Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, June 26, 2016
CHILDREN'S STORY AND SERMON
THE CASE OF THE RELUCTANT PROPHET
We can tell this story pretty fast, if we want to. There is a prophet named Jonah. He is supposed to go one way – to Nineveh. He goes the other way – to Tarshish.
Jonah is aboard a sailing ship heading across the Mediterranean Sea for Tarshish. There is a huge storm, Jonah goes overboard, and a big fish swallows him.
Jonah is in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. It’s not much fun there. No television, no friends, no light, no toys, nothing to do, pretty scary too.
Well, when you were supposed to go one way and you went the other, it’s pretty hard to ask for help if things go wrong. Finally Jonah gets so desperate that there doesn’t seem to be any other choice. “Hey God ... you probably are not listening to me anymore, but it sure is dark and cold and lonely down here. If you can hear me, I’m sorry. And if you decide to get me out of here, I will do anything you tell me to – honest, I promise.”
God speaks to the fish, Jonah is spit out on dry land, and off he goes to Nineveh, where he should have gone in the first place. Jonah preaches, everybody does what he tells them to do, and the whole great city is saved.
Isn’t that a nice story?
Before you say yes, maybe we should go through it a little slower. Jonah is a what? A prophet. And what is a prophet?
A prophet is a messenger, a mouthpiece, an ambassador, a spokesperson, a gofer (go for) – somebody who is supposed to carry messages for God. God says, “Go tell somebody this,” and the prophet goes and tells that somebody what God wanted them to know.
Jonah is a prophet. God says, “I have a message for you to carry to Nineveh.” What is the message? “Repent. You folks are not doing things the right way, and it will not work your way. Turn, learn God’s ways, come home, and all will be wonderful again.” That seems to be one of God’s favorite messages, because most prophets carry that one more than any other.
So Jonah is supposed to carry this message to Nineveh, but he does not want to go. Why? Is he afraid the people will not listen to him?
Not at all! God never makes the prophet responsible for how the message is received. The prophet’s job is to carry the message, not to make the people like it. God always gives people the choice to listen or not to listen, to pay attention or not to pay attention, to obey or not to obey. A good prophet keeps the message just as clear as possible. But if we start thinking about how the people will receive it or if we try to dress it up so they will like it, pretty soon we have changed the message all around until it is not God’s message at all. That is the prophet’s greatest danger: caring about the people instead of about God, and ending up carrying a message the people want to hear instead of the message from God that will help or heal or deliver.
God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent, to come home to God, to be God’s people and find deliverance, love, and life. But Jonah refuses to go. Some people think it’s pretty brave to say straight out to God: “I know what you want me to do but I refuse to do it.” Maybe it is brave, I don’t know, but it sure is sick and stupid.
Is Jonah a good prophet? No, Jonah is a very bad prophet. Just because a book in the Bible is named after him does not make him into a hero. Jonah is the very worst example of a prophet in the entire Bible. The story of Jonah is put in the Bible to tell us how never to do it! We are supposed to read about Jonah while thinking, “Boo, hiss, throw the bum out!”
Why doesn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh? Because he hates the people of Nineveh. (Boo, hiss, throw the bum out!)
To be fair, Nineveh is the capital city of the great Kingdom of Assyria. Assyria’s huge and ruthless armies had marched through Israel killing Jonah’s friends and relatives mercilessly, by the thousands. We can understand why Jonah hated them. It is no excuse for a prophet of God to be disobedient, but it sure is understandable.
Jonah is not a good prophet. Being good is partly about what we do not do. It is also about what we do do. Jonah knows what he is supposed to do and he does not do it. This is no accident; there is no misunderstanding; he did not forget. This is just a stubborn, rebellious refusal to obey God.
So Jonah deserves to be swallowed by a fish. He asks for the darkness – he deserves the depression – and he gets it. He also gets a second chance, which he does not deserve. But God apparently reasoned that if Jonah got a second chance, maybe Jonah would be willing to give the Ninevites a second chance. That kind of logic is often too deep for humans, but God keeps trying.
After Jonah repents and prays and gets delivered from the belly of the great fish, he no more than touches dry land when he hears God again: “Hello there, Jonah. I have a favor to ask of you: Go to Nineveh!”
So Jonah goes to Nineveh. It is a city so huge it would take him three days to walk across it. So he walks into the city for one day, stands on one street corner, and delivers his entire sermon in one sentence: “Everybody repent or the city will be destroyed in forty days.” That’s it – that’s all he ever does or says. He repented on the outside but not on the inside. He changed his mind but not his heart. (Boo, hiss, throw the bum out!)
Despite Jonah, the news spreads like wildfire through the whole city, and everyone in Nineveh, from king to beast of burden, repents in sackcloth and ashes. So of course God withdraws the doom and forgives Nineveh. God now has a chance to turn Nineveh toward its true destiny and purpose, and that is exactly what God is always trying to do, so naturally God is not going to miss a chance like this.
And Jonah is now beside himself with ... with what? Joy? No. Is he delighted with his success? No. You would think he would be elated to have been the world’s all-time most successful preacher – to have converted an entire city, and with only one sentence. But Jonah is beside himself with anger and dismay.
God tries to console Jonah and help him see the bigger picture. But the story leaves Jonah having his own super temper tantrum. He did not want God to forgive Nineveh; he wanted God to destroy Nineveh. And as far as we know, Jonah is still sitting in the dust and the sun – still having his own personal temper tantrum for all he is worth.
FISH OR FISHY
Do you want to fish or cut bait? This is an ancient phrase which means: Do you want to argue about whether or not a man could live in the belly of a fish for three days and nights, or do you want to understand what the story means?
Choosing the fishy side for a moment: if we do wish to conclude that God wanted to play games, making a magical fish (a very small miracle indeed, for One who calls the universes into being); and if we further want to conclude that God caused the entire city of Nineveh to repent, without repealing free will (a big miracle indeed, even for One who calls all the universes into being); and if we further conclude that God erased all records of this Ninevite repentance from world history, just to test whether or not the faithful would believe it – then you have a very impressive story, but it does not mean a thing.
That is, we cannot find it very meaningful to organize our lives around the chance that someday we might run into a magical fish. Even playing the lottery is smarter than that. And I do not live in a world where whole cities repent at one-sentence sermons from a preacher – not even Dale Turner. I live in a world where the mighty Nineveh came to an end in 612 b.c. without ever having repented, and now nobody worships Assur or carries on the traditions of Assyria, and nobody has from that day to this. And I live in a world where I cannot even get a hundred of you to agree on anything or to all show up at the same place at the same time, and most of my sermons are much longer and much better than anything Jonah ever said (though sometimes one sentence is all some of you hear). As for your repenting ...
It probably sounds like I am complaining, but I actually believe it is supposed to be this way. God did not design us for a puppet show, and I am very grateful for that. We are each growing and learning and responding as quickly and honestly as we know how, and God both guides us and waits for us, however long it takes. I find that beautiful and authentic and exciting. It seems to me that the more our awareness of God’s presence grows, the less we desire magicians or magic tricks. Real life is more fun.
So we can identify with storms, with being thrown overboard, with getting swallowed up. And there is no imagery anywhere in literature more appropriate or accurate for the phenomenon of depression than this story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish.
Have you ever not wanted good to come to somebody? Have you ever wanted good not to come to somebody? Ah, so you do understand Jonah. Have you ever cut yourself off from light on purpose, being too busy nursing your resentments and animosities and the realization that you really were right and that you really were treated unjustly? And have you then ended up in the dark hole: no way out; no hope anywhere; no goal or purpose or relationship left? Well, probably most of you do not follow the story here, but I have no trouble tracking. “Hey man, they’re singing my song.”
And this story carries the sweet notes of repentance, the power of prayer that reestablishes contact, and the wonder of deliverance. All I mean to acknowledge is that this small book is loaded with material for personal meditation. The case of the reluctant prophet is the case we are all in. It is “one nation under God” that wants nothing more to do with God, and we are all citizens of it. If there is one common denominator among us, it is perhaps the awareness that we have shied off of what God has asked of us. Perhaps we are on dry land again, but we are still feeling skittish. Yes, we are messengers and servants of God who surely identify with Jonah and Tarshish. “Tarshish” means “I don’t know where the hell it is, but at least I chose it and that’s where I’m going!”
The ultimate symbol of a decadent church is this story of Jonah, who values his own opinion above God’s. Jonah knows the message and knows where it is needed, but he will not carry it or speak it. The Bible is full of stories about bad characters and big mistakes, but this is one of the few occasions when a supposedly faithful servant heard God clearly and unmistakably and said, “I hear you – I know you are God – and I refuse to do what you say.”
But the real fish in the story of Jonah is the Icthus (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior) – the Christian symbol. That is, the Christian Message of a God of love is about as thick in Jonah’s story as we ever find it in the Old Testament. Though God’s love is contrasted over against Jonah’s reluctance and animosity, nevertheless the purpose of God to forgive and redeem – even Ninevites – is shocking in its clarity.
So this is one of those tiny little stories that, once heard, we can never forget – and once understood, we can never hear too often. So one more time I am going to tell you what the author of the book of Jonah was trying to say – what he was expecting and intending his readers to “hear” behind the simple, incredibly profound story he was telling. By the way, he made the story so preposterous and historically inaccurate on purpose, so his readers would have to seek the meaning allegorically. He thought this approach was foolproof, but alas ...
Once upon a time, in the real world – not the fantasy world where most people live most of the time – God called a nation of people to be God’s special people: a messenger people. These chosen people were supposed to show and tell of a special way of life – a covenant way of life with God. They were to follow a Torah – a code of trust and caring and behavior whereby everybody could enjoy peace and prosperity together.
It was God’s purpose that the chosen people should study the covenant, speak of the covenant, and especially demonstrate the covenant – that is, show the world an actual example of how life could be if everyone in the community would be honest, fair, and think of the welfare of everyone else as much as of their own personal desires – and most of all, the chosen people were to honor and obey God.
The plan and the hope were that if the chosen people would carry this message and actually demonstrate it, everybody in the world would soon want to live this special covenant way. The possibility of the peace and prosperity and harmony of such a community would draw all people – it would be like a light to the nations.
This nation of special, chosen people was often symbolized by a dove, the symbol of peace and harmony and prosperity. Remember the dove returning to Noah’s ark after the flood, with an olive branch in its beak? That is only one hint of its meaning.
This Dove Nation was then asked by God to carry God’s message to all other nations – inviting them all by word and demonstration to repent: to turn from their own ways and come try God’s way.
But Dove Nation never made the demonstration very well. Dove Nation kept competing with other nations instead of carrying God’s message to them. Therefore Dove Nation ended up with many enemies, just like all the other nations did. Pretty soon Dove Nation did not want to carry any message; it just wanted to be rich and prosperous. Soon, in fact, Dove Nation had so turned the message around that it wanted God to bless Dove Nation and put it first over the other nations in power and might, so that all the nations and peoples should serve it and come bow down before it. In short, it went about as far away from its purpose as it could go: Tarshish!
On the way to the nowhere it had chosen, Dove Nation began to run into more and more trouble and wilder and wilder storms – Philistines, Canaanites, civil war, divided people, idolatry in the land, more and more division among the people – until instead of God’s message and light, the chosen people were merely a petty nuisance on the waves of a terrible sea (Assyrian armies).
Then over the side Israel went, and down she sank into the deep, swallowed utterly by Nebuchadnezzar – literally swallowed, dragged off, carried away into slavery in Babylon. Jerusalem was no more. Israel was no more. Babylon was the great fish.
In captivity, after the first shock of utter despair began to wear off, but down in the deep and the black, the people began to think again and to wonder what had happened. They began to think about their experiences, about their call, about how they had dealt with their God who had chosen and sent them. Finally they began to repent, and then to pray.
So God spoke to the great fish, whose name was Cyrus (King of Persia), and Cyrus sent the chosen people back to Jerusalem with money and authority to rebuild the temple and to begin to restore their land. They were vomited out by one of the ancient world’s most unique and farseeing and benevolent rulers. Yet it was inexplicable. Who could have imagined it? Indeed it was like a miracle.
But God had not changed much, and the covenant was the same. The chosen people were hardly dry behind the ears when the same mandate was issued: carry the message, make the demonstration, let the nations see and hear God’s invitation to live the righteous way – the way of Torah.
Suddenly we realize that this is a very big story, and it is not heading toward a happy ending. We can feel the power and the passion and the tears of the author. Dove Nation has not learned very much despite all its amazing experiences. Its message is but a feeble and unfavorable one-sentence warning. Jonah is only going through the motions. He has repented on the outside but not on the inside. He has changed his mind but not his heart. He does not want God to love others. He does not want the message to be for anybody else. And the hint is that God, out of love and compassion, will go on to work with other nations whether Dove Nation wakes up to keep its sacred purpose or not.
In fact, the story ends with Dove Nation sitting in the desert heat, pouting and feeling sorry for itself, while God goes on to bless and deal with the pagan peoples and even their animals, because God is parent – Creator of all, and lover of all.
Not bad for 400 b.c. – or for our century a.d. It is as profound for Christians now as it was for Hebrews then. And one last thing: What is the word for “dove” in Hebrew? Jonah.
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.