Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman
We hear this Sunday from the hilarious (yet profound!) book of the prophet Jonah. This is the only Sunday of the three-year cycle unfortunately, where Jonah makes his appearance. It is entirely fitting that this Sunday has been named the Sunday of the Word of God. The call of God on our lives, is a call to greater and greater levels of freedom. What we se in Jonah is a pattern of the call, the Word given to every baptised Christian. In Jonah, we see most clearly what the journey of submitting to the Word entails.
Before encountering him in this book, we meet Jonah very briefly in the Book of Kings (2 K 14:25). We learn that he is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The greatest political threat to Israel was Assyria, the super-power at this time. They would eventually destroy the Northern Kingdom. Nineveh, was the capital of Assyria, a type of human work exalted against God. And God calls Jonah to preach to precisely this place, Nineveh.
The primary problem the Hebrews had with pagan nations was religious, more than political. These nations worshipped idols, while Israel had been called to worship the one true God. The fact that there is one God means that idols are human fictions. Nevertheless, they are not spiritually irrelevant. These idols provided a gateway to demons (a belief Christians completely share). Idols gave man the illusion of control; if I pray and do this offering to this god, then I can get what I want. Ultimately, however, they enslaved people and caused them to die spiritually. In the long run, they would cause creation itself to collapse into chaos. These nations then, were boasting of their own greatness, standing against God. Israel’s vocation on the other hand, was to praise God and make his name known to the nations.
And God calls Jonah to go east to Nineveh – he in fact says, like he was teasing Jonah – ‘that great city’, the way they identified themselves. Jonah was a prophet. Which means that you can expect his spiritual life to be more in tune with God’s purpose than the average lay-person. He can very well stand for you and for me in our spiritual lives. What does Jonah do? Rather than preach to Nineveh, his nation’s archenemy, he dares to run from God himself. He goes in the exact opposite direction, west, to Tarshish. When we commit to obeying God and following him, very often, we find that God is not too interested in the wonderful things we think we can do for him. The heroic sacrifices we are willing to make, the works of charity and what not. Sometimes, he will ask us to do something very simple. But it will be the very thing that we will find most torturous – because it will target our particular idol. God might ask us to go speak to someone we haven’t spoken to in a long time, maybe a family member sometimes. Maybe they’ve caused a lot of hurt. He might ask us to forgive another. To help someone we would rather avoid. Or it could be things completely different. To leave a job which is destroying us. To take a risk, following God into something new, leaving what we are comfortable with, but has served its purpose. To leave behind what feels safe. We would rather give up a lot of other things than do that!
Jonah would end up being fabulously successful when he finally preaches, bringing the whole place to conversion, (a preacher’s dream), with no effort at all. But such an act – preaching to his enemy – was so painful for Jonah, he would rather die than carry it out. Like us, he would rather see that evil thing destroyed rather than saved. Jonah is about to discover, that Nineveh was not the only ones where idols were worshipped. They were very much alive in his own life. Paul will talk about the same thing in his epistle: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5)
Jonah, takes a series of steps which would have been terrifying for any Hebrew. The Hebrews were not a sea-faring people. There was something about the deep, the source of chaos, which always frightened them. Given the option, one would travel by land rather than sea – and Jonah takes the first boat he can find to run away from God. Midway on this fearful journey, a storm breaks out, so violent that all the sailors are terrified. It mirrors on a cosmic level what is already raging inside Jonah’s heart. Jonah is happily asleep while the sailors are dealing with the storm his disobedience has unleashed. Sometimes, when we are dealing or rather, not dealing with our unfinished mess, we don’t even realise how much of a storm we cause in the lives of those around us.
As Jonah is discovered to be the cause of the storm, he decides he’d rather die than change his direction – which is what it is to repent. He is happy to be thrown into the terrifying storm. He has discovered in his own life how idols can enslave and kill. When we are tormented inside, there is only so much that physical pain can hurt. It is similar in some ways to how people self-harm. Feeling the pain in a physical way feels a lot better than the mental anguish they are going through. As he effectively commits suicide, he discovers God has an even bigger trick up his sleeve.
If the sea was fearful, the creature which dwarfed it, the mother-of-all-fears was Leviathan, the sea-monster (Job 41:1-10). It was a mythical, dragon-like creature which summed up in one, all Israel’s fears. When it appeared, you better hope God was around the corner, for only God had any power over it. As Jonah descends into his watery grave, peering into depths no Hebrew would have wanted to see, this sea-monster (probably, rather than a whale) appears and swallows him. In Jonah’s exile from God’s presence, all his fears come to haunt him. He has been saved from death in the most fearful way possible. Now he is constrained in the monster’s belly and has lost all his freedom. Here, however, Jonah begins to find salvation. His only way out is God and there is no place to run. Sometimes, we have to hit rock bottom. God has to take us to the thing that we fear the most to reveal to us his Providence and Power. What is it that you fear the most? You’ll have to name it. God shows his grace in this very place to Jonah. And Jonah comes to his senses. He opens his mouth in thanksgiving within the belly of the beast.
Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:8-9)
His conversion is not complete, but he begins to realise that these idols have a hold on him too. Thanksgiving puts God at the rightful place in our lives. To give thanks is an act of trust, of faith. When our lives are controlled by idols, one thing we cannot do, is give thanks. When we give thanks in earnest, the destructive forces in our life, unleashed by our idols have to start giving way. As Jonah gives thanks, the sea-monster is unable to hold him. It spews him out, at the very shore of Nineveh. What was meant to have been an easy journey by land, Jonah now completes in the most terrifying way possible. As the Word comes to him, a second time, Jonah, obeys, now made docile before God.
This word has come to you and me. It is a call to conversion. What is the Nineveh in your life that God is highlighting for you? This is the Sunday of the Word of God. Maybe it would be a good time to commit to reading the Bible every day, listening to what God has to say? The Word comes to expose our idols and set us free. If you want to know your idols, look at what gives you the most security in life. Maybe today, invite Christ to be your Lord again in these words or otherwise.
Lord, I want to follow you. I give you permission to act in my life. Lead me. May it be unto me according to your Word. Amen.