FIRST READING Jonah 3:1–5, 10
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
PSALM Psalm 62
1 For God alone I wait in silence; from God comes my salvation. 2 God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall never be shaken. 3 How long will all of you assail me to crush me as if I were a leaning fence, a toppling wall? 4 They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor; they take pleasure in lies. They bless with their lips, but in their hearts they curse.
5 For God alone I wait in silence; truly, my hope is in God. 6 God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall never be shaken. 7 In God is my deliverance and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge. 8 Put your trust in God always, O people, pour out your hearts before the one who is our refuge. 9 Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath; those of low estate cannot be trusted. Placed on the scales together they weigh even less than a breath. 10 Put no trust in extortion; in robbery take no empty pride; though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
11 God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God. 12 Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord, for you repay all according to their deeds.
SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 7:29–35
29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
GOSPEL Mark 1:14–20
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
A WHALE OF A TALE
It’s interesting what we remember and why we remember it. Memories from childhood normally center around the good times, those times of joy and freedom. Memories from our teenage years are generally the same, but can include experiences that while awkward, are still ones we can laugh about. As we grow older, we usually remember friends and family and the type of people they were. This isn’t to say that we don’t recall difficult times, but most often we try to keep the good memories and discard the bad. Another thing we seem to recall readily is the interesting points of stories we hear. No matter how long or short a story is, if it has an amazing facet to it, that’s what we seem to keep in our heads. Bible stories are no different.
In our Old Testament lesson for today we have a reading from the book of Jonah. Now I’m willing to bet a buffalo nickel, or even a mercury dime, that if I were to stop and ask ten people what they know about the story of Jonah, most would say, “the whale.” There is good reason for this. First it makes for a great story. Someone getting swallowed by a great fish and living to tell about it is an amazing thing! Second, Jesus talks about this same aspect of the Jonah story when He talks about His crucifixion and resurrection. The book and story of Jonah is filled with amazing events, but it always seems to present a problem, what was the point of the story?
When asked about the story of Jonah, everyone remembers the whale, but in point of fact, the whale is the least important part of this story. There are forty-eight verses in the Book of Jonah and only three of them mention the whale. You see, here is one of the best-known, yet least understood, episodes in all the Bible. And the fault for this can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the writers of church educational material, especially the adult Christian education materials. The part of the story with the whale seems to be all everyone wants to write about. And I think to understand this story you must first understand the background.
Scholars have argued for centuries exactly how to deal with Jonah. Some argue that it’s merely a story that was told in much the same way as a parable. Parables are stories, usually with exaggerated elements, used to make a point. They’re not meant to be taken literally, their purpose is to catch the reader in a trap and end up convicting themselves. An example of this, from the Old Testament, is when the prophet Nathan came to David after he had committed adultery and had Uriah killed.
In II Samuel 12, God sends Nathan to David to confront him about his actions. Nathan tells a story about a rich man who steals the poor man’s sheep because he was too greedy to cook one of his own. David upon hearing the story pronounces judgment only to learn that he was the rich man in the story. Other scholars argue that Jonah was indeed a real person and that the story is a historical fact and must be taken as such. Needless to say, the arguments still go on to this day. The problem is that arguing the parable or historic nature of the story causes one to miss the point of the story entirely. I for one happen to view this story as one of fact. Jonah was an actual person, the events described actually happened, and my God is certainly big enough to create and prepare a fish big enough to swallow a man. God is also capable of growing a vine overnight and sending a worm to kill it the next night. With that being said, I’m also one who refuses to allow the argument of the realism or parable nature of the story get in the way of the reason it’s told.
No matter which side of the argument you take, the story of Jonah was originally written and told in order to make a point to the Jewish people. We might decide to hate our neighbor but God doesn’t. For those who have studied Jewish history, after king Solomon, the family of Israel split. Ten tribes at the northern end of the Promised Land were referred to as the Northern kingdom and the remaining two tribes in the south the Southern kingdom. At the time of the split, Assyria was gaining power and was threatening the Northern kingdom. For several decades the Assyrians caused grief for the Northern Tribes and in about 725 BC conquered the Northern Kingdom. Those they didn’t kill were enslaved and sent further north. Throughout this time the people of Israel had good reason not to like the Assyrian people. The Assyrians were murderous people who raided them, burned their crops and in every way threatened their existence. As far as they were concerned, they were barbarians who God even hated. Fast forward some 250 years to after the return from exile.
The Jewish people have returned from captivity and are now back in the Promised Land. Assyria was defeated by Babylon and Babylon was defeated by Syria. They’ve endured 70 years of captivity and slavery and can still remember the days spent by the river with little hope of return. The memories of what they endured was still fresh in their minds and it’s possible that what they went through still haunted their dreams at night. As far as they’re concerned, Assyria got what it deserved and there was no love lost on them. In the 137th Psalm, a psalm written about the exile, we read: By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (137:1-6)
Clearly the experience of exile had left the Jews bitter and hateful towards all foreigners. The old vision of Israel being called by God as “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) was dead. All they wanted was for God to destroy their enemies. They had their righteous warriors (just as we have them today) – their xenophobic super patriots and nationalistic priests who preached a religion of “Israel First.” In the midst of all this hatred comes the events and the story of Jonah.
Jonah is the perfect representative for what God wants to tell the people of Israel, and in this story Jonah indeed represents Israel. Once we begin reading the account of Jonah’s adventure, we find that, like the rest of Israel, Jonah despises outsiders. He stands for all the hostility and prejudice Jews felt towards people of other races. It’s also particularly important that God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of the world’s greatest cities.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and believe me – there was no love lost in the ancient world for the Assyrian Empire. They ruled their subjects with terror and brutality. Take, for example, all the fear and loathing that we Americans feel for our most hated national enemies and multiply it ten times. That’s how people felt about the Assyrians. Nevertheless, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people there that their mighty city was doomed: “Arise and go to Nineveh, that great city and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2). But consider this, Jonah experienced the call of God, that moment of crisis, when God enters a person’s life and turns it upside down. It’s a crisis, because faithful people have always found that God’s call upsets their prior attitudes and their best-laid plans.
For example, the apostle Paul wanted to be a Jewish scholar and leader, but he was called to leave Israel and preach to the Gentiles. St. Francis Xavier wanted to spend his life in a monastery, but he was called to be a missionary in the Indies, never to return to Europe again. Martin Luther wanted to simply reform the Catholic church, be a faithful monk and a seminary professor, but he was labeled an outlaw and had to hid in a castle for two years in order to save his own neck. As for Jonah, he definitely didn’t want to go to Nineveh.
It wasn’t that Jonah was afraid to go; we see later in the story just how courageous he was. Instead, Jonah didn’t want to go because he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to escape destruction by repenting. Jonah knew that God “is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (4:2). Jonah knew God was looking for a way to spare the Assyrians and all Jonah wanted was for Nineveh to go up in flames.
So, Jonah does what many of us do when God’s call to us is inconvenient – he runs the other way! God calls us to forgive someone who has wronged us and we run the other way by wanting to continue holding the grudge. God calls us to stand in the minority for a righteous cause and we run away from God’s call because it’s easier to go along with the crowd. God calls us to get involved in a situation and make a real sacrifice for the good of someone else and we run the other way because we want to live for ourselves instead.
In Jonah’s case, he buys passage on a ship heading away from Nineveh, towards southern Spain. But of course, God doesn’t take “no” for an answer – not from Jonah and not from us, either. When God is really tugging on our sleeve and pulling at our conscience, we can run but we cannot hide. So, God goes after Jonah; He sends a terrible storm that threatens to sink the ship.
The ship is owned and operated by foreigners and the crew is frantically trying to figure out which one of their gods is displeased. But then Jonah does an extraordinary thing. He knows that there is but one true God, and that he, Jonah, is the man God is angry at. So, Jonah offers his life in order to save the lives of these foreigners. “Throw me into the sea,” he says, “because I am the cause of this storm. The God of heaven and earth called me to Nineveh, and I ran the other way.” Right here is another key point in the story. If Jonah hates all foreigners, why try to save them by telling them the truth?
Jonah can suddenly do this because he’s gotten to know these hated foreigners up close and personally. No longer are they mere abstractions, like “Yankees” or “rednecks,” “fanatical Moslems” or “godless communists.” Now Jonah has come to know the foreigners on this ship as people. Now he knows that they have names and families; they have hopes and fears like anyone else. This is the same thing I found as I traveled during my time in the Air Force.
Throughout my military career, I was either stationed in or visited several countries including Korea, Germany, Spain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar and what I found was that deep down everyone has the same basic wants, hopes and dreams. Our cultural, religious and political views may be different, but we’re all still at the core God’s creations. No matter where you travel, there are good folks and not so good folks.
Even those who have been so conditioned by the lies of others and hate us, still have names and families, hopes and fears just as we do. Maybe if we got to know each other a little better as people, we might become a little more human ourselves. In every age and in every nation, mistrust of people is fed and perpetuated by distance between people.
This humanization of the enemy encourages Jonah to offer his life for theirs, but the ship’s crew doesn’t accept his offer, possibly for the same reason, they too got to know him as a person; instead, they row harder, trying to escape the storm. Again we find a subtle lesson in this story for the Jewish listener: it was a crew of foreigners risking their lives for a Jew. One of the nice, again subtle touches in this story is that the villains – the foreigners – have virtues.
But after exhausting themselves trying to save Jonah, they finally do as he asks and throw him into the sea. That’s where the “whale” comes in and from the belly of the great fish, Jonah says one of the Bible’s most moving prayers. If you’ve ever walked through a time of seeming hopelessness yourself, if you’ve ever suffered the deepest anguish of feeling alone and helpless and cut off from God, you can shed your tears with Jonah as he prays: I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of hell I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas …Then I said, ‘I am cast out from Thy presence; how shall I again look upon Thy holy temple?’ (2:2, 4) And after three days in the belly of hell, Jonah is given up to dry land, and God says to him, “Hey, Jonah! I told you once before to go to Nineveh. Why don’t we take it from the top and try again? Go to Nineveh and tell them what I told you to say.”
By this time Jonah is sufficiently impressed with God’s persistence that he goes to Nineveh to perform this service for the foreigners. He tells them that their great and powerful city will be destroyed in forty days because of their wickedness. Most kings – most premiers, prime ministers and presidents, including our own – wouldn’t believe their Jonahs, if indeed, they pay any attention to their Jonahs at all. Most leaders are national cheerleaders to a God whom they believe is surely “on our side.” They’re too proud to publicly acknowledge that under their leadership, God has doomed their nation.
Of course, the average citizen won’t listen to their Jonahs either!
In our own country, for example, see what happens when a preacher or a political candidate dares to suggest that America may have some fundamental moral flaws … that God may not be on our side but is instead on the side of justice, righteousness and peace. See what happens when a candidate dares to suggest that God is tired of our prayers and praises and wants our repentance instead. Why, that would be heresy! The candidate would be destroyed in the press and in the polls. He or she would be judged too “pessimistic” or unpatriotic to be a national leader.
But this isn’t the case with the leadership of Nineveh. Instead of rejecting the prophet’s message, the mighty king of Nineveh listened to Jonah and this foreign, heathen, pagan enemy king repents. He orders all the people to repent as well, from the richest noble to the poorest slave. They were not to eat or drink; they were to pray to God and change their evil ways. And because of their change of heart, God spared Nineveh (which is what He wanted to do anyway). The problem is Jonah himself is unrepentant.
Instead of changing his mind about foreigners, Jonah got upset. Jonah knew God was merciful, but he wanted to reserve God’s mercy for the Hebrew people alone. So Jonah throws a temper tantrum and sits down to pray. In chapter 4 we read his prayer, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. These were foreigners who pleased God with their repentance, which was a bitter pill for Jonah – for Israel – to swallow.
There’s more to the story with another lesson about God’s provision, a vine and a worm but that we’ll save for another time. The point is that the story of Jonah is a whale of a tale which has almost nothing to do with a whale. In fact, there are really a lot of messages in this little story, a lot of questions to be asked. I encourage you to reflect on the four short chapters and see which ones speak to you.
The story of Jonah is about tolerance and understanding. It reminds us that God is the God of all people. God loves Nineveh as much as Jerusalem, Moscow as much as Middle America. So, who are the people (or even the individuals) that we despise and distrust? Can we see that they’re just as important to God as we are? Can we all be like Jonah, getting to know them better as people?
The story about the adventures of Jonah is about saying “yes” to God’s call. The question we need to ask ourselves is, where is the Nineveh God has called us to enter – the situation God calls us to which we would rather stay away from? Have we not run away from our own great cities and where do we think we can hide from the persistent call of the Lord God Almighty?
The story is about spiritual humility. It’s a lesson that we hoped Jonah and the people of Israel learned, Jesus called it blessed (Matthew 5:3), and we would please God with more spiritual humility today. When we wish for God to do one thing while knowing in our hearts that it’s God’s will to do another, can we grow past our anger and rebellion … can we, like Jonah, submit to God and say, “Thy will, not my will, be done”? Finally, the story says something important about the nature of God.
After making us see how we fail to answer God’s call and in fact run away, the story says that God is a merciful God. He gave Jonah a second chance and all He wanted to do was spare the great city of Nineveh from the consequences of its evil ways. As it was in the beginning, so is it now with God’s own children today. God will let us flee and fail. God will let us be like Jonah – once, twice, even seven times seventy times – and then God will call us back again. God knows how hard it is for us to put ourselves aside and do His will. Jonah did it, and so can we.
Jonah grew to do it and so can we. By God’s patient love, we can enter our Ninevehs today, not with fear and loathing, but with faith and steadfast courage. By God’s patient love, we can go to our Ninevehs and emerge as more than conquerors through Him who loved us, even in the Lord, Jesus Christ.