Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jonah is more than just a big fish tale.
Jonah is more than just a big fish tale. It is a humorous story with a point, and it is worth telling the whole story in your sermon, lingering on the details.
If we follow the lectionary reading, we enter the story of Jonah right in the middle of the action. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.” We all know what happened the first time. God said, “Get up and go to Ninevah … and Jonah got up and ran away towards Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.”
Jonah’s no Peter, Andrew, James, or John. He doesn’t leave what he’s doing and immediately follow God’s call. He jumps on the first boat going in the opposite direction and he hides in the hold of the ship, hoping that somehow God won’t take notice. It’s as if Peter, Andrew, James, and John, upon encountering Jesus, jumped into their fishing boats and rowed like madmen for the opposite shore, as far away from this dangerous itinerant preacher as they could get.
Jonah did just that, trying to get as far away from the LORD, and the LORD’s bizarre instructions, as he could get. Go to Nineveh? The capital of the Assyrian Empire, that destroyer of Israel, that brutal occupying force. It was unthinkable.
So Jonah runs away, but God sends a storm. You might review the story for your congregation. The sailors are more pious than Jonah but they eventually reluctantly throw Jonah overboard. The sea calms down immediately, and God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah.
Aldous Huxley imagines the scene:
Seated upon the convex mound
Of one vast kidney, Jonah prays
And sings his canticles and hymns.
Making the hollow vault resound
God’s goodness and mysterious ways,
Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.1
Jonah, totally immersed in sea water and fish blubber, does indeed sing a prayer: “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.” The sea in the ancient Near East, of course, is the symbol of chaos, of danger, of wildness. But even in the heart of the seas, God hears Jonah’s prayer. God speaks to the great fish, and the fish vomits him out onto dry land.
That’s where we enter the story. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city.” And, this time, still covered in sea water and fish vomit, Jonah obeys. He walks into the city, one day’s journey, and preaches the shortest sermon ever recorded:
It’s a sermon of 5 words in Hebrew — “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
The response is electric. Immediately, the people of Nineveh believe God, and here’s where the humor builds. The people declare a fast. The king, not to be outdone, orders human and animal alike to fast and put on sackcloth. Then all those sackcloth-covered cows and sheep and people bellow out their repentance to God, and God changes his mind about the punishment, and does not bring it about.
We would think Jonah would be ecstatic. After all, he’s the only really successful prophet in the whole Bible. He has brought about a mass conversion that Billy Graham could only aspire to. Every inhabitant of the city, human and animal alike, has come forward for the altar call. Jonah should be ecstatic.
But Jonah is not ecstatic. Jonah is mad. “Ah, LORD, is this not what I said would happen when I was still in my own territory? That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place. Because I know that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah, of course, is quoting the LORD’s own self-description (from Exodus 34:6) a description taken up by prophets and psalmists throughout Israel’s history to remind God of God’s own nature. But in Jonah’s mouth, it is an accusation: You, God, are gracious and merciful. I KNEW this would happen! I declared your judgment on this sinful city, and you changed your mind!
Here’s the thing, you see, here’s the thing all of us have found out about following the call of God in and through the waters: God is God and does not act as we think the Almighty should act. In good faith, we follow where we hear God’s call, we go to the city, or the suburb, or to small town and rural America, and we are prepared to bring God’s word to that place, and what we find is that God is already there before us. We find that no people, and no place, not even Nineveh, can properly be called God-forsaken.
Often, of course, that lesson is hard to learn. I think of a friend of mine whose first call was in a small town parish. The council president in that parish was a very, very difficult woman who tried to sabotage him at every turn. He tried, he really did. He prayed for her. He visited her and attempted to reconcile with her. He prayed and prayed, and finally one day he started singing (to the tune of “Bind Us Together, Lord”): “Bind her and gag her, Lord, bind her and gag her with cords that cannot be broken … ”
It is a prayer Jonah himself might have prayed.
As you preach this sermon, you might ask your listeners to think of a person that they find difficult to love. (Be sure, of course, to make clear that they are not called to stay in abusive situations.) Then proclaim to them that God loves that person, and that God loves them, too. The same God who gave Jonah a second chance gives the people of Nineveh a second chance, and we can’t begrudge that kind of mercy. This is a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, a God we know most fully in Jesus Christ.
And that, my friends, is certainly a Gospel story worth preaching.
1 Aldous Huxley, “Jonah,” in The Cherry Tree: A Collection of Poems, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (New York: Vanguard, 1959) 211.