UNDERSTANDING GREAT BIBLE STORIES: JONAH
Today our Bible story takes us to Iraq. This last quarter, American armed force recruitment quotas have been down sharply. A report this week concerning particularly the Army said men and women of color, who have for years found enlistment as a means to afford college and decent income, have their parents imploring their children not to enlist! Are these parents unpatriotic? They say no; but in these volatile times they do not want their son or daughter being deployed in Iraq.
Years ago, like an Uncle Sam poster, the Lord God pointed to a native of Israel and said “I want you to become a chaplain in an Israeli army of one! In other words, I am sending you to the unfaithful Iraqi city of Nineveh.” With an objective, that in his heyday, may have even made Billy Graham shudder, Jonah was asked to Nineveh, which still exists in Iraq, to speak out against their wickedness, their killings and such, and see if they would turn to the true God who had no use for their antics. Jonah muttered under his breath that he’d rather chew gravel than go to Nineveh, so he decided he’d ponder the choice by taking a European cruise instead. You can relate, can’t you? Taking a cruise to get away from obligations and work? Well he paid his fare and decided that Spain would be a nice place to visit that time of year. His personal agenda had to come first! He must have left his unselfishness at seminary. None of this enlistment in the army of the Lord for him! No putting God first, when God asked outrageous things of him like risk, commitment, and changing priorities! How would you have answered God? Often we look at Jonah from afar, but isn’t there a lot of you and me, and those around you, and those not in church, in Jonah? Especially those who are doing something that crowds God out of a busy schedule, they can relate to Jonah, can’t they? This is the trap of personal agendas; in our day it is encouraged by coworkers, by television programs, and by advertisers. This is the first time the Bible records that Jonah’s spiritual cruise had run aground. He chose not only to ignore God, he chose to run away from God’s request. Like a little child who covers her eyes and thinks by doing so that no one can see her, Jonah thinks he can hide where God can’t find him. Nonsense. It is as much nonsense for us today as it was for Jonah. We cannot run from God; God just teaches us lessons along the way and waits us out.
Jonah, nevertheless, boards his cruise; even as the steel drum band was playing as they cast off, the crew saw no red sky that night and, being a superstitious lot, they began to get anxious. They could tell a storm was coming. And sure as the National Weather Service, their instincts were right. The storm was so strong, at least a category two, that each crewman cried to his make-believe gods of the sea to save them. But it was fruitless. They even thought that a costly offering to Poseidon, their ruler of the deep, would settle things down, so they dumped their valuable cargo overboard. Still the wind howled and the ship pitched almost to the point of not righting herself. They knew that an Israelite was with them and that he had a different God. They asked him to also pray to his God. Isn’t it just the way when people, who set out on their own agenda, get in to trouble, that they begin praying the Rosary which they haven’t touched since their last crisis; or they dust off their Bible and become religious; or they make a frantic attempt at a remorseful speech like a prodigal son or daughter. The crew was a desperate group but nothing worked. Finally and unbelievably, Jonah set his personal agenda aside and, in not his first and not his last moment of self-pity, he offered to let them throw him to the sharks. He almost decided to jump from his balcony but thought the better of it. At wits end, however, the crew pushed him overboard. Like cold water added boiling water, the sea became instantly still; the ship righted herself and the crew members stopped hanging their head over the side; calm began to prevail.
A shark might have put Jonah out of his misery more quickly; but God had other plans for his servant; he wasn’t going to avoid the Lord simply by dying! So God arranged for a very large fish, some have even said a whale, (which we now know is a mammal) to swallow Jonah and miraculously give him the only spot underwater with breathable air. Now don’t ask me who the narrator of the story was who could follow this escapade like a cable news crew, but they managed to record everything in this book by his name. They even heard his frightful sense of penance, with his seemingly heartfelt prayer: being in the damp and gooey belly of a fish can make even the Army seem inviting to a man! He was deciding that like Uncle Sam, if the Lord wanted him, he would go. “Good!” said the Lord after the fish spewed him onto a Mediterranean beach, with no umbrella or cabana to be found. He would indeed need his sand shoes, but not for the beach; he was headed over the desert east by northeast to face the people he dreaded facing; he thought they were sinful, inferior, and he had no business mixing with their kind. He had built a life-long prejudice. You know people who have done that; even we have some “learned” prejudices that we can unlearn over time. When Norman Lear created the character of Archie Bunker for “All in the Family,” he asked Carroll O’Connor to portray an exaggerated caricature of a bigot. He thought people might laugh at him and the foolishness of such attitudes; instead, he was shocked when people agreed with Archie’s ignorant bigoted beliefs! Jonah, however, wasn’t Archie Bunker. Jonah was, in all likelihood, like some in our day who just don’t like certain people, even before they get to know them, because they are of a certain color or orientation or creed or nationality or party affiliation. “I’ll never accept them!” some people mutter under their breath. That’s how Jonah felt about the Ninevites. But when he delivered his fiery sermon, he was floored when they actually said, “Okay, we have heard you and your God. We will repent, and show true remorse, and change our ways. Few preachers have such unequivocal success! That would make Jonah happy right? “Grrrrr” muttered Jonah under his breath. He wanted a reason to continue disliking, griping, and alienating. Have you ever witnessed parents, children, neighbors, or a boss, who wanted you to agree to their terms in a situation, and then after you agreed to them they still groused and made additional demands? These are small people; Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, a preacher, was a small person that day; wouldn’t be the first believer like that or the last, but it was a low day when God’s army, the Heavenly Host, wanted to cheer for the repentant Ninevites and Jonah’s response took the cold water that had calmed the furious sea and threw it in their faces.
Personal agenda; prejudice; and finally pride had brought a man of God down to a level below the ones he hated. God was more pleased with the ones Jonah hated than with Jonah! Have you ever had the thought that God may be more pleased with those you hate than with you? We can make ourselves into an embarrassment before our family, friends, and God just like Jonah did, can’t we? It’s like holding a mirror up to a time that you hoped others had forgotten. Chapter 4 of Jonah paints a pathetic picture of a pouting man. Jonah was unhappy that his enemies had repented, and even more unhappy that God had forgiven them. “I knew you’d do that since you’re so patient and loving!” Jonah cried out. “That’s why I was running to Spain. I wish a shark had eaten me rather than be responsible for the salvation of those awful people!” Jonah stomped away, forgetting that God could follow him as easily as he could on the ship. You or I never really stomp away from God; like a cable news network, God stays on the story and never lets it go. So Jonah sulked under the shade of a plant that God provided, which made him feel back in control, until God let a worm eat at it and the plant died, which made Jonah feel worse. Finally, in a classic change of subject to close the book, Jonah is arguing with God- not about Ninevites- but about the now withered plant.
Although few of us see ourselves as Ninevites, in our most pathetic moments of running from discipleship or the teachings of Jesus if we sound like Jonah, we are most to be pitied. How pathetic. May you not fall into the traps that this prophet fell in to: traps of personal agenda, of prejudice, and of pride. Instead, the Lord asks for your enlistment, your discipleship, your faithfulness- call it what you may. And when you live more like Jesus and less like Jonah, suddenly for you, there will be a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God and saying, “Glory to God!” For the Bible says that Heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. Heaven rejoiced over the Ninevites; may Heaven rejoice over your choices and my choices this week as well.
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 26, 2007