March 31, 2019

Jonah 1:1-17

It is difficult to say whether the following story is legend or truth or a combination of the two. Regardless, it can be said that the story is true to the character of Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln received a letter from an eight-year-old girl who wrote him suggesting that he grow a beard. She seemed to feel that the beard would give him a better appearance. Perhaps people would like him better with a beard.

Most people of such great importance would have tossed aside such a letter with no further thought, or even have read it at all. However, President Lincoln not only answered her letter personally but thanked her for the suggestion. He also told the girl that should he ever campaign in her vicinity, he hoped he would have the opportunity to meet her and to express his appreciation personally (Conrad Hyers, “And God Created Laugher,” John Knox Press, Atlanta: 1987, p:39).

The little girl was excited about receiving a letter from the President of the United States. As you might expect, her father, who was a member of the local Republican party, was even more excited.

Soon the entire town heard the news of the President’s letter and was also excited. The prospect of a visit from the President made party officials ecstatic. With visions of political prestige, special favors, and positions in Washington, they prepared introductions and wrote speeches. The band rehearsed. A speaking platform was built (Ibid, p. 40).

On the day that Lincoln’s campaign train was scheduled to pass through, practically the whole town assembled at the station–men in their coats and top hats, women adorned in their best dresses, schoolchildren in their Sunday clothes, a shiny marching band poised with polished instruments. However, the little girl to whom Lincoln had written was not present. Her father had left her at home with the maid and the maid’s daughter. After all, she was just a little girl. Lincoln, of course, would be interested only in the politicians and their speeches, and the voters and their votes (Ibid, p. 40).

It so happened that shortly before the train got to the town, it was forced to stop for repairs. Lincoln not wanting to sit in the warm train, got out and walked across a field towards town. Strangely, he found the town empty. All the people were assembled at the train station waiting for his arrival. However, he did find one elderly man from whom he asked and received directions to the little girl’s house (Hyers, p. 40).

The maid was speechless when Lincoln introduced himself at the door. The two little girls were having a tea party. They invited Lincoln to sit and join them, which he did. (Hyers, p. 40)

Can you imagine President Lincoln, all 6’ 4” of him, sitting down to tea with a couple of children, having a conversation? At some point, the President would have asked the child how she liked his beard. Of course, she thought it made him look very distinguished.

His stay was brief, but before he left, he thanked the girls for the party and the tea. (Ibid, p. 40)

After making his way back across the field, he boarded the repaired train. It huffed and puffed its way back to full steam. It never slowed down as it roared through the town, drowning out the sounds of the playing band and cheering crowd. It went right through without stopping, for Lincoln, had not come to hear or make speeches or shake a few hands or ask for votes. He had only come to visit and say thank-you to an eight-year-old girl (Ibid p. 40).

This kind of comedy is found throughout the pages of scripture. Those who brag are humiliated. The proud are humbled. The humble are exalted. The underdog is vindicated.

We laugh at the high and mighty who fall, and the lowly and downtrodden who are elevated in their place (Ibid, p. 41).

We are surprised, and we rejoice as God chooses common, ordinary people to complete the assigned task: shepherds become kings, fisherman become disciples, farmers become prophets, prisoners author holy scripture, little children teach adults, a poor young woman gives birth to the Christ Child.

As God shuffled through the resumes of potential messengers for the Kingdom, you would think that God would have chosen those who had the most to offer, yet quite often God chose people who had little to offer but themselves.

In one town, Abraham Lincoln visited a little girl who, by the town’s standards, was the least of those gathered to greet the President. She could only offer him a bit of childish conversation and a little girl’s tea party. She was the last person anyone would have expected the President to be interested in. Nevertheless, she was the one he wanted to see.

Throughout the Bible, we have stories of God visiting common people and using them in the work of the Kingdom while those who had the clout in the community were passed over. Sometimes God even chose people who were opposed to doing things God’s way. Now that’s absurd.

Imagine an Amish becoming the spokesperson for Ford, or a cow being the mascot for a chicken business. Hey, that’s absurd. But sometimes that’s also reality we get the humor and it helps sell chicken.

Sometimes, we get God’s humor. We see that incongruities, things that don’t belong together are not obstacles for God.

In fact, God seems to delight in using the incongruous aspects of life to teach us about truth, things about ourselves, and God’s nature.

Consider Jonah as perhaps the most absurd example recorded in scripture.

To call Jonah a prophet is about like calling Snoop Dogg a saint.

Yet God chose Jonah to go to the “great” city of Nineveh and preach against it.

Jonah is the “Son of Amittai.” Amittai means son of faithfulness. So right away, Jonah is called the son of faithfulness, but he is anything but faithful to the call of God (Good, “Irony in the Old Testament,” The Westminister Press, Philadelphia, p. 42).

He had none of the qualifications that most prophets possessed. Jonah was a rude, arrogant, hateful, and a bigot.  He would not obey the call of God on his life.

God said, “Jonah go.” Jonah said, “See you later.” As he boards a boat bound for Tarshish, we see the fool that Jonah is.

Like Adam and Eve who hid among the trees of the garden, Jonah thought he could hide from God in the bow of a boat.

This is really where the comedy of Jonah begins. The author wants you to see that you cannot hide from God. Trying to hide from God is like trying to jump out of your skin. It’s like trying to live without breathing.

The funny thing is, we’ve all tried it. The sad thing is, like Jonah, at times we think we have succeeded. We think that God doesn’t know what we are doing or where we are.

Jonah was not the only available person to go to Nineveh, but he was the one God chose. That’s all that mattered.

At God’s command, a storm arose which threatened to capsize the boat.

Now Jonah is supposed to be the prophet, but when the storm develops, notice who prays? The pagan sailors do the praying to various gods for deliverance.

Jonah was down below, sleeping. The captain awoke him and demanded that he pray to his god for the ship to be spared.

The prayers of the sailors did not affect the storm. It continued ferociously. As a last resort, the sailors cast lots. They believed that the lot would fall on one who had something to hide. Perhaps someone had angered a god, thus causing the ferocious storm.

The irony of this story is we know that there is merit to the superstitions of these pagan sailors. When the lot falls on Jonah, we think, “No, this can’t be happening.”

A game of chance exposes the sin of Jonah. Was it a coincidence? Was it God? Was he merely unlucky or was God at work even in the superstitions of a ship full of pagan sailors?

It appears that this is a God-incident because, in every turn of this story, God shows up. God is like a shadow which Jonah cannot get rid of.

The sailors demanded information. Jonah turns all churchy on them: “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

We are not laughing out loud here, but his testimony is ridiculous. Jonah may have his membership card at the First Church of Joppa, but he was not an active member. Perhaps he attended but he was one of those people who said he loved God, but if you hung around him during the week, you could tell by listening to his speech that he had bigotry for anyone that wasn’t a Jew.

Now God has told him to witness to an entire city of non-Jews, and he’s not having any of it.  He wanted all of them destroyed.

We laugh at the paradox of Jonah. He says one thing about his faith, but it is evident by his actions that he does just the opposite. The trouble is, Jonah cannot see his contradictions. In fact, he is determined not to change his way of thinking.

The sad thing is, we can see this in Jonah, but we cannot see this paradox in ourselves.

This is no joke and it’s not funny, how we can come to church, but when Jesus tells us to reach out to those that speak a different language or live in a different economic bracket or have different morals, values, skin color, or religion, we tend to go the other way.

He will not go to Nineveh. He would die first.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea and it will become calm,” Jonah said. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Wow! This is the man of God? He had rather die than obey God and go to Nineveh.

The sailors turned out to be more moral than Jonah. They tried to save his life by rowing back to land. When they saw it was impossible, they cried to the Lord not to hold them accountable for Jonah’s life, and only as a last resort to save their lives they threw Jonah overboard.

Suddenly, mysteriously, the sea became calm. The storm had been raging. The waves were crashing the boat. Thunder was rumbling in the clouds. The boat was being violently tossed in the water, and suddenly there was peace in the heavens, and the stillness began to come over the water.

There is humor in this if we will see it. The actions of Jonah lead the sailors to God. He’s trying to die. He had rather die than obey God and lead people to God. He ends up leading these pagan sailors to God.

By the time the group of sailors reached Tarshish they were a changed group of men. They saw the power of God, and they became believers.

Such is the absurdity of God. So don’t think for a minute that God can’t use you. If God can use a disobedient prophet like Jonah, God can use us in spite of our stubbornness and sinfulness. There is hope for me. How about you?

It is strange that Jonah was prepared to drown in his stubbornness and disobedience. However, he was not prepared to sit in the innards of a great fish and contemplate his situation.  But that’s what happened.

The Bible says at the command of God that a great fish swallowed Jonah, and there, inside the fish, he stayed three days and nights.

Last month 51-year-old Rainer Schimpf was snorkeling off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa when he ended up in the jaws of a Bryde’s (Broo-dah) whale that was feeding on some sardines.

The whale held Schimpf in its mouth, with half of his body inside of the whale, before spitting him out.  Schimpf was surprised at how gentle the whale was with him.  As the whale realized it had something in its mouth it wasn’t supposed to have,  it spit Rainer out. A photographer working on a nearby boat caught the incident on camera.

After that experience, I am sure that the wet suit he was wearing had a double meaning.

When interviewed by one news agency, Rainer laughed when asked about the biblical story of Jonah and he said, the funny thing is, I have a son whose name is Jonah.

It’s dark inside this fish, and Jonah cries out to the Lord.

He may have wanted to die, but God doesn’t allow death. So now Jonah has to deal with fear.

There are no atheists in foxholes or the bellies of whales. Generally, people become very religious in times of sickness, death, war, and recession, and apparently in the belly of whales, because Jonah started praying.

When our sources of comfort are overthrown, we seek God and seldom with the same intensity.

We see this all the time.  Some people are rarely religious until there is a crisis, and then all of a sudden, they start to pray and ask for prayer, but we are this way, too.

We can be like the woman who quizzed her husband on the drive home from church about the service.

The wife said, “Did you see that Mrs. Tomlin sitting there so prim and proud in her new fur coat? Why everybody knows how her husband earns his money. And did you see who was with Mrs. Maude today?

‘Why it’s only been three months since her husband died.”

The husband replied, “To tell you the truth I did not notice. I kind of dozed off in church.”

“Dozed off. Why in the world do you even go to church? You can’t get anything out of church by dozing off.”

Sitting inside a great fish, Jonah wasn’t getting anything out of his prayers either. Like his confession to the sailors, Jonah’s prayers sounded good. Yet his prayers never once mentioned the lost people of Nineveh.

Never once did they mention a change of heart or attitude or even remorse for his disobedience.

This is the most absurd story of pray in the Bible. A man is praying inside a whale. It’s ridiculous. The whale then acts like God’s Uber Service. It’s also the first submarine ride in the history of the world.

It’s as if the great fish finally got tired of his cargo. The insincere prayers of Jonah gave the great fish indigestion.  The writer says that the Lord commanded the fish to “vomit Jonah onto dry land” (2:10).

Such an experience should be enough to get anybody’s attention, so Jonah changed his ways–sort of. This time when God said, “go,” Jonah went.

God said, “Preach to them the message I give to you.”

Jonah did, but he did so with the passion of a boy kissing his sister.

He preached what may be the most passionless sermon in the Bible and certainly one of the shortest. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” were Jonah’s words.

In Hebrew, the length of the sermon is just five words. Perhaps the most important word of the five is the word “haphak,” which is translated “overthrow.” This word can also mean “to be changed.”

So the author uses a play on words to show that Jonah’s prophecy really did come true (Good: 48-49).

That is what happened. After Jonah’s brief but important message, the entire city changed. They turned and worshiped God. Everyone repented and put on sackcloth, a sign of morning and repentance. Another humorous touch by the writer. They even put sackcloth on their animals. Imagine, animals showing signs of repentance.

We wear black when we attend a funeral. Imagine farmers putting black cloth on all their livestock because someone died.

Following the massive response to the message, we find just how hateful Jonah was. Instead of elation, Jonah felt disgusted. He admitted that he had not gone to Nineveh in the first place because he feared the people might repent and that God might spare them.

Jonah hated the people of Nineveh so much that he only wanted to see God obliterate them all. Jonah wanted these people to get what they deserved and not anything less. When we read this, we realize there is a little Jonah is all of us.

When God’s mercy and grace are at its widest point, we often say, that’s ridiculous. Let them get what they deserve.

However, the Ninevites appear to understand more about the divine grace of God than Jonah (Ibid, p. 50).

The thing about comedy is that as long as we are laughing at someone else, things are fine. But the moment we begin to feel that we resemble the one being laughed at, we become uncomfortable. This story is designed for us to see ourselves in Jonah.

At the end of the story, Jonah is shown having more concern for a plant, which provided him shade and later withered and died in the hot sun than he did for a city of people who would have perished had they not had the opportunity to turn from their sinful ways.

Such absurdity prompts one to ask, “What kind of God would choose a person with these qualities to deliver such an important message?”

Only a God with a sense of humor would use such a person. Only a God with a sense of humor would continue to work with people who have so many obvious flaws about them.

Perhaps we should be glad about that. It’s so easy for us to be concerned about things that bring us comfort than what needs to be done to share the love of God with others.

It’s so easy for us to say we love God, but still harbor attitudes of racism or discrimination in our hearts.

It’s so easy for us to say we love our neighbor but then we are no judicious in how we love those around us.

There are incongruities in all of us.

Seeing them in a character like Jonah is one thing. Noticing them in ourselves is another.

Sometimes, more than laughing at them at our incongruities, we need to be convicted by them.

Jonah never achieved such self-awareness. Jonah never saw them in his own life. He never transcended his situation. Jonah never changed. Jonah never laughed at himself.

We call Jonah a prophet. He was a reluctant prophet. He taught us how not to live. The real prophet is the author of the book of Jonah.

Much in the same vein as the prophet Nathan who confronted King David, the author has told this story in hopes that can see ourselves in Jonah, and laugh, but it should be the kind of laughter that brings about change.

Our laughter is not laughter at our sin, but the laughter of joy because despite our sin, God breaks through and says, “I choose you. Go–and in going, be ye changed.”

If we don’t do this, we risk having the Lord come right through our midst and he might not even stop because he’s already visited those whose hearts were tuned to his message.