Federated Church, UCC
July 3, 2022
Sermon: Jonah: A Profile in Faith?
Preached by Pastor Betsy Wooster
Today we’re beginning a sermon series for the rest of summer, titled Profiles in Faith. Each week we will profile a person from the scriptures, both from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, whose stories have been remembered over generations. Some of these names may be familiar to you, others may ring a bell, but we can’t quite remember their story. And some of you may be hearing about these stories for the first time.
We begin today with Jonah. I bet if there’s one thing you do remember about Jonah, is that he ended up in the belly of a _______ ? I heard whale and fish! Both whale and fish have been used in the retelling of the story, but, the scripture actually says fish. And so, the one thing that people remember about Jonah is that he ends up in the belly of a FISH! Yes, Amen!
This far-fetched plot point is a good indication that Jonah is better understood as a parable than as history. The ancient authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians call the Old Testament, did not write for the purpose of accurately or objectively recording historical events.
This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures contain no resources for reconstructing the histories of the Israelites and their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, but, creating “just the facts” accounts of Israel’s past, present and future were not their primary goals. They often spoke and wrote about the past, in order to address the needs and circumstances of their contemporary audiences. Jonah is a fantastical story used to communicate truths about God and our world.
So, how did Jonah get into the fish? Let me share a little more background before we hear today’s scripture reading.
In The beginning of the book of Jonah – by the way, it’s only 4 chapters long, you could read it this afternoon – Jonah is called to be a prophet. God calls him to leave his home and go to Nineveh, which is in the kingdom of Assyria (now modern day Mosal in Iraq), a more powerful kingdom and sworn enemy of the Israelites, who destroyed northern Israel in 721 BCE.
God tells Jonah to go and proclaim God’s judgement against the wickedness of the people of Nineveh, a wickedness that will lead to their destruction.
So, how does Jonah respond to God asking him to leave his home, go to an enemy kingdom, tell them that they are wicked, and that God seeks their destruction? Jonah doesn’t so much like that idea. Instead, he goes to the sea and gets on a boat that is headed in the opposite direction.
At sea there’s a storm, and Jonah begins to wonder if the storm has something to do with his running away from God. He confesses this to his shipmates, and they throw him overboard in the midst of this torrential storm.
Usually, we would think that ending up in the belly of a fish is a bad thing, but when we remember it this in context, we realize being in the belly of a fish is actually what saves Jonah, by the miraculous grace of God. And Jonah knows it. That’s where our story picks up. Listen as Jonah is crying out in prayer to God:
From Jonah, Chapter 2:
2Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, “I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?”
5 The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
10Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
From Jonah, Chapter 3:
1The 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.’ 3So 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.
4Jonah began to go into the city, going one day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”
Not only did the grace of the fish save him, but God gave him yet another chance. And now, he does it! And what happens? He’s incredibly successful! The city is so big it takes 3 days to walk across it, and he spends one day proclaiming the message to the Assyrian people, and what did the people of Nineveh do?
Astonishingly, the Ninevites repent of their evil ways. They begin the traditional practices of repentance. The King of Nineveh hears of it, and more surprising still, he decrees that the people must repent of their ways, observe the fast, put on sackcloth as a sign of repentance, and cry out mightily to the God of Israel, the God of their enemies.
So how does Jonah feel. Elated?! Overwhelmed with gratitude that God could lead such a large city to repentance and that Jonah could have such an important part to play in it? Does he feel glad that he has reconciled with his enemies? NO! Jonah ends up playing the role of the unfaithful insider in this parable.
In some ways, this is, actually, a funny story. Imagine the Hebrew people hearing this story about the great city of Nineveh instantaneously repenting and trusting God. The idea of the entire city of Nineveh, in the kingdom of Assyria, repenting and trusting the God of Israel, is not history. This is a hyperbolic “what if” for the parable of Jonah.
I can imagine the Hebrew audience laughing at the idea of this whole city of repentance. And then there’s Jonah, who did not want to go in the first place, and who is now so upset that God is not going to destroy the city, that Jonah complains, asking God “why did you send me here?” Then Jonah says “Oh Lord, please take my life from me.’
This is classic humor. Just think of Jonah saying “oh, just kill me now!” Yet, the humor is getting to a deeper point, which is that Jonah would rather hold on to his grudges than open his heart to forgiveness and reconciliation.
There is a lot of confrontation in this short story.
God confronts Jonah, multiple times. God confronts the Ninevites, warning them that only repentance will save them. It is common in the Hebrew Scriptures for God to argue with God’s people. Not in the sense that we think of arguing today, but in the form of debate. God loves a good debate, and wants to engage us in important conversations. This is true for Jonah, and in his case, this is a debate on which his own life is on the line, both because he keeps running away from God, and also because the thing God is asking Jonah to do is a deadly game.
Notice that God has not only sent a warning to Nineveh before taking action, but God immediately offers mercy when they repent.
Not only does God send the fish to save Jonah, God comes back to Jonah a second time, and then a third time.
And on the third time, God argues with Jonah –Jonah is angry that God forgave the people of Nineveh so easily, the moment they repented. God tangles with Jonah, and this is common in the Hebrew Scriptures. God engages and counter’s God’s people when they act childishly or foolishly. The story of Jonah highlights this is precisely.
In the 4th and last chapter of Jonah, God forgives the people of Nineveh. Jonah had finally, carried out God’s request, and the people of Nineveh surprised God by calling out for mercy and changing their ways. This was Jonah’s big chance to celebrate the work of God in the Assyrian people. Did he? No, he did not.
Jonah is angry and tells God that he knew all along that God was gracious and merciful, and that he would save the enemy and Jonah goes on to tell God that that’s why he fled God from the beginning. Now, God engages Jonah directly, saying:
“Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4)
God is countering Jonah, arguing with Jonah, pushing back against Jonah’s anger and his selfish need to claim God’s forgiveness to him, but not to others.
The god who loves and forgives us, when we are wrong and turn our backs on God, also loves and forgives even our enemies, people of opposing politics, people who have harmed others, and maybe even have harmed us.
This is a parable about God’s grace and forgiveness. Through the humor and fantastical happenings, remember this: God forgives you. God forgives us.
When there have been opportunities of goodness and you have gone the other way, God forgives you. When you have received goodness, but are critical that others receive it too, God forgives you. Maybe there’s something that nags at you, that you’ve done that you’ve never told anyone about, that you would do anything in the world to take back, God forgives you.
There may be experiences in our lives when there is a call to what a life, as we were created to be, could actually look like, some way to participate in the holy work of God, and, we’d rather… not do it. Doesn’t this happen to all of us? We can push our calls aside because they seem overwhelming, or scary, or we’re not sure what to do.
The story of Jonah’s relationship with God hangs on these two pivotal questions: the one that we just heard, “is it right for you to be angry?” and then, in the very last line of the book, and in what feels like total exasperation, God asks:
“Why shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh? A great city with so many people who do not know their right from their left, and also many animals?”
The book of Jonah ends with a question from God. When we are not sure where God is calling us, when we are angry, frightened or overwhelmed by the waters that surround us, we can think of God’s closing question. “Should I not be concerned for all people, for all creatures and creation?”
God works with us in the process of becoming our whole, full selves, the people who God created us to be. We can think of God’s questions as a clue to God’s nature, one that we must ponder, and here is some good news, God welcomes us into the debate.
Over the course of this summer, as we look at the lives of the people depicted in the scriptures, and we see that they are not perfect, that they are of their time and place, and as we see how God meets them where they are, perhaps we will be able to see better how God meets us. Amen.