Jonah: The Adventure Begins
April 19, 2020
An audio recording of Matt’s sermon can be heard on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-ez_vKYFA4&t.
The story of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious. It is pathetic because Jonah is so ridiculously unfaithful. When Jonah isn’t trying in vain to flee from God, we find him throwing hissy fits and temper tantrums because God is too gracious to his enemies. The story of Jonah is hilarious because the narrator likes to have fun with us, telling a story that is a little larger than life. The narrator takes us on a comical trip that shows the Assyrians – one of the worst bad guys in the Ancient Near East – utterly repentant, with even their animals throwing on sackcloth and ashes, while Jonah, God’s prophet, is left whining because his plant died. The narrator uses hyperboles, alliterations, metaphors and just about every literary device you learned about in school, all to create a grand story that is both fun and immersive. As Eugene Peterson writes, it is a story that invites play.
It is a story that is meant to draw us in, to take us for a ride, and before we realize it we’ve landed at a different destination than when we began. Unfortunately, there is much debate surrounding this book as commentators, theologians and Christians argue about whether such a story is historically accurate or not. Was there actually a big fish that swallowed Jonah and spit him up on dry land or not? Wait, was it a fish or a whale? Whatever the conclusion, it matters little for our purposes here. If we get too caught up in these questions then we will entirely miss the point of the story. We must remember that to an ancient audience, the first question they would ask after hearing such a story would not be, “did it really happen exactly like that?” That’s an enlightenment question.
But to an ancient audience, stories like Jonah were meant to immerse you and to instruct you, much like one of Jesus’ parables. After hearing a parable from Jesus, the disciples don’t ask him, “Come on Jesus, did that really happen?” They ask him, “What does this story mean for our lives today?”
As Eugene Peterson writes, “The story of Jonah is a parable, at the center of which is a prayer.” It is a story meant to immerse, instruct and transform us. The moment we get too caught up in deciding if it is a historically accurate story or not is the moment we have stopped allowing it to teach us and transform us. If we are open to how God can speak to us through this story, we will find that the really difficult thing to believe isn’t the fish, but that God loves even the Assyrians and people like Jonah.
Because while the story of Jonah is meant to invite play—to make us laugh, sigh, roll our eyes and use our imaginations—it is packed to the brim with theological depth. The narrator certainly has much that she wishes to tell us about God and what it means to be human. It is not a story written just to entertain us and make us laugh, but thank goodness we can encounter God through laughter, imagination and play. Finding God in a story like Jonah reminds us that we can meet God anywhere, not just in old church buildings.
And so, today we will begin our journey together through the book of Jonah where we are invited to laugh until our sides hurt and to encounter the living God.
We begin with the first three verses of Jonah, because even that is almost too much to bite off for one sermon. Hear the word of the Lord:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah begins with the Hebrew word vayahi. You can say it with me from your living rooms: va-ya-hee. I usually encourage you to use your new Hebrew vocabulary at dinner parties to impress your guests, but that refrain doesn’t really work anymore, because well, none of us are having dinner parties. So, I encourage you to use your new Hebrew vocabulary to impress your cat or your dog. But anyway, vayahi is a Hebrew word that literally means: “and it happened.” It’s the English story equivalent of “once upon a time.” So if I were to give a wooden translation of the first line of Jonah, it would go something like this: “And it happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, that the word of the Lord came to him.”
Jonah’s adventure begins, not with something he did, but with something done to him. This is how all the best and the worst stories begin: with something happening to us that is out of our control. The longer we live the more we grow wise to the reality that we are not as in control of our stories as we often think and pretend to be. It didn’t take COVID-19 long to teach us that lesson. Life then, much like Jonah’s story, becomes about how we respond to that thing that happens to us unexpectedly and without warning.
And that thing that happens to Jonah unexpectedly and without warning is the word of the Lord. God’s word comes to Jonah, son of Amittai, telling him to “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it.” The word of the Lord interrupts Jonah’s life. The narrator doesn’t tell us how the word of the Lord came to Jonah. Perhaps he heard it in a dream, or maybe he was stepping out of the shower one day and heard a loud booming voice telling him to go to Nineveh. We don’t know. The narrator doesn’t tell us. But we do know that this story begins with a word from the Lord. It’s a story first and foremost about a word from God that sets everything in motion, but then, it is also story about how Jonah will respond to God’s word.
And if you know anything about Jonah, you probably know that he can’t even earn himself a passing grade. Jonah is introduced to us with no commentary or background. But we are told that he is the “son of Amittai.” Now, if you want to impress your dog or cat even further, you can tell them that Amittai comes from the Hebrew root meaning “faithfulness.” And in the ancient world, names are very significant, and the meaning behind them is often used to communicate something. Jonah is introduced literally as “Jonah, son of faithfulness.” Right from the very beginning we see that the narrator is up to something artistically clever, because it takes us until the next verse to see that Jonah is anything but the poster child for faithfulness. We see already the narrator having some fun with us.
So Jonah is chosen by God to be a prophet for reasons that are entirely unknown to us (Jonah makes us wonder what kind of credentials God uses when selecting his prophets). And his task is straightforward: Go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and tell them that God has seen their wickedness and will bring judgment. To understand what is going on here, we need to understand a little bit more about these Ninevites.
Other Old Testament prophets spoke primarily to their own people and nation, but Jonah was sent to the Ninevites, who are really one of Israel’s greatest enemies. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had invaded Israel again and again. Not only was Assyria a threat, but they are described as some of the worst kind of people. They loved killing Israelites and were known to practice child sacrifice. Every good little Hebrew boy knew Nineveh as the epitome of pagan wickedness. In the Veggie Tales movie, Jonah, the Ninevites are described as people who slap other people in the face with fish! Now that’s just the worst type of person, isn’t it?
And to Jonah’s astonishment, God asks Jonah to go preach to these people – to the enemy, the characteristic villain. Most of us would pay good money for the chance at a God-sanctioned trip to go tell our enemies how evil and terrible they are and that they better watch out for God’s judgment. But here, we see that Jonah knows more about God than he lets us in on at first. Jonah flees and ignores God’s call. We might assume that Jonah was scared, but we learn later on in the story that the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go preach judgment against the Ninevites is because he didn’t want to give them the chance to repent. He knows what type of God is sending him. He tells God later in the story, after the Ninevites did indeed repent, “This is why I fled to Tarshish. For I know you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”
Jonah doesn’t even want to give the Ninevites – those dirty fish-slappers – the slightest slimmer of hope to repent. And so, by the second sentence in this story Jonah is already fleeing the other way, off to Tarshish.
What God calls Jonah to do is too surprising and too ridiculous. In our contemporary Christian culture we have unfortunately turned “God’s call” on our lives into something enigmatic and cryptic that we wait to receive through some series of signs, or if God would be so kind, through an audible voice. We wait for a clear word from the Lord before making a big decision, or we try to decipher our life’s events as if they were puzzle pieces that fit together with an exact direction to where God may be calling us. I think too often we overcomplicate God’s call. Because most of the time God’s call on our life is pretty simple and straightforward: “Go love that person. Yes, even that person.” The call to love our enemy or that weird person in our office complex is surprising and ridiculous, yes. But it’s also simple and straightforward. No cryptic puzzle to solve. No need to wait for an audible voice. We already know what type of life God has called us to.
But like Jonah, we have a penchant for overcomplicating things. So Jonah indeed rises, just as the Lord asked him, but he instead flees to Tarshish, away from the Lord’s presence. You would think that God’s prophet might have the sense to understand that it’s not really possible to successfully flee from the presence of a God who is present everywhere, but Jonah gives it his best effort. He tries to flee to Tarshish, which is on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea and was considered to be at the edge of the world. Jonah tries to flee to the very edge of the universe, because maybe there he will be free from the ridiculous things God asks him to do—things like preach hope and repentance to some dirty fish-slappers.
Tarshish is where Jonah would rather be. Tarshish is an exotic place that is exciting and full of adventure. Tarshish is the opposite of exile, it’s the opposite of a hard life. Tarshish is where you go to escape all your problems. It certainly sounds like a much lovelier place than Nineveh. There are no fish-slappers in Tarshish. There is no hard work or difficult living in Tarshish. There is nothing and no one to be faithful to or worry about obeying; it is escape from the real world.
Most of us would choose Tarshish over Nineveh any day. In fact, many days we do choose Tarshish. Tarshish is the destination chosen by us when don’t want to live that intentionally, when we don’t want to be that faithful, that authentic, that vulnerable, that loving, that full of grace. Tarshish is the place we go to flee from God’s presence. Jonah hops on a boat to get to Tarshish, away from God’s presence, but the reality is that we can flee God’s presence without ever stepping out our front door.
In God’s presence we find love, grace, compassion and mercy. A life lived in God’s presence is a life that bears great fruit. It is a life of faithfulness, intentionality, hospitality and charity. There is a richness and depth to it. It is a life that doesn’t exist for itself, but for others. It is a hard life, yes, but it is a rich and meaningful life of depth.
Now, God is always present with us, no matter how hard we try to flee – Jonah’s story is a helpful reminder of that. But there is a big difference between knowing God is present and choosing to live in God’s presence. It is one thing to know God loves you; it is another thing to allow yourself to be loved and to in turn share that same love with others. It is one thing to know about God’s grace; it is an entirely different thing to live with that same grace for your enemies and people you don’t like. Jonah knew all about God’s grace, but he didn’t want to embody that grace for the likes of the Ninevites. And so he fled from God’s presence. He abandoned a life of richness and depth and traded it for something easier, something less demanding, something that is more immediately satisfying.
Jonah knew that the best way to escape to where he wanted to go was through Joppa. Joppa was a port town with easy access to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. Joppa was the gateway to the west. It was a consumer hub. Anyone could come to Joppa and with the right amount of money escape from whatever they needed escaping from.
Joppa is not just a port town on the south side of Tel Aviv. Joppa is any piece of technology, distraction or excuse we can buy to escape Nineveh. Jonah paid good money at Joppa to get a ship. What we buy at Joppa is different, but provides us with the same ability to flee from a life of faithfulness, richness and depth.
God has called us to Nineveh – a place we don’t necessarily want to go, with people we don’t want to go to. A life spent loving our enemies in Nineveh doesn’t appear as glamorous as an all-inclusive trip to the exotic lands of Tarshish. There’s a reason why so many people pay good money at Joppa. God’s call on our lives to love with reckless abandon and to live with faithful intentionality seems too difficult, too involved, too vulnerable. And so like Jonah, we prefer to buy a one-way ticket to Tarshish.
In these strange times created by COVID-19, as we are stuck in our homes day after day, it can become all too easy to just buy passage to Tarshish. It grows harder each day to want to live a life of faithfulness and intentionality. It would be much easier to escape Nineveh and go to Tarshish. But God has called us to Nineveh, to this place we would rather not be. Nineveh feels much like exile, yes, but it is only in Nineveh that the soil for a rich life exists. Will we choose to plant and be faithful even here, in Nineveh?
As the days and weeks of quarantine drag on, it becomes easier and easier to give up on living with intentionality and faithfulness. What does a life of richness and depth even look like when we’re cooped up in our homes all day? The answer will be different for all of us. But God’s call is the same: “Arise and go.” Learn to love and serve others in creative ways during this season, even from home; call and check in with your friends, family and others who may need an encouraging word. Just because it feels like our lives have been on hold does not mean God’s call upon our lives is put on hold. We are still called to go to Nineveh, that place where we must work harder to live and where we must work harder to love. But it is in Nineveh that we find we are in God’s presence.
And the good news of the story of Jonah is that Jonah is an absolute screw-up and God still uses him in incredible ways. God does not call us to a life of perfection, but God does call us to life of intentionality, faithfulness and love. We will not always live as we should –some days we will choose to sail for Tarshish. But as we will find in our story next week, God’s love pursues us, even to the ends of the earth. God has big plans for our lives, and he needs us in Nineveh. And the question remains: Will you go? Amen.