Preacher: Kevin Mesher
Reading: Jonah 4:1–11
“Shipmates, this book is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s sea-line sound! What pregnant lesson to us is this prophet.”
In 800 words or less.
It’s true. These words spoken by Father Mappler—the salty Chaplain from Moby Dick—describe well the book from which we get one of our readings tonight. Four short chapters. But given its size, it is so dizzyingly laden with themes that we will barely scratch its surface this evening.
Although this book from the minor prophets has been characterized as a satire, a parable, and as didactic fiction, I like the suggestion from the Jewish Study Bible that it is a “meta-prophetic book”—a book that shows how one becomes a prophet by giving us an example of a very questionable one. Plus, it harbors a central image that has captured the collective imagination for centuries in myth, folktale, and literature.
But it is so much more than a simple “whale tale,” as we shall see. Once we get past the leviathan, we are met with a piece of fantastic prose that once again reveals the true nature of God as love, lest we had any doubts.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
We most definitely need a bigger boat; however, let us push off from the shore and paddle out a ways, past the usual chum and tackle, and see what depths we can sound. “Yarrr.”
First, a quick recap of the first three chapters of Jonah is necessary to put tonight’s reading in context. Chapter One begins abruptly with God calling Jonah to preach to Nineveh and rail against its wickedness. This is odd, you see, because Jonah is not sent by God to his own people, the Israelites, but to those of his people’s mortal enemies. So what does Jonah do? Naturally, he goes to the seashore and hops the first boat to Tarshish, which lies in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. And not only that, he stows himself deep in the belly of the ship and proceeds to fall into a fathomless sleep.
God then hurls fierce winds that threaten to crash the ship and to kill everyone on board, including Jonah. Jonah knows what he must do. He tells them, “Throw me off the ship and the storm will abate.” This they do, and the seas immediately settle to a dead calm. However Jonah is now bobbing in the middle of the sea. So God sends an enormous fish—never referred to as a whale, by the way—that swallows Jonah whole. Three days and three nights Jonah resides in the belly of this fish, and he is terrified. So he begins to pray, and he prays to God every suitable Psalm and piece of scripture he can think of that has relevance to his predicament. “From the belly of the grave I cried, ‘Help!’” God hears Jonah’s prayers and the fish kindly vomits Jonah onto dry land. A graphic flourish.
Chapter Three. God calls Jonah again and repeats his charge. This time Jonah makes his way toward Nineveh and proclaims, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Eight words. Not the most verbose of prophets. But what happens? They believe God and repent—more than 120,000 of them. They fast, put on sackcloth, sit in ashes, the whole lot. Then they make their animals do the same—just to be on the safe side. And God sees all of this and changes his mind about the calamity he said he would rain down upon them. Which brings us to tonight’s reading.
Jonah is furious. “I knew this would happen! That’s why I didn’t go in the first place.” For Jonah knows in his heart that God is exactly as he describes himself in Exodus: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:6–7, ESV). But Jonah didn’t want his name attached to the Ninevite redemption.
So our petulant prophet sulks away and sits just outside of the city. God provides him with the shade of a castor tree to soothe him, and he’s happy. But when God sends a worm to eat the tree and take the shade away, and then sends a scorching wind to boot, Jonah is consumed with a rage that verges on suicidal.
It seems the worm that ate the tree has become the worm of self-centeredness, and nothing eats at the roots and branches of faith quicker than that. And then the chapter ends with an unanswered question from God—an effective literary device. It makes me wonder if the question might be meant for you and me, the readers.
In paraphrase: If you can change your feelings so quickly about a tiny plant from joy to pity in a single night—a plant that you did not create—can I not change my mind about the Ninevites who have just become newborns in faith?
In its day, the book of Jonah must have marked an incredible paradigm shift for the Israelites—ever God’s chosen people, but ever trying to coexist in an expanding world of ideas and religions, of ideologies and theologies, and trying to make sense of God’s seeming shifting favor. I believe it is why Jonah tries so hard to change God’s heart, whereas the Ninevites work to change their own. For a paradigm shift is certainly easier if one surrenders completely.
Here’s my take away: The book of Jonah shows me that there exists in each and every person—and their animals, apparently—a latent potential to connect to some kind of “source” regardless of your or my personal conception of what that should look like or for whom you or I think is worthy of it. For aren’t we “all members one of another” (Eph. 4:25)? How absurd of me to think that I can apply limits to God’s mercy. How strange I would rue your homecoming! When I forget God’s magnanimity, when I have too little concern for our corporate sense, our common destiny, when I become myopic and self-absorbed, when I wish to deny others the grace I have so freely received, when I forget that God is the cure of all our souls, then God labors to rouse me from this petty stupor just as he did with Jonah.
You can be certain that it is God who tries to wake us. It is God that sends the storms but then in equal measure calms the seas. God sends the fish of death and the fish of rebirth. He sends the bush and then withers it away. God calls us again. And again. God uses everything and anything at hand that will bring us all to back God. And so God is love.
“Wake up,” he is saying. “Do not go back to sleep! Snap out of it! All hands on deck! Raise the mainsail. There are yet more fish in the sea.”