Written by Pastor Ed
Sunday, June 21
Book of Jonah
One of the commentators I read told this story.
“I think of a friend of mine whose first call was in a small town parish. The council president in that parish was a very, very difficult woman who tried to sabotage him at every turn. He tried, he really did. He prayed for her. He visited her and attempted to reconcile with her. He prayed and prayed, and finally one day he started singing (to the tune of “Bind Us Together, Lord”): “Bind her and gag her, Lord, bind her and gag her with cords that cannot be broken.”
I’ve known a few people like that, thankfully not many. I’d like you to think about person or group least like – really can’t stand them
Then let me tell you a story
Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah. And God said, go and preach to the Ninevites. Now the Ninevites were Jonah’s worst enemies. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s worst enemy. And God was asking Jonah to go and preach to them and try and get them to repent!
No way, said Jonah and he went down to the docks and found a ship that was headed to the ends of the earth, as far away from Ninevah as he could go. And so he thought he had escaped God’s call. But God knew where he was, and sent a storm, and believe me, it was quite a storm. The winds blew, the waves were high. It was fierce.
And the sailors were afraid and were trying to save the ship. They threw cargo overboard, they cried out to their various gods to save them, but nothing seemed to help. And you know where Jonah was? – he was sleeping down in the hold of the ship.
And the captain found him there and said – What are you thinking, man? How can you sleep at a time like this? Pray or do something! Well, the sailors were becoming more and more concerned, so they decided to draw straws and see who they could blame for this disaster about to happen. And guess who drew the short straw? You’ve got it – it was Jonah!
And they said, “Who are you anyway? You’re not one of the crew. What do you do? Are you some kind of magician? And Jonah said, “Well, I’m a Hebrew and I worship Yahweh, who made the sea and dry land.” But the crew figured something was a bit fishy about his story, and Jonah confessed that he was, in fact, trying to run away from God. And Jonah said, “if you want the storm to stop, throw me overboard.” Seemed rather drastic.
Well the crew tried everything they could to save the ship, they rowed harder, but there wasn’t anything they could do and so they finally picked Jonah up and heaved him over the side – and the storm stopped! You can imagine what that did to the sailors – they were astonished, and they all converted and worshipped Yahweh the God of the Hebrews.
And Jonah – well, God wasn’t done with him and God sent a big fish who swallowed Jonah whole. But Jonah was a pretty tough guy and after three days the fish couldn’t take it any longer and, how shall we say this, spit him out.
Well, that would be quite a story, but God wasn’t through with Jonah just yet. Remember, God had given Jonah a mission – to go and preach to Nineveh. And, given his previous experience, Jonah decided maybe he’d better do what God said. So he went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a big city. How long do you think it would take to walk across Calgary? Well, the Bible says it took three days to walk across Nineveh, of course it may be exaggerating a bit, but in any case Jonah walked into the city for a day, not quite half-way, and delivered his message of doom.
Now, you’ve heard some of the other prophets proclaim doom to the nations, and they usually don’t mince words, they can be pretty harsh. In contrast, Jonah’s message is pretty weak. “Forty days and Nineveh will destroyed.” That was it. One gets the feeling Jonah’s heart wasn’t really in it.
But unbelievably, the Ninevites believed Jonah and began to repent. Word of Jonah’s message even got to the king and he proclaimed that everybody should repent and put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance. Everybody, man, woman, child, and animal was to fast, not eat, and put on sackcloth and ashes. Now there’s a sight to imagine – the sheep and chickens running around in sackcloth, even the cats if you could get it on them!
And when God saw that the people had repented and were sorry for their sins, God changed his mind and decided not to destroy the city. Jonah should have been sky high. What preacher wouldn’t like for a whole city to listen to what they say and not only listen but actually follow through and do what they say. Billy Graham would have been thrilled! What a great evangelist Jonah was!
But was Jonah happy? Not on your life. Remember these were Jonah’s worst enemies. And Jonah was off sitting on a hill watching the city, just waiting for it to go up in smoke – and now God had changed his mind! And Jonah got mad, really mad and started yelling at God.
“This is exactly the reason I didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. This is just what I was afraid would happen, because I know what you’re like, God, you’ve really got a soft heart and if people repent, you forgive them. You might as well finish me off now, Lord, because if I go back home I’ll be the laughing stock, or worse.”
And he sat there on the hillside fuming mad. But God wasn’t finished with him yet. There was a big bush there that Jonah was sitting under, because it was really hot, and Jonah was enjoying the shade. And then a worm came and ate the roots, and the shrub withered and died. And then Jonah got even madder, and this time he was mad at the shrub! “Kill me now Lord” But God pretended to misunderstand what was bugging him.
“Here you are, all upset out of pity for one small castor oil plant that has shriveled up,” God said, “so what’s wrong with having pity for this whole place that’s headed for Hell in a handcart if something’s not done about it?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
That’s the story. Just a few comments. Jonah is one of only two books in the Bible that ends with a question. You’ll have to search for the other one. It’s also different from the other prophets in that it is a story about a prophet, rather than the words of a prophet.
And it’s meant to be funny. Even back then they knew that sometimes you can get your point across better with humour than by being serious. No ancient city, or modern for that matter, takes three days to walk across. And can you imagine animals walking around in sackcloth and ashes? And as to the big fish swallowing Jonah for three days, people would have been rolling their eyes and laughing on hearing that. Yet for some people, at least in the past, a whale swallowing Jonah was a test of true belief. Unfortunately, it seems to me, those who make that a test of true faith miss the point of the rest of the story.
I may have told the story before that Lester Hostetler, a retired General Conference pastor now deceased, told me about when he was in seminary during the height of the fundamentalist-modernist debates. A fellow student asked him if he believed that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale for three days. “Well,” said Lester, “I don’t know for sure. When I get to heaven I’ll ask him.” “And what if he’s not in heaven?” the man asked. “Well,” said Lester, “then you ask him.”
When Loren Johns was here several weeks ago he noted that you have to distinguish between Jonah, the character in the story, and the author of the story. For while Jonah the character was upset with what happened, the author is clearly making a different point, voiced by Jonah in complaining to God. “I knew you were a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2)
You remember all those conservative prophets who were calling down fire and brimstone on the wicked nations, the Assyrians and Babylonians, and Edomites, really anyone who wasn’t an Israelite. Well, Jonah, the author, is the answer, if you like, the liberal, in response who points out that God desires that all people be saved, even your worst enemies.
There is an old rabbinic story that goes something like this. After the children of Israel had escaped across the Red Sea, Moses found God weeping. And Moses said, “Why are you weeping? You should be happy. All the children of Israel made it safely across the red sea on the way to the promised land.” And God said, “Yes, they are safe. I’m weeping for all my Egyptian children who were drowned.”
Jonah reminds us that we dare not dismiss anyone as outside of God’s love and that God is ready to give anyone a second chance, whether that’s Jonah or our worst enemy. Can we do anything less?