Grace to you and peace from God our father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dear Johannes congregation
I am happy to preach here today, even if the reason is not a pleasant one. I am also glad to be preaching on a very interesting text from the prophet of Jonah. The prescribed text is a selection of verses from Chapters 1 and 2. I have decided to read only the first three and to preach about the whole book.
I read from Jonah Chapter 1
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:
2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
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.
This is a story we probably all know from our Children’s Church days, impressive and exciting. I know two brilliant retellings of this story. One was in English on a CD my children had of Bible stories. This was one of the most well done of all, entitled “Jonah was a groaner”. It had a repetitive chorus throughout the story – “and Jonah groaned”. The reteller has recognized how much humour there is in the original tale and brought it out very well. The second was in verse in German called “the whole fish was full of song”. I will be quoting some extracts in my sermon (unfortunately untranslatable).
Bible scholars say that the Jonah story is a novella, probably written down in the early post exilic era. The oldest biblical stories are all short and stand alone, being transmitted orally for centuries before being written down. They were then collected and combined into longer stories. However the Jonah story is one literary creation from start to finish, even though there are probably oral stories behind it. It is quite possible that also the Joseph story and the story of Ruth are from this time, also literary creations in one style from beginning to end. All three stories probably have the same background: The post-exilic battles around Israel’s identity and relationships with the other nations. There were two clearly opposing camps. The one side said: Israel needs to be pure and holy, set apart from other nations, obeying God’s laws and not getting contaminated by the other people and their customs. The other side said, Israel was chosen in order to be a light to the nations. God is God of the whole world and loves all the nations. He wants to bless the other nations through us. These two camps remained in Judaism. The Pharisees were clearly on the one side and Jesus identified with the other side. The book of Jonah stands very clearly in this tradition: God is God of the whole world, he wants to help all people. The book Ruth reminded people of the fact that God blessed Israel through the life of a Moabitess, the grandmother of David. And the writer of the Joseph story drew attention to the fact that through Joseph, God saved not only his family
but the whole of the land of Egypt. But Israel had the tendency again and again to withdraw from the other nations. The church too, in spite of the clear command to go out has regularly withdrawn, set itself apart, resisted the call to go to the others – understandably so. Going out is uncomfortable, especially those who don’t think like us, who are a threat to our lifestyle and what we hold dear. This is what the Ninevites were to Jonah, a threat, an enemy. Why should he tell them to repent? We can listen to Jonah because he is very much like most of us.
God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was becoming a world power. At the time of the historical Jonah it was a growing threat. At the time the book was written it had already destroyed the Northern Kingdom. Think of someone who threatens your life, your culture, the existence of your people. What would you have said, if God had sent you there? Jonah groaned, and then he decided to flee, far away, as far away as was humanly possible in those days.Tarshish was in southern Spain, far away from Israel and even further from Nineveh. In the time of the historical Jonah, people still believed in territorial gods. Most common believers in Israel would have seen their God Yahweh in the same way. He was bound to the land and to the sanctuaries where he was worshipped. The prophets and teachers already preached a universal God, most most common believers would have agreed with Jonah. If you run to Southern Spain you are out of sight of the God of Israel. However the writers and readers of this book in the post-exilic age had progressed far beyond that. The exile had taught them that God was not bound to land and the temple and that he had made heaven and earth. One cannot flee from God, not even to the far side of the sea as Psalm 139 puts it. And there is much humour here in observing Jonah’s useless efforts and perhaps a jab against the contemporaries who again want to restrict God to being the national God of Israel. We don’t know what role the historical Jonah played in the Northern Kingdom, but he seems to have had some bad press, as his portrayal is not particularly favourable, so many years later. But the readers of the book will have enjoyed the humour of this scene. Jonah runs, but God is in control, everywhere, even on the open ocean. He sends a terrible storm. The sailors cast lots over who is to blame and the lot falls on Jonah. He admits that he ran away from his God. They throw him overboad and the storm ceases. To Jonah’s great shame the heathen sailors believe in his God after this and worship him.
Jonah believes his end has come, but God is not yet finished with his rebellious prophet. God sends a deliverer in the shape of a huge fish. Here we find an element that is present in myths and legends of nations all around the world: A great beast or monster swallows a person, but the person is saved out of the greatest danger. These are images of our subconscious. Countless people have dreamed this: You a chased by a dangerous animal, you run or swim furiously but know you cannot get away. It comes closer and closer – you wake up. Myths and stories of the people of the world deal with these elementary fears of the night. They tell how people are swallowed, overwhelmed, but still manage to survive it. What seems to be the end can become a new beginning. There is danger out there, but also the means to survive and triumph. There is deep wisdom in these stories and they are found everywhere. So it is with the Jonah story, but interestingly the huge fish is not a monster chasing Jonah as is the wolf in Red Riding hood or the whale Monstro in the Pinocchio story. No dramatic rescue is necessary. This big fish is simply a servant of God who rescues Jonah from drowning and vomits him out when he is ready to continue his journey.
Three days and three nights Jonah spends in the darkest of spaces. It it not surprising that for Christians from the very beginning this story becomes a pointer to the death and resurrection of Jesus. One could say what ancient folk tales have told about, have sensed as a possibility becomes a reality in Jesus Christ, which draws us in. Early Christians painted pictures of Jonah and the fish onto their tombs. They saw in it an image of resurrection, but also a call to conversion. Jonah stands for people who run away from God, denied him but are called back. In the depths begins the process of conversion. For Jonah this is the beginning of a new relationship with God, from whom one cannot flee.
The writer of the story adds in a Psalm at this point. The Jonah story becomes intertwined with other human stories of despair, rebellion and delivery from death. In the depths of the sea Jonah sings a song of praise to a saving God. I hope we can all recognize this encouraging message of the Fish rather than, as some commentaries do, become bogged down in pointless arguments about whether there are really fish who could swallow and spit out a human being or if God created this one specially for Jonah. There are plenty of those on the Internet. There is no doubt that God could specially create such a fish, but if this was the point of the story, the song of praise would have probably have mentioned the miraculous rescue by a special fish.
And then Jonah goes to Nineveh and he has much greater success with his sermon of doom than he ever thought possible. The whole city repents and is dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Jonah should be happy. There are few preachers who can boast of such success. But when God relents and decides to spare the city, Jonah is not happy. Jonah groaned. God should destroy these enemies. He is not happy with a merciful God. It does not seem that the conversion in the depths of despair really made a new person of him. He is still the old “groaner”. He seems to have accepted the task to proclaim doom against a nation threatening Israel. It seems for Jonah, God is still the God of Israel, who saves his people and punishes the rest. It is interesting how often this happens: People have amazing experiences with God, but still don’t “get it”. They are again full of doubt, close-minded and full of bigotry in spite of everything. Peter had countless amazing experiences with Christ, encountered the risen one, had a vision of the cloth with unclean animals which encouraged him to go to Cornelius, but not much later, Paul clashes with him because he withdraws from eating with the Gentiles. Here there is a clash between closed and open theology within a person called by God. God should punish the evil people in Nineveh. How can he have mercy on people like that? Can he really love those who think differently and act differently from us? If we are not the people with the best culture, and best religion, set apart – what remains for us? Do we have a special right to life if God wants to save everyone?
The Jonah story does not give a solution to the difficult problem of Election versus Universalism and how they relate to each other. But in the last brilliantly narrated scene, God is shown as the sovereign who can save and destroy whoever he likes, but who ultimately wants to save. God lets a leafy plant grow as shade for Jonah. Jonah is happy about it. But already in the next night, a worm kills off the plant. Then Jonah groaned, groaned louder than ever. He wants to die.
The story ends with a pep-talk from God which ends with a question and no response from Jonah. Jonah is concerned about the plant he never planted or tended. Should God not be concerned about the big city with all its people and animals?
God’s concern is for all nations. This is what the post-exilic author proclaims in this masterful narrative. Yes, Israel is the chosen nation. But that is not a trophy of honour to lock away in a glass case. It is a calling to go out and be a blessing to the world. Jesus claimed this tradition about God’s love for everyone for himself. God loves the world in all its diversity, black, white, man, woman, German, English and Setswana, also Jews, Muslims and Hindus. We are called to proclaim this love to everyone, even there where it is uncomfortable, and to live this love in such a way that others can believe it is true. We are called to be a blessing in the world. A friend of mine in Germany put it this way: People in Muslim countries were never allowed to freely hear the gospel. Now they are coming to us. Will they experience something here with us that will encourage them to hear this message? She hoped that she would be a credible witness.
The poet who wrote the German verses about Jonah also wrote a church hymn which we will sing after this sermon. It is in the German hymnal and expresses very well, what I think the author of the book of Jonah wanted to say:
O trust the ways God leads you, with joyful heart now go. Wherever this path takes you His guidance you will know. The God of earth and heaven, the Lord who gave us breath wants us to be a blessing, sign of His love on earth.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.