A Hope-filled Tale
January 25, 2015, Jonah 3:1-5, Matthew 12:38-41
“Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” Jonah 2:10
That’s the verse immediately before the Old Testament lesson that Nancy read. Jonah is a good story to have on a day when we are ordaining and installing new Ruling Elders and Deacons. The Old Testament lesson this morning is what the kids will be learning in Sunday school today. It is sort of the “reset” for Jonah. See, Jonah was called to go to Nineveh at the very start of the book. Jonah promptly turned and went in the opposite direction.
At the Session meeting Tuesday your Ruling Elders were asked what it felt like to be called to serve on the Session. I loved the honesty. Many of them said, “I said ‘no’ the first couple times I was asked.” Those who had served more than one term knew the importance, joys and expectations of serving on Session, so it was a little easier for them to decide to accept a call. But all but two of the elders said when they were first called, they didn’t accept. One of the others responded with confidence—perhaps too much confidence. The other simply didn’t remember—it was so long ago. As I said last week, one of the signs of being called is that “Nuh-uh Moment.” Jonah’s nuh-uh moment got him thrown overboard by sailors who blamed him for their peril. Jonah’s nuh-uh moment got him swallowed by a big fish. When Jonah finally stopped resisting God’s call, the fish swam to shore and vomited him onto dry land.
The story of Jonah is truly fabulous, in the original sense of that word. The story of Jonah can be read as a fable, a story with a moral at the end. There’s a lesson that can be summarized very succinctly, a lesson drawn from the story of Jonah’s travails. And, for Christians, a lesson of huge significance, a sign, the only sign that Jesus gave to believers and skeptics who were crying out for a sign to verify and authenticate who he was.
I’m really pleased that Kate Hood walked you through the whole story of Jonah. It’s hard to pick out just five verses of this story. It would like taking four pages out of a 100 page story and trying to draw a conclusion from them. Or like trying to imagine what a building looked like by seeing one brick. The moral of Jonah comes at the very end, and it isn’t even stately, exactly, it’s implied.
Jonah finally got around to doing what God called him to do at the start of chapter three. He walked into the capital city of Israel’s worst enemy and spoke words of harsh judgment. At Bible Exploration we tried to think of a modern equivalent to what Jonah did. It would be like the United States dropping John Kerry into the capital of North Korea and condemning them for oppressing the people. And here’s the stunning part of the story, something that happens nowhere else in scripture. The people of Nineveh repent successfully and God’s wrath is turned away. It worked! The people of this enormous, rich, powerful, enemy capital city got it right!
But wait, there’s more! Jonah the reluctant prophet, who originally fled from God’s call, was very angry that his sermon had been so well received. He walked out and sat on a hill overlooking Nineveh seething with anger that God had been merciful. He wanted to see the fireworks of God’s destruction. The 4th and last chapter of the book is a dialogue between God and Jonah. Jonah says he is angry enough to die!
Last summer at Synod School I led a class called “Laughter’s Healing Art.” At our next to last class session I had four participants read the whole Book of Jonah out loud. We did that here two years ago. Hearing the word in different voices really helps one to understand the story better, and hear new things in the words. I had no idea that the woman who read the part of God would change the story completely for me. She read the last verse of Jonah this way, “Oy, Jonah! Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
There was a weary, fraying patience in her voice. Still, the implicit moral came through: God loves Jonah, and God loves the Ninevites, and God even loves the Ninevites’ livestock. The last two words in the book are: “many cattle.”
The Book of Jonah is a silly fable, but it is taken seriously. Jews read it in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of their year, because it is a story of God’s mercy.
But Jonah is also an extremely important book for Christians. The lesson from Matthew’s gospel makes that obvious. Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders who were most threatened by him, asked for a sign. Before this conversation in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had already brought a young girl back to life, healed 8 people, restored sight to two blind people and calmed a storm—maybe the scribes and Pharisees hadn’t witnessed any of those, so they asked for a sign. And the sign Jesus gave them was the sign of Jonah who was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three night. “Jonah came back from the grave,” Jesus said, “that’ll be my sign too.”
Jesus used this fabulous, impossible tale to give his opponent a sign. Jesus used this fabulous, impossible tale to give his followers hope. Hope that we see rise every Sunday when we gather on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection to worship and praise our savior. Amen.