Preacher: Rev. David Exley
Scripture: Jonah 3:10-4:11
The story of Jonah is like no other story in the Hebrew Bible.
The text is just four chapters long, making it one of the few biblical stories that most people can summarize in just a few sentences.
The story revolves around a man called to be a prophet and yet Jonah’s prophetic words only occupy one sentence in the story. You would think that such a prominent (and well known) prophet of ancient Israel would get more than one sentence in this holy text. But alas, that’s all we get from this waterlogged, sunburnt, hesitant prophet of God. The story, of course, begins with God calling Jonah to go the the city of Nineveh to deliver God’s message to the people of this land. Jonah, unlike many prophets, is a VERY reluctant one. He quickly takes off in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go. He hops on a boat and travels away from Nineveh. But, all creation seems to be in on God’s master plan for Jonah. The wind kicks up and the storm-filled sea begins to threaten the lives of those on board. Jonah sees this as divine intervention. It’s his fault that everyone’s life is in danger. As a result, he instructs those on the ship to throw him overboard. The text then says that YHWH provides a giant fish that swallows Jonah. It’s there—from “the belly of the underworld” that Jonah cries out to God for help. After three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah is released.
And so, midway through this sacred story we hear these words: “Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.” At this point if you don’t recognize the humour in the story you’re really missing out!
When given a second chance to go to Nineveh, Jonah finally decides to heed God’s instructions. He makes his way to this once-booming Metropolis in the Ancient Near East and prepares to do his work as God’s prophet. The moment he enters the city we hear the one (and only) sentence he shares to invite the people of Nineveh to repent and change their ways. He says, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” That’s it! That’s all he says to the people. And, as exactly no-one would have predicted, the next verse reads: “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” For this reason we could easily say that Jonah had the easiest job in history when it comes to prophets of the Ancient Near East. One sentence is all he needs to share in order to accomplish God’s mission.
The king, upon hearing Jonah’s prophetic words, orders everyone to put on “mourning clothes”. He tells them to fast as they attempt to change God’s mind. In the king’s mind, he thinks “Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.” God sees this and says, “Fair enough. You’ve changed my mind! I’m not going to destroy the city.” Normally, this is where the story would end. Mission accomplished! “Well done Jonah!” “Kudos to the king and the people of Nineveh… you listened and responded.” “Carry on!” “Let’s have a quick party to celebrate and then life can continue down this new and faithful path.” But no, the text doesn’t end there.
Instead, Jonah becomes angry with God about the mercy God shows to the people. Jonah spends the final chapter of the story grumbling and complaining to God. All he needs to do is share nine words with the people of Nineveh to accomplish God’s task. That’s it! But somehow Jonah isn’t fully on-board with the master plan. He even reveals to God (and to us) why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. He didn’t want to go because he knows that God is compassionate and merciful. Essentially, he knows that God will end up sparing the people. But, deep down, Jonah doesn’t want God to be merciful. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that a revealing truth about doing God’s work?
There are two things that jump out from this story as it relates to God’s loving and merciful ways. The absence of mercy in this world has little to do with God’s will and God’s ways. It does, however, have a great deal to do with our desire to avoid it. We know what God wants from us, and yet, we so often go the other way. And, when we witness the power of God’s mercy and love (just how expansive and inclusive it is) it often prompts us to question God.
If we all tuned in to what God has to say to us, mercy and love would be found in abundance in this world.
We know what God’s love looks like. How expansive God’s grace is. And that’s why we sometimes run like Jonah. Because sometimes we would soon rather let things like karma rule our world. We long for justice and peace in our world, but not for those who stand on the other side of some divide that we (or the world around us) has created.
The story of Jonah contains some hard truths to swallow. Perhaps that is why so many people of faith get lost in the weeds when it comes to this text. Rather than reflect on how God helps Jonah see what mercy and love looks like when extended to our enemies, many Christians end up debating what kind of creature swallowed Jonah and eventually coughed him up on the shore. “It was a whale!” “No! it was a ‘great fish’!” Getting lost in this detail about the story is like arguing about the colour of the table linens used at the Last Supper. It doesn’t matter!
In Jonah, God demonstrates how divine love works—how expansive it really is. The stories of our faith tradition are such that we continue to see a God who is always expanding the circle. In Jesus we see the reflection of a God who longs to throw the doors wide open to all people. Far too often what we want is for there to be winners and losers in the “game of life”. We would soon rather serve a God that would punish “the other side” and reward us. But, in the story of Jonah (like so many other stories in the pages of scripture), we see that God is not a God of one side and not the other—of one tribe and not the other. God is simply a God who longs to extend mercy and love no matter how far that love might need to go.
And so, learning to love as God loves is embracing a different kind of approach to what we might deem to be “the game of life”. To see what that might look like, let’s turn to another story. The movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, centres around a young chess prodigy named Josh. Near the end of the movie Josh faces what we might call his “nemesis”—another young, gifted chess player. As the match unfolds it appears as if the result of the game might be “in the bag” (so to speak). Josh looks at the board and notices that he’s three moves away from checkmate. What comes next is unexpected. Josh stretches out his hand and offers it to his opponent in an attempt to end the match in a draw. Rather than finish the game with the win, Josh offers to end things with a tie.
I truly believe that’s how God works. It’s not how we work (most of the time). But it is how God works.
Learning to love as God loves means that we need to learn a new way to “play the game”. We need to see other people through new eyes. We need to extend our hand to one another (not now, of course… stick to washing your hands please!) and offer the gift of life and love.
God’s higher calling is for us to rewrite the story; to flip the script on the end of the narrative. The good news for all of us is that God’s mercy and love stretch farther than we can imagine. Let’s not complain about that. Let’s celebrate that and give thanks for what the means, not just for us, but for all creation. Amen!