Jonah: The Most Pathetic Sermon You’ve Ever Heard

Jonah 2:10 – 3:10
May 10, 2020
Matt Goodale

Our scripture reading today comes from Jonah 2:10 – 3:10. Hear the word of the Lord:

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Let me reread that first verse again: “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Jonah, the sorry excuse for God’s prophet who got his prophetic credentials at who-knows-where, has just had a few days to sit in a fish’s belly thinking about what he did. It’s like when my mom would make me stand in a corner as a child to think about what I did wrong. Jonah has been put in timeout. And he prays. We’ll give him credit for that. He promises to obey God’s command to finally go to Nineveh. Perhaps he’s a changed man.

And what is God’s comical response to Jonah’s pledge to do the Lord’s will? God orders the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land. It seems that God has a sense of humor. We can imagine Jonah trotting down the road to Nineveh, covered in fish guts, thinking to himself, “I should’ve listened to God the first time.”

But Jonah’s disobedience is not what’s in focus here. What the narrator wants us to focus on is the fact that Jonah is given a second chance. Chapter three opens the same way that chapter one did: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” Jonah, who we’re beginning to see might actually be the antagonist of the story, is given a second chance by God. He may stink as a prophet, yet God still chooses to rescue him, call him and send him again. This is good news for all of us who wonder what kind of God is in charge of this world and everything in it. The answer here and throughout scripture is reassuring: a God who prefers grace over wrath, who prefers redemption over destruction, who prefers to give second chances rather than give up on us.

Lucky for Jonah, this is the type of God he’s dealing with. So Jonah, called once again by God, finally has the sense to listen. He goes to Nineveh. You would too if you were just swallowed by a giant sea monster and vomited up on dry land. Smart move, Jonah.

The narrator tells us that the city of Nineveh is a huge city, and would take three whole days to walk from end to the other. It’s New York City on steroids. The narrator wants us to know how large this city is because of what is about to happen next.

And what happens next is comical, ironic, absurdly ridiculous and incredibly significant.

Jonah strolls into Nineveh with all the swagger of a prophet ready to proclaim doom, probably still smelling strongly of fish guts. He travels one day into the center of the city and preaches the most profound sermon in all of scripture: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” If you didn’t believe in God before hearing this profoundly deep message of truth, then I’m sure you do now.

I’m kidding of course. Jonah’s prophetic proclamation is in fact probably the most pathetic sermon recorded in your Bible. Jonah obviously missed preaching class at Prophet University; he was probably skipping to go visit Tarshish. Because while all the other prophets in scripture offer carefully crafted and insightfully detailed oracles of judgment, Jonah’s proclamation is a mere five words long in Hebrew. Five words!

Jonah isn’t even trying! Most of us don’t need a seminary degree to figure out how to craft a sermon that is better in both length and depth than this sorry excuse for a prophetic proclamation Jonah conjures up. Why isn’t Jonah trying? Surely he can do better than that.

But let’s pause at this point in the story and rewind a bit to fully understand what’s going on behind the scenes here. Here are some lines from the book of 2 Kings:

“Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land…”

“Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came…and deported the people…”

“Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it.”

The Israelites had a long history with the Assyrians. A history that involved being invaded, deported and laid siege to. The Assyrians, in other words, were mean, nasty, brutish, violent and oppressive. The Assyrians made life miserable for the Israelites year after year after year.

And it’s during this era in history that this story about a man named Jonah emerges. Jonah was an Israelite, and Jonah’s God – the God of the Israelites – tells Jonah to take a message to “the great city of Nineveh.”

And Nineveh was the capital of – you guessed it – Assyria. It’s all beginning to make sense. Of course Jonah got in that boat to flee to Tarshish. You would too. Of course Jonah only half-heartedly strings a five-worded sermon together for these people. You would too.

How do you imagine the first audiences would have reacted to this story when Jonah won’t go to Nineveh? What about when Jonah preaches the most pathetic sermon you’ve ever heard. They hated the Assyrians. Of course you don’t go to Nineveh; of course you don’t preach to give them a second chance. Would they have cheered Jonah on?

This story would be the equivalent of someone from 1940’s Poland being asked to go preach to Nazi Germany. Or from 21st century America being asked to go preach to ISIS. If there ever was a clear bad guy in our minds, it would be Nazi Germany and ISIS. They stand for awful things. If there was a clear bad guy in Jonah’s day, it was Assyria.

And here Jonah is, being asked to preach to them. He manages to concoct a five-word message in what is most likely an act of prophetic sabotage. Jonah makes no mention of Nineveh’s sin. No mention of how to respond. And no mention whatsoever of God! Just “forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned.” Jonah isn’t even trying.

Jonah has given up on the Ninevites. He doesn’t want to give them a chance. We know what it’s like to give up on those who have hurt us or who stand for different things or lead different lifestyles we don’t approve of. It’s all too easy to paint the world in black and white; it’s all too easy to live believing “there are good people, and then there are bad people, there is the right thing to do, there is the wrong thing to do, there are the people who have it all together, and then there are the people who don’t” (Rob Bell).

This is the belief Jonah lived with, along with most of Israel. And that’s why it’s so incredible that a book like this was included in their sacred text. It’s a book that scrambles all the categories. The supposedly righteous Israelite – God’s prophet nonetheless – is defiant, stubborn, lazy and generally a prick while the supposedly evil and wicked heathens are receptive to God’s message to them.

Because while Jonah preaches the biggest dud of a sermon you’ll ever hear (hopefully), the Ninevites immediately repent! In the Hebrew syntax, the very next word after Jonah’s pathetic sermon is “they believed.” Oh the hilarious irony! Jonah’s pathetic, half-hearted sermon that is intended to not even give the Ninevites a chance, ends up converting the entire city! I may need to consider preaching duds like this more often.

Immediately, Jonah’s five words incite a chain reaction. News reaches the king and he orders the whole city to repent in sack cloth and ashes, even the cows! What? Animals repenting? A fairly surreal detail to say the least. One of the many hints that the author has a larger, less literal, more significant point in mind that she is hoping to convey.

This book’s satire is on full blast here. Humor, irony and absurdity are used to reveal the author’s point. In this scene, we see the king of Nineveh, an incredibly powerful man, humble himself before God. The entire city of Nineveh, known for their terrible atrocities, repents immediately after hearing Jonah’s dud of a sermon – a sermon that didn’t even mention God! The author turns up the irony, showing how Jonah’s sermon is so powerful that even the cows and pigs repented and fasted in sack cloth and ashes. The city of Nineveh is so unequivocally open to God, while Jonah, God’s prophet, is shown to be an ungracious and pathetic doof.

Our expectations are completely overturned. You can imagine how this book might have upset the first Israelite audiences to have heard it. All of their expectations of who is supposed to be good and who is supposed to be bad are flipped upside down.

And that’s the point: this book is trying to mess with you. This book is about Jonah, yes. But it’s also more than just a book about Jonah. It’s a book about you and me. This book is meant to get a rise out of us. It’s meant to overturn our expectations and call into question how we label people in terms of good or bad, winners or losers, people who have it all together or people who are a mess, people who deserve grace or people who don’t. It’s a story in which none of the characters do what you’d expect them to do.

Which raises some questions: Why did this story survive? Why did the Israelites find this story important and worth telling and preserving, especially when it celebrates their enemies as being open to God while depicting one of their own as an unforgiving, lazy doof?

The answer, I think, is simple: this story survives because the Hebrew people found something transcendent, something hopeful, something beautiful and redemptive in such a story. This story is resistance narrative. It’s a book intentionally written to combat all of the racism, the hatred, the loathing that had been building and festering in Israel for centuries towards the Assyrians and other nations. Most of scripture paints the Assyrians and the other nations in fairly black and white terms. That makes it much easier for the Israelites to justify their hatred and at times harsh treatment of them. But this story of Jonah offers a counter narrative, pushing back on all of the other caricatures in scripture that portray the Assyrians in one way: evil.

Jonah’s story reminds us that the world and God’s children in it are more complex than we often care to acknowledge. This story gives hope that even people who are as mean, nasty and brutish as the Ninevites are able to repent and change. This story offers the Israelites and us a way forward, a way towards healing, towards forgiveness, towards letting go of the hatred that festers and rots our hearts from the inside out.

This book messes with us because it holds a mirror up and begs the question: are you ok with God loving your enemies? Are you ok with seeing your enemies change and find new life? These are questions that are meant to sit with us for awhile. These questions are meant to sit with you while you read the news concerning that political party you disagree with. These questions are meant to sit with you while you’re being cut off on I-90, while you’re in the heat of an argument, while you hear about and see people do things that hurt someone else. Are you ok with God loving even them? Are you ok if they’re given a second chance?

So let’s recap: Jonah fled from Nineveh the first time God asked. When confronted with death in the belly of the fish he prays a prayer that seems to ring pretty empty at this point in the story. Jonah is vomited up, goes to Nineveh, preaches the most pathetic sermon you’ve ever heard. And yet. God uses it all. God’s word is proclaimed even through this sorry excuse for a prophet. Hearts and minds are changed. Kings, people and even animals repent and humble themselves before God. New life is found. Redemption is enacted. God trades out wrath for mercy. God’s plan to give grace to the Ninevites is accomplished, all through Jonah, the stubborn, lazy, entitled fool of a prophet.

The author has lots of fun with Jonah. No matter how hard Jonah tries to keep the Ninevites from being given a second chance, God’s will is done. And here’s a neat little bit of Hebrew linguistic irony: Jonah’s preaches “forty days yet and Nineveh shall be overturned.” The Hebrew word for overturned is haphak. It can refer to a city being overthrown or destroyed, which is surely Jonah’s intention. Or, it can refer to a transformation, a turning around, a change, which is what actually happens. In a hilarious turn of irony, Jonah’s sermon – meant to signal the doom of the Ninevites – actually signals and foretells their transformation and change for the good.

Poor Jonah just can’t seem to get what he wants, even when he intentionally does it all wrong. And even through all of this, God is not finished with Jonah yet. God did not give up on the Ninevites, and God won’t give up on Jonah either, as we’ll find out in our next chapter.

God has plans for redemption, wholeness and healing that transcend Israel’s hurts and hatreds. This story reminds us that nobody is beyond hope, nobody is beyond transformation and redemption. Our God desires mercy, not wrath, and will go to great lengths to see that we are given the chance for new life. How far will we go to extend forgiveness and a chance for new life to our enemies, to the people who have wronged us, to those whose beliefs and lifestyles are so different from our own? God is calling you now to go to Nineveh. And as this story makes very clear, there are no special or prophetic credentials required for healing and forgiveness to take place. At the end of the day, all that’s needed is God’s amazing grace. Amen.