January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
We’ll hear some more call stories today, in particular Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the first disciples, and the call of Jonah (or one of them). I want to give you a little more background on Mark, since we’ll be hearing from him for the next several weeks. As an aside, our Feb. 7 “Faith on First” Bible study will be about Mark, so that would be a great chance for you to learn even more about this Gospel and thus get more out of hearing from his Gospel throughout the coming year.
But here’s a snapshot: Mark is the earliest Gospel to be written, around the year 70. Since the first generation of Christians had started dying off, and they believed that Jesus was coming back any minute now, Mark felt a great urgency to get this story out there ASAP so that people could hear this good news! You’ll see that sense of urgency in his writing, by his excessive use of the word “immediately,” and by his lack of elegant transitions. But, all those gaps and rough edges also give us, the readers, space to enter into the story ourselves, which is exactly what Mark intends for us to do.
Also, a quick word about Jonah: so that you know where this story appears in his narrative, it is after the incident with the big fish. The first time God called Jonah, he fled. This time, he listens. It’s a story that may resonate with our own experiences answering or ignoring God’s call!
There are lots of entry points in our readings today, so just notice them. Notice what resonates with your experience. Place yourself in these stories, and see how that might cause you to hear them differently. Let’s listen.
|Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman|
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I think Jonah might be my favorite character in the Bible. Not because I admire him or am inspired by him, but rather, because he is so easy to relate to. Maybe we don’t quite appreciate that, from just the whale part of the story that we all know and love. But looking at the whole story? Jonah is a mirror for human nature. So, let’s take a look, not just at today’s reading, but his larger story…
It started when God asked Jonah to bring a message to the people of Nineveh about how their wickedness would be their downfall. Jonah is uninterested in this task. For starters, being God’s prophet is not for the faint of heart. But Nineveh is a particularly hard assignment. Nineveh was located in Assyria, the land of Jonah’s and Israel’s worst enemies – he rightfully hates them for all the death and destruction they have caused. Imagine, having to go talk to your worst enemies, people known for their violence and abuse, and saying, “So, God is mad at you, and you’ve gotta clean up your act or God’s gonna destroy you all. K?” I can’t imagine this would go well, and neither did Jonah. So he does what any reasonable person would do: he goes as far away from this call as he possibly can. He hops a boat in Joppa that is headed to Tarshish, literally the opposite direction from Nineveh.
Now, I hear this and think, “I get it, Jonah.” Jonah was not the first to run from God’s call, and he was certainly not the last. There are plenty of times in my own life when I really strongly felt God telling me to do something (or not to do something), and I just ignored it because my own freewill or desire was too tantalizing, and sounded like more fun, or easier, or safer. I metaphorically ran the other way and hopped a boat to Tarshish. I’m sure you can think of times you’ve done the same, because you know what? Sometimes God calls us to things we flat out don’t want to do, or don’t think we can do. I doubt there are many among us who are always more like Simon, Andrew, or the sons of Zebedee, who “immediately” drop what they were doing and follow the stranger, Jesus. Most of us take at least a little time to weigh the consequences of big decisions. Most of us are a lot more like Jonah – first thinking things through, at least, if not outright denying the call.
Back to the story. Jonah goes on the boat. No sooner have they set sail than a storm arises. Jonah, still aware that he is trying to escape a God who he should have known will always win, becomes convinced that this storm is the Lord’s work and Jonah’s fault, and in one of his more selfless moments, he tells the others on the boat that they might as well throw him overboard if they want to save their own lives. As unconventional a method of enduring a storm as this may seem, they finally do it, and immediately the storm ceases. Meanwhile, Jonah, whom God is determined to reach, whatever it takes, gets swallowed up by a big fish, in whose belly he spends three days and three nights. Jesus would later refer to this event as a precursor for his own death and resurrection, which helps us even more to realize the hellish predicament that Jonah has found himself in.
Have you been there? In the belly of the whale? I remember in school learning about the Hero’s Journey, the narrative trajectory made famous by the story of Odysseus, and recreated in many more modern stories, perhaps most famously Star Wars. In the “Hero’s Journey,” the “belly of the whale” is the part of the story where you think, “Our hero is really in trouble this time. How’s she going to get out of this one?” In Star Wars, it is in the trash compactor. It’s that moment in which the hero must truly rise to the occasion, to look inside herself and realize who she is – and I would add, who God needs her to be – and recognize what is needed in order to get out of this dark place.
Pardon the pun, but it really stinks to be in the belly of the whale. It is dark in there, and you can’t always see what the next step has to be, and certainly you don’t know how this is going to end. But it is also a place that calls us to faith, courage, and trust in a God who can see the whole story. And this is what Jonah demonstrates, in a beautiful Psalm of Thanksgiving, which you can read in Jonah chapter 2, right before today’s story, and I encourage you to do so.
Eventually, the big fish delivers Jonah safely to shore, in the precise location he started (oh, what an ironic God we have). He is spewed out by the fish, covered in who-knows-what (and smelling like you-know-what), and this is where our text for today begins. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I can almost hear God saying, “You thought you could run away from me? That’s cute. Here, I’ll give you another shot.” And to his credit, Jonah hears and this time answers the call – but not to his credit, he does a very half-hearted job. He goes only part of the way into the city, gives the shortest sermon in all of the Bible (in Hebrew, it is only five words), and then he gets outta Dodge. I picture him like a reluctant 10-year-old who is being forced to apologize to his little sister. He is slumped over, head to the side, eyes averted, and mumbles what his mom tells him to say, just to get her off his back, then runs back to his room just as soon as he can.
But amazingly, Jonah’s short, half-hearted message works! It goes viral through the city, even making it to the king. And this whole city of ne’er-do-wells repents! They actually listen! They turn from their evil ways, and God (who must have known all along this would happen, like any wise parent would), decides not to destroy them after all. Happy ending, right?
For the Ninevites, yes. For Jonah, no. This is one instance where he was sort of hoping for failure, not success. As you may remember, he hates the Ninevites, and all the violence and destruction and death they have caused. The one saving grace for Jonah in all this was that he would have the chance to give his enemies what-for, and to see them destroyed, like they surely deserved. In fact, he finds a good seat on a hill to watch this all play out. But then God “changes his mind”?? It is incredibly unfair and unexpected, and Jonah is unimpressed, and he goes off to pout. God, after all, should hate all the same people he hates, who are really worth hating, by the way, cuz they’re terrible. It was really nice that God showed grace to Jonah by saving him with that big fish stunt (though he could have found a less messy way to do that, if we’re being honest), but Jonah was a nice person. These Ninevites – they were not nice people, and they deserved what was coming to them.
Sound familiar? Jonah serves as a mirror to help us see our own humanity, and here is where that mirror becomes hard to look into. Jonah does not like that God showed grace to people who were so clearly bad. Jonah gets angry at God for being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah feels grateful for the grace that God has shown him for his short-comings, but has a harder time accepting that God might be so gracious and merciful that even the nasty Ninevites could be forgiven – held accountable, but forgiven – and saved.
It’s hard to swallow: that God could be so gracious as to love and forgive even the people we find unlovable and unforgivable, the Ninevites in our own lives: QAnon followers and insurrectionists, antifa and BLM activists, those who were joyous watching the inauguration this week and those who were angry or scared… or even more personally, estranged family members, bullies at work, people who have hurt us and broken our hearts. God loves all of them. It is hard to swallow, but it is also the best news we could hope for – that God’s grace is big enough for all that, and for you, and for me. There is nothing, nothing that is too big for God’s grace.
If God can forgive like that, can we? In the Jonah story, we never do find out if Jonah forgave the Ninevites. We only know that God did. But in the Gospel story today, we hear Jesus call people to follow him, to “fish for people.” The four disciples he calls that day, unlike Jonah, follow him “immediately.” I wonder if they knew how hard it would be to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, how hard it would be to forgive their enemies. I wonder if they knew, that, hard as it is, Jesus continues to lead, and continues to forgive us for falling short. I wonder if we really know that.
Let us pray… Gracious and merciful God, there is so much hatred and division around us. We long for healing in our personal lives and in our nation. Remind us always that your abundant mercy and grace extends to all people – to our enemies, and even to us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.