A Big Fish Story
During the month of July, we are going to do a series of messages on Bible stories that we may have studied as children but have had little exposure to them since. How do these stories connect to us as adults? What meaning can we get from them as our faith has matured?
I’ll bet you can guess today’s Bible story based on the title. (Listen for responses.) Who hasn’t heard a Big Fish story, or maybe even told one. You know...the fish that was THIS big (stretching arms wide) but got away just as it was coming into the boat? Well, this is a ‘whale’ of a story, but it isn’t the fish that got away. This is about the prophet that got away, temporarily.
We heard the first chapter, where God called Jonah to prophesy to the Assyrians in Nineveh. Keep in mind the Assyrians were enemies of Israel. So God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Jonah, no different from any other average person, responded with a ‘NO WAY’ and headed in the opposite direction. Nineveh was about 600 miles to the East of Israel, in current day Mosul, Iraq. But Jonah literally took off in the extreme opposite direction, jumping on a ship heading to Tarshish on the west coast of Spain 2,200 miles away.
The power of Scripture is that the Biblical stories can connect to us through time and space. Who HASN’T run from God’s call at one time or another? Seriously, how many people can say they follow God’s will each day? When we are told to forgive those who have hurt us, don’t we often turn and run? When we are to courageously proclaim Jesus Christ, don’t we turn and hide in fear? When God tells us to give generously to Him and to others without judgment, don’t we turn and pretend we can’t help? All of us are Jonah’s during our lifetimes!
While traveling across the Mediterranean, a great storm kicked up that threatened to collapse the ship. Jonah told the people on the ship that the storm was a result of his running from God and told the men to throw him overboard. So these men, strangers to the God of Israel, prayed to him for mercy and threw Jonah overboard. The storm came to a halt.
There are consequences to our actions. And sometimes they affect others in ways that we don’t expect. A seemingly simple act of kindness might be the seed that was needed to bring hope to a hopeless situation. Or on the opposite side of the spectrum, a rude comment might be overheard that turns another away from the Church. In Jonah’s repentance, the crew of the ship prayed to the God of Israel for the first time and believed.
After spending time in the fish’s belly, Jonah repented and God gave him another chance. Why? Because God has a purpose for him and for us. He does not leave us alone but persistently provides opportunities for us to stop rebelling in order to accomplish His will. In this case, His will was to provide an opportunity for the Ninevites to repent. So Jonah took his second chance, prophecied to the Assyrians, they repented, and God had mercy on them.
What we didn’t hear in today’s readings is that in the next/last chapter, Jonah is angry at God’s grace. He said he’d rather not have been born than to see God’s mercy upon the enemies. He knew that God would show forgiveness which was why Jonah ran in the first place. And that’s the way the short, 4 chapter book of Jonah ends. Jonah is angry and God says, ‘shouldn’t I be concerned with 120,000 people who were blind to their sins?”
God is going to have His way, whether we like it or not. That means loving people we don’t like, showing forgiveness to people that we are bitter against, and providing multiple opportunities for repentance and mercy. We often want to think that we deserve God’s grace by our actions, but no one does. Instead we are continuously reminded that we are sinners, like Jonah, running from God’s call. And Jesus continuously reminds us that he doesn’t leave us, he loves us, and he forgives us when we fall short. Amen.