I’ve been around you long enough that you know I love things that make me laugh. During my first year here, I preached a sermon focused on the importance of laughter in church, where I even put on fake Harry Carey glasses. Remember that? I’ve shown clips from movies, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve used funny memes to drive home points. But I do this not just because I enjoy laughing. I do it because the best humor always has a basis in truth. In many ways our comedians are like the prophets of the Bible. They observe what’s going on in the world and use humor to tell the truth but tell it slant, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson.
Humor is one way that humans speak deeply into the world, and sometimes, even, we have used humor to engage deeply about who God is and how God relates to us. That’s the case with the brief story of Jonah. In fewer than sixty verses, this story delivers a provocative picture of the relationship between God and the world through satire, biblical allusions galore, and even a few animals. Most of us know the story of Jonah through Sunday school—he’s the prophet who runs away from what God wants him to do, ends up in the belly of a whale for three days, and then still has to go deliver God’s word to Ninevah anyway. There’s far more going on in these four chapters than we’ll ever get to in these four weeks, but what we really want the congregation to engage with is how Jonah relates to God and how God relates to all people. We’re calling this series “Jonah and the Heart of God,” so let’s get moving to see what we can discover in the first movement of this wonderful story.
Our story begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” This is a typical start to the work of the prophet. God speaks. The prophet listens, maybe protests a bit, but then goes ahead and does what the Lord commands. There are call stories throughout the Bible. Our text from Isaiah 6 is one of those. Isaiah has a vision of the heavenly throne room, and in the vision, the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah jumps forward, like someone desperate to be a contestant on a game show, saying, “Here I am! Send me!”
That’s not Jonah’s reaction. Jonah says nothing. But his actions speak loudly. Ninevah is northeast of Israel in what is present-day Iraq, near Mosul. That’s quite a long distance to travel, well over 500 miles, but Jonah doesn’t bother with heading that way. Rather, he goes in the opposite direction, heading from his home to the port in Joppa. There he hires a ship to take him to the ends of the earth in the opposite direction. We don’t know exactly where Tarshish is, but the most likely candidate for a location is on the coast of what is now Spain. Jonah’s actions make it clear that he is not thrilled with God telling him to go to Ninevah. In fact, he’s so desperate to go the other way, he pays to hire the entire ship and crew—an extravagant price to pay to get away.
It’s an extreme response for sure. Not only is Jonah trying to head in the opposite direction, he’s also trying to bury himself in the process. This is flight and descent. The storyteller shares that “Jonah went down to Joppa” (1:3). On board the ship, where is Jonah? He had “gone down into the hold of the ship and lain down” (1:5), sleeping in the darkness of the ship’s womb. Even as the sailors are exhausting all options during the storm, what is Jonah’s solution? “Pick me up and throw me into the sea” (1:12), something they eventually do after exhausting all other options. Down, down, down, Jonah goes. Even though he admits that he worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9), it seems his only hope to flee the presence of the Lord is death, buried at sea.
It’s ironic. We, the audience, know the words of Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from you presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” We hear them as comfort. Jonah hears them as threat. He cannot escape God’s presence. So invested in Jonah’s life and purpose is God that Jonah cannot even hide in the depths of the sea. Instead, God sends a big fish, which swallows Jonah, holding him like a mother expectant with child, until the time comes to vomit him back up on the land and try again.
This chapter is clear, Jonah cannot flee from the presence of God—even if that’s what he wants most in the world. Instead, the Lord pursues him on the ship, threatening it with a storm. The storm is not random. The story gives credit straight to the Lord, who buffets the ship with winds and waves, to the point that professional sailors fear the ship will break and sink. The next bit reads like an SNL skit. Each sailor calls out to whatever god they think might be behind this to get it to end. It’s like they’re going through the phone book just trying each and every name out, until the captain realizes that someone is missing. Jonah. Jonah, the one so desperate to get away from the Lord that he’s sleeping while all the others are praying to gods who have nothing to do with what’s going on.
Having been found out, I picture Jonah begrudgingly making his way to this interfaith prayer gathering. There the soldiers cast lots to see who’s behind this. And, not surprising at all, it’s Jonah and his God who are to blame for things. In more irony, Jonah answers their questions with the truth about him and the Lord. “I am a Hebrew,” he says, “and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The gods of the sailors are more localized. This one controls the sea or that town. Not Jonah’s God. The Lord is everywhere and in charge of everything. What is Jonah thinking in trying to get away from God? It won’t work!
Still, the sailors do everything within their power to preserve Jonah’s life, a life he seems to be despairing of. He tells them the truth—that the only way this storm is stopping is by tossing him overboard—yet, they exhaust themselves at the oars, trying to find harbor. Nothing works. Jonah has not called out to the Lord to ask this to stop, but the non-Jews try it. Even that doesn’t work, so they ask God’s pardon for tossing Jonah into the sea, and with a heave-ho, there goes Jonah overboard. The wind dies down. The sea calms.
In the words of one commentator, “God, it seems, wants Jonah hurled overboard.” It also seems that God is not done with Jonah. Just as God provided a great wind to create the storm, now the One who commands all of creation sends a great fish to shelter Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights. This startling event may be the last laugh of chapter 1, but it’s certainly not the last laugh of the book.
So, great story, but so what? It’s not boating season on Lake Michigan, and even our largest fish aren’t housing any of us should we get in trouble. What does this mean for us? Well, this story raises so many questions that I think perennially haunt us. Let’s take a look at just a couple of them.
First, can I say “no” to God? While God likely hasn’t said to any of us, “Go to Ninevah and prophesy against that great city,” God is speaking into our lives all the time through prayer, through preaching, through friends, and through the Bible. How often do we encounter that still, small voice and think, “Not enough for me. I didn’t quite get that. Not doing that. Too hard”? Does God treat us like God treats Jonah, pursuing us at great lengths until our “no” becomes a “yes”? Are there places in your own life where you’ve been trying to say “no” to God’s call for you? If so, where do you think that will lead? This story gives us a picture of God’s irresistible grace. Jonah cannot flee from it, despite his best efforts. If Jonah can’t, do you really think you can?
Second, can I escape God’s presence? That is, can I pretend God isn’t invested in my life and just go on my merry way? It’s related to saying “no” to God, but I think this is more often our posture. We live as though God isn’t invested in our lives, our choices, our world, and so we just carry on relying solely in our own wisdom and strength. This story shows that the Lord is clearly invested in Jonah’s life and choices, even if Jonah’s deepest desire is to flee from God.
Finally, do my decisions impact just me? Jonah’s disobedience put not only his life at risk but also the lives of all of those on the boat. “Disobedience rarely has consequences only for the sinner.” Even our good decisions have consequences for others. We do not live by ourselves. We are not independent. Even the loneliest among us is not alone, so wouldn’t it be better for us to consider well how our decisions—for good or ill—impact others? That’s the way God created us. Like Jonah, we “worship the Lord, the God in heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” In the coming weeks we’ll learn together about how all-encompassing God’s care for every square inch of creation is, and we’ll also learn how deep, how broad, how high, how vast is God’s great love for every square inch of creation. There’s no escaping it, so stop running away. God is there for you in all circumstances—even in the depths of the sea in the belly of a big fish.