Summary: Are we disobedient to God or do we follow him without question?
As you can tell, our scripture readings today have a theme. You may have to think a bit, but it does help if you read the sermon title and also were listening during the children’s moments. Both our stories relate to fish: one to a big fish story and one to fishermen at their nets. There has to be some bad jokes that can come from both those sources.
But these stories are ones that also speak of obedience to God and our willingness to follow God’s directions for us.
Many of us may recall the story of Jonah. The book of Jonah is a short book, 4 chapters. Some believe the story is allegorical or a metaphor for the disobedience of the Israelites and the salvation of the Gentiles . But Jonah is documented as a historical figure in 2 Kings and he his mentioned in several ancient Jewish histories.
The major point that divides the scholars seems to hinge on the supernatural: some cannot accept the supernatural element of the story, a great fish swallowing a man. When I hear the story of Jonah, I am always reminded of the scene from Pinocchio where they are all in the belly of the whale with the furniture floating about trying to think of a way out.
So today we will not debate or argue on the historical or allegorical sense of the Jonah story. What we will focus on is the lesson from this story and how we can apply it to our lives. Because you see Jonah is what many of us are at certain points in our lives: stubborn, disobedient and prideful.
Who us? Who me? Like Jonah, like him. Naw, I must have it all wrong. I know all of us, as children were immediately obedient to our parent’s desires. I know that there was not a single one of us that every disobeyed. I know when our parents gave us a chore to do—we did it immediately, I know when our parents said that we couldn’t go to that teenage party—I know we stayed home. I know when they said you couldn’t watch that movie—that when we went over to a friend’s house and they put that movie on, we of course left. I know when they asked us, “Have you finished your homework yet”—we always replied, “no, not yet.” And I know none of you ever made up excuses why your homework was not done to a teacher. We are of course nothing like disobedient Jonah.
Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh and preach against them. Well Nineveh was a nice place to hear about but not to go. They were an adulterous people and they were cruel and Jonah despised them. They were his people’s enemy and he didn’t want to go and give them the warning from God. So he chose to take a different route entirely, he chose to go to Tarshish. He got aboard a ship heading to Tarshish for Tarshish was as far from Nineveh as he could get.
A great storm begins and the crew is terrified wanting to know what or who has caused this. Jonah fesses up and tells them there only hope is to toss him overboard, they try to reach the shore but the storm becomes more violent, so Jonah is promptly thrown overboard. As soon as he is off the boat, the storm stops and the water becomes calm. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, the original Greek, uses large or great fish. We all assume because great means big it must have been a whale. But let me tell you what is happening back up on the boat. Those heathens, those sailors, begin to praise the Hebrew God and begin to worship Him.
The next events must have been a surprise to Jonah. Here he is expecting to drown and where is he but in a fish’s belly. That just must have been pleasant. I bet it turned him off from seafood for quite awhile. Now as I was doing my study and research, I came across in some of my commentaries that there were actual accounts of sailors being swallowed by great fish and surviving. So it does give you some pause.
Anyhow, back to poor Jonah. Inside the fish for three days, he is now praying up a storm (no pun intended). He is praying a prayer of submission to God. He determines that he will never act like one of those who forfeit the grace that could be his in God.
God forgives Jonah and he is regurgitated upon the land. Now that’s pleasant isn’t it? God again repeats Jonah’s commission to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys. It took him 3 full days to get around to the entire city, proclaiming that they have only 40 days and Nineveh would be overturned. Amazingly the king and nobles lead the entire population in confession and repentance before the Lord. They humble their selves to God; they declared a fast and all wear sackcloth. And God changes his mind, he does not destroy Nineveh.