Sermon Preached on January 21, 2018 – The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
This morning we have a great story in Jonah, literally. One that tells of God sending a prophet to a great city, sending a great storm with great winds, a great fish, and great outpouring of repentance… so we are in for a great time this morning!
The book of Jonah – takes all of two pages in my Bible – a full two-page spread. Not a lot of pages for a “great story” but there’s a lot packed in there. And we love a good whale story. Did you see that story that ran a few weeks ago, about the humpback whale that saved the oceanographer from the tiger shark? Everyone was talking about it, NPR, BBC, even the Bangor Daily News.
This story is sort of like that, well, what we can remember of this story. Our whale or great fish in Jonah’s story is doing her best to keep Jonah from drowning in the storm. Of course, he got himself into this mess and probably deserves it. But she’s doing her level best to keep him safe while he thinks about the error of his ways.
Maybe we should back up a bit and recall the story from the first time that God calls Jonah – when God said, “Get up and go to Nineveh.” Unlike Peter, Andrew, James or John, from our Gospel, Jonah doesn’t respond with enthusiasm and follow God’s call, jumping from his boat to the shore. He does the opposite. He jumps on the first boat going in the other direction; running away as fast and far as he can go. Because what God is asking him to do is unthinkable. Jonah lives during the time of King Jeroboam, during the brutal Assyrian invasion of Israel, in 722 BCE. So why would God ask Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the ruthless occupying force of Israel?
Jonah has no choice but to run away. And God sends a storm chasing after him. The boat he’s on is no match for this great storm, and they are nearly all lost at sea. Jonah suspects it’s his fault and tells the sailors on the boat to throw him over board, “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.” To their credit, they don’t want to, and even when they do finally toss him out, these non-Hebrew sailors pray to God to save him. God responds, the sea calms down immediately, and God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. Enter our whale.
In his Poem, “Jonah,” Aldous Huxley imagines the scene: Seated upon the convex mound
Of one vast kidney, Jonah prays
And sings his canticles and hymns.
Making the hollow vault resound
God’s goodness and mysterious ways,
Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.1
Jonah, totally immersed in sea water and fish blubber, does indeed sing a prayer: “… 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!” (Jonah 2:7-9, NRSV). God hears Jonah’s prayer. And God speaks to our whale, and she vomits Jonah out onto dry land.
Freshly spit up onto the shore, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city.” And, this time, still covered in sea water and fish vomit, Jonah obeys. He walks into the city, one day’s journey, and preaches the shortest sermon ever recorded.2 It’s a sermon of only 5 words in Hebrew – “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
Short, effective! Immediately, the people of Nineveh believe God, and the people declare a fast. The king one ups them, ordering human and animal alike to fast and put on sackcloth. Then all those sackcloth-covered cows and sheep and people bellow out their repentance to God, and God changes his mind about the punishment, and does not bring it about.
You’d think Jonah would be elated. After all, he’s just become the most efficient and possibly the most successful prophet in history. Every inhabitant of the city, human and animal alike, has come forward for the altar call. Jonah should be ecstatic.
But Jonah is not ecstatic. Jonah is furious. “Ah, LORD, is this not what I said would happen when I was still in my own territory? That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. Because I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah is throwing the LORD’s own words right back at the LORD. This self-description of the LORD, from Exodus 34:6, has been used by prophets to describe God’s own nature for generations, but Jonah doesn’t mean it in the “God is great” way. Coming from Jonah, these words are meant as an accusation: You, God, are gracious and merciful. I KNEW this would happen! I declared your judgment on this sinful city, and you changed your mind! Oh, that’s just GREAT.
Everyone in this story responds to God as they should, as soon as they hear God’s call, like our would- be disciples in the Gospel text. The sailors on the ship who are not Hebrews, the people and king of Nineveh, everyone, even our whale. Everyone does what God asks without hesitation. Except Jonah. The people of Nineveh are given 40 days to repent but they respond immediately, without hesitation; so Jonah, he goes off to sulk under a fig tree, feeling sorry for himself. Because now that the Ninevites have repented, God has changed God’s mind, and all shall be well for them.
On top of everything else, God causes the fig plant to die which upsets Jonah, so God reminds Jonah that mercy for a fig tree can’t be more important than mercy for all those people in Nineveh; who didn’t know God and now who do.3 God says, “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?” (Jonah 4:11).
This is not a cute story, is it? But it is a great story, though we may not like it as much as we thought we did.
We would like to think we are not like Jonah, that we would be more like James and Andrew and John, and we would jump up, leave everything and follow God’s call… but let’s be honest for a second. Would we? Would we follow and be fishers of people? What does that even look like? Particularly in light of this great fish tale from Jonah? Because it might mean being fishers of people, when it means THOSE PEOPLE. Ninevites; people we don’t really want God to care about, people we certainly don’t want to care about.
Because it’s one thing to be called to serve God on behalf of those who are marginalized, those who are powerless, those who are in need of a voice. And another thing all together to consider how we might be called to extend God’s mercy to those others.
In a nation and culture stretched nearly to the breaking point by our divisions and brokenness, how we are called to THEM? Those people? What if we are called to follow God’s call to them? For them? Those with whom we disagree; and even those who are in need of opportunities for repentance and mercy for their abuse of power, and oppression of others?
I know, I don’t like it either, but… I’m not crawling into the body of a whale to escape it. Because that’s what’s going on in this great story, that’s what this tall tale has to teach us. God’s mercy is that wide, that all-encompassing, and that great. Most of the time that fills me with joy-filled hope which energizes me for mission, and a deep calm that all shall be well through whatever might come. But sometimes it makes me a little crazy, like today.
And yet, that’s the deal. All means all. Even those people. It’s time to gear up, let’s go; we need to get over ourselves and our issues a bit, and get on with being part of bringing in the Kingdom. There’s mercy to offer and grace upon grace to extend.
“Because I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
How great is your mercy Oh God; and that is a very, very good thing, always. Amen.
- Aldous Huxley, “Jonah,” in The Cherry Tree: A Collection of Poems, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (New York: Vanguard,1959) 211
- Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5:10, Working Preacher, January 25, 2015
- Valerie Bridgeman, Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Working Preacher, January 21, 2018.