A Big Fish Story

Jonah 3:1-5; January 21, 2018
Pastor Rebecca Ellenson; ICCM

One of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons depicts a bearded man standing at his front door. He is dripping wet and his clothes are in tatters. His wife opens the door. She takes one look at her disheveled husband and says, “For crying out loud Jonah! Three days late, covered with slime and smelling like fish. What story have I got to swallow this time?”

Even non-Christians know about the story of Jonah, the man swallowed by a whale, or as the text really says, a large fish.  Today we heard Cheryl read just a few verses of the book.  But, like all good stories – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, the tale of the big fish is meant to be heard as a whole. The book of Jonah should be allowed to speak to us in that oldest form of truth, the funny story.

It’s hard to classify the book of Jonah.  Is it a fable or a farce? Serious history or satire?  With its life saving fish, misplaced psalms, and repentant cows it may be a little of all these things.  In this great little book, we encounter the true character of God, who rules over the waves, inspires sacred songs on the lips of even those who are running from God.  We discover the God who loves lowly desert bushes and great foreign cities.

There’s a Native American way of introducing a story by saying that goes like this: I don’t know if this really happened, but I know it’s true.  If we insist that the story is a factual reporting of a historical event we risk losing its glorious structure and clever punchlines.  The Word of God communicates its truth in so many ways: poetry, prophetic oracles, and memorable stories told in the classic forms of humor and satire.  How rich the Word is!  Jonah’s story invites us to hear not just its lesson, but it’s wildly funny, improbable, and subversive storyline.  It delivers its message like a wonderfully told joke.

Like many jokes, the Book of Jonah starts out with an outrageous premise. One of the favorite jokes in the Scriptures is the unexpected faithfulness of the outsider, the other, the enemy.  Balaam, Ruth, the Good Samaritan, the Syro-Phoenecian Woman are, like the Ninevites and the sailors in this story, stock characters of biblical storytelling.

So, Jonah is sent to preach to the unexpectedly faithful outsiders, the residents of Ninevah—a major city in Assyria, to the east, a nation that conquered the Israelites.  Assyria was the arch enemy of Israel.  It had a reputation for evil and cruelty.  One writer says, “This was the country that scorched its enemies alive to decorate its walls and pyramids with their skin.” The Assyrians repeatedly conquered and enslaved the people of Israel and Judah in the 9th and 8th centuries.   No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go!

After this initial outrageous assignment, Jonah responds in an equally outlandish way.  He runs in the opposite direction, to Tarshish, a western seaport on the edge of the known world at the time.  But like the Psalm for today says, “God alone is our rock and salvation.”   Or in our psalm from last week, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

The tall tale continues with a disaster at sea that is played for every laugh like a dramatic melodrama or farce.  A wild and extreme storm threatens them all.  The crew throws everything they can overboard, in an attempt to stay afloat – but nothing is working. Finally, it dawns on them that maybe their new passenger has something to do with their misfortune. They find him and tell him to get up and start praying. They ask who he is and where he is from – and Jonah admits that he is a Hebrew, and worships the God who made heaven and earth. His words strike fear into the hearts of the crew. So, at Jonah’s suggestion, they throw him overboard.  Jonah’s presence and his reluctant testimony of who his God is, even as he is running from that God and hiding in the bottom of the boat, is enough to cause even hardened sailors to repent and be saved.

Just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. He remains there inside the fish for three days. He prays to God from the depths of the sea. His prayers, by the way, are not terribly faithful or sincere.  Like anyone in a calamitous disaster he alternates between pleading and blaming God for the situation.  God answers the prayers, and the fish unceremoniously vomits Jonah onto dry land.

You can almost hear the ancient Hebrew audience chuckling in the background. This prophet who thought he was too good for the Ninevites is, like the man in the “Far Side” comic, covered in fish slime, dripping wet and disheveled, smelling like a fish market on a hot summer day when “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time”.  God tells him once again, in what professional comics identify as a callback, to “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

So, with his sandals making that awful squishing noise, Jonah goes to Nineveh. He wanders half-heartedly through the city, which is in typical joke style, impossibly large by ancient standards – three days walk and some 60 miles across. Jonah is a slow learner.  He mumbles the shortest sermon ever given, 8 little words of prophesy. There is no hope in his message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  Jonah would like nothing better than for the whole place to be leveled. Oh, he does as he’s been told, he warns them, but in his heart of hearts, Jonah is secretly counting the days until the Lord wipes Nineveh off the map.

And now, the joke becomes serious. Nineveh actually does listen – something Jonah never thought would happen. The whole city repents – the King, the citizens, even the livestock, the goats and chickens and cows – they all repent and change their ways. And God’s mind is changed. Nineveh is spared.

Jonah however doesn’t get the joke. He doesn’t think this is funny at all. Jonah can’t believe it. After all he’s been through, apparently the joke is on him. “Just kill me now,” he prays to God. “Just kill me now,” he whines, in classic Woody Allen fashion.  After all this, and God doesn’t go through with it? Jonah is angry, and he goes off to pout by himself.

Comics speak of the “rule of three” which means that a joke gets its best laughs on the third time around.  God, it seems, would play another little joke on Jonah, providing him with a shade tree to give him relief from the sun, only to make the tree die the very next day. All of which just makes Jonah more angry.  The joke comes around deeply though, as we begin to see that Jonah embodies our own grudges.

God has a final word for Jonah, and for us. “Should I not be concerned with Nineveh…?”  In other words, God says, “It’s my decision. Just because you think the people of Nineveh deserve to be punished Jonah, doesn’t mean that I won’t extend grace to them, just as I have to you.” And that’s where the story ends. It starts as a joke – but turns into a lesson about the nature of God.

God doesn’t give up, and as the story says, there is nowhere we can hide from God. You can try to run, or in this case sail, away – but when God has something in mind for you, God will not let up. God is persistent.  And God is also responsive. When the sailors were praying for deliverance from the storm, God listened. When the reluctant Jonah finally gets to Nineveh and delivers God’s word, the people listen. They take it to heart and they repent. And God responds to their repentance with a change of heart and sparing their city. God is responsive.

God’s grace is HUGE!  God’s salvation is universal—even for our enemies. God’s power and mercy are not reserved for Israel alone, they extend to the Gentiles, the non-believers.  As is so often the case in scripture, the outsiders become the insiders and the people who we might expect are going to be cast out into the outer darkness, are actually the ones invited in to take a seat at the banquet of God’s Kingdom.

Perhaps the joke of Jonah is that not even God knows how far Divine grace and mercy will go. There is no one that God doesn’t love. There is no place where mercy and grace can not go. Thomas Carlyle put it like this:  Jonah stalked off to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking and destroy those whom he thought deserved it. But that didn’t happen. God’s love and grace and mercy are universal – they extend to everyone. God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to God’s way of loving.

These are the lessons of the joke of Jonah:  God is persistent.  We cannot hide from God.  God is responsive.  If you seek God’s love and mercy you will find it.  God will respond.  God’s love and mercy and grace are for everyone.  No matter how much we try to figure out, from our judgement seats, who is worthy and deserving and who is not, God will extend love and grace and mercy to anyone God chooses.  If that makes you giggle and laugh with relief, then you understand the holy joke that is Jonah’s story.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.