Those Scripture readings, the Gospel and the Old Testament which Sigrid-Ann just read are wonderful stories, almost one thousand years apart, but they seem to be an odd lectionary pair. Although they both mention boats, fish, water and repentance, the connection seems to end there. Which reading then to choose as the focus for our attention today?
Last Sunday Rev. Lorraine Powell preached a fine sermon on “Call”, citing her personal call to ministry and the committed call to peace of Chief Poundmaker as examples. The hymn you have just sung, “Jesus, You Have Come to the Lakeshore” is a sermon all on its own. Maybe enough preaching on “Call” — for now.
So we come to Jonah, the story of Jonah…… Not exactly a model of the Christian life, or of the Hebrew life either. In fact Jonah does not even appear in the Hebrew scriptures at first, but rather in the Midrash, an inspired commentary on the Scriptures.
A commentary on the Scriptures, that sounds like what a sermon might be. There are many kinds of sermons: fire and brimstone, salvation-oriented (you’re either saved or not), thanksgiving, challenging, call to repentance and forgiveness, a shape-up sermon and reminder that we are falling ‘way short, or a “We’re doing just fine” sermon. Don’t remember many of those.
I do remember my professor John Young at Queen’s Theological College saying, “A sermon is always in between — between the speaker and the hearer, because each person hears the Word differently; the sermon is also between the Biblical event and tomorrow’s newspaper.”
But let’s not work on a regular sermon today. Let’s just do a little commentary on the Book of Jonah; we can do it in the ten minutes we have, because the whole book is only two pages long! And most of it you know, anyway! A note of possible interest: the story concerns Ninevah in ancient Assyria. Today the architectural ruins of Ninevah are part of the city of Mosul in Iraq.
The story begins as God tells the Hebrew prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, to go to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, to announce its destruction in forty days. Now, the work of a prophet of Jonah’s time, such as Amos or Micah, would be to bring a message from God to the people, usually the prophet’s own people. This time the directive from God was to go to foreigners, the Ninivites, the people who lived in the capital of Assyria. Assyria had been a threat to Israel for centuries, and most recently had dragged off leaders from the northern kingdom of Israel and destroyed the land. Recovery had only begun. The Assyrian army was unmatched for its cruelty and debauchery. So now, because their wickedness had come to God’s attention, God had chosen this Hebrew prophet to travel solo to announce their soon-to-happen destruction. What?
“Not me, not right now, that would be suicidal,” replied Jonah as he headed to the coast and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish in Spain. A short way out into the Mediterranean , as the Scripture tells us, “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” Just a little editorial note here, in the Hebrew language neither bold letters nor capital letters are used for emphasis; the writer just repeats the statement over and over. So the Lord hurled a great wind and there was a mighty tempest are the same storm!!
Well, you know what happened. The sailors narrowed the cause of this tempest down to Jonah, because he had told them he was running away from his God. Each sailor knew that was a poor strategy. Another little note, for us, did you know that the name “Jonah” is still used to this day for someone who brings bad luck, particularly on a ship?
The Captain came down and found Jonah asleep down in the hold. “So, what will we do with you?”
“Throw me overboard and the storm will stop.”
That’s what happened, and God APPOINTED a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights! You can call it a whale if you want to.
Do you remember your Sunday School story? Personally I think the story of Jonah might have been forgotten if it had not been so useful to so many Sunday School teachers. Well no,, it is still in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Koran also, with a few minor adjustments.
While sitting in the fish’s belly, Jonah manages to compose a little psalm.
“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and the Lord answered me;
Out of the belly of Hell, I cried and you heard my voice.
The waters closed in, seaweed wrapped around my head,
When my soul fainted, I remembered the Lord.
With my voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice,
What I promised I will make good,
Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”
Then, the Lord spoke to the fish, and the fish vomited Jonah onto dry land.
THEN, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. “Go to Ninevah and proclaim the message that I told you.” Jonah went. He had just barely reached the edge of the great city, to begin to shout his awful speech , and the people believed him. They proclaimed a fast and everyone put on sackcloth to show their repentance. They even put sackcloth on all their cattle and sheep to show their sincerity.
They cried mightily.
God saw them, saw they were sorry and changed God’s mind. What he said he would do to them, God did not do.
Wait—— there’s one more little chapter.
Jonah was not happy. He didn’t want God to change God’s mind. Jonah wanted to see his message activated, to see the hated city in flames, to see the hated people in terror. The only thing was that made him sad was that all the plants and trees would be destroyed.
God said, “What is the matter with you? You care about the wrong things! There are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people there, should I not care about that city?”
We can see Jonah’s face. This God of my people, this God of mine, actually cares about these terrible Ninivites, these enemies who have hurt my country? Those enemies I have hated! Does God care about them ALL? EVERY ONE? Whose side is God on anyway?
End of my Commentary on Jonah. That’s what it was meant to be, REALLY! Just a commentary. But as I worked, Jonah began to sound like one of us. The way I have heard some people talk about the OTHERS!! Members of another political party, the alt right or the far left. A president with whom we disagree, another religion. And I began to think, “Who are my Ninivites? Who are our Ninivites? For whom do I have trouble praying? Who is worth saving and who is not? These are today’s questions, as we see a world divided.
The truth is powerful When we pick up our Bible, Old or New Testament, and read carefully, the words leap out, the Spirit moves, and all of a sudden there is a message for each one of us , as old as this Book and as fresh and relevant as tomorrow’s news.
God is with us. In life, in death, in life after death God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Elaine Smith reserves all rights © 2018. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.