“A Whale of a Tale”
Jonah 1:12, 2:1 – August 18, 2019
Jonah and the whale is a much beloved bible story often told to children. Many young ones listen with wide eyes and ears to the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. Every bible story book I have ever seen mentions that the great fish was sent by God, so children (and adults) will know God was with Jonah even in the belly of the whale—or, great fish.
That lesson is definitely one everyone can use! Children, young people, adults, seniors alike, how valuable it is to know that God is with all people—even in the metaphorical or actual belly of a whale.
But, with our adult-sized viewpoint, let’s go back to the beginning of this story, to the beginning of Jonah chapter 1. Jonah was an acknowledged prophet of God. Prophets of God were held to particularly high standards. Everything they said in the name of God had to come true: this was stated in Deuteronomy, in the Law Code of Moses. And, Jonah understood he needed to follow God’s commands. Except—he didn’t. He stubbornly decided to turn tail and run, run in the opposite direction.
What about you and me? What if there is a command Jesus plainly sets forth in the Gospels—like give away your money and you will have treasure in heaven, or love your neighbor as yourself, or especially, love your enemies? And, some Christians—maybe even you and me—do not follow those commands? What then?
We follow Jonah as he runs away in the opposite direction. He goes west, taking a ship for Tarshish, across the Mediterranean Sea. The Lord pursues Jonah with a great storm, the ship almost founders at sea, and the sailors ask Jonah why the storm has come upon them. Jonah is finally honest and says it is all his fault. He is the cause of the great storm. Throw him overboard, and the storm will stop. The sailors were unwilling at first, but finally they did throw Jonah overboard. And, lo and behold, the storm did indeed stop.
Have you ever wished that God could talk to you as clearly as God talked to people in the Hebrew Scriptures? I know I certainly have. Except—even if God talked clearly to us as a dear friend and close companion, are we sure we would listen to God’s spoken words? Or would we be disobedient sometimes, just like Jonah?
Finally, Jonah stops running. Finally, in the belly of the great fish, Jonah repents and asks God for forgiveness. What does God do? The Lord is gracious, forgiving and compassionate, of course! That is God, all over. Exactly the Lord’s gracious, compassionate heart.
As we follow Jonah in the fish’s stomach, and as he gets vomited up on land on the third day, we have a sudden glimpse of why Jonah did not want to go preach to Nineveh. For anyone who knows the history of the book of Jonah, the Assyrians controlled large parts of what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq, among other nearby regions. The Assyrian armies were particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to the nations they fought with and conquered—similar to other armies.
Is anyone surprised to learn that Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire?
Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent, otherwise God will destroy Ninevah! What happens? The Assyrians and the King of Nineveh do repent. In fact, this is what the King says. “Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!” 10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. God did change his mind about them. What God said he would do to them God didn’t do.”
What is more, Jonah was furious with God for not destroying Nineveh! Here’s what he said to God: “1-2 Jonah lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”
We can laugh at Jonah for getting furious with God and stalking off, essentially slamming an imaginary door and leaving an imaginary room. But—God forgave Jonah for Jonah’s sins and disobedience. God created the people of Nineveh. Can God not express divine love and compassion and forgiveness for all the people in the world God made?
When you and I allow hatred and fear to take residence in our hearts and blind us to the fact that God created each person on earth. Father Richard Rohr warns, “you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.”  That is not the way of God, the way of heavenly compassion and mercy, grace and truth.
Sure, God knows very well that we all are sinful. Sure, God knows that we all mess up. Even, stealing from the weak and old, killing with knives or guns or bare hands. What about the other ways of hurting people, like destroying someone’s reputation by spreading false rumors? Or destroying a marriage by sleeping with someone’s spouse? Or, destroying the well-being of a temple or church by embezzling a large sum of money?
Sure, you and I are very glad and grateful when God forgives us, when God has compassion and mercy and grace on us. But, if we slip into the fearful, dualistic thinking and judging of good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or, we are in danger of missing the path of God’s heavenly love and compassion, God’s love and mercy, God’s everlasting arms of forgiveness.
Yes, this is so challenging for all of us. I do not know how, but God was somehow in the midst of horror and violence and desperation, of victims and post-traumatic stress and even the horrendous death and torture that the Assyrian armies were responsible for. And, God forgave the Assyrian people of Nineveh. God has forgiven countless countries, because each country is made up of individuals created by God.
We can move that to the 20th century, and the 21st. God created each person in the American military, the German army, the Russian navy, the Japanese military, the French or Palestinian resistance, and all their families. God created each person in the Nigerian army, the Iraqi military, the British or Chinese navy, and all their families. People are wounded and many died. Yet, God loves all of those people—both the ones who did the awful things as well as those who were wounded or killed. I do not understand how, but God does love them.
Yes, this is a challenge for which we need God’s help. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, no matter what. Jesus did not give us a loophole, a way out. We can look at the original disciples, and Christians of the first few centuries. None of the original disciples died in their beds except John, and he was exiled to a tiny island. God is somehow in the midst of all of the horror and anxiety and despair. I don’t know how, but the Lord is with us, no matter what.
Just like King David said in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” God is faithful, merciful, and forgiving, and will remain at our sides through pain, suffering, fear, anger, desperation—no matter what. What a comforting thought. Each of us can say a heartfelt “Amen!”
Thanks be to God for God’s abundant mercy and grace—towards each one of us.