Sermons

"Jonah and the Great Fish: A Perfect Ending?" Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

"Jonah and the Great Fish:  A Perfect Ending?" Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Jan 21, 2018

Passage:Jonah 3

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Jill Walters

Series: Epiphany

Category: Mercy, Faithfulness, Judgment

Keywords: justice, mercy, steadfastness

Summary:

The story of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish is well known to many audiences because of references and portrayal in art, literature, and television/movies. However, we often miss the more profound messages of the nature of God as we follow Jonah's journey. God is a God who continually reaches out to people. God is a God who always pursues us, even when we don't really deserve it. Unfortunately, we sometimes believe that we know better than God about what people deserve. The story of Jonah reminds us that God is the one who makes those decisions (thank goodness!) and not us.

Detail:

May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

​Whether we grew up in church or not, most people know the story of Jonah.  It’s often referred to as “Jonah and the Whale.”  That’s the part we remember best.  God called Jonah to go to Ninevah to warn the people there to repent.  He got on a boat.  A storm came.  The crew threw him overboard as a sacrifice to God.  And a big fish swallowed him whole.  He stayed in the belly of the fish for 3 days before being spit out onto the shore.  At this point, Jonah sees the light and decides to follow God’s call.

Contemporary literature, movies, and television take a turn at portraying this ancient scripture.  These influences and our memories really don’t accurately reflect the scripture.  And this part of the story is really only the first act of the book of Jonah.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear the “second act.”  We hear that Jonah gets another chance from God to warn the people of Ninevah.  Jonah obeys.  And with very little warning, the people of Ninevah repent and turn away from their evil ways and toward God. 

When we stop here, it’s a “lesson learned” for Jonah.  Once Jonah obeys God, all are saved and the story could have a “happy ending.”

But this isn’t the end of the story.  And the Book of Jonah is about much more than Jonah’s reluctance, disobedience, eventual obedience, and even spitefulness.  This is a story about the unrelenting, persistent mercy of God.  A mercy that extends toward all people.

The Book of Jonah actually depicts who God is through the adventures of this reluctant and sometimes petulant prophet.  We can relate to poor Jonah’s reluctance and giving in.  We can relate to his relief and thanksgiving for being saved.  And, we can relate to the Jonah who, in the third act, becomes sullen and self-pitying. 

This story is also a story about the nature of God.  This is a God who sees what is happening to God’s beloved creation.  God realizes that the people of Ninevah are engaged in behavior that will lead to their own destruction. 

Now, keep in mind, the Ninevites aren’t Hebrews, they’re not the chosen people of God.  This is important because it shows us a God who cares so much about humankind that God reaches out to them, no matter who they are!

In the first act, God calls on Jonah to be the messenger.  Jonah is to be the one who takes God’s warning to repent to the people of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t like this call and he runs.  He boards a ship to try to get as far away from Ninevah as he can.  He tries to hide from God.

But, God, being God, doesn’t just let this go.  God pursues Jonah.  A great storm comes. Jonah’s fellow passengers believe that the storms are caused by Jonah’s God, that Jonah has done something to offend his God. They end up throwing Jonah overboard as a sacrifice to God.  And, amazingly, the seas calm. 

Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and lingers in its belly for three days.  Jonah’s not just a guy who runs from God.  He’s not all bad.  Jonah also worships the Lord God.  While in the belly of this fish, he sings a song of praise and thanksgiving to God.  Jonah’s very much like us, sometimes we’re faithful, and sometimes we turn away from God’s calling.

And even though Jonah rides a roller coaster of faith, God is steadfast.  God doesn’t give up on the people God created.  God saves Jonah after he’s thrown overboard.   God protects Jonah in the belly of the great fish for three days. 

Then the fish spits Jonah up onto the shore.  This is where today’s Scripture tells us that God gives Jonah a second chance.  God calls to Jonah again:  “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 

This time, Jonah obeys.  And with just a few words, Ninevah makes a miraculous turnaround.  Everyone, even the king, repents.  They fast and put on sackcloth.  They immediately turn from their evil ways and turn toward God.

And when God sees their repentance and their sincerity, God decides not to bring destruction upon them.  God spares them.  God loves the people of Ninevah and grants them mercy.  God doesn’t give up on the people of Ninevah, just like God didn’t give up on Jonah.

In these first two acts of Jonah, we see God’s acts of persistent reaching out to Jonah and the people of Ninevah.  God uses big ways and small ways to get Jonah to help save the Ninevites.  And when the people of Ninevah listen to Jonah, God is merciful.

This should be the perfect ending, right?  But remember, this is only the second act.  While the salvation of the Ninevites should be a great entry on Jonah’s prophet resume, the final act of this book depicts a surprising response from Jonah.

Instead of being excited and proud that he’s able to change the hearts of the people of Ninevah, Jonah is mad.  He sulks and falls into self-pity.  He’s mad because God didn’t destroy the Ninevites.  After all they were bad people who did bad things.  Don’t they deserve God’s punishment after everything they’ve done?  It’s good they’ve turned to God, but don’t they still have to suffer for their evil?

Jonah approaches God with false flattery: “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.”  But then he asks God to just let him die.  Jonah is crushed that God doesn’t hand out the kind of justice Jonah thinks the Ninevites deserve. 

Jonah basically throws a tantrum at God.  And although God seems pretty irritated by Jonah’s actions, God doesn’t just say “fine, go ahead and die, I’ve got better things to do.”  God continues to engage Jonah.  God doesn’t abandon Jonah, even when Jonah acts as though he’s the one who’s been wronged by God.

God remains God.  God doesn’t abandon the people of Ninevah, no matter how much they may deserve it.  God keeps reaching out to them until they figure it out.

And God doesn’t give up on Jonah, even when he may not deserve it.  God keeps reaching out to Jonah to get him to realize how much God loves all of Creation, not just a select few.  God’s mercy is for everyone!

When we talk about Jonah in this way, he seems like a rather silly character.  But this story has stood the test of time because of the truth it reveals about humankind and God.

We’re all like Jonah.  I hate to admit it, but, I’m like Jonah.  There are times when I am reluctant to follow God’s call.  But there are also times when I realize my mistakes and give thanks for God’s love and care.  What bothers me most, however, is that I’m sometimes like Jonah when I think I know how justice should be served.

Fortunately, prayer, the Scriptures, and other people ground me and remind me that I’m not the one who determines justice.  I don’t truly know what’s in another person’s heart.  I don’t know everything they’re going through.  I make assumptions based only on what I see from my narrow view. 

But God has the great view.  God knows what’s in each heart.  God knows what motivates each of us to do what we do. 

Ian MacLaren provided a wonderful quotation that helps in those moments we’re feeling like Jonah, when we’re feeling like we know best what another person deserves.  MacLaren wrote:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  We may not know those battles, but God does.  God never stops reaching out to all of humankind and offering them mercy.  And, thankfully, God never stops reaching out to each of us to offer us mercy.  Amen.