Our eyes will remain blind if we read Jonah’s story literally.
I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine whose brother knows a guy who works in a hospital. Last weekend a police officer brought in a man who with a light bulb stuck in his mouth. And the only way to take it out was to break it.
While it’s common for hospitals to have to deal with idiotic human behavior, the doctors were surprised when the same police officer came back two hours later… with a light bulb stuck in his mouth. Apparently he was showing to his colleagues that once you put it in you really couldn’t take it out!
Now, this story has all the makings of being an urban legend. It could be real or fake, and it’s up to you to decide which one it is. Given the current debate between news and “alternative facts,” it has become increasingly more difficult to tell the difference between the two. Most of the time it’s pretty obvious, but then there are the ones we’re not so sure about.
Such is the case in the story of Jonah. Is it a fable or a farce? Serious history or salacious satire? Is it an urban legend or just your run-of-the-mill fish story you tell at the VFW? Scholars have wasted countless hours debating and debunking this story for many good reasons. But buried in this weird tale is an epiphany – a truth that God is revealing to us about God’s own self. So we must not be too quick to dismiss it.
Our eyes will remain blind if we read Jonah’s story literally. Instead of wondering how a person can live inside a fish for three days – without oxygen, fresh water, or food – we might do better by directing our focus on how God uses an unassuming prophet to give us some divine insight into the truth and reality of who God is.
If you are not familiar with Jonah, here’s a quick summary of this ancient little book. It begins when God calls a fearful young man to deliver a threatening message to everyone living in the Assyrian city of Ninevah. This is the last thing this guy wants to do, and for good reason. There’s plenty of bad blood between the Israelites and the Assyrians. So it’s easy to imagine why he’d run away from this call.
To save his life, Jonah boards a boat going in the exact opposite direction from where he’s called to go. While at sea, a giant storm gathers, and Jonah knows the only way to save the crew is to be tossed overboard. Now, how ironic is it, that he’s willing to give up his life for the entire crew but not risk it for God?
In spite of his rejection, God persists. And when the crew throws Jonah overboard, God sends a giant sea monster to rescue him. Inside this strange aquatic beast, Jonah sits and prays for God’s deliverance. And God responds. The fish spits him out and Jonah reluctantly makes the journey to warn the Ninevites to “repent” or else. In almost comical fashion, they actually listen! God spares them, and Jonah sulks away, mad at God for not destroying his enemies.
Whether or not it happened literally as it was written, Jonah still reveals some important insight on God’s own nature, and our salvation.
First, God Is Persistence: God does not give up on Jonah any more than God gives up on the Ninevites, or on you or me. Jonah can run all he wants, but God will not be circumvented or thwarted. As Rob Bell profoundly stated in his book Love Wins, “God gets what God wants.” For some strange reason God wants you and me. As Jesus demonstrated on the cross, God will go to any length to make sure that happens. #God persisted.
Secondly, God Is Responsive: When the sailors cry out for mercy from the storm, God responds. When Jonah cries out from the belly of the fish, God responds. And when the Ninevites hear the warning and repent, God responds...kindly and justly.
There are Ninevites all over the world who cry out to God from hospital beds, jail cells, rehab centers, bedrooms, schools, and sidewalks. And every day God offers love, mercy and grace. It’s easy to see how we’re imperfect people, yet too often we have trouble seeing or remembering God’s perfect love. It never gives up. And it always responds in kind. Because God gets what God wants. And if we’re willing, so can we.
Thirdly, God Is Universal. As the story points out, God shows mercy and grace to Jonah, the personification of Israel, as well as to the Ninevites, who represent everyone else. If we believe that God is the one true God above all others, then it would stand to reason that God’s redeeming power is for anyone who wants it.
The Ninevites’ recognize this, even when Jonah can’t. And what I love most about their epiphany is it didn’t come from God manipulating nature like we saw with the Magi and the star. Nor did it come in the flesh as it did for Nathanael and Christ. Theirs came in seven simple words – “In forty days Ninevah will be destroyed.”
It’s comical to think that an entire nation of people, including their livestock, are redeemed by something you might read on billboard along a busy highway.
But it’s not uncharacteristic of God to do whatever is needed to grab our attention and draw us nearer towards our redemption. The catch is… we have to be willing to go.
In Mark's gospel reading for this week Jesus begins his ministry along the beaches of Galilee. With a Jonah-like warning he says, “Repent. The Kingdom of God is here.” Just as the Ninevites did hundreds of year’s prior, those who heard these seven words dropped what they were doing to begin a new life with Christ.
Jesus calls all of us to repent. He tells us all to leave behind the things that have kept us from being one with God. He invites us all to let go of old pain and resentments so our hands will be free to receive the gift of grace and salvation. His is an invitation to respond to God and to be One in God’s love and peace now and forever. This is the good news he shares with all the world. It’s up to us to respond.
Whether it’s serious history or salacious satire, there’s a little bit of Jonah in us all. We don’t always want to do what God is asking us to do. It might be because of ego or stubbornness, ignorance or an addiction that has power over you. It could be a fear, or simple laziness that is stopping you from receiving this free gift.
But Jonah’s story is our story. When we run and hide, God persists. When life doesn’t go as planned and we cry out for help, God responds. When we think we can pick and choose who gets access to God’s blessing and salvation, let us remember we’re all Ninevites.
As the Bible asserts, God’s fullness of love, mercy and grace is revealed to us in its most perfect form through Jesus Christ, who came to open our eyes, and our hearts, and our minds so that we might ‘see’ all the little epiphanies in the world.
Through Christ God has shown us how to ‘be’ little epiphanies in the way we remain persistent in our love, responsive in our mercy, and universal in our grace. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B. vol. 1. Louisville Westminster John Knox. 2008. pp. 261-66.