A Whale of a Tale:
Or When God Shows Compassion and We Don’t Like It

We only heard the last little bit of it this morning, but I suspect most of you remember the story of Jonah from Sunday School. Or at least the whale part of the tale, God sending a “huge fish” to swallow Jonah whole. But before we get to all that, I want to help you remember more of what happened along the way.

A sermon on the book of Jonah.

At the very beginning of this story God spoke to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh and preach God’s displeasure with the community because their deeds were evil. Now Jonah was a prophet, someone who regularly proclaimed the word of the Lord. It’s what he did. So God was just asking him to change locations. But Jonah didn’t want anything to do with that. So he hopped on a boat headed in the opposite direction. Instead of heading east to Nineveh, he set sail on the Mediterranean heading west to Tarshish.

Now when God asks you to do something and you flat out say, “NO!,” well, let’s just say that isn’t very wise. It’s like if your mom asked you to clean your room and you emphatically turned her down with an “I’d prefer not.” (I tried that once, by the way. It did not end well.) So God decided to get Jonah’s attention and sent a big wind, a Nor’easter. And back then, just like now, when the wind switches direction and starts coming in fast, waves kick up. Not only that, of course, but the rain comes too, and it gets dicey on land never mind if you’re on a boat. So the crew on that ship start getting anxious, praying to whichever god they followed, and tossing cargo overboard.

But Jonah was asleep below deck. And, it seems, he was a sound sleeper. With the boat pitching back and forth due to the gale force winds, and thunder and rain swirling outside, it’s amazing he didn’t wake up. In fact he stayed curled up in his hammock until the captain of the boat shook him awake and said, “How can you sleep at a time like this? Get up and pray to your God to see if we can be saved.”

Jonah went up to the deck, only to find the sailors pulling out a bunch of sticks. You see, they wanted to draw straws to see which of them had made whichever god angry enough to cause this calamity. So everyone started selecting sticks, and Jonah got the short one. He was the one.

He sheepishly told them that the God of Israel, the maker of all that is, had called him to do something but he refused. This terrified the crew. They asked him what they should do, and Jonah told them: Toss me overboard. Not a chance would they do that, fearing they’d make God even angrier, so they tried to row back to the land. Nothing doing. The storm got worse, and they didn’t make any progress at all.

This crew then asked God for forgiveness for what they were about to do, and then picked up Jonah and flung him overboard. Immediately the storm ended, and the sun came out. 

And Jonah sank like a stone.

Now this could have been the end of the story, of course. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, but he heads to Tarshish instead, so God responds with anger taking Jonah’s life. But that’s not what happened—as you well know—for it’s exactly at this moment when Jonah is sinking to the bottom of the sea and his last remaining air bubbles are rising above him that a giant whale comes along and swallows him whole. Rather than dying, Jonah ends up in the belly of that huge beast with plenty of air to breathe.

He’s there for three days, and that gives him plenty of time to think. He realizes what he’s done and finally after a long time he decides to pray. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

And when he’s done, God instructs the whale—who had been feeling a bit of indigestion this entire time—to belch up Jonah on dry land. Then God’s message comes to Jonah again, instructing him to go to Nineveh, and, wouldn’t you know it, he does just that. When he gets there, it took him three days to walk all the way across the city, and all the while he proclaims the message given to him by God: “Forty more days, and God will destroy you and this city because of your evil ways.” 

And guess what? His message worked. The king heard about good ol’ Jonah, and commanded everyone to put on sackcloth as their clothing and pour ashes over their heads and to repent of their wrong doings. He ordered them all to fast—and not only them, but their livestock too—in the hopes that God might be merciful to them.

And God decided to do just that. Because, as Jonah said in his prayer, salvation comes from the Lord.

Now Jonah had gotten some popcorn and bought a folding chair in order to sit high above the city to watch the fire and brimstone rain down like fireworks. But when he saw that God wasn’t going to destroy Nineveh after all, Jonah had a temper tantrum. “What do you mean you’re not going to kill them, God? I knew that you would do this way back when I decided to go to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. And so now take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” We don’t have this in the text, but God responded with a big eye roll. “Is it really alright for you to be angry,” God asks. “Yes,” Jonah replies. “Very.”

As he’s sitting there, God causes a big leafy plant to grow up quickly and shade Jonah’s head from the sun, and Jonah is really happy. He goes to sleep smiling, thankful for that plant. But in the morning God sends a worm to eat through the plant and when the sun comes out, the plant shrivels up, and Jonah gets angry again because he’ll likely faint in the heat. “I’m so angry I wish I were dead,” he says. “Really?” God asks, “Over a little plant?” “Yes,” Jonah replies. “Very.”

“If you’re so angry about the death of a plant, how much more should I be concerned about the potential loss of thousands and thousands of human lives? And not just human life, but all of those animals too?” 

And that’s it. We don’t hear a response from Jonah. God gets the last word.

You see Jonah enjoyed it when God was gracious and compassionate when it came to him. He didn’t mind it when God was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love when he got swallowed by that huge whale. He wan’t quite so upset when God relented from sending a calamity upon him. But the Ninevites? Nah, they weren’t worth God’s love, and oh, by the way, neither were their animals.

We laugh and shake our heads at Jonah, but how many times have we thought the same thing? That those people over there don’t deserve God’s mercy because of some arbitrary reason. They live in the wrong place, or they aren’t as educated, or they pray incorrectly, or they don’t have the right skin color. How many times do we think that maybe someone doesn’t deserve God’s love because of what they’ve done or how they live or for some other random thing? So we pull out our own box of popcorn when we hope we’ll see them get their due so we can relish in their misfortune.

And God says, “Don’t you remember when I was gracious and compassionate to you? Can’t you recall when I was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love when you messed up? Don’t you see how instead of giving you what you deserved, I gave you another chance? And another? And another? Shouldn’t I do that for everyone?”

Image by Jürg Roth from Pixabay

Comments are closed.