Jonah and the Big Fish

Dear friends,

Most people know something about Jonah and the big fish — a whale, as the common interpretation goes — that swallowed him. Just about everyone knows that story, right? As we continue our Lenten series Darkest Before the Dawn, we’ll take another look at this epic fish tale and Jonah’s experience of darkness and dawn.

Jonah earned his nickname — “The Reluctant Prophet” — because when God called him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, he didn’t want to go. He really didn’t want to go. Nineveh was a very large city — a three days’ walk across—and God was asking Jonah to travel throughout that city, calling on the Ninevites to repent, to turn around, to change direction.

Jonah had his reasons for not wanting to take on that role. For one thing, the Ninevites were particularly horrible people. The worst of the worst. Their cruelty was legendary. In fact, they had the reputation of being almost inhuman because of the terrible things they did — like skinning people alive, to name just one. It’s really easy to see why Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with the Ninevites.

For Jonah, there was also another issue. In his mind — and in the minds of just about everyone else — the Ninevites were undeserving of God’s favor. More to the point, Jonah would have said they were deserving of God’s wrath.

Clearly, these were people who needed smiting — good old-fashioned fire and brimstone smiting.

So Jonah just flat refused to go. In fact, he got on a boat that was headed in the opposite direction — “Away from the Lord,” the text says. Then, when a massive storm arose and it became clear to everyone on board that it was Jonah’s fault (he did refuse God’s direct command, after all), they threw him overboard.

As the story goes, Jonah was then swallowed by a big fish, and he stayed in the belly of this giant fish for three days. Imagine the darkness! Imagine the smell! Then, as if that weren’t enough of a clue, the fish vomited him up on the shore.

So Jonah decided it was probably time to go to Nineveh.

As he entered the city he cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Oh, how Jonah relished the thought! The idea of Nineveh being overthrown was delightful to him. It was exactly what they deserved. And then, the Ninevites did the very thing Jonah was afraid they’d do.

They repented. They turned around. They changed directions.

So, what was that reluctant prophet to do? Jonah knew very well what would come next. When God saw that they had ceased their evil behavior, God would be gracious. They’d be forgiven and offered the very grace they didn’t deserve. And that’s exactly what happened.

Jonah was furious! Jonah said, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” (Jonah 4:2) Jonah was, to put it mildly, disturbed. He became snarky and overly dramatic. “At this point, Lord,” he said, “you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3)

Then he went out and sat down east of the city and sulked. He watched and waited to see what would happen to the city. Here’s what happened next:

Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:6-11)

The story ends with the sun rising over a repentant Nineveh and an unrepentant Jonah still sitting in darkness. He completely missed the point. The writer doesn’t want us to miss the point and remain unrepentant, however. The grace of God extends far beyond where we might draw the boundaries. The story of Jonah ends with a question: will dawn come for Jonah? I like to think that the dawn finally came for ol’ Jonah, too. It is, after all, darkest before the dawn.

In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, we read about some of the legal experts and the Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign. Jesus replied, “An evil and unfaithful generation searches for a sign, but it won’t receive any sign except Jonah’s sign.  Just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Human One will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:39-40)

I look forward to digging a little deeper into this familiar story and Jesus’ reference to it on Sunday at 11:00 in Sanctuary worship as we celebrate the dawn that always follows darkness.

Grace and Peace,

Dr. Tim Bruster
Senior Pastor

 

Jonah 1:1-3; 4:1-11  Common English Bible (CEB)

1: 1 The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.   

4: 1 But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”         

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