“Journey with Jonah, part I” – Rev. Tony Romaine – September 20th, 2020
Our journey with Jonah must begin with a little context because Jonah is unlike any of the other prophetic books we encounter, and yet is smack dab in between Obadiah and Micah in biblical order. All of the other prophetic books are written as prophesy that the called prophets would give to the world, and subsequently ours. Jonah actually only speaks one sentence of prophesy to Nineveh and is perhaps the most successful prophet in the history of the known world for the whole town repents and is saved; not something that can be said for Isaiah, Jeremiah, or the other prophets who wrote volumes of prophesy. Instead, Jonah is written more as a biography or historical account than prophesy. And so, one must ponder what the reason is to include it in the prophetic part of our Biblical canon. The reason being that Jonah does end up being quite prophetic, is that the prophesy comes through the life lived and the actions which occur as a mirror for us to reflect on our lives in turn.
In this vein, Jonah is then written as satire, a Biblical adventure in overwhelming odds, a character who does not want anything to do with any of it, and as Conrad Hyers states in his book, And God Created Laughter, “a comic portrayal of the Biblical theme of human wisdom and divine foolishness.” By the way, if you are struggling with understanding satire, that last phrase is satire in writing, for it is humanity who thinks themselves wise and God’s ways foolish; while the truth is the reverse.
So, with a little context, we can now begin our Journey with Jonah! Jonah begins as most prophetic books do, with a call from God. God speaks to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.” And like so many prophets do at first, Jonah does not immediately answer. But Jonah takes it even further, he tries to escape God and escape the call that God is placing on his heart. Not only that, but he tries to escape to the farthest possible place he could go, Tarshish, which most scholars agree is a reference to a port in Spain all the way cross the Mediterranean Sea.
There are underlying themes here, which are important for us to bring up, as they will surface again and again as we journey with Jonah. One is the fact that Jonah is forgetting that the God he worships is not just the God of the physical land of Israel, but is the God of every time and place and people. God is the creator of all the lands and seas, and so, if Jonah thinks he can escape God by running off to the farthest away place he knows then he is vastly mistaken. For as it says in Psalm 139:7, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Which again alludes to concept of how we often think that our human wisdom is greater than God’s and that we can indeed outrun God.
Nevertheless, Jonah does board a ship and begins his voyage to flee from where God is calling him. As the boat was journeying, a great storm comes up and all the “pagan” sailors on board begin praying to their gods. Jonah sleeping soundly in the hull of the ship is awoken to pray to his God too and perhaps the calamity will end. Ultimately, they cast lots and it falls on Jonah to explain why everything is happening. At this point, Jonah says that he worships the Lord who made the sea and all the lands and the sailors get even more worried, for now they know that this man they took on as cargo is fleeing the presence of God and even these “pagans” knew better than to do that.
Jonah, being prophetic, remember God did speak directly to him, then knows that what the sailors must do is to toss him over the side of the boat and into the sea in order to make the storm stop. But an interesting thing happens, the “pagan” sailors, the sailors who were not of the God of Israel, who have already tossed cargo over and are at the brink of dying in the sea, try to row back to dry land to drop Jonah off instead of tossing him into the brink. And when they could not, they pray out loud for mercy as they throw Jonah to his seeming death, because they knew it was not right to kill another. Foreigners who had their own gods knew more about the moral right not to kill innocents than Jonah did, ahem foreshadowing! But here we reach the point where Jonah is now thrown into the sea and a large fish or whale or whatever suits your imagination swallows Jonah up.
Before we move any further, let us make some connections for our day and age and let us ask the prophetic questions that we are being presented with in this first chapter of Jonah. What are we fleeing from right now? What is it that we are ignoring and trying to run away from? What are we failing to do and thinking that our own human wisdom can keep us from God’s sight, or our own human technology and advancements can keep us from being seen? What is it that in this moment, today, we are being called to cry out for God; what wickedness are we being called to speak God’s truth to?
We all have our own personal answers, but here is what God is always calling us to do: Spread the message of love throughout the world! Spread the message of repentance and forgiveness! Spread the message of God’s hope that no matter what and no matter where God is present and is part of our lives and will be forever! Spread the message that God never leaves us, even when we might want to be left alone, and God is always by our side!
And if we are honest about our world right now, do we see a world filled with hope? Do we see a people who are loving their neighbors? Do we see a world which cares so much for one another that everyone is willing to do what they must to protect one another? If we are honest with ourselves, our answers to these questions present us with a wake-up call from God who is saying to our broken and divisive world, “ENOUGH!” Now is the time we are called to love again as in days of old. Now is the time we are called to imagine a world where no one is longing for the hope we have in Jesus. Now is the time we are being called to stop running away from God and start running towards God. Now is the time we are being thrown into the sea, being tossed about, and have been swallowed by the large fish. And now is the time we learn why!
Which brings us to our next part of Jonah, chapter 2. There is an interesting thought I had about the idea of Jonah being in the belly of the large fish for three days and three nights; this is the amount of time according to Israelite ways that would mean someone was truly dead. Someone was officially dead after they had died for three days and three nights. And this part of historical Scriptural language is important, which is why Jesus when he died was dead for…you got it three days and three nights! The idea is that we must truly die to something in order for God to resurrect us to something new.
In Jonah’s case, as we will see, Jonah had to die to himself and his selfish ways in order to truly understand what he was being called to do and still fights it till the end. I present this point right now as we begin this chapter which is a prayer from Jonah from the belly of the fish, or what I deem to be the depths of darkness and death, because as we journey through this, think to yourself, what is it that I need to die to in order to truly repent and turn toward God? What is it in my life that I am holding onto so tightly and will not let go of thinking that my own human understanding is better than God’s wisdom? What is my belief that is not in line with God’s teaching that is preventing me from truly living my life? For as we will see Jonah must almost die in order to be reborn!
This is not an easy process though, and Jonah makes it even more difficult because he is the adequate representation of ourselves; a stubborn human! But as he is in the belly of Sheol, which is the dark gray area we can think of as death, he cries out to God and God hears him. Jonah is not done though being a stubborn human, for he initially blames God for throwing him into this place. He blames God for calling him and casting him into the sea. He blames God for his lot in life and wonders when he will ever look upon God’s holy temple, perhaps meaning Israel, ever again. And as his life was slowly fading, it seems like he is awoken to the fact that he must indeed do what God is calling him to, and go to Nineveh. For at that moment, Jonah says that deliverance belongs to the Lord and the deep spits Jonah back out onto dry land, Israel, once more!
Jonah at this point is still not fully convicted, and we should not think that this death and rebirth has completed the process of opening his eyes to what God has in store for him, Nineveh, and the world, but as with most things in life; and especially, our life lived in faith…it is a journey. This brings us to the end of chapter 2 and I cannot wait to continue this journey with Jonah with you next Sunday! Until then, spend this week thinking about where God is calling you, to whom God is calling you, what you need to let go of, and how God is speaking in your life. God Bless, Amen!