This sermon has two endings, and it’s up to you which one you need the most to hear today. Consider it a “choose your own adventure”…. If you’ll be around the Stand UMC on July 21 at 9 a.m. in Colonial Heights or near Blandford UMC at 11 a.m. you should just come out to worship!
My favorite fish story of all time isn’t about a fish I caught (seriously, I have the worst luck with what one friend calls “hunting in the dark”) but rather about a movie about a father and a son. In the film, Big Fish, a father named Edward has always been distant and removed from his son William, except for the fantastic stories he told, like the narrative of The Princess Bride or more recently, The Lone Ranger. But young Will grows older, never knowing the difference between his father’s reality and fantasy, unsure what stories are true. In the moments that Edward passes away, he’s transformed into a big fish, and Will recognizes that in every tale there’s truth, whether it’s buried deep or right at your fingertips. He sees that his father was the big fish all along, and to pass on the truth of his father’s life is to pass on the fish stories to his children.
For me, it doesn’t really matter whether you hear the words of the Lord to Jonah as wisdom literature in poetic license or as an actual tale about an unfaithful prophet who was a historical person. God’s lessons about repentance and reclamation still provide hope in the world we have inherited today, even if we can’t wrap our minds around a “great fish” that swallowed Jonah, and kept him alive for three days. Unlike some of the other stories in the Bible about people who were convinced by a kind word, a good sermon, a wonderful healing, or some other miracle, God uses the biggest fish story you’ve ever heard to teach Jonah about what God really cares about. And in the process, it asks us to unpack how we perceive our own relationship with God, and God’s relationship to others.
Jonah’s mission from God is clear from the very beginning: “go to Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness is offensive to me.” What is less clear is why Jonah runs, why he thought that he could “flee the Lord” by boat. Surely Jonah recognized that the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of Moses wasn’t limited by space or time or location, didn’t he? Surely, he knew that God wasn’t just “here,” but not “there?” Somehow, Jonah projects his own limitations on God, and thinks he can actually “get away.” So, God uses a violent storm to stop the merchants’ boat that Jonah has stowed away on, right where it is, and finally sends a “huge fish” to swallow Jonah, where he exists, suffers, and reflects for three long days and nights.
The words of Jonah 2 tell the prayer that Jonah prays in great distress, from the perspective of Jonah after the fact. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” Using words that combine the images of a violent storm (again), and that of a drowning, Jonah implies that he was near death, and realized there was still a chance to call out to God and be saved. He prayed, “I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.'” Jonah has repented of his own disobedience, and promised to follow-through with the mission God initially sent him on: to go to Nineveh.
So God allowed him to be vomited onto dry land. He had prayed the sinner’s prayer, he’d said the right words, and even meant them, and God had delivered him. All’s well that end’s well, right?
Well, what if Jonah’s trip to Nineveh is the right way (direction) but the wrong way (style and purpose)? Have you ever done the right thing but for the wrong reasons? Maybe you apologized because you thought you “should” but you didn’t really grasp what you did wrong. Maybe you showed up in church because someone forced you to rather than coming because you wanted to know who holy God was. Maybe you worked on doing good because it felt right but not because you saw the example of Jesus and wanted to respond. We’re faced with doing the right and wrong thing all the time, but sometimes we end up “in the grey.”
Let me tell you: there is no grey in our understanding of Nineveh. It is ALL black. If Vegas is tagged with “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” then Nineveh is “what happens in Nineveh is too terrible to tell.” Every kind of illicit activity, perverse behavior, soulless actions and selfish desires happens there. But for Jonah, it’s not just the activities, it’s that the people there the group of people he finds the most repugnant from an ideological, religious, political point of view. Nineveh is all about destructive pleasure and absolutely repugnant to the prophet who is supposed to be a person of God who is called to bear the news.
Still, Jonah went. He spent the first day there preaching that in forty days, Nineveh would be overthrown. He doesn’t get real descriptive. He doesn’t say what exactly will happen, just ties what’s about to happen to God’s judgment of their behavior. He doesn’t even make it past a third of the city but soon, the whole city is aflame with a desire to repent, to turn away from their destructive behaviors. Even the king, who we’re to understand is the worst of the lot in terms of murder, and pleasure-seeking evil, orders everyone to “call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
Call urgently on God. Remember who did that just a few chapters ago? Yeah, Jonah. Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Jonah who was repenting just a minute ago. And here’s a whole city, a revival, calling out to God for mercy and rejecting their evil, selfish ways.
And God saw that they repented and chose not to bring judgment on them. God saw that a group of genuinely sinful and misguided people were actually convinced to turn from their behavior to embrace God. That repentance happened for individuals and for the community.
That’s reason for a wild, rip-roaring celebration, right? Everyone will be proclaiming the victory of the good news and the souls that were saved!… Everyone except for Jonah, that is.
Jonah 4:1 says, “to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.” Jonah’s understanding of knowledge of God is bipolar! He says that he knows God is gracious and compassionate, but he thinks that it was a waste of time to have sent him to Nineveh. Jonah is happy that God would accept his repentance, but he doesn’t expect that God would actually accept those people over there. They’re too bad, too rotten, too unlike him to ever be included in the same group, aren’t they?
With a bit of a pout, he throws himself down on a blanket outside the city under a shelter, and sits back to see what God will do. So God gave him object lesson number two: he grew a plant to give Jonah shade one day and sent a worm to chew it up the next. Again, God asks, is it right of you to be angry? And again, Jonah says that he’s so angry at God’s compassion that he wishes he were dead. Jonah is so upset with God’s grace that he literally wishes he wouldn’t exist! Rather than celebrating his role in the victory of God’s kingdom, he would rather not exist!
Poor Jonah, he still just doesn’t get it. But hopefully, we will get it. We have to if we’re going to succeed in this life and the next, if we’re going to grasp joy and understand what God’s kingdom is truly about.
There’s a fun story about the theologian Karl Barth stories where he was riding a street car in his home city of Basel, Switzerland. He took a seat next to a tourist, and the two men started chatting with one another.
“Are you new to the city?” Barth inquired.
“Yes,” said the tourist.
“Is there anything you would particularly like to see in the city?” asked Barth.
“Yes,” said the tourist, “I would like to meet the famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth,” was the reply. “Do you know him?”
Barth answered, “As a matter of fact, I do know him. I give him a shave every morning.”
The tourist got off the street car at the next stop, quite delighted with himself. He went back to his hotel and told everyone, “I met Karl Barth’s barber today.”
We sit next to Christ all the time, and yet fail to see that it is really Jesus himself.
Let’s make sure that we don’t miss the lessons hidden in the belly of this fish story.
Consider the repentance of Jonah, from the foxhole of the fish to the desert extremities of Nineveh. Jonah absolutely has moments where he can see God’s grace and mercy, and he wants to be part of it. He rejects his old ways, literally turns in direction, and heads the right way. But his attitude, cultured in the fox hole of the belly of the whale isn’t actually different. He’s still the rebellious, angry, me-centered Jonah he was before. Jonah is in fact a lot like me.
Do you have any bad habits? Things you promise you won’t do again, because you know they’re bad for you? “I’m going to exercise, I’m not staying up too late, I’m going to be more positive.” Oops, those are all things I’ve tried to be better at. Some days I succeed, some days I don’t. It’s a whirling dervish, a wave line of my life’s turning away from things I shouldn’t for awhile, and then cycling back into them when stress, boredom, hunger (!), or whatever, pulls me back in.
My faith can be like that, too. Some days I’ve got it; I’m on fire, focused, prayed up, and ready to conquer my demons, my obstacles, and my foes in Jesus’ name. I’m locked in, on target, and aimed right where I’m supposed to be. And then sometimes it feels like the smallest pebble can send me off course. I don’t usually have all the wheels fall off right away, but a couple of bumps later, and I’ve forgotten the change in attitude I set out with.
Maybe you know what I mean. You are reading the Bible, praying, seeing life like a challenge, not a problem. Then a bad night’s sleep or two, the extra assignment at work, the squabbling with your spouse or your children (or both!), and suddenly, the thing that you’ve been holding off, some addiction or problem, and suddenly you’re in the belly of the whale again.
The good news is that God doesn’t give up on us. Whether it’s a burning bush, a great fish, or the death of Jesus on the cross, God is forever communicating his love and mercy to us. Too often, we get stuck, stuck where we’ve been, stuck in who we think we have to be, unable to walk away from our own self-inflicted evil, and think that God must’ve given up on us the way that we’ve given up on ourselves.
The truth is, shame is part of the human condition! But the greater truth is that Jesus died on the cross so that we would be forgiven of our sin, to leave our sin behind, so that our lives with God would be better RIGHT NOW. The sooner we kick all of our baggage to the curb, the better off we’ll be. There is no reason to wait, to test God’s mercy and grace any longer. Instead we should claim the promises of God’s love like the Ninevites did and truly repent.
Hear the good news today: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love for us” (Romans 5:8). Imagine the story you’d have to tell if you believed that.
A great big giant fish story, about how God’s grace saved a sinner. Even one like you.
For Jonah, it’s his pride, because it hinders his ability to embrace the repentance of the people of Nineveh, and the nature of Jonah’s faith. It is too often the way that people of faith interact with each other and their world. Jonah doesn’t believe that the Ninevites are really repented because HE’S not really repented. He figures they’ll just fall back into it and God will send him back to preach the message. The grace God has shown him along the way isn’t grace he’s acquired to show to others. And secretly, in his black pruny heart, he also wants the satisfaction of watching the city burn, like the ability to see the tragedy is something that would actually entertain him. When it doesn’t work out the way he wants it to, he’s disappointed, like he actually knew better than God what should happen in the situation.
Jonah’s problem is one that we all face. It takes WWJD, “what would Jesus do,” and warps it into something terrible and problematic. See, the phrase is “what would Jesus do if he were me?” It’s not “what would I do if I were Jesus?” It’s not a clean slate to have all the powers of the God of the universe but to recognize that if Jesus was living your life WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT and trying to live that out as best you can.
Jonah doesn’t get to play God, even though that’s what he hoped for. He doesn’t even get to play at being a follower of God for more than a few hours before he’s off doing his own thing again. Jonah doesn’t recognize that he can’t reach the end of God’s grace and mercy: it’s overflowing, excessive, ridiculous.
But the good news here is that God keeps coming, by voice in the night, by stormy sea, by great fish. And he keeps calling us back to him, over and over and over again.
If I could write an epilogue to this story, I’d start by recognizing that Jonah’s prayer in the fish is recorded here, and no one knows what he said except for God. So if it’s recorded for us, work with me here even you non-literal readers (hey, I’m one of them!), then the reference to what happened in the past is because Jonah lived to tell about it.
Not in the belly of the fish. Not in some hovel outside of Nineveh.
Jonah returned from the what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas of the Middle East circa 1500 B.C. and told his tale to his friends, to his children, and passed it down.
And you don’t tell that story, painting yourself that way, if you don’t get IT.
I think Jonah gets it. I pray for his soul that he does! Because if Jonah can get it, the man who God wanted to use so badly that he sent a storm, and a great fish, and a plant, and a worm, and a whole city of converts, kept messing up, and God didn’t give up on, then guess what?
God hasn’t given up on us. Even when we’ve sinned, and repented, and sinned, and repented, over and over and over again.
God doesn’t give up on us. Even with all the stuff we know we’ve done, and wanted to do, and maybe still will do.
But when God forgives us it’s for us, and it’s so we can forgive others. It’s not a closed circuit, but a turning on of the faucet, so that God’s grace would flow into us, and overflow, and cover others, too.
If we’re really in God and of God, it’s time we forgive ourselves, and each other. It’s time we forgive and pray for others, whether it’s Paula Dean, or George Zimmerman, or De’Marquise Elkins.
Imagine the story you’d have to tell if you believed that. Imagine how game-changing, life-changing, community-changing a story you’d have to tell, that would seem spectacularly irregular.
A great big giant fish story, about how God’s grace saved a sinner. Even one like you.