We all grew up hearing some outlandish story about the boogie man or Bigfoot. These stories have been around for so long that they’ve become part of our own stories in one way or another.
I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I think the bible has a few tall tales woven into the larger story of God. Tales that sound too far-fetched to be real. The Tower of Babel; Noah and the great flood; Elisha convincing God to send a bear to bring vengeance upon a group of wonton boys who mocked him for being bald (2 Kings 2:23-24).
Whether or not these things actually happened, they’ve become a part of the Bible because they reveal or point to a characteristic of God. Today’s reading comes in the middle of one such controversial tale. The story of Jonah.
Scholars have wasted countless hours debating whether or not this story is serious history or salacious satire. While it seems like your run-of-the-mill fish story one tells at the bait shop, it does tell us something about God’s own nature and how it relates to us.
So, instead of arguing how a person can live inside a fish for three days – without oxygen, fresh water, or food – we might do better asking what does this story want us to know about God?
If you are not familiar with Jonah, here’s a quick summary of this ancient, little book. God calls a fearful young man to deliver a threatening message to everyone living in the Assyrian city of Nineveh (today: Mosul in Northern Iraq).
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. (Which we still see today)
As the story goes, Jonah runs away from what God is asking of him. In fact, he 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. That he’s willing to sacrifice his life for some sailors but not risk it for God is another story?
When Jonah hits the water, God sends a giant sea monster to rescue him by swallowing him whole. Inside this strange aquatic beast, the young prophet sits and stews. After three days, Jonah finally comes to his senses, and prays for God’s deliverance.
God, being faithful and kind, causes the fish to spit out the prophet. And then this happens. READ Jonah 3:1-10 here.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord....And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth....and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands....When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it. - Jonah 3:1-10 -
If you ask me, I think the second half of this story is just as far-fetched as the first half. Not that Jonah learned his lesson and decides to do what God asks of him, but that the people actually listen to what this foreigner, who smells like fish guts has to say.
Benjamin J. Dueholm writes, “To be a prophet is a heavy, strange, miraculous calling. To be a prophet who is listened to is something stranger still.”
As we’ve learned before, prophets are sent to be the voice of God. They typically say things no one wants to hear, especially those in positions of power. They say things like “Repent,” “Promote justice,” “Lift up the poor” so you can see why they’re often ignored, ridiculed, and persecuted. (Martin Luther King was probably our best modern example of this and we know what happened to him.)
Although it’s the last thing Jonah wants to do, he relents and warns the Ninevites to “repent” or else. In almost comical fashion, they listen. And act! From the king to the cows, they repent. And God spares them. Whether or not this story literally happened as written, it’s placement in scripture tells us some things about God’s nature.
First, it shows us that God is persistent. 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 states in his book Love Wins, “God gets what God wants.” For some strange reason God wants us. According to scripture, the cross of Christ is proof to how far God is willing to go to make sure that happens.
Secondly, Jonah’s story reminds us that 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.
This is good news for us all, because there are still Ninevites crying out every day from hospital beds, jail cells, rehab centers, bedrooms, classrooms, streets and sidewalks. And to all of them…God responds.
Just the same, there are still Jonah’s out there running away from God. Unwilling to do what God is asking of them. Despite all that, this God is persistent. And this God responds not with anger or vengeance, but with love, mercy, and grace. God never gives up on us. Because God gets what God wants. And God wants whoever you are and wherever you are.
Another thing this story tells us is that God is universal. And wants a relationship everyone. God shows mercy to Jonah, the personification of Israel. But God also shows mercy to the Ninevites, who represent everyone else. This suggests God’s redeeming love is for anyone who wants it.
That’s the story, give or take a few temper tantrums by Jonah. There’s no alter call. Or need for a profession of faith, a sinner’s prayer, or a church creed.
It seems the only thing God wants is our repentant heart. One that realigns itself with the way of God, the way of love.
God welcomes everyone because that’s what love does – it invites, it includes, it forgives, it’s merciful and kind to all. Be it an allegory or actuality, we get this reading in the middle of epiphany because it reveals the true nature of God to the world. Like John writes in his epistle - God is love. And anyone who loves knows God (1 John 4:7-8).
Because of love, this God gives Jonah a second chance. Because of love, this God gives the Ninevites a second chance. Heck, this God even gives the cows and chickens a second chance. So why wouldn’t this God do the same for us?
This God knows our short comings, and still pursues us. This God knows we can be stubborn, unreliable, fearful, and insecure and still wants a relationship with us.
This God knows we can be greedy, violent, and vane; that we tend to only look out for ourselves, and often at the expense of someone else's suffering; yet does not give up on us. Instead, God loves us enough to pursue us over and over again.
So, you see, this story isn’t about how a man could live inside a fish, but how God’s love lives inside us. And how this love, which is freely given to anyone who wants it, has no limits. It knows no boundaries. It does not discriminate, because of where we’re from or who we are.
Because of love, God sees beyond our mistakes, and embraces us so graciously and faithfully that we have no need to make those mistakes again.
We don’t need to be perfect, by whatever standard that is. We just have to be willing to respond to God’s love in all the ways we love God, love others, and serve both.
Like I said last week, love is the key that unlocks the space between heaven and earth. The more we love, the closer that reality becomes.
This is the message of Jesus, who made love his highest priority. Those of us who choose to follow his way, must make that our highest priority too.
Love is more than some Christian virtue or value we are encouraged to possess. It’s the driving force behind everything we are called to do.
Jonah learns the hard way that all God really wants from any of us is our heart. Just in I case you haven’t been listening, this God always gets what God wants. And when God gets what God wants, we get more than our hearts could ever imagine.
So let us take this story to heart, be it real or otherwise, because we’re all a little bit like Jonah.
But instead of running away from God, let us run to God who welcome us just as we are, because that’s what love does.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 1. Louisville Westminster John Knox. 2008.
Bell, Robb. Love Wins. (New York: HarperOne, 2011)
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”