Jonah – Part 1
preached on 19 June 2016
Jonah Chapters 1 and 2; Matthew 12:38-40
The story of Jonah, or at least the first half of it, as we heard this evening, is another one of those Biblical tales which goes very deep into our memories and even our subconscious. Think Noah and the ark, or Daniel and the Lion’s den perhaps. A story of an Old Testament man of God and of one or more of God’s creatures. Noah had an ark full, Daniel had his lions; Jonah, he’s got the whale. Time was that these stories were familiar to children and to us as adults; but is Jonah still well known? I decided to ask Isobel what she knew – that is, would she instinctively know who Jonah was, and of his story. Well, after a little puzzled look, and a few seconds of mental gymnastics, Isobel did remember ‘was he the guy swallowed by a whale?’ Yes, indeed. It’s still there for Sunday school kids, but only just.
It struck me that I ought properly to start this reflection by wondering just why this was one of those stories told to and known by children. Perhaps Jonah, ships and a whale are easy pictures for children to remember? Perhaps a few have some sort of mental link with Pinocchio, as told by Walt Disney? These images may be why it was easy for children to remember the story, but I doubt very much this was why the story was told to children in the first place.
Perhaps we were introduced to these stories early because they talk of and challenge us with relationships, but not just human relationships either, but ones which involve animals, or creatures. Perhaps. With regret, it’s far more likely that the story of Jonah and the Whale was told to us as if to warn us that if we don’t do as God asks us, then all sorts of nasty consequences are on the way. There’s little doubt in my mind that this is part of the purpose of the first part of this story – and we’ll come on to it in a moment. But I also want to suggest that an over-emphasis on that would be a mistake, there is, without a doubt, more to Jonah that just a reluctant prophet or missionary.
Earlier, we considered a little of what we know of Jonah, his probable place in historical contexts [a quick Google search will help you!]. As a prophet, perhaps he didn’t have much to say, but I have assumed that Jonah himself must have been the main source of his own story; I don’t mean necessarily that he wrote it down, but he was the first ‘teller of the tale’, one passed along by the oral tradition before someone put pen to paper. Jonah’s words of prophesy may not be particularly relevant to us then, but what Jonah has to say comes about or comes through the story as a whole – regardless of whether that whole or even aspects of it – are literally true. It serves then as an allegorical tale, a proper fable, a story with a moral or a message – indeed, perhaps several. So let’s unpack this first bit, chapters 1 and 2, and see what may be in it for us.
God asks Jonah to do a job: to go to Nineveh and tell them to sort themselves out, or else. Jonah is reluctant, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want to travel, oh no. He’s heard about Nineveh, he knows what type of person lives there, and he’s not sure that his travel insurance covers the trip. Jonah is like lots of us – he’d rather keep out of trouble, stay away from dodgy places, and in particular stay well clear of people who are going to give grief. He is, as they say, risk averse. And so Jonah runs away, heads off in the other direction. He doesn’t even bother to stop and question God – there’s no ‘oh, not me God, you’ve got the wrong man’; Jonah just flees. It’s easy to interpret this as a difficult decision for Jonah, one which he knows gets him into trouble. But actually, he takes the easy option, the one which fits his way of thinking and natural inclinations. In short, Jonah does what most of us would do in the same situation.
Not all of us, granted, not in all situations; we’ve all had difficult decisions in life, and in our lives of faith too. But we’re human; self-preservation is hard wired into our beings. Giving it up, or even putting ourselves in situations where we are in danger, mortal danger even, is not our usual choice. We remain deeply moved by those who do so, and are deeply affected when such conscience, such commitment and such bravery results in tragedy. [Note: this study first given three days after the murder of MP Jo Cox].
It’s interesting that Jonah goes to sea, because as you well know, the sea is in scripture is frequently used as a metaphor for life itself. So, whilst we have Jonah running away from God and from the missionary work which he has been called to undertake, we are reminded that Jonah hasn’t escaped from life.
Once on board, a storm springs up and Jonah gets the blame. For me, this is pure superstition at work, superstition which continues to this day, since sailors still refer to an unlucky passenger as a ‘Jonah’. Was God responsible for the storm? Was this God’s way of telling Jonah (and for that matter, the sailors) that they had made a mistake? A literal reading of the story may lead us to that conclusion. But if we take sea and storm metaphorically, as representing life’s difficulties, as the inevitable consequence when we make wrong decisions – deliberate or not – then we can appreciate their place in the story. Jonah realises his mistake, one that doesn’t just place him in danger but also has an impact on ordinary people around him. Life is like that – the decisions we make aren’t just about us on our own, or even on those closest to us. Decisions we make ourselves are like the pebble being thrown into the pond, and the ripples spreading out around. And so we have to be careful, very careful with our choices.
In realising his mistake, Jonah asks to be thrown overboard. ‘My fault – I did it – punish me and you guys will be ok’. But we get something of a refreshing response from the sailors: they are not quick to blame, and are not keen to take action, even if Jonah himself has admitted his guilt. The sailors don’t want to be responsible for Jonah’s death; first they try to get ashore, and even when that doesn’t work, they pray forgiveness for throwing him overboard even before they do it. They describe Jonah as ‘an innocent man’ – that is to say that they don’t seem to consider that reluctance on Jonah’s part is worthy of the punishment which is likely to follow.
I find this fascinating, for two reasons: the first is that the world of the Old Testament, as we well know, was one which was highly regulated, and where the lists of punishments were long and were severe. It’s odd for the sailors to be taking a contrary view. The other thing for me is that we today are living in a culture where blame is easy to come by and where many people would advocate swift ‘justice’, whatever that may be. It’s not that simple, it never, ever is.
But – crucial in my view – this reluctance, refusal even, to apportion blame and to condemn is a fundamental part of the story: its conclusion will be reached in God’s dealings with the people of Nineveh, but it’s here also.
So I’m going to suggest something really quite different to the old Sunday School lesson when it comes to what happens next, because I think that the whole Jonah-inside-the-Whale thing has been interpreted with more than a hint of cultural bias and the ‘agenda’ of religious types across the centuries. Jonah himself says ‘I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you’. We could just follow the traditional lead, and agree that disobedience to God deserves death – not just the threat of storm or drowning, but divine ‘execution’. That is, after all, what hell fire and brimstone teaching is about – it is, after all, the message with which Jonah was sent to Nineveh, wasn’t it?
Jonah though has realised his mistake. Jonah has already changed direction. And so it’s a mistake to be thinking of Jonah’s ‘punishment’ as an anticipation of what is to come for Nineveh, to align the storm, the wind, the waves, and even the Whale with God who is presumed to be in angry and wrathful mood. That Sunday School message about obedience? That’s typical, old-fashioned adult-tells-child with a warning attached. But whereas the warning that our decisions have consequences is a fair one, the warning that God is going to punish us for the mistakes we make is not.
‘Do what you’re told, or God gets angry’ – a very traditional threat of discipline. But it is, to use a very topical word this week – scaremongering. And it’s supposed to be scary, you’re supposed to be afraid. But as traditional as this is, it is not the Christian way, and it’s not one which conforms with the rest of the Jonah story either. God is not going to be about death and destruction, but about forgiveness and reconciliation.
You see, even if our mistakes have consequence, even if in the here and now those consequences are tragic, violent even, this tragedy is neither God’s will nor God’s doing. It’s really quite perverse to say that God sends storms to punish if he then goes on to save.
We need to close this week’s part one of the story with some words about the whale, and indeed about the psalm which Jonah prays ‘from inside the fish’. Was Jonah swallowed by a whale? Was it a huge fish of some sort? Are we being told a story which is literally true, or one which is an illustration? And does it matter? You’ll know me well enough now not to be surprised if I say that this is not likely to be history or a newspaper-report. We’re told by marine biologists that it is highly unlikely that a human could be swallowed alive and survive for up to three days in the digestive system of a whale, or a whale-shark (though very occasionally large creatures have been found within marine bodies). For those who want to defend the story as literally true, God sending a specially-made sea creature, or otherwise intervening in a supernatural and miraculous way, are perfectly plausible conclusions.
A third option which is argued occasionally, is that Jonah did in fact die, but that this is an example of an Old Testament resurrection story.
This latter argument works well for two reasons. Firstly, Jonah’s prayer begins, ‘From the very depths of the grave, I called for help’; if not physical death, spiritual death certainly. Secondly the short extract we heard from Matthew has Jesus comparing Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish with his own experience in the grave. Indeed, fundamentalists will argue with you that since Jesus clearly believed the story about Jonah, then how dare anyone question it today. Well, ok.
But it still works better for me symbolically! It doesn’t have to be literally true to be a story of God’s forgiveness and faithfulness, nor does it have to be literally true to be a resurrection story. Sea and storms? We’ve covered that one. Three days? You don’t need me to tell you that this is a symbolic number of days – a number to signal something important, a ‘preparatory’ time too.
Jonah’s psalm goes from despair, the feeling that God has indeed ‘hurled [Jonah] into the deep’ to gratitude for having saved him. ‘But you brought my life up from the pit…. Salvation comes from the Lord’. It’s a poetic presentation of what we have been discussing, a human reaction to a relationship with God and an experience of God’s love. With so much metaphor and poetry, why worry whether every last dot and comma is historically accurate?
My view? As likely a sea-bound, sea-sick nightmare of a man racked with guilt at having run away, a semi-conscious stupor, delirium possibly compounded by being hurled off the boat close to shore, washed up on a beach, at death’s door, as exhausted as disgraced. And, would you believe it, as I was typing that very sentence, into my head came a quote almost from the very end of the final Harry Potter novel. Harry has just allowed himself to be killed to save all his friends, and is in a sort of limbo which looks like King’s Cross station. There, he meets the spirit of his mentor Professor Dumbledore, who explains some of what’s been going on. Just before they leave each other again, Harry asks ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’
Dumbledore replies: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
And this, I think is where we should leave Jonah for now. A reluctant prophet and missionary, someone keen to run away from a conflict, but as a result, brings unfortunate consequences on himself and a team of sailors. A man who realises his mistake, and through a story of death, repentance and resurrection, learns himself of God’s saving grace.
That’s frequently where the Sunday School story finishes, but not so the story of Jonah. We’ll take another look at the other part of the story next week, and although I know not everyone will be able to be there, I’ll try and make the ‘sermon’ bit available if you’re interested. Jonah’s going to find it difficult to accept that God’s loving forgiveness is going to extend to the people of Nineveh, is going to be made available to those awful, dangerous and lawless foreigners; Jonah is going to have to learn that God’s love knows no barriers and no boundaries. And we’ll be reminded too.
Jonah – Part 2
preached on 26 June 2016
Jonah Chapters 3 and 4; Matthew 12: 38-42
The third chapter of Jonah has been given a title in the Good News Bible ‘Jonah Obeys the Lord’. I’m going to start by going out on a limb and suggesting that Jonah as an obedient servant of God, in contrast to his former behaviour, is for me a bit of spin. If the first two chapters were used as Sunday school stories to teach children the importance of obedience, then the spin of chapter 3 is simply that Jonah has learnt the lesson, and so then must we. Jonah now goes off to Nineveh, where he preaches God’s threat of death and destruction – you’ve got 40 days and counting – and perhaps it’s not such a surprise that this prophet/missionary is successful.
We have a chapter which details the extent to which Nineveh turns round – the people decide that everyone – from the greatest to the least – must show their repentance. Even the animals are to wear sackcloth, and when it comes to fasting that too includes the sheep and the cattle. It’s a story of a warning heeded, of a nation turned around by that warning. It’s also a story of God’s answer to the prayers of the people of Nineveh.
I’m not so sure that Jonah has learnt his lesson – he certainly gives the impression that he remains the same, grumpy so-and-so, ready to question God, and have a moan. I spoke to [our minister] Phil [Wall] about this whilst out on our run together on Tuesday night – Phil described Jonah as your typical moody teenager – nothing’s right, nothing’s fair, nothing that the parent does is satisfactory. I think that’s right.
Jonah has not learnt the lesson. What lesson is that? Well, it’s not the ‘be good or else’ lesson, and it’s not the ‘grow up and take responsibility’ lesson either!
No the lesson which Jonah hasn’t learnt is about the nature of God, it’s the one about God’s predisposition to love creation and to forgive us regardless of what we’ve been up to, and where we have been.
We could, of course, preach God’s love and mercy in the context of the requirement to repent, that God’s forgiveness has conditions attached, has a time-limit, the symbolic 40-day ‘use before’ date on the label. That’s Jonah’s understanding of the nature of God, it’s very fundamental, it’s very Old Testament. But it’s not necessarily based on the evidence of this story – and when we look at the story of Jonah through Christian eyes, when we listen with Christian ears, when we feel with Christian sensitivities, a different understanding emerges.
Jonah has already been forgiven, Jonah already knows that God is merciful, Jonah already knows what God is going to do in Nineveh – he says as much himself. If he were more honest with himself, Jonah would also know that an experience of God’s promise will be enough to turn the people of Nineveh, but he is not honest – he is far too attached to his own view of things. I wonder was that so much of a surprise?
We need, perhaps to go back one step, and remember that the start of Jonah’s discomfort lies in the fact that Nineveh was a foreign city, full of people who were not – to the Hebrew way of thinking – part of God’s people and God’s plan. Not only is Nineveh itself ‘outside’ but the people are wicked; there is nothing ‘good’ about this place at all, no reason at all for God to be bothered by the people who live there. Jonah’s view of this is consistent with the view of the people who would first hear the story; Jonah’s attitude, on the face of it, is orthodox.
One thing which I missed last Sunday, which was pointed out to me after the service, was that the sailors in the ship to Spain – when the storm comes – they all pray God. Were these all Hebrew sailors praying to Jehovah? Very unlikely. Would their prayers have been exclusively to the one God, revealed to Israel? Very unlikely. In desperate times, the prayer goes up and out from whomever speaks to whoever might listen. The unorthodox implication is that despite almost certainly being multicultural and multi-faith, God answers their prayer – the sailors are certainly forgiven their part in the action.
And so, controversially, and completely unexpectedly to the reader, we have this picture of God who not only forgives the mistake of the messenger, but forgives the penitent Ninevans. We have this picture of God who listens not only to the prayers of Jonah, but also the prayers of the sailors and the penitent Ninevans. The lesson is clear, but Jonah hasn’t learnt it.
Did I mention last week – one of the sermons I’ve heard on the story of Jonah too place in a small Baptist Chapel in Romania, on tour with Cambrensis. The sermon was translated for the choir as we went along, but it is noteworthy because in the mid 1990s when we went, the post-Iron Curtain Romanian churches were very much being grown by the American Southern Baptist denomination; big buildings were springing up, and by and large a conservative evangelical message was being preached – I generalise, but not too much. This particular sermon was noteworthy because the focus of this sermon was the universality of God’s grace; that God loves and saves even those who are not – by our orthodox and human reckoning – members of the club. This is, for me, far and away, the most important message of the book of Jonah. We are all God’s people, even those of other faiths, and even those who are up to no good, even those who are in need of forgiveness.
Jonah though, hasn’t learnt his lesson, and the full moody teenager comes out in the fourth and final chapter: Jonah’s petulant ‘anger’ – as most translations describe Jonah’s mood. Jonah is angry at God. Why? Because God has done what Jonah expected God to do all along? You’re not making much sense Jonah, and God more or less tells him so – ‘what right have you got to be angry?’
Well, Jonah is, I suspect, claiming the rights of the religiously righteous. He’s displaying all the signs and behaviour of the Pharisees, of those so convicted that they know what’s right and what’s wrong, that nothing – nothing at all – will get in the way. Even though he’s close to God, even though he’s already experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness first hand, even though he shows a basic understanding of the nature of God – he still thinks that God has got it wrong.
I wondered as I returned to this on Friday whether I could make some analogies here with the referendum, and I’ll limit myself to just one. Many people voted to leave the EU, and it would be a mistake to think that they all did so for the same reasons – there were some very strongly held convictions from all parts of the political spectrum, and it’s worth remembering that just as the right wing Daily Mail supported ‘Out’, so too did the communist Morning Star. But one of the most telling contributions from the sometimes enigmatic Michael Gove was one which I think stuck: he said that the public were “fed up with the experts”. Now let’s just pause a moment and consider what he means by this and what he hoped to achieve (successfully, possibly). Essentially, it was about who you listen to and who you trust. Democracy is a funny thing because it allows everyone a say, and everyone to make up their own minds. The normal way of making up our minds is to listen to advice, weigh up the advice where it is conflicting, but perhaps lean on the views of those we most trust. With one small, but swift and effective move, Gove turned that on its head. We all like to make up our own minds, we are all ‘entitled to our opinion’ but Gove made a virtue of ignorance in its truest form, a virtue of not knowing. Forget the view of the experts, do what you feel is right. And when that happens, the difference between fact and fib becomes almost irrelevant.
Jonah feels that God has got it wrong. Jonah is fed up of listening to the expert, of weighing up the evidence, of taking on board what he has been told and what he has witnessed. Jonah wants what he feels to be the right result.
Jesus picks up on all this in his time and place. The short section which we’ve used from Matthew in each of these last two weeks has analogies from both halves of the Jonah story. First we get Jesus comparing the three days in the tomb with the three day Jonah spent inside the big fish. He then tells the Pharisees straight out that despite having the best advice available to them, they’re not listening – not even to the extent that the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah in the first place. Just what is about us eh? That we are not willing to listen to those who know, of see the evidence which is right in front of us?
And like many of us on Friday, Jonah goes and sulks – and let’s be clear, there would have been sulking on Friday from whichever side had ‘lost’ – when 34 million people are split almost straight down the middle on this, it was always going to be thus.
Jonah goes and sits down outside the city to see what’s going to happen next. He makes himself a shade, and then God provides further shelter with the growth of the vine. Jonah likes this – we get the impression that he’s comfortable; perhaps God is seeing his point of view after all?
But in the morning, the little worm, smallest, least important of God’s creation, an ecological parasite even, wreaks havoc and the vine dies. And we get this pretty accurate description of sunstroke and dehydration, so bad that Jonah wants to curl up and die – not, I would suggest just a sign of his grumpiness, but of real physical discomfort.
God asks Jonah what right he has to be angry – but though Jonah says ‘yes, I’ve got a right to be angry’ – he can’t exactly explain it. Jonah can’t rationalise what has happened, can’t produce a shred of evidence to justify how he feels. Is he concerned for the vine, as we suppose? Or just for himself? I think this is about Jonah’s selfishness.
And so the whole of the story of Jonah comes to a conclusion which both addresses that self-interest and which teaches us of God’s universal love and compassion. What are you worried about Jonah? asks God. Are you worried about the vine? Are you worried about yourself? Well, my concern, says God, is for a city, a people, a population, for children, for the people who can’t look after themselves. In short, God gives Jonah a Good News message.
Perhaps the story of Jonah was never about obedience to God’s instruction to Jonah, nor about the preaching of threat of destruction. Perhaps the story was not about the repentance of a people, as individuals or as a community, though I’m sure that there’s a strong message in all of these things, for the right time and the right place.
But instead, we have the most conclusive of rhetorical questions, so full in its simplicity that the story stops right there. No back answer from Jonah, no ifs or buts, nothing more to say.
And that seems to me also to be a good place to stop the talking and move towards the communion table, because, at the end of the day, this is what it’s about. It’s accepting the evidence which is before us, that God loves the world, and everything in it. God has always loved the world, and through different times, in different ways, has always shown us. Our communion table, our shared meal, is one of the constant reminders we have of that.