A childhood memory is not complete without at least one of the grand stories from the Old Testament etched in your mind’s eye, there are so many to choose from. My childhood memories are quite vivid from Ascension Lutheran Sunday School days of sitting around a small table with my teacher, who sometimes looked eerily like my mother. We heard some pretty gruesome yet awe filled stories from the Bible. Characters came to life as they were carefully placed on the flannel board.
Noah somehow coaxed all of those animals to orderly march up and board the ark, in pairs they say. Daniel was tossed into a fiery furnace and also a lion’s den but lived to tell his story or rather lived to tell God’s miraculous story. Samson, with his long lovely locks wooed Delilah, but in the end his amorous overtures lost him his locks and his strength.
And what child has not heard the story of a big fish, a whale some say, swallowed up in one big gulp, a man named Jonah? What child has not giggled and eeuuuuuw’d when they heard that Jonah was spewed out of the whale onto the seashore? He must have done something really wrong I always surmised and vowed that I would be a good little girl! With each generation the tale of Jonah gets told over and over again because it appeals to our wild and adventuresome imaginations.
For a book of the Bible, that scholars cannot place in any certain historical setting except for maybe around the 6th or 5th century BCE, nor what genre of literature it might be, the story of Jonah has taken on epic proportions throughout time. We know though that it is an important story because the author of Luke bears it’s repeating in the 11th chapter.
You see it is more than a bedtime story or some folkloric tale, or children’s book or found in a religious coloring book. I hope that it will garner your attention as we think through it together this Lenten season. There are a mere four chapters and we will carefully examine and unpack each one because there is a lot to consider. It is particularly apropos for Lent when our attention is focused on introspection, repentance and transformation.
Jonah the Whale, He Qui
I share with you now the first chapter of Jonah from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’.
One day long ago, God's Word came to Jonah, Amittai's son: "Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer." 3 But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God.
He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get. 4-6 But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering.
The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship.
Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, "What's this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we're in trouble and rescue us."
7 Then the sailors said to one another, "Let's get to the bottom of this. Let's draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who's responsible for this disaster."
So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw.
8 Then they grilled him: "Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?" 9 He told them, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land."
10 At that, the men were frightened, really frightened, and said, "What on earth have you done!" As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.
11 They said to him, "What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm?" By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control. 12 Jonah said, "Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It's all my fault. I'm the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you'll get rid of the storm."
13 But no. The men tried rowing back to shore. They made no headway. The storm only got worse and worse, wild and raging. 14 Then they prayed to God, "O God! Don't let us drown because of this man's life, and don't blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best."
15 They took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately the sea was quieted down. 16 The sailors were impressed, no longer terrified by the sea, but in awe of God. They worshiped God, offered a sacrifice, and made vows.
17 Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish's belly three days and nights.
Dear old Jonah. God tells him to go to Nineveh and to prophesy a message of repentance. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, what is now Iraq and at that time and now, was public enemy number one of Israel. The Ninevites were rather shady people engaging in acts of violence, murder, warfare, rape and plundering, not a stellar record. It was time to straighten them out and to get them to recognize the one true God who could save them from their sinful ways and Jonah was to be the prophet to speak on God’s behalf to offer this redemption. That was God’s plan.
Jonah thought differently, he didn’t want any part of it. He gets on a boat bound for Tarshish which, back in the ancient world, was the other end of the earth. God was not happy with Jonah’s very willful disobedience. This was a case where human freedom of choice did not work out so well.
And God did not ignore Jonah’s running. God sees that Jonah is not doing exactly what God had in mind. Surely a storm at sea would get Jonah back on track again. High winds and a storm would certainly curtail Jonah’s efforts to flee. As the boat was being tossed back and forth Jonah fell asleep in the bowel of the ship. In order to assuage the storm the sailors threw him overboard and the rest, they say, at least for now in our four part sermon series, is history. God has gotten Jonah’s attention, and picked up a couple of believers along the way.
This is quite a story so far and already we have much to think about. You might ask why it is that Jonah defiantly runs the opposite direction. Why does he do everything in his power to evade the divine charge? What is he afraid of? Well we could ask ourselves that question too. Why do we run and hide? We all have our Tarshish, a place to go where both metaphorically and physically we know we won’t have to do what is asked of us. Tarshish is that place where you want to embark for when you don’t want to face the reality of a God who is mightier and greater than you. Tarshish is that place you want to retreat to when you don’t want to face your life, or what’s being asked of you. It’s a place where evasion is the key word.
Jonah chose to flee to Tarshish because he knew God would forgive the Ninevites; that divine redemption would be offered to them if they repented. While you think that would be good news, Jonah didn’t see it that way. If God could forgive these disparate people, these foreigners then Jonah would have to forgive them also. Human forgiveness (or not) is one thing, but God’s forgiveness goes way beyond our capacity for understanding. Perhaps Jonah was just too afraid of change. We know all too well that to forgive is painful, heart wrenching, soul searching business. By its very nature to forgive means that we will probably need to change our ways or our thoughts.
So we find ourselves in this place that we do not want to be and are asked to do things that we just don’t want to do or we feel as if we are not qualified to do. I’m sure you have been in a place where you know it is right to forgive yet in your heart you’re just not feeling it. So how are we, like Jonah, to preach repentance and forgiveness when we have a hard time of it ourselves?
Yet in spite of our foibles and our attempts, like Jonah we are still called to do so. It is not of our choosing but of God’s choosing. We are to be witnesses embodying God’s divine mercy and justice in a world that desperately needs God’s TLC even though we, ourselves, are not perfect. We are to love and forgive our neighbors. And yeah, sometimes I want to run and hide from that charge.
But God doesn’t let us get away with running to Tarshish. We cannot escape God’s eye. Whatever God wants God gets! And that is reassuring because God wants forgiveness, love and grace and mercy. God wants you. The Psalmist speaks of an inescapable God in Psalm 139, a God who is ever present. He says, ‘You know me when I sit down and rise up…where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you and there and when I make my bed in Sheol you are there, you search me and know me.” God is always present even when we run to Tarshish. That is the unmistakable beauty of God’s grace.
Jonah’s God is the same God who guided Noah’s ark to Ararat to rest, who saved Daniel from being consumed by the flames or eaten by lions, who made Samson’s locks grow just one more time so that he could best the Philistines.
Jonah’s God is the same God who, in time, sent us Jesus Christ through which we are forgiven, redeemed and saved.
Jonah’s God is the same God who sees the storms in our lives, jars us back on track again, protects us, and will never give up on us because wherever we are, God is.