“A Whale of a Tale”

Jonah 3: 1 – 5; Mark 12: 30 – 31, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN -About a month ago, I preached a sermon entitled “The Prophetic Imagination.” God calls prophets through a 3-part contract. Ho! Go! Lo! All three are biblical words. Ho! means “pay attention.” Ho! “Go” says God “and build a more loving society.” And then, “Lo!” “Lo, I am with you always.” Ho1 Go! Lo! Jonah, the prophet, received a call from God: “Ho! Go! Lo!” But Jonah said, “No!” That crazy guy bought a ticket to Tarshish. Tarshish is located in Spain—it is in the exact opposite direction as Ninevah. Had Jonah been to Bible Study, he would have known the words of the Psalmist, “Where can I flee from your presence? Where can I go from your spirit? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle by the farthest sea, even there your right hand will hold me fast.” You may be able to run from God, but you can’t hide from God.

As Jonah decides to take a Princess cruise to the Spanish Riviera, there was a mighty story. Jonah fesses up that he is the cause of the storm. Regretfully, they threw him into the sea. Down, down, down Jonah went into the sea. But as he’s blowing bubbles, God provided a big fish to swallow up Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of this big fish for three days and three nights. He was the catch of the day! Given the contract – Ho! Go! Lo! with Jonah saying, “No!” we may think this is a bad news story. But it is a good news story because he was in that belly for 3 days and 3 nights, 3 nights and 3 days. When I hear this story on this side of the resurrection and hear 3 days and 3 nights, I know there is some good news in this story. Jesus in the tomb must have felt like he was in the belly of a whale, but on the third morning Jesus got up. This is a story of resurrection, hope, possibility, new life…. but we are not there quite yet.

In the belly of the great fish, water was sloshing around everywhere. Seaweed was wrapped around his head. He is swimming in gastric juices. What he’s lacked all along he now has in abundance – guts!

Jonah prays. For three days and three nights, he’s got a lot of time to talk with God, to listen to God, to reflect. Jonah, why do you hate the Ninevites so much? Why do you hate who you hate? Do you think that I love the Israelites anymore than I love the Ninevites? I have sent you to bring some healing. After three days and three nights of talking and listening to the Divine, Jonah lights a small fire and the smoke from the fire tickled the fish’s nose so that he spit out Jonah. No, that story comes from the Disney movie Pinocchio. Actually, God made a fish that a GPS on it, so the fish knew which direction to go. Before Jonah can say “Amen,” the belly convulses, the fish belches and Jonah lands face first on the beach. It is a whale of a tale!

Some of you may be doubting the possibility of a person surviving three days in the belly of a whale. The story may be symbolic or a foreshadow of Jesus spending thee days in the belly of a grave. But according to the Princeton Theological Review, in 1927, it was reported that a sailor on a whaling ship near the Falkland Islands was swallowed by a large sperm whale. The whale was later harpooned and when it was opened up on deck the surprised crew found their lost shipmate, swallowed whole — unconscious inside the belly, but alive. Though bleached from the whale’s gastric juices, he recovered, even though he never lost the deadly whiteness left on his face, neck and hands… so hey, anything’s possible.

Jonah does not want to go to Ninevah. Had God said Ho! Go! Lo! to Jericho, Jonah may have well said, “Yes!”  But Ho! Go! Lo! To Ninevah – No! Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria was the fiercest, meanest country in the world The Ninevites had devastated Jewish cities and killed Jewish people. They had deported those who survived and taken them home to become their slaves. Archaeologists say the Ninevites used to pile up their enemies’ bones outside the gates of Ninevah, just to let those who entered the city, know how bad they were. There wasn’t a crime they weren’t guilty of, an atrocity they didn’t revel in. Fire and brimstone were too good for these folks. If the city was going to go to hell, let it. Jonah didn’t want to intervene.

But the big fish with the GPS has spit Jonah on the shores of Ninevah and so Jonah gave in. I can see it now. Jonah puts up the big revival tent, holding his big black Bible, and waits for the crowds to arrive. And they do! Thousands of them – with their children, servants and livestock. The king is there in his purple robe in the front seat.  Jonah knows how badly they deserve God’s punishment. He clears his throat and shouts, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” shaking his finger in the air.

That’s it! The sum total of Jonah’s prophecy in the Bible: an eight-word sermon. And the king repents on the spot, “Yes! We believe!” And everyone in Ninevah fasts and wears sackcloth and ashes – even the animals! Jonah preaches the shortest and worst sermon ever – there are no captivating illustrations, no heartfelt stories, no brilliant revelations, he simply proclaims, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” and it becomes the most successful sermon ever on record. This is more successful than any Billy Graham crusade. The entire city of people and animals come forward to the singing of Just as I Am. That is a whale of a tale! Had I stood up here today and simply said, “Forty days more and this city shall be overthrown,” and sat back down – I wouldn’t have a job on Monday morning, but Jonah preaches and he’s unbelievably successful. With one eight-word sermon, Jonah has accomplished more than all the other prophets put together. He should be happy, right? But is he happy? No. He is so angry he wants to die. The last thing that Jonah wants is for the Ninevites to be spared. He wants them to go up in smoke.

Everyone in this story repents, except Jonah. The Ninevites repent, God repents, even the cows and goats repent, but Jonah does not repent. If God is not willing to play by Jonah’s rules, then Jonah doesn’t want to play at all. Jonah thought he knew exactly who God loved and who God wouldn’t stoop to love. And Jonah got surprised. Surprised by God.

This was a revolutionary story in Jonah’s day. A real whale of a tale! An extravagant tale illustrating a primary point to the people of the day. God’s love is greater than the boundaries of Israel. God’s love includes the foreigners, even the ancient enemies. God’s love is unconditional. A remarkable message for that day. And now nearly 3000 years later, perhaps this story is even more important, critical in this present time of unrest, of exclusion, of prejudice and bias. Nearly everywhere we turn, there is tension and turmoil, finger pointing and accusation. This is true not only in our personal relationships, but also in our national and international relationships as well.

The world as God sees it is a seamless whole without borders or boundaries. The people of Ninevah mattered to God every bit as much as the people of Jerusalem. And so, it is that people of Tehran or Pyongyang matter just as much to God as the people of San Francisco or Washington D.C.

I dare to say that there is a little bit of Jonah in each one of us. The story of Jonah invites us to look at ourselves in the mirror. Who in our lives are the people we have given up on, written off, closed the door upon, turned away from because we lost faith that they will ever change? Will we move from grudge to grace, from exclusion to inclusion, from retribution to reconciliation?

We are such bookkeepers and God is not. God does not keep track of things the way we do. God does not spend a lot of time deciding who is worthy and who is not, like we do. It is called grace. Grace is unfair. Grace is inherently unfair. When we get offended by divine distribution, I think it is because we have forgotten who we are. We think we are the righteous prophets, sent to pronounce judgment on those awful Assyrians. But maybe, just maybe from where God sits, we are all in need of grace. So, I suggest that we all go to Ninevah, to the party, to dance and sing and to shout Hallelujah. To celebrate the lavish, excessive, naïve, outrageous, indiscriminate, impractical, crazy, scandalous, ridiculously inclusive grace of the Divine. God’s grace is a whale of a tale! It is a gift too good to be true, but it is so good it must be true. Amen.