant the Lord’s point.
Instead, there, overlooking the city, Jonah keeps his watch, hoping that Nineveh will get what she deserves. But she’s already received what she didn’t deserve – the Lord’s amazing grace – just like Jonah received. Not content with that, Jonah sits and waits and watches for "the fire next time." But it’s going to be a long wait, for the answer has already been given. And it’s now getting hotter and hotter for Jonah himself, there in the noonday sun. So he puts up a flimsy little lean-to to shield himself. But his pitiful fabrication is poor protection – from the broiling sun and from his own boiling self-righteousness.
"So the Lord provided a big vine to grow up over Jonah to protect him from the oppressive heat. And Jonah loved the vine."
Again, as with the provision of the big fish, the Lord’s sovereign mercy is sent to Jonah in the provision of a large leafy vine of cool rationalization. Now maybe he’ll be a bit more comfortable in his selfish little vigil of vengeance. As we can be, he’s more concerned over his own personal comforts than over the welfare of thousands. He might even mistake the vine for something more than the Lord’s compassion over a pathetically self-preoccupied prophet. Like we can, he might mistake it for the Lord’s approval of his self-centeredness.
"But at dawn, the Lord provided a worm to attack the vine and the vine withered and died. Next, the Lord provided a scorching east wind that whipped up the heat of the day. And Jonah wanted to die."
As with the provision of the big fish and the big vine, the Lord’s sovereign mercy is sent yet again to Jonah. This time, the mercy comes in the forms of a ravishing worm and the suffocating scirocco. In one way or another, in gifts wanted and unwanted, the Lord in his mercy was committed to bring Jonah to his senses. But Jonah would rather die than love enemies beloved of the Lord. Instead of admitting the evil of his demand that Nineveh be damned, Jonah just went on trying to rationalize, insisting that he had every right to be furious – especially now that his precious vine had withered and died.
"The Lord replied: ‘You are concerned about a vine that cost you nothing, that you did not cause to grow, that sprouted overnight and perished overnight. And am I not to be concerned for the welfare of Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – to say nothing of the animals?’"
The Lord has the last word. He reduces Jonah’s offenses to the least offensive of all – his self-centered anger over the loss of the vine. The Lord thereby shows His great mercy to Jonah, yet once again. And the Lord contrasts Jonah’s concern over a lost vine against the Lord’s concern over 120,000 lost souls.
And then, in almost an afterthought of poignancy, the Lord mentions His concern for the welfare of the animals of Nineveh. If Jonah cannot identify with the people of Nineveh, perhaps at least, he can identify with the dumb animals – for just like Jonah, the animals are oblivious to the grace they receive from the Lord.
Are we just like them – the ignorant animals and the indifferent Jonah?
Jeremiah was another depressed prophet. But his depression was due to his fellow Jews’ resistance and opposition to his preaching judgment from God against them. They were exiled in the same land to which Jonah had been sent. And they were to receive the same message as Jonah had received for the Ninevites. It’s the same message that’s sent to us. "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." [Jeremiah 29:7]
Jonah somehow thought of God’s grace as a zero-sum game. He had the notion that he’d lose if Nineveh were won. But that’s not how grace works. The more grace we pass on, the more grace we possess – for that is what it is to be possessed by Grace Himself.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf survived his Croatian homeland horrors. He reminds us that "As Christians, we must develop a will to embrace and be reconciled with our enemy." He says that "This will to embrace is absolutely unconditional. There is no imaginable deed that should take a person outside our will to embrace him, because there is no imaginable deed that can take a person out of God’s will to embrace humanity – which is what," he says, "is inscribed in big letters in the narrative of the Cross of Christ."
The sign of a Jonah is resistance to the wideness of God’s love for life together. The sign of Jonah, to which Jesus alluded, is resurrection into the wideness of God’s love for life together – forever. The more we’re rid of resistance to God’s love for others, the more we’re fit for resurrection into God’s love with others, now and forevermore.
No. Jonah’s not just for talking veggies, tchotchkes and bubble bath. Jonah’s not just for juveniles. Jonah’s a jolt of "Get real!" We’re all under the judgment of mercy and so to be outraged over God’s grace to others, including outsiders, is outrageous indeed. That’s the point of the story. As Paul wrote to Christians in Rome: "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that He may be merciful to all." [Romans 11:32] This is the Good News we’re called to share with all: "Turn around! God hates your evil because God loves you!"
But do we wish to share that message with those we don’t love? Well God loves them anyway – in spite of our resistance to this fact of His grace. So we’d better get used to that.
It really would be so much easier to love them if we dropped our self-righteousness and rested in Christ’s righteousness, if we gratefully acknowledged that we and they, together, are the Lord’s beloved enemies.
So as He did with Jonah, He’s kept calling on us to share with them all, His judgment of mercy. We have another chance to do that today. Perhaps we’ll have another chance, tomorrow. Who knows? His call is this: Give them My love. Give them My love. Give them our love.