Jonah is a fish story—perhaps the biggest fish tale ever told. The story of Jonah is one of the most endearing and fun tales to come out of the Bible. Generations have recounted it to their children. What makes this story so enduring is that is not about a fish at all, but about you and me.
The story of Jonah was first told in an era of Jewish jingoism following the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jewish people who returned from Babylonian captivity thought themselves to be holier and closer to God than any of their neighbors. So the story of Jonah was a subversive tale. It was very unpopular in its day, hardly a candidate for scripture. It caused a stir among the people. Imagine suggesting that our God “Yahweh” could possibly be concerned about Israel’s most hated enemy, the Assyrians. It was condemned, probably banned, in Jerusalem. Isn’t it interesting that Jonah is supposed to come from a village next to Nazareth, the home of another young subversive?
Truly it is amazing that the story of Jonah was included in the Bible and speaks volumes about honest faith in Judaism.
Over the years there have been great arguments about Jonah’s mysterious fish. What could it have been? Modern literalists have searched the oceans for such a fish whose belly is large enough to accommodate a man. The Jonah tale is about truth, not in the sense that this ancient prophet was swallowed by a fish, but truth about you and me and the kind of fish we are.
Remember how the story begins. The Lord comes to Jonah. We don’t know how the Lord does this. The story does not tell us how God speaks to Jonah; that part is left for us to decide. Be sure of this, there is no difference in the way Jonah heard God and the way you hear God. Maybe it is heard in the voice of another person, a rushing wind, a whisper, the silence, an intuition or a dream.
Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. To Jews they are the “bad guys,” the evil empire. Jonah wants nothing to do with them, no matter what God wants. God tells Jonah to tell the Assyrians to repent or God will destroy their city. Can’t you hear Jonah’s conversation with God? “Do I look like an idiot? You are supposed to be God, you find a way to tell them.
I’m not going to embarrass myself. They’ll kill me or worse, they’ll laugh me to death. I didn’t sign up to be a real prophet. Try Simon down the street—he’ll go, he’s the fanatic.”
Jonah’s answer to God was to go on vacation. When we pick up the story again he is sunning himself in the warm Mediterranean sun and feeling pretty good about his decision to get out of town. Suddenly the weather changes. Can’t you hear that still small voice that we all know, whispering to Jonah, “Remember me?” Jonah continues to ignore the Lord and does what we all do sometimes when we can’t get away from God, he goes to sleep hoping that when he wakes up God will have gone away. Instead, it is the sailors who wake him up and want him to pray to his God.
Now Jonah is not too taken with this idea of praying to God. He has a few guilty feelings rolling around inside. Meanwhile, the sailors have become so desperate that they cast lots to determine who was responsible for this raging tempest that has caused the Gods to be angry. And who do you think pulled the short straw? Our hero, Jonah.
I guess you could say that God hadn’t given up on Jonah, though Jonah didn’t know it, floundering in the waves. He ends up in the belly of the fish. Needless to say, this is no Hyatt Regency. Jonah gives up. He prays the prayer we heard this morning, a prayer every one of us has prayed ourselves, “God if you get me out of this one, I’ll do anything. I’ll go to Church every Sunday. I’ll increase my pledge. I’ll say my prayers. I’ll do it right from now on. God help me, because I cannot help myself…” and the voice of Jonah echoes through the centuries joined by Peter’s, ” Lord save me!”
Every one of us has been in the belly of a fish, broken, alone, afraid, so without hope that God is only a wishful thought. I wonder why I am like this. Why is it that time and time again I must learn that God is my refuge and my strength? That I cannot escape God by going on vacation or falling asleep? I can be so full of excuses and rationalizations. I’ll do it God, but tomorrow or next week or next year.
Jonah gets dumped on the shore and goes to Ninevah, where he becomes a raging success. Poor Jeremiah had to wait 20 years before anyone would listen to him, but Jonah is an overnight sensation. That is really the way it works when you let God’s spirit rule your life. It is not so much your success, as being in tune with God that does wonders. It really is remarkable because when Jonah waxed eloquent, everybody including the king repented. Jonah had gone up to Ninevah thinking, “at least I will get the satisfaction of seeing God burn that city of bad guys, black-hearted enemies, no-good-nicks.” He thought there isn’t a chance that I will succeed, but Jonah becomes a prophet sensation.
This might be the end of the story but, “oh no,” Jonah is so self absorbed that he thinks God made all those Ninevahites repent to get back at him. He sits there sulking. Now all of Israel will hate Jonah for converting the hated enemy. Jonah wanted to be an agent of God’s wrath not God’s love, but he couldn’t even get that right So he asks God to kill him. Isn’t this a lot like us? Haven’t you been there when things change in Church? You can even see God at work, but you resent it anyway because it’s not what you want. The church includes people we don’t even like, and who cares if God loves them. I’m leaving. God has this penchant for turning up in places we least expect and on the side of people we do not like. And when this happens, we are forced to make our hearts bigger, not smaller.
God finally says to Jonah, “Are you angry, Jonah? You think you could have done it better? Am I not to care for all the people? I created them and I love them just as much as I love you.” How easy it is for Jonahs like you and me to forget that love of God.
Jonah is my favorite prophet because I see myself in him, running away from things that seem to be hard or impossible, not trusting God, not having faith. And even those times when I muster faith, I am most often like Saint Peter on the Sea of Galilee: the moment I take my eyes off Jesus, I begin to be afraid and sink.
Switching to look at Peter for a moment in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Peter and Jonah are so dear to us because they are so much like us. It is the fourth watch of the night, the hours between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., the shift when we are most alone with ourselves that Jesus bids us come. How real is that scenario? Think of those nights you are tossing and turning, as if on a boat in the middle of a rain-swept sea. Sometimes we are ready to take a leap. Actually I think Jesus called Peter “the Rock,” not for his strength but for his sinking qualities. And Peter cries, “Lord, save me.” This is the most necessary miracle of every Christian life—that cry, “Lord save me.” It ought to take place in our lives on the average of about every other day. When sinking out of our helplessness, we reach out for a love greater than we could ever articulate, for a beauty richer than we ourselves can contain, for a strength that we only hope exists. We cry out for a thimble-full, just enough to get us through, and we receive a whole ocean.
Like Peter, we want to be one of the Jesus’ real followers—but we want it without the risk, the easy way. Faith ought not to interrupt what is really important to us. When the Church is too comfortable, not willing to take risks, go to Ninevah or some such place, we take our eyes off Jesus and we begin to sink.
So many of us take our Lord for granted. We don’t listen or pray or do anything until we are in the belly of the fish, and usually it is a fish of our own making. We want to be left alone and not hassled by our religion, but if the story of the prophet Jonah tells us anything, it is that the easy way is not going to happen. We want life to stay the same and not need us to be adventurers, and we want God to leave us alone until we need him, and that is not going to happen. Rest assured that there is a Jonah lurking in you, and even now God is nudging that Jonah out to do something for God. There is a power in you that can convert Assyrians or walk on water. Ask yourself, what are the voices I listen to? When does that sparkle of hope beyond hope crowd out your fears? In this great big world, the only thing we have to fear is not the tempests and storms of life, it is not listening to God in our lives. Each one of us is a prophet. When we tune our lives to God, then we really begin to live. In all his humanity, Jonah sparkles and Peter shines—and so can you.
There is a story about a newly-ordained woman who became vicar of a country parish. This was an old traditional church, not too fond of woman as ministers. The tradition at this parish was that the past senior and junior warden takes the vicar fishing on Tuesdays and so on her first Tuesday, Charley and Sam invited her go. Especially because she was the first woman vicar, she couldn’t turn down this invitation. They rowed out on the big lake and began to fish. After a while the new vicar said that she had really enjoyed herself but that she had a vestry meeting shortly and would have to go. About this time they began to catch some fish. And they told her that they were not about to go home while fish were biting. The new vicar waited a bit and then urged them to go home. Charley and Sam were catching more fish than ever and said she would just have to be a little late. Finally the new vicar got out of the boat and walked across the water to shore. Charley turned to Sam and said, “Can you believe that, just like a woman. She can’t even swim.”
Let’s not miss the miracles God sends us because we are so focused on the past we cannot see the future.