Jonah or Jesus

The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  So Jonah arose and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord. Jonah 3:1-2

In 1891, James Bartley went to sea. It was a whaling expedition east of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.  He was in the eight man whaling longboat that was delivering the fatal harpoon to a huge sperm whale, when the whale turned, crushing their boat. He remembered being flung into the air, and falling back into the sea, the great mouth opening over him.  He screamed, and then oblivion.

The mother ship picked up the longboat survivors, but James Bartley, age 21, and another seaman were missing. Just before nightfall, the dead whale floated to the surface, and the crew began their work of removing the thick layers of blubber which would be boiled down into oil.

After hours of hard work, shortly before 11 and working by lantern light, the tired crew removed the stomach and huge liver.  As they did one seaman was startled to see a slow, rhythmic movement in the great stomach – it was as if something was breathing.

The captain called the ship’s doctor, and a cut was begun.  A human foot, shoe and all, became visible.  Moments later, James Bartley returned to the land of the living.  He was doubled up, unconscious, but alive!  For two weeks he hovered between life and death, but he recovered to live 18 more years.  He had been in the whale’s stomach for 15 hours; he had lost all the hair on his body, his skin was bleached an unnatural white, and was to be almost blind for the rest of his life.  But he survived, as the records of the British Admiralty will document.

Now, this newsworthy item from 1891 is very reassuring in regard to the story of Jonah.  Of course, the biblical account of Jonah does not say that he was swallowed by a whale, but rather by a great sea animal.  Yet it is reassuring that even when scientists will tell us that it is impossible for a whale to swallow a man, that the throat is too small, here was a sperm whale that had never read these scientist’s articles, and therefore swallowed James Bartley anyway.

Of course, this incident from 1891 doesn’t prove that the Jonah account is true, but it does remind us that the realm of possibility of what God can do is still far greater than what we ever expect.  After all, how unexpected can you get, but that in a backwater town, in a cattle stall, a helpless Infant is the Creator God of the Universe.

Unfortunately, being swallowed by a great sea animal is really a minor incident in the story of Jonah.  If I were to ask you what was the issue in story, could you tell me?

It is the story of the reluctant prophet of God.  God had given Jonah the job of preaching to the people of Nineveh, and Jonah didn’t want to.  He was afraid that they just might repent, and that God would spare them from the terrible judgment which He had pronounced over them.  Jonah hated those people, so he ran away, thinking that by going to a different place, he could get away from God, and could avoid the mission given to him.

But God didn’t let him run.  The ship he had booked passage on was beset by a terrible storm, and he was identified as the problem.  To save the ship’s crew, Jonah told them to throw him overboard, whereupon he was swallowed by the great sea animal.

After he repented and the animal threw him back up on dry land, the Lord told him again, “Now go!”  So here’s this guy, bleached skin, hairless, clothes in tatters, smelling like fish vomit – you think that wouldn’t make quite a stir in Ninevah?  He was keenly listened to, and what Jonah had feared most came true – Ninevah repented and God withdrew the judgment He had pronounced over them.

But remember, the story is not about Ninevah, it’s about Jonah, and therefore it continues.  Jonah still was hoping that God would destroy them anyway, so he set himself on a hill to watch the action.  It was hot in the sun and God grew a plant to shield him.  Then as the Bible put it, God “appointed” a worm to eat away at the plant and remove the comfort Jonah experienced.  So now Jonah was not only angry because Ninevah was spared, but was also because he was inconvenienced.

God challenged him because he cared more about the plant and his own convenience, and yet could not care about the great number of people who had faced destruction.  Jonah was forced to see that the mercy of God will not be influenced by the petty motives of man – God would not fit into a box of convenience, there to echo Jonah’s perspectives, values, and prejudices.

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Now, upon the evidence of the Bible, a case could be made that these four men that Jesus called were fairly well-to-do, with quite a fishing business established.  These men apparently had quite a commitment to their Jewish faith, and at least John was personally known by Caiaphas the high priest.

Following Jesus would mean eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, extending the hand of friendship to the despised Samaritans, dealing with untouchable lepers and others looking for hand-outs, and especially to the non-Jew, the Gentile, who had none of the traditions, none of the background, none of the respect for the religious system they had always known – to regard the Gentile as a total equal to themselves.  How easily they could have had the reluctance of Jonah, and tried to run away from the mission of the Lord.  But no, immediately they left everything and followed Jesus.

The question is therefore placed before us this Epiphany season, that as the call of Jesus comes to each one of us, how will we react?  Jonah stands before us with a great deal of warning.  When the Lord gives us a call, we cannot deny it.  It is not optional.  Jonah did not want to do the Lord’s work, yet everywhere he turned, the Lord stood, firmly blocking his way.

Obviously you haven’t been swallowed by a great sea animal, but do you know the feeling that Jonah had?  Do you know how it is to be hounded by God, because you don’t want to do what you know is right, and yet your conscience keeps hammering at you, that people around you just seem to bring up the subject frequently, that in the turn of events you are thrown together time and again with whoever is the focus of God’s mission?

Do you know that feeling of trying to run away from God?  How often do we do that, sometimes in the most subtle of ways?  It is like the business man that is very devout when he is doing the work of the church, but in his business life he tries to act as if he has escaped from the presence of the Lord.  After all, that is religion, but business is business!  I know of a person who wore a cross around his neck, and when he was about to do something wrong, would put the cross in his pocket, as if God couldn’t then see what he would do next.  Or was it that he didn’t want to be reminded of the mission that the Lord had given him?

How often have you been confronted by an important, necessary, yet unpleasant task from the Lord?  Perhaps it was to confront someone whom you have something against; perhaps it was to make amends?  Or maybe it was to witness, in both WORD and DEED to someone, perhaps someone you really don’t care for – yet the Lord has told you to love that person for His sake?  And when that person has come to the Lord, perhaps by your effort, have you ever experienced that twinge of disappointment, that darn it, does he have to be a member of my church?!  You see, Jonah is very real, very human, and uncomfortably very much like us.

It’s not very pleasant when the Lord must rock us back on our heels like He did to Jonah, but there is a note of comfort in this!  You see, God wasn’t concerned about numbers.  Sure, there were some 120,000 people in Ninevah that God didn’t want to see perish, but rather be saved.  And Jonah was so obstinate and rebellious, that according to our wisdom, what’s one compared to 120,000?  After God had forced Jonah to bring Ninevah to repentance, He could have just thrown out Jonah like a used dishrag.

But what do we find?  God comes back to bring JONAH to repentance.  As concerned as He was over the 120,000, God also was concerned about the one.  With Jonah, God shows His intense interest even about you and me, to turn us away from our rebellions, that we might experience His mercy and love for US, as well as for others.

This is the message of Holy Communion, where God is intensely personal, offering, giving to us His forgiveness, His love, His very being; yet all the time reminding us that this is for all the Church, all the people of God, even those we don’t agree with, even those we don’t like, even those whom we may hate.

When we repent of our own obstinate behavior, when we confess a heart which has been cold to the eternal needs of other, this forgiveness of the Lord begins a change of attitude and perspective in us.  God gives us a new realization of our equality with others as we see our own need of His forgiveness and His mercy.  As we see our selves exactly on the same level even of those we hate, and also as equal recipients of God’s unimaginable grace, mercy and steadfast love, our whole outlook is revised by God.

It becomes the kind of change as those four men experienced who reached the point, that at the call of Jesus, they immediately dropped all, even their prejudices, to follow Him.

Today is a most uncomfortable day, with Jonah revealing to us what is so often hidden in the deep recesses of our hearts.  Yet it is a most wonderful day in which we also see how God is concerned with us as individuals, to get our hearts back on track, and to see ourselves as the focus of His mercy, as well as others who equally with us need His love and forgiveness.

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