given on Sunday, January 29, 2012
Telling the Story: Jonah and the Whale
Jonah—all four books for the entire story
What if. . . This is one of those questions that simply keep coming to mind while reading Jonah. Every time I stop to reflect on the story and the details, the same thoughts go racing through my head: What if?
The story of a man being thrown overboard and scooped up by a fish and then thrown up on a beach simply defies reason. To find the lesson in Jonah’s story one must get past the story itself. The sensational, unbelievable record of events almost destroys the significance of the lesson. This is the problem with Jonah’s autobiographical story even if he was an identified, accredited prophet of the time. References to him appear as early as 2 Kings 14:25 and later in Matthew 12:39-41. Jonah was not a sorcerer or soothsayer just shouting out strange predictions. He was identified as a Jewish prophet.
Why, then, does the story continue to baffle us and cause us to avoid it rather than learn from it? It goes right back to the problem of the fish. In our 21st century world, the idea of being swallowed by a big fish—which is in all likelihood a whale—just defies all our scientific knowledge. The big “What if” really gets in the way of the story’s message.
In an effort to get past the story’s fantasy element, I found that the “What if” needed to be addressed. What if the honest report by Jonah himself is true? What if the big fish were something other than a whale, for instance a porpoise? What if the story were written like science fiction rather than a factual report? What if Jonah was afraid that the lesson would not be heard unless he had a tall tale to explain it?
When all the “What if” questions are listed and acknowledged, the lesson of the story does not change. Remember that the Old Testament has served as the textbook for the Israelites. It is the history book, the law book, the literature book, the medical journal, and the sociological reference text. Everything that the young people were taught was based on the writings we now refer to as the Old Testament. The teachers were the priests as well as their parents who were taught the same lessons.
Maybe the whale was a porpoise that lifted Jonah up out of the depths of the sea and guided him back to shore. Maybe Jonah used a tall, tall tale to get the attention of the listeners/readers. Maybe Jonah is the first entry into science fiction as a genre. Maybe Jonah’s story is factual because God is capable of supernatural events(one resource suggested that the acid from the fish’s stomach turned Jonah’s hair and garments bright white). The point is that the story’s theme, the main idea, or the lesson to learn is the same regardless of how the story is told.
The main idea is that when God calls you, you should answer. As I read through the resource materials, one line jumped out at me—especially after last week’s lesson to look at problems through God’s eyes. The phrase that captured my attention was “when you run away from God.” Those few words are not the key verse from the book, which most resources report as Jonah 4:11 . . .
But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (the NIV)
The story itself seems to have this overarching theme—you cannot run away from God.
Whether you read the King James Version, the Message, the New International Version or even the Apologetics version, all focus on the purpose of God sending Jonah to Nineveh and on Jonah’s attempt to get away from doing what God told him to do. Everything in the story demonstrates what happens when you run away from God. Even the verb run can be changed and the message remains the same—try walk, turn, swim, sneak, slide, avoid, hide, ignore. The fact is that if you turn away from God, you cannot escape his attention.
God is omniscient. He knows all. He can do anything. But he also gave us free will. What we do with all that we have is our choice, but when you turn away from God there are consequences. As parents we can see this is a concrete manner when we think of how we try to teach our children right and wrong. We protect them, but we also have to let them go. When we witness them making a mistake, can we fix it?
As parents we might be able to stop a problem before it happens, but many times we cannot. In fact, some parenting means allowing the children to take a risk and accept the consequences in order to learn the lesson. The experience may cause us heartache and pain, but we cannot always assure our kids safety. We cannot live their lives, even if they do turn away from our guidance.
God is our parent. He watches over us, he guides us, and he wants us to follow him throughout our earthly lives. When we step away from Him, he knows. He surely experiences the same heartache we do in a similar situation. Imagine when he watched Nineveh turn away from Him and become corrupt. He held on to hope that they would correct their errant ways, but he needed a voice to get their attention.
Jonah, a respected Jewish prophet, was called to serve as God’s spokes person in Nineveh. Surely someone who has spoken for God would be a good choice to send to Nineveh. Jonah was experienced and God knew he would listen to his call. But Jonah ran away from God.
Running away from God does not work! Jonah shows us what happened to him. What a frightful mess! Regardless of what the method, Jonah was washed back up on shore and knew he had to go to Nineveh. The task God called him to do had to be done, so Jonah did it.
Nineveh was totally out of control. Corruption was rampant and everything evil. The Jewish people did not want anything to do with the Assyrian people. They were not Jewish, they were Gentiles and if their evil ways destroyed themselves, so be it. But now Jonah followed God’s direction and did go to Nineveh. And Nineveh heard Jonah’s message and repented.
One would think that the story would end there—a job well done. Oh no, Jonah was not pleased. He disagreed with God’s decision not to punish the people of Nineveh. He thought that the evil behaviors and corruption needed punishing; so when God showed mercy towards the people, he took off and fumed.
Despite all the success Jonah had in Nineveh, he was dissatisfied. He did not understand how forgiveness works. He was human and disagreed with God. God’s acceptance of the repentance of Ninevites demonstrates the power of love. As parents, we accept our kids’ repentance; so we should be able to understand God’s acceptance. We welcome them back into our fold/family. Jonah had to experience a personal lesson out in the desert to complete the lesson.
Even though he ran away a second time because he was disgruntled with God’s decision to love the Ninevites, God demonstrated the lesson with the vine and the worm. This leads to the key verse as a conclusion to Jonah’s story of what if you run away from God:
10-11God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?” (the Message)
We all have our personal Jonah story. What if God called you to share your story with your enemy, would you? Maybe you do not think you know any Ninevites; but if you stop and review your history, I bet you can spot them. Could they be old neighbors? Could they be a different ethnic group? Could they be those in a different social or financial category? Could they be a different political party? Could they be ex’s? Could they be the black sheep in your family?
God calls us to tell our story and to love one another. What if we really did that literally? Would telling the story and demonstrating the unconditional love that God provides us transform this world? Evil and corruption are next door to us as well as on the opposite side of the globe from us. Do we want to continue living quietly in our homes protecting ourselves from the influences of the world? Or do we want to do all that we can for all those we can in all the different ways that we can in order to transform the world?
Jonah’s story teaches us. The way the story is told does not have to be scientifically based; we just have to see that it is the same story then as it can be today. God calls us to love one another in order to transform the world. If we run away from God’s call, then evil and corruption win. Our challenge today is to identify our own Ninevites and then figure out how to tell them the story in a way that transforms their own lives, too.
Dear Omniscient God,
You know our lives, our hearts, and our dreams.
You have given us skills and talents to use
In telling your story to others living in darkness.
Guide us to open our hearts and minds
That we might learn how to tell our stories.
Help us to turn our fears, hesitations, and uncertainties
Into a story of God’s love in action.