I love the story of Jonah because we I think we are all Jonah from time to time. So the Jonah story in all its comic richness has a lot to teach us. First of all it is obviously a good example of the “what does it mean?” question rather than did it happen that way.” We are not meant to take literally the notion of Jonah actually being swallowed by a very large fish! Now like a number of other prophets Jonah is not thrilled with his calling. When God tells him he is to go to Nineveh and call the people to repent of their wickedness….the usual prophetic refrain…he essentially says ” I’m out of here” and leaves town as fast as he can. Since Nineveh was on the coast there were ships in the harbour and so Jonah quickly books a passage and sets off to get him as far away as possible from the task to which God has called him.
So this book with all its comic richness focuses on the very human response to God’s call rather than on the causes for the call itself and after his adventures in the great fish Jonah delivers a uncompromising oracle of impending destruction to the Gentile Ninevites. What is also challenging for Jonah is that God changes the promise of punishment to Nineveh, much to Jonah’s regret…and extends forgiveness to the repentant people…We will come back to this in a minute. For now let’s focus on the story with all its comic richness.
Jonah gets on the ship which sails off and predictably runs into very rough weather. Since it was customary to be pretty superstitious the sailors assume that their foreign passenger is the reason for the storm so they do the obvious thing….After lightening the ship by throwing their cargo overboard they then toss Jonah overboard as well. I wonder, as he hit the water whether Jonah was saying to himself, “well at least this is better than going to Nineveh….” Now as luck would have it a big fish as the text describes it, comes along just at that moment and swallows Jonah whole….this must have been a whale of a fish as we say and so perhaps that’s the origin of our usual title for this story ” Jonah and the whale”. For three days and nights Jonah is described as being in the belly of the great fish….hopefully we notice the three….this is clearly a story written in God’s time, kairos….not our clock time chronos. Things that come in three days always have special significance….new life of some sort….so something significant is going to transpire over these three days as Jonah marinates in the belly of the whale. Then the great fishy whale literally vomits Jonah up onto the beach where presumably he sat picking fish out of his hair and ears as he realizes that he is back where he started and so maybe had better do what God has in mind for him in the first place though I have a hunch he was rather sulky as he did it. Ironically as he sits in the Whale’s vomit Jonah is now ritually unclean…..so in that sense has little justification for being so condescending about the gentile Ninevites….Finally he does what God has asked him to do and is described as having to walk forty miles across the city of Nineveh….the forty should jump out at us as well as the three days and nights….forty years in Sinai, forty days and nights of rain on Noah….Gos is up to something….And very significantly God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh which outrages Jonah who believes they are as Gentiles, permanently unclean and therefore beyond hope.
As is true for all the prophets they, and by inference we, learn some important things about God….in this instance God’s mercy seems to be somewhat greater than Jonah’s….or the Pharisees of the gospels and so we need to wonder for ourselves….in the story of Jonah God is clearly portrayed as persevering, responsive and merciful…God’s chosen people and by inference we too, should therefore rejoice with this mission of mercy not merely out of self interest but out of fulfillment of God’s command.
Originally then the fairly pointed message was that Israel, which had once seen itself as a light to the nation’s…we are in the season of Epiphany after all…had grow even more defensive after years of military losses and diplomatic concessions to foreign idols. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, represented the enemy camp at its most powerful and wicked. No self respecting Jew would want to lift a finger for the Ninevites. Likewise nothing In history suggests that the Ninevites ever turned to the Hebrew God. But the point of the message remains: if God really intends salvation for all the peoples, then in all seriousness we must at least talk with our enemies. It would be difficult to imagine a more timely message….Nineveh is in fact contemporary Iraq and surrounding areas….it would be difficult to imagine a more critical place needing genuine listening and conversation if there is ever to be peace. But sadly modern suspicions and animosities match this ancient story perfectly….and the only way through this mess is to talk….and listen….probably do ore listening than talking…
Now what is also interesting is that in spite of being a very reluctant prophet Jonah clearly knows his psalms. The prayers he cries out from the belly of the fish are filled with words and images of the psalms…and we will come back to this in a minute. Suffice to say for now that there is obviously a conviction, as is present repeatedly in the psalms, that it is God’s actions that can and will provide salvation….even if it might appear in a very unexpected way….like the belly of a great fish.
In addition the watery depths in our sacred texts nearly always speak of chaos and fear. So on that level then Jonah, running from God’s call to him descends into chaos and fear for three days and nights…Obviously the three day significance is not unique to the gospels…so there he is, in the chaos of his fear and what does he do? He prays hard…using the powerful language of the psalms…..the prayer language of the Hebrews for centuries….and something happens…..maybe the fish had a fit of indigestion but whatever Jonah finds himself dripping wet on the beach.
So thinking about the psalms as prayers I opened my prayer book at random in the psalter at the back….and there was psalm 69…”Save me oh God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire and there is no firm ground for my feet.”. How apt I thought as we have been in a watery deluge almost as bad as being at the bottom of the sea it seems…..
More seriously, there are a couple of things that stand out for me from reflecting on Jonah and the whale of a fish. The first is that we can all, any of us, be called by God to do what might seem to be daunting tasks. And if God wants us, needs us to work on the world as the Torah repeatedly says, then hide as we might, the call will not go away. And none of us needs to be a super hero in order to do God’s work in the world. Jonah is a bit of a comic, a bumbler….but when he stops running and starts praying he discovers that he has what it takes after all.
We are here this morning together because regardless of how irrelevant our gathering might seem to many in the world, we have in this place, known the power of prayer and if for no other reason we come together to bring our collective prayer to the needs of individuals, of our community, and the world. I would like to make a suggestion to you this morning. Over the weeks ahead and especially during the weeks of Lent, begin to read through the psalter…the psalms at the back of the prayer book or in the bible. Find a psalm or two whose language really speaks to you and read it/ say it every day. I believe it will change you perhaps in surprising ways. We can all likely recite the 23rd psalm by heart. This could be a really good time to find one or two other psalms that can become your prayers in these watery dark days and nights. And if you suspect that God is calling you to do something, giving in gracefully is better than ending up in the watery deep….God doesn’t give up and God doesn’t make junk. With some prayer we can all be up to the task. “Glory to God, whose power working I us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Amen.