August 11, 2019

 “A Whale of A Tale”

The Book of Jonah

 

My very first encounter with this story happened as I was sitting in my Orthodontist’s office, at about the age of 8, reading a Bible Stories book. I remember reading this story and seeing an image of Jonah, in the belly of a whale. I wondered what that must have been like, how it smelled, etc. I finished reading the story, thinking the message was pretty clear-Do what God says, or YOU may end up on the belly of a whale. I can remember not wanting to go into the ocean when we went to our beach cabin the following summer.

 

What is the message from this old story? Is it as simple as that- do what God says or get swallowed by a whale?  Or is there more to this story? Let’s unpack it a bit, and then see what it holds for us.

 

First, let’s establish a time frame. When does this story take place? Biblical scholars place Jonah in the 8th century B.C. The Assyrian empire was the most powerful nation in that region, and they had pretty much destroyed most of the nations surrounding Israel in this time-period. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, now modern-day Mosul in Iraq.

 

Who was Jonah? The only other place we hear anything of Jonah in the Hebrew Scriptures is in 2nd Kings 14:25, regarding the reign of King Amaziah, mentioning that Amaziah had restored the border of Israel, due to the words of “Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from the land of Gath-Hepher.” Amaziah’s reign was in the 790’s B.C. So Jonah was a prophet from the late 8th century.

 

Was he really a prophet? Yes, although there is no recording of his words to King Amaziah. And he certainly was not a prophet in the same sense as Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, or others, whose lengthy prophecies are written down, calling the Kings of Israel to turn from their wicked ways. Yet he is included in the list of the 12 prophets of Israel. Jonah was the only prophet called to give a message outside of the Hebrew nation, to actually walk down the streets of the capital city of an enemy of Israel, to deliver his message from God. (Other prophets delivered oracles concerning foreign nations, but did not visit them-Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel)

 

The only recorded prophetic message we have from Jonah is pretty darn short, a very brief sermon to the people of Nineveh- only that line in chapter 3, verse 4-“Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!.” I bet you wish some of my sermons were that short!

 

The book of Jonah isn’t about Jonah’s prophecies from God- It is primarily about Jonah, his failure to heed God’s call, the result of this, and God’s character.

 

So, let’s briefly run through the story, and then we’ll mine it for God’s wisdom. Initially, Jonah was charged with the task of going to Nineveh and "crying out against it." Jonah, like many of the other prophets, complained about God’s call. However, he, unlike ANY of the others, initially turned his back on God and ran away from the call. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh, the capital of a world dominant power, with its sights set on Israel and upon the people of God. I don’t really blame him. Assyria was the superpower of the day and had defeated many nations around Israel on the field of battle. In fact, if our timeline is correct, and Jonah served King Amaziah’s reign, some 50 years later in 740 B.C., the Assyrians would, in fact, sack Jerusalem and deport a good portion of the inhabitants to Assyria, where they lived in captivity. Assyria was scary, and so he ran away to a place called Tarshish. The precise location of Tarshish is unknown. But based on what little scripture tells us, it is a place far removed from Israel. The most common suggestion for locating Tarshish is that it was on the southwestern Spanish coast. The basic meaning would have been well understood by ancient audiences listening to the story- Jonah set out toward the very farthest point in the opposite direction from Nineveh. He wanted to get away from God, his call and the Assyrians. Think of God calling you to Portland, Oregon and you choose to fly to Portland, Maine instead.

 

In response to his flight to Tarshish, God hurled a storm toward the sea. After negotiations with the sailors on shipboard as to whose god was angry and was causing the storm, Jonah let it slip that he knew God was angry, for he had abandoned his calling.  Jonah then allowed himself to be cast into the sea, whereupon he was rescued by "a large fish." The large fish eventually (3 days later) vomits Jonah back upon dry land, once Jonah repents of his running from God. Jonah thanks God for being rescued.  Then comes act II.

 

"The word of the Lord" came again to Jonah. This time, the word is not identical to that presented in 1:2. Earlier, Jonah had been called to cry out against the city; now he is charged with the task of proclaiming a message that God gives to him. Jonah goes to Nineveh, and prophecies, “Yet 40 days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4) The people listen to Jonah’s prophecy. The King, more importantly, listens to Jonah’s words and declares a fast, and calls the people to turn away from their wickedness and back to the God of Jonah, which is remarkable, since the Assyrian’s god was Ashur, and they had been blessed on the field of battle while following Ashur. For whatever reason, they turn away from sinful behavior, God is impressed with their repentance, and God’s mind is changed. Nineveh will be spared.

 

This did NOT sit well with Jonah, who was waiting for Nineveh to be destroyed by God’s power.  Apparently, that change of heart in the belly of the big fish wasn’t so authentic after all. He was so frustrated, he asked God to kill him right there and then on the spot. God did not comply with his request. Jonah then traveled just outside of Nineveh, made himself a shelter, and watched to see if God might still smite the Assyrian capital. God made a plant, which grew over the booth and provided shade for Jonah. Jonah loved the plant. The next morning, however, God proceeded to kill the plant with a worm, which put Jonah back into the hot sun. Jonah mourned the death of the plant, and once again wished he were dead. Then comes what theologian Barbara Brown Taylor believes is the best ending line in a book of the Bible. God basically says to Jonah, “So you care more about a plant than you do about people? Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people I have made with my own hand, people who are helpless, who have little knowledge about anything. And what about all the animals there? DO you care more about this one little plant than them, which I have also made with my hand?” And the story ends- What is Jonah’s response? Does he repent yet again and ask for forgiveness? Does he finally come around to see things from God’s point of view? Or does he sit there in the dust and dirt, angry and having a pity party? We do not know. Jonah isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Hebrew scripture. We are left with Jonah being angry and frustrated at God.

 

A suggestion by one of our retired school teachers in the congregation, Gene Wright was for those who feel motivated to “finish” the story of Jonah with a creative writing project. I’d love to see some of you write your additional endings to the book of Jonah. Perhaps we could print them in the next Dialogue?

 

What can we learn from this story? There are several things it tells us about God’s call, God’s help, God’s nature, and God’s desire for the earth.

  1. God calls us to places, situations, and people with whom we would rather not associate. God called Jonah to the capital city of a superpower with designs upon Israel to turn them around. God may call you to be in a place you would rather not go, or to do something you would rather not do. For instance, I can remember when I first began to get the call to become a pastor, at 1st Presbyterian church in Vallejo. My Great grandfather, Darius A. Mobley, had been the pastor at that church for 27 years, and there was a big bronze plaque dedicated to him on the sanctuary wall. My pastor and Christian Educator at the church began to suggest I should attend seminary. God spoke through them to give me a calling. But that bronze plaque put a lot of weight upon my shoulders. I decided to study music in college instead. Long story short, here I am today, as a pastor. I didn’t run to Tarshish or get swallowed by a big whale, but I did turn away from the call until God brought me back. Sisters and brothers, when God calls, you better listen and go- whether it is to a certain career, or to make amends with someone, or to do something important to God. You can’t run from that call no matter where you go and what you do. God will pursue you until you follow.
  2. When you are in distress, God will answer your calls for help-God is active in our lives. The sailors in the story are in distress, pray to God for help, and are rescued. Jonah is drowning and gets rescued by a big fish. The Ninevites are repentant for their sins and are delivered by God from destruction. Are you in peril or distress? Are you facing a difficult decision or a physical ailment? Are you seeking God’s grace and forgiveness? Cry out to God, and God will act. The next two things listed are in relation to God’s character:
  3. God’s mind is not set in stone. The very nature or essence of God does not change, but clearly, in this story, God’s mind can change when people change their ways. This trait of God is also found in the story of Abraham pleading for the people of Sodom. God is creative, abounding in grace and will respond creatively to changing circumstances.
  4. Finally, God cares and forgives all the people of the earth. God had love and compassion for the people of Israel, as well as for the people of Nineveh, whom God also created. God bestows grace upon all people. And if God does all of those things with all people, so should we. Otherwise, we end up like Jonah, holding onto vengeance and hatred, in shock that God didn’t just wipe out all of our enemies, throwing a pity party and saying, “Well then, you might as well just kill me!” God wanted Jonah to care about a hated enemy, and to speak a message from God. Who is on your enemy list? Who don’t you get along well within the Rogue Valley? As you look all over this world of ours, who are your hated enemies? The NRA and its leaders?  The opposite of your political party? How is God calling us to reach out to them in the midst of yet another mass shooting crisis in America? If God cares about them, so should we. If God loves them, so should we. If God grants them restoration for repenting for their bad behavior, so should we. If God gives them grace, then so should we. If God calls us to reach out and speak with them on matters of justice, we should follow that call. And, for what it is worth, I sent a respectful, yet strongly worded letter to Kentucky senator Mitch Mc Connell, asking him to pass sensible gun legislation last week. It seems a lot of people wrote, called and emailed the senator, who now says he wants to work on a gun legislation bill with congress. Here’s hoping and praying that something finally will get done, so that we don’t have to fly our flags at half-mast 365 days a year.

 

God calls us to see all of those on our enemy list, whether locally or globally as a creation of the Creator and as Jesus said, to love them and pray for them (Matthew 5:44).

 

It really is a whale of a tale, this story of Jonah. If we learn from it, if we learn to heed God’s call, to trust in God’s deliverance from difficulty, to believe that God adjusts to changing circumstances, that God shows love and forgiveness for all people, for all of creation and so should we, the world becomes a better place. The tragedy of this story occurs when we end up just like Jonah at the end of the story we haven’t listened to God, our hearts remain full of vengeance and anger, we pay little attention to how God views the world and go on living our lives as before.

 

And so the sermon ends, but the story of faith continues. What is your response to God’s call for YOU in today’s story? The next chapter is yet to be written and is between you and God. Alleluia. Amen.

 

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