Our thoughts and prayers–for protection, for comfort, for reassurance, for provision–are with the people of Florida today and all those who are concerned about those in the storm’s path. Blessings to all life–human, animal, and planetary. Peace to us all.
Once upon a time, there was a moody and difficult prophet named Jonah. His name in Hebrew means “dove,” which seems ironic because he didn’t seem to be a very peaceful soul. Jonah was a minor prophet, which means his story doesn’t take up much space in the overall breadth of scripture—just four short chapters. But for people of faith all over the world, Jonah has been a reassuring figure—for some, even a man worthy of praise. His story unfolds in unlikely ways that show us that God can and does use everyone and everything—even reluctant and angry prophets—to bring his message of mercy and grace to the world.
Jonah is introduced to us as the son of Amittai, which means “truth” in Hebrew. As we heard Sherry read, Jonah’s story opens with his call, when the word of the Lord came to him and told him to go immediately to Nineveh and tell them to change their ways before God blots them from the earth. But Jonah didn’t want to do that. In fact, he wanted Nineveh to be blotted from the earth. He saw them as despicable, dangerous, evil people, and he had heard it taught in synagogue that one day Nineveh would rise up and rule Israel. He had a vested interest in the people of Nineveh remaining unrepentant. So he took off and ran the other way.
He booked passage on a ship full of sailors who happened to be gentiles, and things went bad quickly. A mighty storm rages against the ship, and the sailors are afraid and call out to their lesser gods to save them. They threw extra cargo overboard to try to keep from capsizing. At a loss, the captain of the ship went below deck and found Jonah sleeping; he asked him to call on his God to spare the ship and the men.
The panicked sailors decided to cast lots to see who among them had brought on all this trouble. The lot fell on Jonah, and when they asked him he said it was true—he was a Hebrew who worshipped the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land. He told them he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Terrified, they asked him what they needed to do to make the sea calm down, and he said, “You need to throw me overboard into the sea.” They didn’t want to do that—in fact, they showed much more compassion for him than he showed for the people of Nineveh—and they tried rowing the ship back to land, but the storm only worsened. Finally they cried out to God in prayer—Jonah’s God, our God—even though they had worshipped only their own lowercase gods prior to meeting Jonah. Then they picked him up and threw him into the white-capped waves. And the sea instantly calmed.
You no doubt remember the part of the story where the big fish comes along and swallows Jonah, holding him essentially in time out for three days and three nights. It wasn’t lost on Jonah that the hungry fish came along at just the right moment to save his life; if they’d missed their connection, Jonah would have drowned and God’s plan to redeem Nineveh would have come to nothing.
Inside the big fish, there wasn’t much Jonah could do besides pray. It must have been dark—and probably smelled really bad—but Jonah was able to muster up a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking God for preserving his life. His prayer also showed us that he was a man who had studied scripture and who understood the living God as great, present, and merciful.
After hearing Jonah’s prayer, the story says, the Lord spoke to the fish, and the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land. The Lord tells Jonah yet again to go to Nineveh and deliver the message of repentance. This time Jonah did as he was instructed. Even though in his heart he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to be saved, they heeded his warning and turned whole-heartedly from their wicked ways. The king of Nineveh covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes, proclaiming a fast throughout the land. God was pleased by their great change of heart and decided to spare them after all.
And that’s just what Jonah didn’t want. Throughout the rest of the book of Jonah, we see his anger burn against God, against the redemption of the people he considered enemies, against ideas of mercy or forgiveness for those he felt were undeserving. Jonah’s ego is on parade and in control—he is not willing to listen and soften and be changed. Somehow he missed the point that those he called enemies were more open to the grace of God than he was.
Jonah fixated on the sins of others instead of allowing the light of God to illumine his own needs within. He couldn’t see his own self-absorption; he didn’t seem to grasp that he was mad at God for not doing things his way. It’s not clear, even at the end of the story, whether Jonah was any closer to receiving the grace and mercy of God for himself.
Jonah offers us a challenging mirror, pointing to one of the struggles we humans share: It’s hard for us to see what it costs us when we get caught up in our own opinions and ideas and can’t—or won’t—see any perspective but our own. I believe that as long as we live, God continues to offer us opportunities to open more and more to love, to practice forgiveness for ourselves and others, and to share grace and hope with the world in a thousand different ways. But sometimes those opportunities ask us to let go of some hard-won ideas, to soften our defenses, to be willing to risk being wrong, to do our best to be loving and kind in situations where we might have been rejecting or guarded before.
We’ve all experienced resistance at one time of another—it’s a kind of self-protective thing. We might resist new ideas, resist changes we don’t like—we may feel suspicion and distrust for situations or people that seem to threaten or frighten us. We can feel our resistance physically, like a knot in our stomach or a tightness in our throat or jaw. We can notice it in our thoughts when we spend time and energy replaying situations that upset us or justifying our positions. We can find it in our emotions, when we feel defensive or angry or like we want to run away from situations that bother us (just don’t jump on a ship to Tarshish—we know how that turns out!).
One way to meet and redeem our inner resistance is to allow God’s light to shine into it. When we notice that tightness building within us, we can pause and pray, and see what God has to show us about what’s going on inside. We may need to spend three days in the belly of a whale—or at least, looking inward, listening with care, waiting on God. We might learn something important—about love, self-acceptance, or forgiveness. Maybe we just haven’t yet heard all sides of the story and God wants us to stop and calm down and consider.
In our New Testament reading today, we heard Jesus mentions the “sign of Jonah” as an answer to the Pharisees request for a sign that he was the son of God. He tells them that the only sign they’ll receive is the one they know from the story of Jonah—three days and three nights gone from their sight—and then resurrected, continuing to live and serve out God’s good purpose.
Jesus evokes Jonah here for another reason too. He is saying to these highly educated, self-important Pharisees that it was those who were judged to be undeserving—first the gentile sailors on the ship and then the wicked people of Nineveh—who actually heard and understood God’s message to them and let their hearts and minds be changed. The Pharisees, like Jonah, were too caught up in themselves, too self-righteous to recognize their souls’ own need for redemption, renewal, and a true and growing personal relationship with God.
And something else I find fascinating about Jonah—this effective but unrepentant prophet—is that his story spans faith traditions in a pretty remarkable way. In Jewish practice, on Yom Kippur each year—the Day of Atonement–rabbis read the book of Jonah from start to finish, spotlighting its message of the need for repentance and God’s answering graciousness and forgiveness.
And also in Islam, Jonah is seen as an important prophet who ultimately was faithful to God and fulfilled his purpose. In fact, Jonah is mentioned in the Quran. Chapter 37, verses 139-144 says,
So also was Jonah among those sent (by Us).
When he ran away (like a slave from captivity) to the ship (fully) laden,
He (agreed to) cast lots, and he was condemned:
Then the big Fish did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
Had it not been that he (repented and) glorified Allah,
He would certainly have remained inside the Fish till the Day of Resurrection.
It is said that once when the prophet Muhammad asked to preach his message in a new town he was rebuffed by the people and took refuge in a nearby garden. A servant of a neighboring tribe brought him grapes to eat. Muhammad asked the servant where he was from, and the servant replied, “from Nineveh.” “Oh, the town of Jonah the just, son of Amittai!” Muhammad replied. The servant was surprised, not expecting an Arab teacher to know about Jonah. “We are brothers,” Muhammad told him. “Jonah was a prophet of God and I, too, am a prophet of God.”
Today the city of Nineveh is not far from Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city. On a hill east of the city for centuries there has been a shrine dedicated to Jonah which was believed to be his tomb. It has long been considered a sacred site, a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims from all over the world. In July of 2014, it was destroyed by the Islamic State as a religious site they considered to be idolatrous.
Who knew that this one reluctant, petulant minor prophet could be used by God to be such a force for light in the world? Jonah shows us that we don’t have to be perfect vessels in order for God to bring love and grace through us. We can be real people—with our personality flaws, quirks, and limitations—and still have a part in life that brings goodness to others. We may be a unifying actor—a bringer of peace–among people of different religious views, social ideas, or political ideologies. Maybe in spite of ourselves, we contribute to and share the light of God in important and untrackable ways, invisible even to us.
Ultimately Jonah shows us that, when God is in the mix, our stories are much bigger than we know. Our impact might reach just around the corner or spread across the world, changing lives for centuries to come. Either way, I hope we’ll choose to make good on any time we need to spend in the belly of our own personal big fish, refreshing our prayer, remembering to listen, and doing whatever God asks with receptive, softening, and changeable hearts.
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- Jonah 1: 1-6
- Matthew 12: 38-41