Jonah - Week One: "The Jonah In Us"
This week I am launching a brand new sermon series for the month of August, based on the book of Jonah. In fact, we are going to be studying the book of Jonah chapter by chapter--which isn't a lot, to be honest. There's only four chapters and I think there's only like 48 verses total.
But it's hard to find a story in the Bible that isn't as well known as the story of Jonah and the Whale, right? When I was a kid, I was fascinated with this story. If you have no idea what I am talking about--the story basically goes like this:
God tells this guy Jonah to go tell a city full of wicked people that unless they repent they are going to be destroyed. Jonah decides to run away and gets on a ship going as far away as he can get. A storm ensues and threatens to destroy the boat. Jonah has the guys in the boat throw him overboard and then he's swallowed by a big fish / a whale / a large sea creature...
I know. It's sounds kind of fantastic when you tell it like that, right?
Why don't we read the actual story? We'll start by digging into the first chapter:
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Like I said, when I was a kid I was fascinated by this story. When I went to Sunday school back in the day we didn't have videos, computers and fancy things like that. We had flannel graph. Flannel graph was basically paper dolls. You had paper dolls and stuck them on a big cloth square.
It was amazing.
I was fascinated by the idea of a guy being swallowed by a whale, or a really big fish. And even more fascinated by the idea of a guy being in the belly of a whale or a really big fish for three days and three nights. I imagined Jonah in the whale's belly kind of like Pinocchio and Gepetto on a raft like in the Disney movie.
When I grew up and started learning about literature and the way people form stories--I learned about the fascination that human beings have with stories of men and fish. There are countless stories throughout history about human beings and the mysteries of the deep, and I figured Jonah was just one of them.
The fact that my ideas about Jonah being merely a fable also coincided with my general abandonment of Christian faith was not unrelated, however.
But now, I see this story so differently, and I hope that throughout this series you will begin to see it differently, too. I'm not going to spend any time trying to prove this story to you. I think that's an exercise in missing the point.
BUT I will say this: the moment we start eliminating the possibility of the miraculous as we read stories like this, is the moment when we may as well give up on the idea of an all-powerful and creative God.
I see the story of Jonah as a story of how we struggle to know and do the will of God. And this first chapter--the one we just read--I believe that it helps us with the following realization: WHEN YOU RUN FROM GOD'S WILL YOU CAN EXPECT A STORM.
Before we start unpacking chapter one of Jonah--and before we start digging in to the what would make him want to run away from God...
I have a question for you: Can you think of a time in your life when you quit rather than do something that went against your deeply held beliefs?
I had a moment when I quit a job because of my deeply held beliefs that no human being should be forced to wear an outfit that looks like Capt. Steubing from the love boat.
So let's dig a bit into chapter one of Jonah.
First of all, the story begins with the word vayehi which is translated "And it came to pass," or "At that time," which is a similar way that Jesus would begin his parables, and then immediately moves into a command from God to Jonah.
The "Word of the Lord" comes to Jonah to go and prophesy to the city of Nineveh and tell them that they will be destroyed, with an implication that they should probably think about repenting first.
Interestingly, there are 40 verses in the book of Jonah that actually move the story forward--eight verses are prayers by Jonah. The number forty is significant in the Hebrew Scriptures as a number indicating testing or trial.
Even more interestingly is the name Jonah, which is a Hebrew word that can mean "dove," which is often a word used to describe Israel itself. So what we see almost immediately is that this story is connected intimately to the Hebrew people.
What is also incredibly interesting is that God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, which is an ancient Assyrian city. The Assyrians are old enemies of Israel, and despite the fact that, at the time this story is taking place, they are a fading empire, the Hebrew people would not have felt at all kindly toward them.
That's too soft a way to put it. They hated these people. The Assyrians had killed hundreds of thousands of Hebrew people, enslaved thousands more and all but destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
So Jonah decided to resign as a prophet and get on a boat to take him to the farthest point that anyone had ever heard of--Tarshish. Scholars believe that ancient Tarshish could have been somewhere on the coast of Spain or near Carthage in North Africa. But at this point in history, it was the furthest point on the map.
When a storm comes up and threatens to sink the ship, the superstitious sailors are convinced that someone had angered some god or another and eventually get Jonah to admit that it's him. He convinces them to throw him overboard, which they finally do, begging God not to hold it against them.
So Jonah is swallowed alive by a sea creature, which is a word that is used in ancient Hebrew to describe any kind of large marine animal, and also to symbolize the forces of chaos within the waters. In Genesis chapter 1, for example, the primordial waters were chaotic but God controlled them, shaped them and created an orderly world from them.
The storm is calmed, and the sailors actually offer a sacrifice (probably a grain offering) to God and make vows to remember the moment in the name of Yahweh. It's interesting that its the foreigners that show piety while Jonah seems entirely self-centered.
Okay... now that you have the lowdown, let's think about what all this means.
Jonah's struggle is against the will of God here--and he rebells when God's purposes don't align with his own. It's easy for us to judge him, but put yourself in his shoes. You kind of did a little while ago when you remembered a time when you quit because of your beliefs.
Jonah, as it turns out, has no desire to throw a life line to a bunch of Ninevites.
So he does three things--three things that all of us do when we start to wonder if God's purposes really are in our best interests. Or we start wondering if maybe we might know best what we need to be doing rather than what we might know God wants us to do.
FIRST, Jonah tries to escape God's presence by running from the will of God. He doesn't want to do what God is asking him to do, so he decides to head the other direction. We know what this is like. It's that moment when your kid gets really quiet... too quiet and you know that they are up to no good.
Our puppy will go and hide when he knows he's torn something up that he shouldn't have been chewing on. And he will flee from you if he thinks he's going to get scolded. It's like all of Creation gets this...
So what do WE do when we are struggling with God's purposes? Well, some of us might stay away from church... or we will leave our communities of faith, friends and the like. We'll flee from anything or anyone that might point us in the right direction.
I ran away from God for over five years--avoiding anything and everything that would have reminded me of what I knew I ought to be doing.
SECOND, Jonah tries to escape God's tasks by ignoring the word of God. Jonah was a prophet, and his job was go and speak the things that God had given him to speak. Because he felt like he didn't care for the task, he decided to resign his post. He ignored the word of God and walked away from his calling.
So many of us do this in indirect ways. We'll ignore God's word when we think we're not good enough. We will say continuously, "I'm not good enough to do THAT." Or "God couldn't possibly use me because I'm not holy enough."
We will also ignore God's call when we don't want to be good enough. We will think about all of the things we will have to change, our ideas, interpretations of the Bible perhaps. We will think about what we will have to give up--our notions about people we don't necessary like, or behaviors we don't want to abandon.
THIRD, Jonah tries to escape God's love by rejecting the wishes of God. God's wish was for the people of Nineveh to come to repentance, but they needed to be aware of their transgressions first. Jonah had no desire to put himself in a bad situation with people he didn't like, and had less desire to see them redeemed.
We do this from time to time when we justify our unwillingness to reach out a helping hand to people in need. We might say things like, "They will just use the money I give them for booze..." or "If they would just get a job... get clean... get sober... get out of that relationship... change their beliefs... I might consider it."
When we do this what we are essentially asking is, "How can God possibly love everyone?" There HAS to be a limit to God's patience and love, right? Because there is a limit to our own.
Here's the thing that will ALWAYS HAPPEN when you run from God's will and try to flee God's call and purpose for your life. When you run from God's will you can expect a storm. There will be a storm. Maybe not right away, but there will be a storm.
And I suppose I could just leave it there, right? There will be a storm, and you might get tossed overboard in the process. The end. Amen. Let's head to the parking lot.
But that's not what God wants for you AT ALL.
What happened when Jonah was tossed overboard? Did he sink into the depths. Did Jaws come and make a meal out of him? Was that the end of his story? NO! God did something extraordinary--God moved heaven and earth to envelop Jonah in safety and even though his circumstances weren't that awesome... he was alive and well.
What makes you any different?
The unlimited patience, grace and mercy of God is more powerful than any storm, more powerful than the depths to which you have fallen.
If you are running from God today, if you are experiencing the storms even as we speak--I want to speak this word of hope into your life. You are not alone. No matter how far you have run to escape God's will, God's word and God's love---God is with you in the midst of it all. Turn to him. He will lift you up, and not let you be consumed.