Scripture Lesson: The Book of Jonah Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The main take away usually associated with the story of Jonah is that God saved Jonah from drowning by sending a big fish, or whale, to pluck him from the depths of the sea and deposit him on dry land. Jonah’s life is saved. Whew! When taught in church school to children this story is used to teach about a miraculous interventionist God who will save you when you are in perilous circumstances. You can count on God to help you no matter how bad a fix you are in.
When we teach this story to kids, we don’t usually make a big deal out of Jonah trying to get away from God and God’s assignment to go to Nineveh to save the great city. We don’t emphasize that in the story God sends the tempestuous storm that threatens not only Jonah’s life but also the lives of the others on the ship. We don’t go on about the fish spitting Jonah out on the shore near the city that he did not want to go to to deliver God’s message. And we do not make a teaching point out of Jonah’s resentment and anger at the successful repentance and transformation of the evil city of Nineveh despite the brief message Jonah is instructed to deliver. Hm. Just a fish story – a big fish rescues someone who is drowning. That’s sometimes where we leave it. Especially for kids.
Among the many messages and meanings in the book of Jonah, I think there is one needling issue that we can all relate to. When good things happen to bad people. Yes, Rabbi Kushner wrote a very helpful book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. While that problem confounds us, the situation of good things happening to bad people can lead to anger, resentment, and offense.
And that is just what happens in this story. Jonah is a faithful prophet of the Hebrew people. He feels called by God to deliver God’s saving word to his people, the Jews. But God calls him to go to Nineveh. Nineveh? The great city known not only for its size but for its wickedness and violence. They are foreigners. They are not allies. They don’t even know that they need saving. Why in heaven’s name would Jonah a prophet of the Hebrews committed to the well-being of his people want to go to Nineveh to proclaim God’s saving word and encourage them to repent and turn in a new direction? Why would Jonah want to be part of this random act of salvation, helping facilitate When Good Things Happen to Bad People?
After the storm, being tossed into the sea, and spending three days in the belly of the beast, tossed up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah sees that he really has no choice in the matter. But he is still resentful, inflamed with indignation. He walks into Nineveh and declares the message God gives to him, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. No “Thus says the Lord.” No fire and brimstone. No long drawn out prophetic recitations of the evils done by the Ninevites. No imaging of the scenes of destruction. Just one short sentence. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
But that is all it takes. The people of Nineveh repent. The king gets on board. The repentance is so all encompassing even the animals of Nineveh participate in the rituals of repentance wearing sackcloth and fasting. The entire city completely repents and turns to the God of the Hebrews. The city is transformed. In the eyes of God, this is a triumph. In the eyes of Jonah, well, since he wants to die, he doesn’t seem to consider it much of a success.
In this story, we see a God that will go to any lengths to dispense grace. Goading a reluctant prophet. Using the natural forces of wind and water to form a storm that threatens life. Sending a fish to help the process. All to save Nineveh, the great, wicked, violent city. God’s sights will not be diverted from the mission of salvation. And this recalcitrant prophet, Jonah, will certainly not get in the way of God’s purposes.
When good things happen to bad people. . . This is a story of mysterious, unpredictable grace. The wrong people, the unlikely people, get on board with God. We are scandalized by grace.
Divine Love will go to any lengths to dispense grace. We see this same impulse in Jesus. Reaching out to those who others think are unworthy, should be forgotten, and are not important. Yet Jesus is not reluctant or resistant like Jonah. Jesus is all in. Send me where the need is greatest. Why bother being a reluctant prophet? Why try to undermine grace? When, as the story of Jonah and of Jesus show us, grace will prevail. And it will be dispensed from the most unlikely sources. To those who may not even know their need. And it may very well prevail in spite of well-intentioned people who are actually in the way.
In the story of Jonah we see that there is no escaping grace. The immensity of God encompasses all of the people and the animals of the great city of Nineveh, as well as the fish of the sea, the wind and the waves, and that surly, quarrelsome prophet, Jonah. Our small-mindedness and resistance is no match for divine grace. So, why waste our energy and resources digging in our heels? Look at all those people and the animals of Nineveh? They immediately and wholeheartedly succumb to grace. They don’t try to hold out, defend themselves, or bargain. They simply accept, say yes, and give thanks!
Grace may be amazing, but it is not exceptional. It makes no exceptions. No one is exempt from grace. Grace is also enigmatic, awe-inspiring, and wonder-full. Its impact is immense. It is life saving. And it encompasses everything and everyone. We can’t escape it.
Several summers ago, we went on a whale watch boat tour from Long Beach, California. They don’t make any promises about seeing a whale, but we saw several in the waters off the shores of California among the oil drilling platforms. We saw the humpback whale and the right whale. It was stunning. They were beautiful. Then, when we should have been heading back, the boat headed further out from shore. The announcer told us to get up and look off the side of the boat. There was a huge light blue patch in the water that looked almost like a sand bar. It was long and oval shaped. And as we got closer, we were told that this was a blue whale. The largest whale in the seas. It’s really gray but it is called the blue whale because of the light blue patch seen in the water when it is swimming near the surface. We got quite close to the whale. We were standing on the deck of the boat. Our son, Malcolm, and I were standing next to each other. We clasped hands and wept. There was nothing that could be said in the presence of this the largest living creature on the planet. This was simply an unforgettable moment. The immensity of it inspired awe and wonder.
There was room in the belly of that whale for everyone aboard our tour and maybe even the boat itself. And even that huge creature dwarfs the scope of the capacity of grace to impact all of life and creation itself. So why bother trying to opt out or jump ship – grace will still take you in and save you. Amen.
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