Jonah: Those Poor Sailors

Jonah 1:4-17
April 26, 2020
Matt Goodale

An audio recording of this sermon can be heard through this link:

Now let’s see here…where in our story did we last leave our prophet, Jonah? Oh that’s right, our not-so-heroic hero was last seen running away. That sounds about right.

Our story began with a word from the Lord—a word calling Jonah to go to Nineveh. But Jonah had other plans. And they did not involve Nineveh. So last we saw our un-prophetic prophet he was boarding a ship set sail for the edge of the world, in an attempt to flee an un-fleeable God. You can tell Jonah put a lot of thought into this plan. Because as we’re about to find out, Jonah is in for a whale of time. And don’t worry—I promise that’s the only time I’m going to use that pun.

But before we jump back into the story together, I want to lay some ground rules. Well, they’re not ground rules as much as advice on how to read the story of Jonah and get the most out of it.

The first piece of advice is to not get too caught up in questions and debates of historical accuracy. If you believe the story of Jonah happened exactly as it’s written, that’s great. If you believe the story of Jonah didn’t actually happen but was written to teach a lesson, then that’s also great. We must be cautious not to get too caught up in trying to decide whether there was actually a big fish or not, because then we will entirely miss the point of the story, and we might miss a chance at encountering the living God through this incredible narrative. Let the story draw you in. Imagine yourself as one of the characters in it. What do you see, think, smell and hear? Stories have the power to transform us. Arguments over whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale do not. And besides, the difficult part to believe about this story is not the fish, but that God would love even the Ninevites and people like Jonah.

Which leads me to our second ground rule: have fun with this story. I hope as you’re reading or listening to this that you’re able to have as much fun with Jonah as I’m having while I write this. As Eugene Peterson writes, Jonah is a story that invites play. And so we are invited by the author of Jonah to have some fun with it. We’re invited to laugh until our sides hurt and to encounter the living God. I can hardly think of a more enjoyable way to read scripture!

Now that we have those ground rules set, back to our questionable protagonist, Jonah. Jonah is on a ship fleeing from the presence of the Lord. The Lord asked Jonah to go to Nineveh—to the bad guys—and Jonah refused. Because remember, the Ninevites are a bunch of people who slap other people in the face with fish (according to the Veggie Tales version). They’re the worst type of people and Jonah wants nothing to do with them, so instead he books himself a vacation in Tarshish. Tarshish is where you go to escape all your problems, and Jonah decided he could use a little of that. Besides, being God’s prophet is hard work, so Jonah figured he had earned himself a good break from the Lord’s service. God however, had other plans for Jonah.

As Jonah flees on a ship to Tarshish, our narrator writes:

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard[b] to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The ship that set sail from Joppa to Tarshish is in trouble. We do not know how far from port they got before they encounter this great storm, but all of the sudden now in the open sea, the Lord casts a mighty tempest upon the sea and their ship is in danger of breaking apart. In Hebrew, the phrase used to describe the ship being battered by the gathering waves is hishevah-lehishever. This phrase literally sounds like the movement of wind and waves. Try saying it out loud with me to see if you can hear the winds and the waves: hee-sha-vah la-heesh-ah-vehr. Our narrator is pulling out all the stops to immerse us in her story; she invites us to sit upon the ship’s deck and hear the sounds of the wind and waves, to feel the violent rocking of the boat, to sense the terror and dread that the sailor’s must have been experiencing.

In ancient story-telling, there was no better story than a story about sailing on the open sea. The sea was a mysterious place of wonder and terror. The sea represented unbridled, untamable chaos. A carpenter could build the biggest and best boat, and the world’s greatest sailor could sail it and still end up lost at sea. The sea was a place of both intrigue and fear. Some of the most transcendent ancient stories contained brilliant scenes of nautical travel—look at the Odyssey for example. A hero was one who could brave the open sea and come back alive. Because on the open sea, you didn’t only have the winds and the waves to worry about; out on the open sea you were at the mercy of the gods.

So when the storm comes upon Jonah’s boat, this poor group of sailors accompanying him begins to cry out, each to his own god. In this ancient worldview, there was not one god, there were many. And so the sailors all cry out desperately to their own gods, hoping that perhaps their god might deign to save them. They don’t know which god is stirring up trouble for them on the open sea; they don’t know whether their god will come save them. The sailors, we can imagine, are terrified. We can imagine pure chaos on deck as sailors run about, trying to control the ship’s riggings. Some are on the ground crying out and praying intently to their god for mercy. Others grab all the free cargo they can get their hands on and toss it overboard. It’s desperation time as the storm threatens to break the ship apart.

Meanwhile, where is our hero, Jonah? He’s asleep down below. Running from God is tiring work, apparently—tiring enough that Jonah is now sleeping through the fire alarm. The whole ship is on DEFCON 1, and Jonah is busy dreaming about the white sand beaches in Tarshish. It’s ironic to see Jonah, the only prophet of God onboard, asleep, while every other pagan sailor is busy crying out to his god. This is the narrator’s intention. It’s meant to be jarring and ironic. It gets us to ask questions.

When the storm hits, where on the boat do you find yourself? Are you up on the ship’s deck, tossing cargo? Or are you down below, asleep? How we respond to the storms that life sends us will teach us much about ourselves. When the storm hits, which gods do you find yourself crying out to? Where do you turn to for help, comfort and security? We may only believe in one God, but when the storm hits, we often find ourselves turning to many different gods to help us out of it. Sometimes it’s distractions and escapes we turn to. Sometimes it’s addictions or unhealthy relationships. When COVID-19 hit, what did you turn to for comfort, help and security? Storms can reveal a lot about where our hope lies.

Or perhaps you’re more like Jonah, and find yourself preferring to sleep rather than deal with the chaos up on deck. I have certainly found myself occupying Jonah’s shoes for parts of this COVID-19 season. It can be much easier to just shut my eyes and wait for this difficult time to pass than it is to go up on deck and face it. It’s much easier to immerse myself in distractions and ignore what’s going on outside, because I would rather not have to deal with it. It’s much easier to allow myself to become numb and desensitized to the reality outside than it is to keep working hard at caring. This difficult time that we are living through is a marathon, not a sprint. And like Jonah, I find myself asleep at mile 7.

As Jonah is fast asleep on the ship, the captain finds him and very rudely awakens him. “Up!” he says. “How can you be sleeping so soundly?? Call upon your god! Perhaps your god will be kind to us and we won’t perish.” Jonah gets up, but he doesn’t call upon his God. He prefers to give God the cold shoulder; he’s not pleased that his vacation to Tarshish is being interrupted. Jonah refuses to call upon God, and the storm continues.

At this point, the other sailors are desperate. So they break out a rousing game of Yahtzee; the loser is the one whose god is angry at them. Well, it wasn’t quite Yahtzee. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a Hebrew word for Yahtzee. But casting lots wasn’t so different. Casting lots was a way to divine an answer to a problem. They would’ve used sticks or stones with markings on them and thrown them onto a surface to interpret who the gods were angry with. It was like drawing straws. The one who draws the short straw is the one who is at fault. And Jonah, of course, draws the short straw. Jonah is not having a great day.

Once the sailors realize Jonah is the cause of their problems, questions abound.  They want to know exactly who this Jonah is and what he could’ve possibly done to anger his deity. They want to know where he is from, what his occupation is, who his people are, how many tattoos and piercings he has and whether he crumples or folds his toilet paper.

Now that Jonah is effectively cornered, he decides it’s time to practice a little virtue. Being honest with his shipmates, he tells them that he is a Hebrew and his God is Yahweh, the God of the heavens, earth and sea. Not only that, but he is actively fleeing from Yahweh’s commands and now his shipmates have become accomplices.

Understandably, these poor sailors are terrified. They’ve heard of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. This was the God who had squashed the Egyptians and led an oppressed people to freedom. This was the God who had led the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan. This was not a God they wanted to mess with. And here they were, unwittingly aiding and abetting someone who would defy this God. This is not the type of thing you want to learn on the open sea with Yahweh’s storm threatening to destroy you.

Desperate, the sailors plead with Jonah, “What should we do!?” We don’t know what compels Jonah to do what he does next. We don’t know whether it’s a genuine act of selflessness or a death wish that compels him to let the sailors toss him overboard. Whatever his motivation, we do see a glimmer of hope in this Jonah character. He gives up his life to save his fellow shipmates. For all his obstinacy, thick-headedness and stupidity, he knows why the storm has come and he chooses to act in such a way to spare those poor sailors.

One of the many reasons I love the Jonah story so much is because Jonah is such a complex character. Each time you think you have him figured out, he surprises you. And despite Jonah’s complexity, despite his bone-headedness and idiocy, God is never finished with Jonah. Jonah is anything but a model of faithfulness, yet God never gives up on him. Jonah runs away and God pursues him. And now, when it seems like Jonah’s end has come, when he is tossed overboard, God is still not finished with Jonah. God sends redemption in the form of a big fish to save Jonah from drowning. Talk about a crazy plot twist.

At any point God could have simply struck Jonah dead and found a different, more obedient prophet. But God doesn’t do that. Yahweh, the God of the heavens, earth and sea doesn’t operate that way. And we should be glad God doesn’t, because if we’re honest, I think we will all find a bit of Jonah in us. We are all complex, messy, obstinate, boneheaded and stubborn from time to time, just like Jonah. But God is never finished with us. God never washes his hands clean and moves on to the next, more obedient person. No, God pursues us, even to Tarshish—the ends of the earth—in an effort to get our attention and guide us to a fuller, more redemptive way of living. Sometimes it takes a storm to get our attention; sometimes it takes getting thrown overboard into the storm. God will stop at nothing to pursue us and draw us into the folds of his grace.

Because by the end of chapter 1, though Jonah has been nothing but disobedient, he has somehow made a boatload of converts! In sharp contrast to the disobedient prophet, the pagan sailors become models of piety and faithfulness, as they honor God, offer sacrifices, and make vows. God uses Jonah’s disobedience as a means of grace for the sailors. How incredible is that? Here we have a Jonah—a messy, whiny, lying, cowardly, obstinate, lazy man—who is for reasons beyond our comprehension called to be God’s prophet. He is called to be a messenger, a vessel for God’s love and grace to the nations. Jonah actively resists this and yet, God’s love and grace still becomes known to some sailors who never would’ve encountered Jonah had it not been for his disobedience.

If God can work through someone like Jonah, then God can work through someone like you and me, no matter how messy, how imperfect we are. We are never beyond redemption. We are never beyond grace. God pursues us to the ends of the earth. This is amazing grace. Amen.