Oh, you thought I was planning to talk about the election? No, actually I’m planning to talk about God’s election of Jonah to do a job that Jonah had zero interest in doing, and how that all played out. I regard the story of Jonah as being in the genre of Aesop’s fables or one of Jesus’ parables, but it is fine with me if you choose to regard it as a historical event. The point of the story is exactly the same either way.
God calls Jonah to go preach in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Assyria was the country that defeated the northern kingdom of Israel with a brutality that caused the people of Israel to hate the Assyrians. In the British Museum there are wall reliefs portraying Israelites being impaled by Assyrians and stacks of disembodied heads being counted by scribes.
Well, let’s listen to the beginning of the story. Note how many things are described in extravagant terms, adding to the legendary aspect of the story. I’ll make a few comments along the way. I’ll narrate the story, Debbie will be Jonah (or maybe Jonetta), and Mandy will be God.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 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.”
Nineveh was in the northern part of present day Iraq, about 600 miles from Joppa. Instead of obeying God to go to Nineveh, Jonah went to Joppa and got on a boat going the opposite direction. Tarshish is not found on maps, but I think it is safe to say he wanted to go as far away as he could get on the Mediterranean Sea, which would have been the coast of Spain, which would be about 2,000 miles away.
“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. 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. 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.”
The ship’s crew were not Jewish but worshiped multiple gods. When the storm came up they all started crying out to their gods in the hope they would get through to the right one. The captain woke Jonah up and chastised him for not doing his part in this effort. He told him to wake up and start praying to his god just in case that was the right one.
“The sailors 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. 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?’ ‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 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.
“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. 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.’ 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. 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.’ So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
So the Gentile sailors act with more integrity than the prophet of the Lord, Jonah. Even when they find out that he is an outsider and he admits that he is the cause of the storm, they do everything possible not to throw him overboard, including praying to Jonah’s God which he is not shown doing. And after admitting that he was the problem he could have just jumped overboard instead of placing guilt on them by making them throw him overboard. But finally they have no choice but to chunk him, and as soon as they do the sea dies down, leading the sailors to make vows and offer sacrifice to the Lord.
As for Jonah, in all fantastic adventure tales the protagonist moves from one excruciating crisis to another. “The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Many translations say whale rather than large fish, and that’s really better. God elected a whale, one of his largest creatures, to play the next starring role in Jonah’s misadventures. One of the functions the whale plays in the story is that it probably preserves Jonah’s life. It also functions, as Mandy pointed out in our staff Bible study, as Jonah’s time out room. After shaking him to the core of his being, God sends Jonah to this quiet and dark place to think about what he has done. With time to reflect, Jonah remembers who he is and whose he is. He knows he has reached rock bottom, but he remembers now to pray, and his prayer is steeped in the Psalms which express humility and submission. Listen now to the prayer of Jonah, followed by an anthem which well reflects its tone.
“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’”
Anthem: “A Prayer for Humility”
“Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 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. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 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. 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. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
Here is another fantastic element to the story. Jonah only gets a third of the way through this city of sworn enemies preaching the harsh message that the town would be overthrown in forty days. Word spreads like wildfire and every single person accepts and believes it even though they have never seen Jonah and have not respected the Hebrew God’s power at all. Word gets to the king and he accepts it fully without even seeing or hearing from Jonah. He commands that every person and animal in Nineveh put on the clothing of repentance and humility and begin fasting in the hope that the God of Israel will change his mind.
And sure enough, “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.” This is like the parable Jesus told where a man who owed his master a hundred million dollars begged him to give him more time, and the master forgave the whole debt. Forgiving a nation which carried out the atrocities the Assyrians did was entirely within the realm of possibility, and this had to be a jarring and unwelcome word to the target audience of the story of Jonah. As it was for Jonah in the story, as we continue:
“But 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 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 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.
“The Lord God elected a bush, 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. But when dawn came up the next day, God elected a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God elected 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.’
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And Jonah said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 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. 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?’”
What an amazing story. It is so hard to let go of hatred for enemies, and even just for people who are different. Israel certainly struggled with it. Most scholars think this story reached final form after the exile, after the Assyrians had brutalized the northern kingdom of Israel and the Babylonians had brutalized the southern kingdom of Judah. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem there were others living there, so an immediate question was how Jews were going to relate to outsiders. The priest Ezra won the day with his philosophy, which was to rebuild the wall and retreat behind it, forbidding contact with non-Jewish people and forcibly ending marriages with non-Jews which had taken place. Jonah’s story represents an alternative view, a minority view for sure, a view also shared by the story of Ruth, and by the passages here and there in the Old Testament indicating that the Jews are to be a light to the nations, and a nation through which all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. It’s hard to find the balance between these two views of the other, and we are struggling with it mightily in our country.
When we start getting too worked up about our enemies, whether they be members of another political party or of another race, or citizens of another nation, or practitioners of another religion, Jonah should remind us that God does not necessarily see those people through the same lenses we see them by. While we might not like them, they are God’s children too and God has a different point of view and different priorities. And Jonah should remind us that there are plenty of times God doesn’t find us very lovable either.
Yes, there is an election coming up Tuesday. I’ve never told you who to vote for and I won’t start today. In fact, I say there is no integrity to any church or religious leader encouraging their congregation to vote for particular candidates. Exercise your right to vote, and vote in humility. If you let your pride and your hatred get the best of you, the Lord might elect something as great as a whale or as small as a worm to teach you an important lesson.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 6, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church