Jonah’s Calling: Based on Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Ps 62: 6-14
Each week, since, Epiphany Sunday, at least one scripture reading has been of people being called to serve the Lord; the Baptism of Jesus, you could say, was his call story to ministry! Last week we read of the Lord calling to Samuel. And this week’s gospel reading is Mark’s version of Jesus calling the fishermen to fish for people., and our Old Testament scripture is Jonah’s call story. Now, this day, the third Sunday of Epiphany in Year B of our Lectionary is the only time in the 3 year cycle of readings that we read from the book of Jonah, so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to preach on it today!
So, when you hear the name Jonah, what do you think of? Jonah and the whale, right? That’s how we heard it in our Sunday School days.
The tiny book of Jonah is found near the end of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. It’s 4 short chapters – just 2 pages long in my bible, between the books of Obadiah and Micah. If you haven’t read Jonah’s story for a while, it’s worth pulling out your bible for! It’s not your typical scripture reading, it’s more like a “folk story”; kind of silly and exaggerated in places and funny at times, yet full of deeper meaning.
Now the story begins with Jonah hearing the Lord telling him to go to the great city of Nineveh and announce God’s judgement against it because God had seen how wicked its people were. (Jonah 1. 1 NLT) Jonah has absolutely no desire to heed this call from God and skips town, hops on a ship and goes completely in the opposite direction. Now, before we get to ‘judgey’ on poor Jonah for running away from a direct message from God, we need to understand why Jonah’s first instinct is to turn and run in the other way. Because Jonah would be preaching to the enemy. Here’s a commentator’s explanation: “Assyria, represented here by its capitol city (Nineveh), has been a thorn in Israel’s side, ransacking the northern kingdom and overthrowing it, followed soon by (its) complete devastation by Babylon who overtook Assyria. There is no reason to go to the “great city” to announce a “great” opportunity to repent. As their nearest enemy, (Assyria’s) invasion ended Israel’s existence as a nation-state (1 Kings 17). (So, I guess the better question might be)… Why wouldn’t (Jonah) run in the opposite direction?”
Well, that helps explain it; Jonah’s scared out of his wits. So off on a ship he goes, Jonah telling the all-Gentile crew when he boarded the ship that he was running away from his God. But, as it turns out, he’s really not much safer on the ship, because a massive storm brews up. Remember now, ancient peoples believed that God ruled the creation, and things like storms and earthquakes were very much God’s doing. And for some strange reason, Jonah sleeps through this terrible storm; he must have been a wonderful sailor! The crew however, is in a panic, and throws all the cargo overboard to lighten the load to try and spare the ship and its passengers. The captain wakes Jonah up and tells Jonah to start praying to his God to spare them all. But nothing seems to be working, so the crew draws lots to figure out which of them has caused the calamity to befall them, and the lot falls on Jonah. Remember also, the drawing of lots was the ancient people’s way of asking God to direct them to the right person. So, the lot falls on Jonah and he tells them he’s a Hebrew, which means he worships the One Lord God Almighty, and that this whole storm business is probably his fault. It appears Jonah has a pang of conscience and doesn’t feel the sailors should perish for his faulty judgement! So he tells them to throw him overboard to save themselves, and after a prayer for safety to Jonah’s God, they comply. So over he goes, and the wind abates, the seas calm and this whole event results in the conversion of the pagan seafarers to believing in Jonah’s God, the Lord God Almighty. There is a lesson here, for those with ears to hear, even in this silly sounding bit of the story — our actions as admitted believers do make an impact on others, even non-believers and may well lead them to faith.
So poor Jonah is now at the mercy of the waves, and God provides a large fish — not a whale, that’s a poor translation– there were no whales in the Mediterranean Sea, and Mediterranean peoples in Jonah’s day wouldn’t have even known the word whale—so a large fish swallows Jonah and he’s in the belly of the fish for 3 days. While there, he prays to the Lord, thanking him for saving him. Jonah has, in effect, a conversion experience. “I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead and Lord, you heard me. … my salvation comes from the Lord.” (2: 1, 9) In the depths of his despair, Jonah’s prayer is heard and he is saved from certain death. However sincere the message, the whole image is a bit fanciful, to say the least; a man — even if he was a minor prophet, spouting prayerful poems of praise and thanksgiving from the belly of a giant fish! But it gets the message across in a memorable way. The story itself becomes a teaching device! Often in our most difficult times, when we are most vulnerable, that’s when we are most open to the Lord. When we ask, the Lord comes to us, God is just waiting for that invitation!
There are other lessons to be found in this homespun tale. At first Jonah runs away from God’s call to him, a fear that is, when you think about it from his perspective, completely rational. Who willingly really wants to present themselves at their enemy’s feet, preach to them to smarten up, to recant their evil ways? To decide to do so is to purposely put yourself in harm’s way, which logically makes no sense! But think for a moment, have you ever deliberately chosen what you thought was the path of least resistance or the most logical route while suppressing feelings of doubt, that little voice inside, telling you it probably wasn’t the way you should be going? I think we’ve all done that at some point in time in our lives. It might have been a major life-changing event, or maybe something much less important. Now consider the bigger picture,
…And how did that turn out for you? …
Sometimes that little voice is God’s voice. When we run from God’s chosen path for us, we can get ourselves into deeper messes than God could ever intend for us—like Jonah, when he wound up overboard! However, while on board you could say that Jonah had a change of heart, realizing he was the reason for the calamity that befell the sailors. He took the leap of faith into the waters of the unknown, and God was with him none-the-less, saving him from the mess he had created for himself, and sure enough, God provided for him—well, in this case God provided a giant fish — but I think you get the point. Essentially God has saved Jonah from himself!
And once again God tells Jonah a second time, “Go and proclaim to Nineveh”. So the whole running away, being saved by God in the fish episode has strengthened Jonah’s faith, and he goes to Nineveh, more confident that God will care for him, but he’s still not too comfortable with the idea of this whole proclaiming the message of repentance thing. He doesn’t proclaim from the roof tops, or the synagogues or the city square, or even tells the Ninevites that he’s a prophet speaking the word of God. No, he takes a more cautious approach and just walks about and cries out “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The impact of this rather less than impressive prophecy is amazing—miraculous you could say, and everyone repents, and the king declares a fast, a period of repentance — no human or animal is to eat or drink and all are wear sackcloth and ashes, the Hebrew way of showing repentance, a visual way of indicating that they are asking for forgiveness and wish to change their ways. Everything and everyone in the kingdom—animals and people are to repent from their ways of evil and violence, and ask mercy of the Lord. Again the story goes to the ridiculous to make the point, can you imagine withholding feed and water from animals and covering them up with sackcloth and spreading ashes over them! This is imagery to reinforce the lesson. The point is that even a seemingly minor action, like Jonah’s less than impressive prophetic proclamation, when it is God’s will, can have major significance in people’s lives. The story tells us that God saw they had turned from their evil ways and so chose not to bring calamity upon the city, as Jonah had foretold, a classical Old Testament lesson. Repent, change your ways, and you will be saved from God’s wrath.
Jonah learns yet another lesson in Chapter 4 of his story, but I’ll leave that to you to read on your own. Something to do some cold and snowy Sunday afternoon—get out your Bible and read Jonah’s story!
God calls each of us to take part in bringing about God’s kingdom. We can follow the call, or refuse the call and go our own way. But, as Jonah’s story showed us, we are not abandoned by God, even in our wrong decisions. Sometimes God’s way seems at first the harder, or more difficult choice, but the message today’s psalm brings us has a very reassuring message:
God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. My victory and honor come from God alone…. my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. O my people, trust in the Lord at all times. Pour out your heart to God, for God is our refuge. (Ps 62. 6-8 NLT) Amen
The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector. The Regional Ministry of Hope