Welcome to Christ Lutheran Church and welcome if you’re listening on the radio. We’re in the midst of our sermon series on many of the significant personalities of the Bible. And that includes the “Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful”, usually all in the same person.
Today we look at the first part of the story of Jonah.
There is much to learn from Jonah’s story, but often people don’t get much further than the great fish or whale. The Hebrew words used in Jonah refer to a very large sea creature. It’s usually translated “great fish”. But the Hebrews didn’t get too technical about sea creatures. Maybe it was a fish of the class Chondricthyes or Osteichthyes, or a whale of the order Cetacea. That’s not central to the story. And yet that is often as far as people get---Is it really possible for a man to be swallowed by a large fish and survive? So let’s deal with that first.
There are those who say---no---Jonah couldn’t have survived that. And there are also those who have described plausible ways that it could happen within scientific parameters.
Many of you know that I often think in scientific parameters. I spent my college years studying biology and chemistry and physics. Because God has created his world to work in certain orderly ways, scientists can study and learn vast amounts about how God’s creation works. And the study of science is a great blessing to our world in many ways, when it is used as God intends.
Science by definition deals with things that can be observed, measured, and tested. So by that definition, science can focus on the things within that framework. And while scientists may have opinions about things outside that framework, like whether they exist or not, science can only fully study the natural and not the super-natural---those things that go beyond nature and can’t be measured and tested.
And foremost in the category of “beyond nature” is God himself. He has created the natural world to work in certain orderly ways. But if God is the one who created nature, could he have also created things or realms that are beyond nature---that could work in supernatural, miraculous ways?
It seems logical to me that God could do all of that.
But our human tendency is often to discount things that we can’t explain. “It’s not possible---It can’t happen---No way.”
Even some Bible scholars have tried to explain away anything in the Bible that doesn’t have a scientific explanation---working from the view that God must fit our human understanding of things.
To me, that not only seems arrogant, but also illogical. Could the God who created DNA, billions of stars, subatomic particles, and the beauty of Glacier Park, step into his creation on occasion---his creation which operates according to his natural laws most of the time---and arrange to have a giant sea creature swallow a man and not digest him? Could the Lord decide to do all that to give Jonah a timeout to consider why he was running from God?
From my point of view, that’s no problem for God. And I feel pretty good about that conclusion since Jesus himself said the same thing.
In Matthew 12 we read---Matthew 12:39-40 “Jesus answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus referred to Jonah and the great fish as an event that actually happened and one that was a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection---which is another event that falls outside the realm of scientific proof, but is still very true and real.
So let’s go beyond the fish/whale and focus on the why the creature was needed.
The book of Jonah begins---
Jonah 1:1-2 “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Outside of these episodes of Jonah’s life recorded in the Book of Jonah, we don’t know much about him. But we do know from 2 Kings 14 that Jonah had prophesied that under King Jeroboam, Israel would restore her northern border. That was an important event for Israel, because at least for a time, it meant political security. Their major threat came from the north---Assyria. And the capitol of Assyria was Nineveh.
When Jonah prophesied that the northern boundary of Israel would be restored, it probably was a message well-received by the people. But now to go to Nineveh?
As the capitol of Assyria, Nineveh stood for all that threatened Israel. For God to send him there implied that God was giving the people of Nineveh a chance to change their ways. What if the people of Nineveh repented and God spared them? Jonah didn’t want to be a part of them being saved. His feelings against Nineveh blinded him to the fact that if Nineveh gave up their wickedness, that Israel would benefit!
I entitled this message---“Jonah---Man on a Mission??” And we see just how unwilling Jonah was to take on that mission in verse 3.
Jonah 1:3 “But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.”
Nineveh----Tarshish---not even close!
Jonah had a clear message from the Lord. He knew what his mission was and he wanted nothing to do with it. He acted out of his own distaste for the people of Nineveh instead of acting out of God’s loving purpose.
So Jonah went on a little vacation. A nice cruise and a lot of miles should get him away from the Lord---right? Poor Jonah had a lot to learn yet.
Jonah 1:4-5 “Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.”
Eric Mason calls this a divine interruption---when God intervenes in our lives to change our hearts, our minds and our direction. God comes after us even when we’re running away from him. God reaches out to us even when we’re in the middle of the storms of life.
Jonah 1:5-6 “ But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
And the sailors recognized that this wasn’t just any old storm. There was more to it. They realized Jonah was the problem and they confronted him. “Who are you and what did you do to get us into this mess?”
“Jonah 1:9 “Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
These sailors are pretty sharp and when Jonah tells them he is running away from the Lord, they want to know what to do.
Jonah 1:12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
They were decent men and didn’t want to do that. They did their best to get to land, but the storm kept growing. Then they recognized God’s power and prayed that God would not blame them if they threw Jonah overboard---which they decided they had to do.
Jonah 1:15-16 “Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.”
Notice the fact that all this happened because Jonah didn’t want to go and lead some Gentile foreigners to the Lord. Yet his actions lead a different group of Gentile foreigners to follow the Lord! God’s will is accomplished with us or without us!
And God could have given up on Jonah at that point. But that’s not God’s way---he keeps coming after us. It’s possible to make believe that God is not with us, but the Lord is always there.
Jonah 1:17 “But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
To be continued next Sunday!
If you heard Pastor John’s radio ad this week, you know that the rest of this story is a fish story worth hearing. But this is as far as we go with Jonah today.
But there is an awful lot to think about in this first section of the book of Jonah!
What can we learn from Jonah?----one of those Good, Bad and Beautiful people that God works through.
We heard in the first verses that---“Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish.”
We all try to run away from the Lord and his will for us at some time or another. For the better part of 2 years I tried to run. I was finishing my degree in biology and started to wonder if that was really what I should be doing. There was a lot I liked about it---I still like to see what new discoveries scientists are making about God’s world. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t for me.
I remember being in a little church in rural Pennsylvania, being blessed by the Sunday worship and suddenly thinking---this is what God wants me to do! Along with Stephanie, I tried to make sense out of that and ended up going to seminary. But at the end of the first year, I thought---“This may be what God wants me to do, but I’m not ready to buy it!
So I ran to the wilds of Pennsylvania and dealt with wild kids and rattlesnakes as the nature director at a summer camp. But the Lord was there too, and as I soaked up the beauty of his creation, he opened my heart and mind to his plan.
You can always run from the Lord’s call. But it gets exhausting after a while. I suppose you can keep running your whole life. But I can tell you from experience that it is much better to stop, sit down and take some time with the Lord and his Word, and let him unfold the mission he has for you.
You probably won’t think you can do it. In fact if you do, you may be unrealistic about your strength and skill. Because when the Lord calls you to a Nineveh, far away or right at home, he doesn’t depend on your strengths alone, he
equips you for that mission---not everything all at once, but exactly what you need, when you need it.
There’s another point we can learn from Jonah---It’s great that we’re all gathered here today for worship. But you know, you can come to worship and still be running from God’s call. Remember---“Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Jonah faithfully worshipped---he knew who God was. He had even served as the Lord’s prophet before. But this was a new, different call that Jonah was rejecting.
The call of the Lord may come as you first get to know him and his claim on your life. And he will work through you in new ways. But then after a while a new call may come. A new way to serve. And it may be much more of a stretch. And you may be tempted to run and hide.
But Jonah learned that doesn’t work. The Lord calls us not just to know him and to worship him, but to serve him and do the work of his kingdom. Worship should lead to action. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in, the Lord still has plans for you. From a human standpoint those plans may seem great or small, but they are all of eternal value in Christ’s kingdom.
And lastly, it won’t work to try and run away from God’s call by saying---“I’m not good enough.” “ God, you must have me confused with somebody else.” But we all are riddled with inconsistency. We are all Good, Bad and Beautiful.
Look at Jonah. The Bad---he defied the Lord, tried to run and hide. He had served the Lord before, but that time it fit his desires, this time he wanted nothing to do with it.
But there was also the Good. When the storm was at its worst, he took responsibility, admitted it was his fault and told the sailors to throw him overboard. He sacrificed himself for others.
And always where God is involved, there is the Beautiful. Pastor John will tell you the rest, but through reluctant Jonah, an entire city was saved and thousands of people knew peace between each other and between themselves and the Lord.
What a coincidence that Jonah’s name means “dove”, a sign of peace. Or could that have been part of God’s plan?