[A sermon on Jonah 1, the Uniform Series text for the day.]
What is going on in this little story of the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, the worst prophet in the history of the world?
Right? A prophet who runs away as soon as he gets his commission, a prophet who seems to prefer death by storm and large fish to doing his job, and … OK, spoiler alert, but … a prophet who gets enraged when he finally does do a little tiny part of his job and his words actually have the desired result. So, “worst prophet in the history of the world” seems kind of accurate.
So what is going on, what are we supposed to learn from this story? Because it is in the Bible, presumably on purpose, so I imagine we are supposed to learn something from it. Presumably, it tells us something, it reveals something, about God, and about ourselves. But what is that?
Maybe we already know that, since the basic outline of the story is awfully familiar to those of us who have grown up on Bible stories, or even those of us who have grown up in Western culture – people know that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and then survived. If we saw that Veggie Tales movie when we were little, we know that Jonah found a ship to run the other way from where he was supposed to be going; what I remember best are the little animals in Nineveh running around in sacks. We may feel there’s not much left for us to learn from a cartoon like this. The moral of the story is clear and simple: “you can’t outrun God, so don’t even think about it.” “God loves everyone, even the wicked Ninevites.” “God can do anything.”
That all sounds pretty solid and Biblical, doesn’t it? Do we really need to spend any more time on this?
But then I re-read the book of Jonah – because it was the Sunday school lesson for today, and because I was taught that we should read the lesson before we start writing things down about it, start saying things about it. I say this myself, over and over, in class: we need to read the text, and by this I mean, we need to stop reading the text through the gauzy wool of the theology that’s already in our heads, and read the words that are actually on the page; and we need to stop saying things “about the text” that are mainly about the theology in our heads, we need to set that stuff aside and give the text itself, its words, room to inform, and even challenge, the theology in our heads – which often turns out to have very little relationship with what the text says! Even though that theology may have come from “the text” in the first place in some way …
And when we re-read the book of Jonah, we’ll notice that there is a lot to notice in the story, and in particular in the way the story is told. The storyteller has made choices, has put the story together in a specific way, not at all haphazardly, we suspect. The storyteller has crafted the story, on purpose, to make us notice, or at least to make it possible for us to notice, certain things. I believe the details of the story are there on purpose.
But I may not notice these details, or glimpse their possible purpose, until I have read the whole story. One of the things I noticed as I was working out what we might learn from this story was that I kept thinking about the whole story, and the way the whole story sheds light on the importance of the details of the story. For instance, in chapter one there is a storm, and a large fish; then, later on, in chapter two, Jonah mentions sea-weed; in chapter three, animals come up again, and then in chapter four animals and plants come up yet again, along with weather, so that by the end of the story, we have read about a lot of events that involve the activity of plants, animals, and the natural world. In just four chapters. This makes a reader think, reasonably, that maybe the plants, animals and natural world matter in this story! They are probably not there just by accident. They seem to be there on purpose. Especially if we notice that the plants, animals, and natural world are very responsive to God … quite a contrast to Jonah.
[There is a name for this effect of the whole story shedding light on the importance of the details in the story, even while the details in the story add up to create the meaning of the whole story, by the way – people call this the “hermeneutic circle.” It does feel circular, somehow, to read to the end of a story and then go back to the beginning and re-read it and notice something new about its parts. It’s like the way we get to the end of a year and find ourselves back at another beginning of a year, and after we go around the years this way for awhile, we come to understand winter in relation to the autumn that comes before it and the spring that follows it, and we begin to think of a whole year as this cycle of seasons … something like that happens when we read, too. Anyway … I really noticed the hermeneutic circle operating in the book of Jonah, maybe because I kept thinking about what I know is going to happen by the end of the story as I was reading the beginning.]
For instance, we know Jonah isn’t going to be able to get away from God. As Jonah’s story unfolds sentence by sentence, as Jonah lives it, he hears the word of God telling him to go to Nineveh, and the next thing he does is go find a ship sailing in the opposite direction, to this fabled city of Tarshish, “away from the presence of YHWH.”
Ha ha. As if there is some place “away from the presence of YHWH.” We know he’s going to fail. If we were watching this as a movie, we’d be elbowing our friend sitting beside us and saying something like “just wait … this gets good.”
(And I must say, it’s rather satisfying to be one up in this way on Jonah. We’re in the position of leaning back in our chairs and saying “ho ho, Buddy, just you wait …” Because we already know how this is going to turn out.]
It’s too bad I don’t already know this when I do one of these Jonah kind of things myself. When I think to myself something like “I don’t feel like …” whatever it is – something that I sense life or conscience or God is calling me to do, whether it’s a some project, or picking up some life skill, whatever – it’s too bad I don’t already know how it’s going to turn out in my own life when I do the idiotic things I do to evade the presence of God. Because I guess we know how that’s going to work out, too. It may not happen quite as clearly as the storm that comes up when Jonah is sailing in a direction that he thinks – at least for the moment – is “away” from God. The form that motivating opposition takes in my life, or in our lives, may be a little harder more subtle than a storm on an ocean voyage – or not. But it will have the same kind of effect, of making me want to change course.
The storm in the story is no accident, it comes up on purpose. God does something to cause it: sends a spirit, God’s spirit, out over the ocean. If we have read some other Bible stories, this might remind us of another time God sends God’s spirit out over some deep, formless water, back in Genesis, at the very beginning of creation. And see, I believe the storyteller tells the story this way on purpose, I think it’s no accident these words are there, I think the idea is to get us to remember that, to get us to think … huh, this storm, it is somehow a creative act of God’s … God is doing something creative here. Something creative with the chaotic mess that is Jonah’s response to God, which is initially the response of running away and abandoning whatever purpose God might have had in sending Jonah to Nineveh.
We could maybe even say the purpose of the storm is to get the human characters moving in the right direction. It motivates the sailors to call on their gods, it motivates them to cast lots, it motivates them to interrogate Jonah about his mission … and why people take action when they are in some kind of trouble, I don’t know, but it does ring true. It does often happen that we act when we’re in trouble in ways that we wouldn’t or don’t when things are going well for us. Just as it will continue to ring true in Nineveh when the people hear that destruction is imminent – they’ll recognize that it’s time to do something.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Jonah, in chapter one, has waited until it’s really too late to avoid the trouble he probably already knew he could get in to if he didn’t take God’s announcement of the work he needed to do seriously. The storm is raging around him – and he seems remarkably calm, he’s asleep, oblivious to the danger, we might these days say he’s “in denial” and letting the sailors do all the work and all the worrying, and as far as that goes, is about to take them down with him.
And by the way, notice how much time the storyteller spends on these sailors. They are the main actors in chapter one, as they struggle with the stormy trouble that, it turns out, Jonah has brought on them all. They are idolaters, but they are pious idolaters: they pray, they worship the gods, they cast lots; they seem to believe and to understand that the gods are in control, and that Jonah’s god will, presumably, be among them. And they are open to new information: they are even more afraid when they see the power of Jonah’s God, they take it in, they ultimately worship and make vows to YHWH. So Jonah’s connection with the God who made sea and dry land, even in disobedience, educates these sailors.
But first, the sailors try to rescue Jonah! Notice that? After Jonah tells them that what they need to do is throw him into the sea, “the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land.” They don’t want to abandon Jonah to certain death – at least, that’s how it looks to them.
Again, in contrast to Jonah, the sailors are trying to save someone’s life from the apparent wrath of God. Jonah is willing to turn his back on a huge city that’s in the direct eye of a divine storm, but these sailors are willing to put their own lives on the line to save one man’s, Jonah’s, worthless skin. It’s hard not to notice this; which is why I believe the storyteller tells the story this way on purpose. Jonah ought to be more like these sailors. We know that.
Except that I wish I would know that when I’m living my own life, forward, moment by moment and day by day, and don’t have the benefit of that hermeneutic circle to get me to notice what’s going on. I wish I would remember that I am supposed to care about someone in trouble, or a lot of someones who are in trouble, and am supposed to take the action I can on their behalf, even at some personal risk. Maybe more of us ought to have read this story, noticed that the sailors are there on purpose, and realized that the sailors are there to teach us something about what it means to respond properly as human beings to the danger and distress of another human being. I don’t like to think that I’m as cold and callous and willing to leave people to their well-deserved fate as Jonah …
But when I’m living my life forward, I get to thinking I already know who the good guys are (the ones like me, it seems), and who the no-goods, the no-accounts, the humans that don’t matter are. In this story from the life of ancient Israel, of course, it’s the pagans, the idolaters, the vicious Assyrians in the inner city of Nineveh – they’re the designated bad guys, the ones we’re not supposed to have to care about, the ones whose lives aren’t supposed to matter. The trouble they’re in with God is trouble they’ve brought on themselves, because they’ve made bad choices, they’ve done bad things, they worship the wrong gods or principles or we might say they have the wrong cultural agenda; they took too many drugs or drank too much rot-gut or ate too many donuts or just didn’t have enough grit, and we shouldn’t even have to care about them, much less pay for their stupid mistakes. It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see that attitude in Jonah’s refusal to take that trip to Nineveh.
But the teller of Jonah’s story goes out of the way to point out that the no-account pagan sailors, who are not supposed to matter, look more like the good guys than the designated “hero of the story.” In their compassion and concern for the life of the worst prophet in the history of the world, the sailors behave more worshipfully towards YHWH, more responsively towards YHWH, and show more love towards YHWH with all their hearts and souls and strength, and more reverence for human life, than Jonah has to this point. Jonah, the one who is supposed to have a personal relationship with God – so close that God has already sent Jonah his Word! – and who presumably knows the 10 Commandments by heart and thinks of himself as one of the “good people,” the holy people. The teller of Jonah’s story seems to throw in the sailors on purpose, and to tell us in some detail about their behavior, on purpose, to get us to notice that they, far more than Jonah, are the ones who share the heart of YHWH – the heart that yearns to save people, even people who have made really bad choices, even people who have done not just stupid things, but genuinely bad things. Even the Ninevites. Even Jonah.
We ourselves may never be asked to travel to a distant, scary city to preach a message of repentance, the way Jonah was. But each of us individually, and all of us collectively, might notice – in light of another story we have heard more than once – that we have had a Word come to us from God, a Word that calls us to love one another, to care about one another’s fate, and to lay down our lives for one another. Theoretically, at least, this is the basic insight at the heart of the Christian faith that claims this story from the life of ancient Israel as a story that speaks to us as well: that the God who cared about Nineveh enough to send Jonah, the God who cared enough about the worst prophet in the history of the world to save him from drowning, is the same God who loved the world enough to give God’s own life to pull that whole world back from the brink of disaster; God didn’t hesitate to pay for all of humanity’s bad choices and stupid mistakes, determined as God seems to be that the all-too-well-deserved consequences of those choices and mistakes will not be end of the story. Theoretically, Christians have heard that Word, know that story, and follow in those footsteps, living out that message, knowing that the end of that story is life upon life.
I’m afraid that living out that message needs the hermeneutic circle of stories like the story of Jonah, with its purposeful reminders of what does and what doesn’t look like “doing what God wants,” to help me recognize it in the harder territory of my own life. It looks like caring. It looks like compassion. It looks like taking risks for the sake of kindness to people who might not “deserve” it. I see this, but only because the teller of Jonah’s story has helped me see it. I believe that was on purpose.