June 2, 2019
“Jonah: One Whale Of A Tale”
The Book of Jonah
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church
At a graduation party last Sunday one of our folks looked at me and said, “I have a serious question for you.” “Is there any part in the Bible that you find difficult to believe?” I said, “There are some parts in the Bible that I wish weren’t there – such as when in the Old Testament, entire villages, with children and women, were destroyed at God’s command. I wish such things weren’t done.” And I told him, “There are some things in the Bible that I find difficult to understand – teachings that are complicated – hard to fit into my tiny brain.” But my answer to his question was, “I believe all God’s word, even the parts that I don’t agree with, and the parts that I don’t fully understand.”
I imagine that my answer was conditioned by my education and the time when I entered preparation for being a pastor. I began studies in Winfield, Kansas in 1975 – two years after the Missouri Synod just about came apart. In 1973 the majority of the faculty and the students at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis disagreed about matters of Biblical interpretation with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and quickly began a seminary-in-exile, called Seminex. The church was split. 1973 was a tough year in our church body.
So when I entered pre-seminary studies just two years after the walk-out the question of where the next generation of pastors would stand was being fought. How would the Bible be interpreted and understood was quite the question then. The account of Jonah was one of the books being examined. Was it true? Was it factual? Was there a Jonah? Was there a fish that really swallowed him? Or was the book just a fable or a parable? Some said there wasn’t a Jonah, or a fish, but it was a moral story that all could profit from. Others insisted on its historical truth.
Today, one of you, with no name attached to it, by the way, said, “During the summer of 2019 I would be interested in hearing a sermon prepared and preached on: “Jonah”. A nice smiley face followed the request.
“Jonah: One Whale Of A Tale.” Maybe I selected the title too quickly – the text never tells us that he was in a whale – just a fish. But I would imagine it would be quite a big one!! So, what do we learn from this book?
There was this preacher, Jonah, maybe around the year 800 B.C., who was told to go to Nineveh, a big city in Assyria. The Assyrians were the enemies of Israel and they were a powerful and ungodly nation. Well, instead of going to Nineveh (east) Jonah went west. Instead of getting on a camel to cross the desert he jumped on a ship “to flee from the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3)
But God wasn’t too happy with him. A storm that frightened even the old crusty sailors came up. Jonah told them what he had done, how he wasn’t going to do what God told him to do, and Jonah said that if he was thrown overboard the sea would become quiet. He was tossed overboard and the sea became calm.
But God wasn’t done in wanting the people of Nineveh to repent. And He wasn’t done in sending Jonah to them. So the fish came. Swallowed him. For 3 days and, 3 nights he was in a very dark place, but he was given another chance to do God’s will.
After landing on dry land, stinking with the vomit of that fish, chapter 3 begins, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Verses 1-2) So he does. He goes. He preaches. They listen. They repent. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5)
That had to make Jonah happy, right? His words worked!! They heard his sermon and it was effective. Isn’t that what every preaches wants? We don’t want to waste our time or be irrelevant. We want to see results – conversions, people coming to faith, lives being changed, made better, stronger. Jonah got all of that. And it made him miserable.
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘O, Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’” (Jonah 4:1-3)
He didn’t like the Assyrians. He despised the city of Nineveh. He wanted all of them to go to hell. He didn’t want mercy; he wanted justice and punishment. He wanted his sermon to fail and for God to wipe them out.
Jonah, it is one whale of a tale, isn’t it? But what makes it such a great book isn’t just about a fish that would be used to give Jonah a second chance to do God’s will, but much more than that. A fish swallowing a man and then for him to be there for three nights and three days is quite a miracle, but that isn’t the only one. Look at this book and you will see many more. Miracle’s abound in this book!!
One whale of a tale – Jonah, a miserable example of God’s prophet and preacher, is given numerous chances to be the person that God called him to be. God keeps on coming back to him, giving him another chance to be His person. It doesn’t take Jonah long to run away, willingly, from God. But God finds him in the open sea and then the word of grace is spoken. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is the God of the second chances, right? I hope that you have found that to be true. Second chances, a million times over. God is not so quick in washing His hands or turning away. He doesn’t give up on us so quickly. Divine persistence and patience is a miracle – God’s miracle to us, and to Jonah.
One whale of a tale – Nineveh, an awful people, the Oakland Raiders or the Kansas City Chiefs of their day, repent. Jonah’s sermon? “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Their hearts were crushed, their guilt was overwhelming, they turned to God. Repentance is no easy thing. We find reasons for doing the wrong thing. We can justify just about anything – finding the rationale for our evil choices. But they were cut to the core. Sackcloth and ashes. Tearing their garments. Weeping. It’s a miracle that they listened and repented. It is a miracle that they were forgiven. They too were given a second chance.
One whale of a tale – the bad guys are forgiven and the guy who was the voice of God to them – still hadn’t learned. Jonah, even now, doesn’t like the outcome. God had given him a second chance but he didn’t like the fact that the enemy had been given a second chance, as well. They were the Gentiles, they were the unclean, they were not the chosen ones, but God called them clean and pure and forgiven. It is one whale of a tale because the bad guys end up good, and the good guy ends up bad.
One whale of a tale – this book is not just about Jonah but it is about Jesus. In Matthew 12 some of the enemies of Jesus asked for some proof of who He was. This is what He said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except 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.” (Verses 39-40) Jonah’s miracle pointed to a greater miracle – the resurrection of Jesus. Look at all Jesus went through – the trial, the condemnation, the judgment, the “My, God, Why have You forsaken me?”, and then the resurrection.
Jonah is the account of God’s judgment on Jonah, going into the heart of the sea, having no hope and then the rescue, then the new life, then the new beginning. Jonah in the belly of the fish; Jesus in the heart of the earth. Jonah rose from “death”; Jesus rose from death. One whale of a tale gets even bigger, even more miraculous, even more saving when you see Jesus in the account.
Today, you sang for the first time, (maybe the last time?) the only hymn is our hymnal that mentions Jonah. It is found in the Easter section, because Jonah is all about Easter and resurrection. Verse one: “All the earth with joy is sounding: Christ has risen from the dead! He, the greater Jonah, bounding from the grave, His three-day bed, wins the prize: death’s demise – songs of triumph fill the skies.” (LSB, #462, Verse 1)
Jonah is one whale of a tale, a true one that God continues to speak. Amen!!