A few years ago, the Hallmark store started selling a very cute Jonah doll and a big fish doll…they come together. Jonah wears a purple robe with a yellow belt, cute little sandals, a cap, and has brown hair and a beard. The fish is teal and has hot pink lips. Kids can use the dolls to recreate the highlight of the early part of the book of Jonah – the fish’s mouth opens and it can swallow Jonah whole.
Often, we put this story, this book of the Bible, in the same category we place Noah’s Ark, beautiful Queen Esther, and the Nativity story – a cute kids fairy tale completely stripped of the reality of what was happening for the people involved…Jonah (and Noah, and Esther, and Mary, and Joseph) were completely terrified and overwhelmed and in very precarious positions – yet, we sanitize their tales for nursery decorations and cute cartoons.
The book of Jonah is very short, but not short enough for me to read it all to you tonight – I am sure everyone is looking forward to the cookies and treats that are awaiting in the Fellowship Hall. So, I will summarize the book – Jonah lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam the Second in the seven hundreds BCE. The word of God came to Jonah and told him to “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” This command was problematic for Jonah – Nineveh was a major city in Assyria, the nation that conquered Israel decades earlier. The people of Israel hated the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to prophesize to the enemies of his people – he didn’t want them to repent of their ways. Jonah was comfortable with God destroying his enemies.
So, Jonah ran the other way. He hopped into a ship and tried to flee to Tarshish – Tarshish was a western seaport in Spain and was at the furthest western edge of the then-known world for the people of Israel. Jonah went west instead of east to Nineveh – he went the opposite direction God commanded him to go.
And, God doesn’t like it when we don’t follow God’s commandments. God really doesn’t like it when prophets don’t follow God’s commandments. So, God made a terrible storm on the sea. Everyone on the ship prayed to their gods and tried to get their gods to calm the storm. They threw the cargo off the ship. Jonah had tucked himself away in the hold of the ship and was fast asleep. Finally, the captain of the ship came down, woke up Jonah, and demanded he start praying to his God. The sailors then cast lots and Jonah got the short stick—everyone realized the storm had something to do with Jonah. So, Jonah told the men to throw him in the sea, which they were reluctant to do, but when they finally tossed Jonah into the deep, the storm was instantly calmed.
God wasn’t done with Jonah. God had a large fish swallow him up – I don’t know if it was teal with hot pick lips, but perhaps. And, while Jonah was in the belly of the fish he prayed for three days. After the three days of prayer and contrition, God had the fish spit Jonah up onto dry land.
Another word from the Lord came to Jonah. He was told to now go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message.
Jonah went to Nineveh, walked the city, and warned the people they would be destroyed in 40 days. Strangely, the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah, a prophet of our God, not their deities. They fasted and everyone clothed themselves in sackcloth, a scratchy fabric made of goat hair, as a sign of contrition and repentance. Even the king of Nineveh followed suit: he got off his throne, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in a pile of ashes.
God was so impressed with the turn-around of the people of Nineveh, God decided to spare the city. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10)
After all of Jonah’s hard work, his long journey, his preaching and warnings, you would think he would be pleased with his success. But, no, he became mad at God for not destroying the city and killing the people of Nineveh. Jonah still considered those people his sworn enemies. Despite watching and living among them for 40 days, Jonah felt no compassion for them. God and Jonah had a conversation about how petty Jonah was, and God reminded Jonah that God’s prerogative is to redeem the people of the world, even when those people don’t yet understand, believe in, and worship our God.
This year, our pastor’ decided we would focus on how Jesus carries us to the other side – Jesus carried us through the pandemic, Jesus carries us through the difficult times in our lives, and in the Jonah story we are reminded Jesus carries us through situations when we are wrong – situations when we need to change our minds. Jonah thought he knew all about the people of Nineveh – those people were his sworn enemies – they practiced the wrong religion – they were the wrong ethnicity – they were just evil. Jonah was happy God was going to kill them – Jonah was happy the one hundred and twenty thousand people who lived in the city of Nineveh: men, women, children, babies, grannies – Jonah was happy they would all die, they would be wiped off the face of the earth. Jonah was not interested in helping them, in warning them. And, even though Jonah was a faithful man, so faithful he was one of God’s prophets, when God commanded Jonah to do something he disagreed with, Jonah tried to disobey God. Jonah wanted his enemies to be destroyed. And, when God forgave them, instead of appreciation at how merciful and gracious our God is, Jonah instead became angry with God. Jonah’s priorities were all wrong.
Jesus carried Jonah through his change of heart, his change of mind. The book of Jonah ends abruptly. We don’t know if Jonah fully “got it.” I believe he did and his story is included in our scriptures as a reminder that God uses unfaithful, broken people to do God’s work. Our scriptures are full of people who were used by God despite their failings – people who changed their hearts and minds. God uses wounded, messed up people to do great things – David was an adulterer and a murderer, Abraham was a liar, Paul persecuted Christians, the Samaritan woman at the well with a checkered past evangelized and converted her whole city to the Christian faith, and Rahab the prostitute saved the lives of the three Hebrew spies who came to Jericho. God uses people who are unfaithful, liars, murders, and broken to do work on God’s behalf.
And, we are those people. We all have made poor choices in our lives. We all have failed. We all have said hurtful words and done hurtful things. We have trouble forgiving, we struggle not to hold grudges, and we are prejudiced against people who don’t look like us, or live like us, or worship like us, or talk like us. We struggle to follow God. We run away from God. We are like Jonah.
And, yet, God uses us, the broken, imperfect people to do God’s work in this world. God loves us in our imperfection. God invited disobedient and unfaithful people to do great things on God’s behalf. God supports us and carries us through the rough and difficult patches in our lives, and then calls on us to do God’s work in the world: to love other people, to share the Good News, to wipe the brows of people with illnesses, to visit people in prison, to care for vulnerable and hurting people, to feed the hungry, to lift up the downtrodden – God uses us to do God’s work in the world.
Let us rejoice in God’s redemptive love, God’s forgiveness of us when we fail, and God’s mercy that extends from this world to the next.
Jesus carries us to the other side, and then God calls us to serve on God’s behalf.
May we do so with love and grace. Amen.