Jonah! We heard this story or at least part of it when we were children. Now that we are grown ups, I think it is a good time for us to look again at this story. Over the next four weeks we will look at this sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, tale of God’s prophet Jonah. While we often hear this called the story of “Jonah and the whale” it is less about a fish and more about the nature of God. Each week we will look at a new chapter as the story unfolds. Jonah is a story of the power of repentance, and even more importantly, it is a story about the boundless compassion and mercy of God. For such a small book, just 48 verses long, the Book of Jonah holds an important place in religious tradition. It is still recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, among those of Jewish faith. It is cited several times in the New Testament. In Matthew, Jesus refers to Jonah when he says, “…no sign will be given to (this generation) except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12:39-40) Theologians sometimes contrast Jonah’s ship going experiences and those of Paul, who also weathered a severe storm at sea. Four simple chapters, unusual from the other writings of the minor prophets we find in the Bible, but important.
So, Jonah is a prophet of God, he is Hebrew, and he lives in the northern kingdom of Israel probably in the vicinity of Galilee. The story begins with God speaking to Jonah. And Jonah does not like what God is telling him. “Arise and go at once to Nineveh!” Well, one can hardly blame him for not wanting to go– Nineveh is not a good place at all. It has a reputation and not only that, the Ninevites are the enemy – they are part of the Assyrian empire! Located in what is modern day Iraq, the description – “that great city” conjures up visions of size, and strength, and status. It’s a place where visitors like Jonah are welcome – to leave.
So Jonah obeys God and heads right out to Nineveh to shake things up! No? No! He partially obeys God, he does arise, but instead, he books himself on the fastest route in the opposite direction, he heads to the seaport of Joppa and books passage to Tarshish which is most likely in Spain far, far away from Nineveh and Jonah hopes, far from the “presence of the Lord.”
What do you think? Do you think that going to Tarshish will take Jonah from the presence of the Lord? No! Why not? Because there is no place that God is not. In Psalm 139, the psalmist reminds us that wherever we go, God is already there. We may laugh at Jonah’s foolishness in trying to run away from God, but do we ever try the same thing?
Being under the bright eye of God can be uncomfortable, so don’t we look for ways to get away from that presence? Perhaps you can relate: When I was about 15, I left the church. I had had enough of church and religion and people telling me what to do, and God. For a long time, I felt good about my decision. You could say that my state of mind was, “I’m not thinking about God, so God’s not really there.” I had figuratively packed my bags and gone to Tarshish, away from “the presence of the Lord.” But had I really? No, of course not and looking back I can see God’s hand in my life during that time, I can see him drawing me back toward him. I am sorry it took me so long.
Looking at Jonah’s story, we see the hand of God drawing Jonah back in a much more dramatic way than I experienced. At first it seems that everything is going well for Jonah – he has an accessible seaport, a convenient ship, financial ability to pay for his passage, and available space. But Jonah’s flight is futile, for they are no sooner out to sea than we read, “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm cam upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jon 1:4) They are confronted by the power of God and it impacts all those who are on board with Jonah. All the while, Jonah withdraws to the hold of the ship and goes to sleep. Maybe this is his way of being in denial about what is happening around him. He isn’t quite ready to see that his actions have consequences that affect him and those around him.
We do that, too. At least I do, we think that our actions impact only ourselves. I have often had people say to me of their poor decisions, “I’m not hurting anyone but myself.” That is not true and we vividly see this in Jonah. Jonah’s disobedience effects all on this ship with him. In this next episode there is a lot of action – there is YHWH hurling the storm, there is the fear of the sailors, there is the throwing of cargo into the sea, there is the captain discovering Jonah in the hold of the ship. The captain appropriately cries out, “What are you doing sound asleep?” Get up and do something! Call out to your god and see if that works. Then the frantic sailors propose casting lots, a technique that was familiar in the ancient Near East, to see who is at fault. The lot falls to Jonah and this sends the sailors into a frenzy of questioning. “Where are you from, what is your occupation, why has this happened, … who are you?”
Finally, Jonah is ready to confess who he is, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men are even more afraid – literally the translation is, “they fear a great fear.” Let’s note that Jonah still has not told them what he has done. Has Jonah even admitted to himself what he has done? Probably not. He is still in flight – he has tried physical flight by ship to Tarshish; that has not worked. He has tried psychological flight by sleeping through the drama of the storm; that has not worked. Now, he turns to absolute flight. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” I know that will fix everything for you and for me. Do you notice what he doesn’t say? He doesn’t say, “get met to a port, I relent, I will go to Nineveh as God has asked.” Jonah is still defiant and in flight from God. He would rather die than turn to God. Wow! How many people, like Jonah, are willing to die rather than to submit themselves to the will of God?
Let’s turn from Jonah for just a moment and take a look at what is happening with the sailors at this point. This is almost a story within the story. We don’t know much about the sailors, but we know they are not Israelites. Yet, the sailors do what Jonah has been unwilling to do, they pray. They cry out to YHWH, they take God seriously and acknowledge God’s presence and power. They worship the Lord, these ones who have never heard of the great IAM before, and they make vows to God. They try everything to get the ship and its human cargo through the storm. It must have been a horrendous decision for them to throw Jonah overboard, to cast him away. We read then that, the sea then ceased its raging. (v 15)
Verse 17, “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Can you envision this dark and smelly place of desperation? A place no one would choose to find themselves. Can you imagine anyplace more isolated, more dismal, more depressing, more hopeless seeming than the belly of a giant fish? Perhaps this is a symbol of all the hopeless situations in which we find ourselves; in which we feel thrown aside, swallowed up by our problems and our worries, cast away. Yet, even here, even here in this hopeless seeming situation has Jonah managed to escape, “the presence of the Lord?” In our seemingly hopeless situations, are we alone, without God, and without hope? The answer is, No. There is always hope, there is always God.
The passage ends with this, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (v. 17) That is where we are going to leave Jonah for today. I hope that you will think of Jonah a few times this week and ask God if there is anything to be revealed to you in this story, then come back next Sunday and we will see what happens to Jonah next. Will he continue to unsuccessfully attempt to hid from God? Will he see the error of his ways? Will he just be fish food? Stay tuned.
Let’s pray: Lord, we love you, we truly do want to follow your guidance in our lives but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, we are like Jonah – just on the run from you. Sometimes we find ourselves in dismal hopeless situations, some of which are of our own making. Help us to see that no matter how awful our situation seems, you are there, longing for us to turn to you – to stop our running and turn to you. Forgive us and gently guide us back to you. Help us to be obedient to you and your calling on our lives.