May I speak in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A whale of a story, this story about a reluctant prophet, a persistent God, and a wicked city surrounded by wild and unpredictable seas, inhabited by big fish and other wonderful creatures.
A story: We all know that the throat of a whale does not allow for anything much bigger than a herring. We also know that it is quite impossible for any fish to travel around the African continent, through the Persian gulf, up the Tigris into northern Iraq in three days. This is not, and has never been meant to be, a historical narrative. It is a story, and a very comical one that belongs with the prophetic books of the Bible. Books that seek to teach us about behaviour, about right and wrong and the consequences of what we do.
Books that hold up a mirror to show us who we are and how we should behave.
From the very beginning of the book we find every word is full of meaning, symbolism and reference. The name Jonah means dove. And the dove, in scripture, often stands for the Spirit of God and for God's people, be it Israel or the Church. So even before we have started reading the title tells us that what we may expect is a book about the works of the Spirit and about God's people.
The opening lines are magnificent and when we translate a little bit closer to the Hebrew this shows up even better: "The word of the Lord happened to Jonah, son of Amittai. saying....."
The word of God "happens". It's not something that is just spoken or heard, it is something that happens, that puts things into motion. As it has done from the beginning.
It happens to Jonah. He is called, and shown clear direction by God himself.
I don't know if you've had such moments in your life.
Moments where you "knew", where there was a divine imperative and you felt "called" to do something or go somewhere. It's an awesome thing when it happens.
"Go to Nineveh and preach to her"
Jonah gets up, and prepares to go.
Of course: what else could he do? God himself had spoken!
Jonah gets up. But not to go to Nineveh.
He flees, to Tarshish. A trip to Nineveh was just the last thing he wanted to do! Some of us may recognise that: Knowing what you should be doing and heading off in the opposite direction non the less, because the directions we've received don't for one reason or another fit in with our own plans and view of the world.
From here on, Jonah goes down. First to the sea, the most foreign and hostile element there is to any Palestinian land dweller at the time. Then to Joppa, the biggest seaport in the country, down to a ship, down onto the ship, down into the hold of the ship, down into a deep. deep sleep and later down into the sea, into the big fish.
Downhill all the way until the fish delivers him where he should have gone in the first place.
And why? Why does Jonah go to such great lengths to get away? Later it will become clear, that it is not fear for the awesomeness of his call or him being daunted by the size of the city or the extent of its perpetration's.
His flight is inspired by resistance.
Resistance against God's loving grace. Jonah doesn't want God's love extended to Nineveh, he doesn't want the city saved. Those people are outside his comfort zone and he doesn't want them entering into it. They're the enemy!
I am sure that would never happen to any of us would it? If God told us to go and extend his love and grace to anybody we perceive as not being in our camp we would have no trouble at all doing that would we? We don't harbour grudges, we don't nurture negative feelings against anybody.
Christ has shown us not to!
Jonah, God's carrier pigeon, who was to become a peace dove, flies in the other direction because he, with all his limited insight, deems it better. Thinks that he has to protect God from his own generosity.
The Lord then throws a huge wind upon the sea. At the time the sea was thought to be a place fairly remote from God's immediate presence, and there is a good chance that Jonah went to sea because of that. But even here God manages to find him, the obeying wind and waves in sharp contrast with the stubborn resistance of the prophet.
A storm rises. In scripture often a sign that something is not quite going according to plan: Jonah is going the wrong way and something has to be done to get him back on track again.
Jonah sleeps a deep sleep. He closes his eyes for the signs.
He feels safe in his sleep, hidden deep down in the hold of the ship.
And I just wonder sometimes if it could be happening to us:
Snoring away in the hold of our ship blissfully ignorant and feeling quite safe, while outside God is desperately trying to wake us up by beating against the ship's skin.
Could this be what is happening to the Church? Could this be what is happening to us? Are we turning in like Jonah, away from the daring and challenging demands of God in our time and world? Turning away from the world outside, not ready to extend God's generosity and ability to love to what we deem foreign and/or unlovable? Turning away from what is foreign to us and challenging our ideas of what is right and wrong and the values we and our fathers and mothers before us have always upheld? Is there a chance that we are, even a little bit, like Jonah? People who often know better than God where the ship of our lives, the ship of the Church should be heading?
Jonah holds up a mirror for us, and asks us what we would do when God calls. If there are any directions we would hesitate to take, even if we felt God directed us there. What shape does the being light and salt in the world take in our lives? And is there anywhere where it has lost its strength and direction because we find it difficult to get out of our limited mind frames?
Jonah is asleep in the innards of the ship, closing eyes and ears to what God would want him to do.
What is the matter with you! You hard sleeper!
The captain, responsible for the wellbeing of the ship and its crew turns up at Jonah's bedside. All hands have been called on deck, every imaginable measure has been taken to safeguard the ship and nothing has made any difference.
And finally it is now every man to his own God.
A massive SOS is sent up to heaven by all concerned to any god that may be up there listening. A shipload of gentiles, a small Nineveh is what Jonah has ended up with and they ask him to pray to the God he is trying to run away from.
Perhaps your God will help, says the captain....
Another mirror moment: being asked to pray by people you thought were a lot less into the faith than you are, to discover to your embarrassment that their faith is actually a lot deeper than yours......
Whose fault is it? The captain asks awkward questions from his heathen perspective. The gods have to have a reason for this gynormous storm and if there is a scapegoat he or she should be punished!
He is not far wrong this heathen, there is a reason for this storm. It is no punishment however, but a sign: where one stubbornly keeps going in the wrong direction a whole community is put at risk. Where one moves in the wrong direction, others often have to bear the consequences.
Lots are drawn, another heathen way is utilized to determine the direction the gods want taken. And even this ungodly instrument proves to be under the control of the living God:
Jonah gets the draw, and there for just a moment he shows himself as the prophet he is meant to be: He testifies of his God who has made the sea and the dry land and everything in it and confesses his sins.
Great fear immediately overcomes the mariners. For them a couple of words are enough to understand the awesomeness of this God. They are a lot quicker in that respect than Jonah, who believed he could withstand this God. And again it is the people from the outside who seem to understand a lot more about God than those who are supposed to be on the inside.
What next? How can the danger this little community at sea finds itself in be averted?
"Throw me overboard" says Jonah, "that will most surely stop the storm." Cut the rot out!
Jonah will, a bit further on in the story, full of malicious delight wait for the destruction of Nineveh.
Not so the heathen sailors.
They recoil in horror from sacrificing another human being to safe their own skins. They wait until the very last before they go to that kind of desperate measures and they accompany them with prayers and adjurations.
Once again Jonah descends into the deep. Why doesn't he ask the skipper to turn round and head for Nineveh? Or could this be his last attempt to not go where God wants him? The sea in scripture is nearly synonymous with the realm of death, it's where Leviathan lives, the big beast that gobbles up anything alive, it's hell's gate, the place where God cannot reach. Does Jonah choose death over listening and going to Nineveh?
His sacrifice works for those on board the ship. The sea quietens down immediately, her anger against this little vessel gone, so it can resume it's journey. And again we read about awed worship of the Lord, promises and sacrifices made. With only a few words has Jonah managed to convert this small Nineveh, made it familiar with the greatness of God and brought it to worship.
The big Nineveh remains!
God keeps pursuing Jonah with his calling. And whoever has had that experience of call, of deep and certain knowledge of what you have to be or do, will know that there is no escape:
You cannot get away from it, it keeps following you and you will keep bumping into it until you give in.
That goes too for the Church community. It has been called to live out the gospel, but all too often it has turned away. Ignored God's directions and followed her own. A lot of the tempests that have troubled the world have come from that, war, injustice, violence, poverty and harm, the people of the church often descending into a state of altered consciousness similar to sleep when this happened. Ignoring the storms they were causing, refusing to see and read the signs of destruction caused by her resistance to God's will. Time and time again however she has also been put back on track, to testify to the living God even without wanting to or meaning to. Have things happened that brought her back to her calling, to what God wanted of her in weird and roundabout ways.
God does not let go of Jonah, as he does not let go of his people, as he does not let go of us. Not the leviathan, the all devouring sea monster, comes to eat Jonah, but a big fish commanded by God comes to gobble Jonah up, to enable him to fulfil his calling and still go to that big city that is in bad need of his preaching.
Jonah is inside the fish, three days and three nights....
We finish chapter one with an Easter story, three days and three nights in deepest darkness, inside the fish, inside the sea, inside the realms of death. Suddenly we see the image of another showing through, with Jonah reluctantly playing his part.
How wonderful is that? The story tells us that God does not let go, even if we deliberately try to thwart the course he has set out for us. God persists, and despite off and sometimes even through our disobedience and resistance God still works miracles. But it does make it easier for him if we just follow where he lead us and stop thinking we know better than God. Amen.