Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Everybody's heard of the story of Jonah-the guy who got swallowed by a whale. But almost nobody knows the real story, the whole story, as the Bible tells it. Our congregation has been exploring this little book during our Wednesday evening Lenten services. It's such a fascinating story that I thought I'd share it here. It starts with Jonah, a prophet of God, getting orders from headquarters: God sends him to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to deliver a message. Instead, Jonah takes off in exactly the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship bound for Tarshish. But God isn't about to let Jonah get away, so he sends a terrible storm which threatens to sink the ship. Jonah finally tells the terrified sailors that the storm is his fault because he's running away from the Lord. He advises them to toss him over the side to make the storm go away. They don't want to, but finally have no choice. When they do, the storm immediately subsides. Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed whole by a "great fish" provided by God. (The bible, by the way, doesn't say it's a whale; that's just what people have assumed.) From his undoubtedly disgusting position in the digestive tract of the whopper fish, Jonah prays to the God from whom he was fleeing. God, in His mercy, causes the fish-after three days and nights-to puke Jonah onto a beach. We can only imagine what Jonah smelled like! But here's where the story really gets interesting. After Jonah's rebellious detour, God gives him a second chance, again telling him to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah does what he is told-can't imagine why! When he gets there, he walks from one end of Nineveh to the other, simply stating that in forty days, the city would be destroyed. There's a reason for this. The Assyrians (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria) were notorious for their arrogance and cruelty, for torturing and killing the people they conquered in the most horrible ways. But, when Jonah announces their imminent destruction, the most amazing thing happens: they listen. From the king to the lowest slave, the Assyrians repent, groveling in the dust before God. God, in His mercy, changes His mind and does not follow through with the plans for their destruction. And Jonah is thoroughly ticked off. This is why he'd run away in the first place. He was afraid that God would have mercy on the Assyrians! Jonah wanted them nuked to ashes. They certainly had it coming! In an angry snit, Jonah camps out to the east of the city, hoping that God will still follow through and flatten the place. Instead, God first sends a fast-growing vine to give shade to His hot-headed prophet. The next day, however, God sends a worm to chew the plant, which withers and dies. Then, God sends a scorching east wind, leaving Jonah nearly fainting from the heat, and boiling with rage over the loss of his shade plant. And then God speaks for the final time in the book. He says to Jonah, "Hmm, let's see, you care more about the life and death of a here-today-gone-tomorrow weed than you do about the 120,000 people who live in Nineveh. How interesting!" That's where the book ends. We have no idea if Jonah gets the message and recognizes how heartless, stubborn, rebellious and judgmental he has been. After all, he was more than happy to receive rescue and mercy from God when he was fish food, but he refuses to agree that other sinners should receive the same mercy! We call this, of course, hypocrisy. Which is why this is such a great story for Lent. For we have all been in Jonah's stubborn shoes, refusing to accept that God should be as merciful to others as He has been to us. We have all decided, like Jonah, that there are some people who should get everything they have coming to them. But the season of Lent ends at the cross. There we see how wrong we are. The message at the cross is that no one deserves God's mercy, but He gives it to everyone in the most amazing way-by killing His Son and letting us live. Jesus bought forgiveness for everyone-no one is left out-with His death on the cross. The cross of Jesus is the place we need to leave all our hard-hearted, unforgiving, stubborn rebellion. Every one of us is a Jonah, yet God in His mercy has rescued us from the depth of our sin with the death of His Son. Now that's a whale of a story!