There must be something about spending long periods of time at sea that encourages otherwise perfectly sane human beings to tell whoppers. Did you see that news item a week or so ago about the two fishermen who claim to have floated around on the open ocean for 25 days in an esky? I guess there’s no getting around the fact that they were spotted from the air – it was an enormous esky, I have to admit – 80 km out to sea off Thursday Island. But immediately they got to shore – and in the footage I saw they did seem to be tucking into platefuls of tropical fruit with enormous gusto – well we heard from the expert in Canberra who said two men couldn’t possibly live in an esky for 25 days on the open ocean, and then we heard from the men who actually found them, who said they certainly acted like two men who’d just spent 25 days together in an esky and were glad to be saying goodbye to it. So maybe we’ll never get to the bottom of it, but two things are for sure, tall tales from seafarers take some beating, and even life and death stuff can have its comic dimension.
Yes, of course I’m planning to preach on Jonah. After all, I only get one chance every three years, so I’m hardly going to miss it! And this brings me to my first serious point, which is that it’s a very funny story. I don’t think for a moment we’re supposed to be dwelling on the problems, like the fact that terrifyingly large marine creatures usually chew people up a bit before they swallow them, or worrying about how Jonah would have breathed down there or what three days of rolling around in a great fish’s digestive juices would have done for his complexion. It’s a funny story that reminds us that laughter and comedy are right at home in God’s scheme of things, in fact, the good news that creation is shaped by the paradox of divine love that transforms death into life and tears into – well, into tears of joy – isn’t always best conveyed by long faces and pious attitudes. But like all serious comedy the story of Jonah speaks to a world that tends to gloss over its pain with trivialities, and it helps us to see our own faults and self-contradictions when we see them parodied in the behaviour of the ancient world’s most lovable prophet.
So here’s the next serious point. Jonah is my kind of guy. Reluctant, stubborn and grumpy. Absolutely determined not to go to Nineveh. All through the Bible, people are getting up and going. Abraham and Sarah move out on a promise and a prayer. Moses stands up to Pharaoh with nothing but a magical staff and his brother to write his sermons for him. Elijah stands there pouring water on a pile of wood, daring four hundred and fifty Baal prophets and the army of King Ahab to get their fire going before his. All through the Gospels people are getting up at a moment’s notice and following Jesus. Fishermen are dropping their nets, tax collectors are leaving their ledgers, and others are leaving their parents behind. None of it very socially responsible, you have to concede. But not Jonah. Jonah gets the word loud and clear ‘you’re a prophet, so act like one, for heaven’s sake. Go to Nineveh and warn them that I’m very, very cranky with them’. So he promptly goes out and buys tickets for Tarshish, somewhere out in the Mediterranean near the Rock of Gibraltar. I have to say I relate to Jonah’s absolutely consistent way of resisting whatever it is God wants him to do. Matter of fact, I do that pretty well myself.
Part of the problem is that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, the nation that gave the people of Israel and Judah a hard time for hundreds of years. One of the ancient world’s all-time superpowers, and Israel has the misfortune of being smack bang in the middle of the road that the Assyrian army have to use whenever they want to get anywhere that matters. So Assyria has made itself unpopular around these parts, also Nineveh, the capital, has got a reputation for being sleazy and immoral, populated mainly by merchant bankers, casino waitresses and mining magnates. It takes three days just to walk into the middle of the city, which makes it, by ancient standards, very big, very cosmopolitan and very scary. And so this is Jonah’s first objection. Nineveh is out of range, or at least it should be. Not Jewish, not even nice. God’s care isn’t supposed to extend as far as that.
Here’s the other thing. Jonah’s a prophet, which means his job is to tell it like it is. Not very different from a priest’s job, except that prophets generally get chased out of town sooner. About half the time you need to be telling people how badly wrong they’ve got it, how selfish, preoccupied and short-sighted they are and what the outcome is likely to be if they keep going down the track they’re on. To offer an alternative vision of the future and say, ‘that’s God’s idea of the future, and it’s very different from yours. So you need to make up your mind whose team you’re on here’. And the other half of the time the prophet’s job is to tell people – the very same people, in fact - that God’s heart breaks with love for them, that they are held and protected and guided by the one who created them in love. Nations need prophets - in fact, without prophets nations lose their sense of identity. And if they are fortunate – as we Australians are, I think – then we’ll have prophets who don’t pull any punches, who refuse to allow us to be complacent about matters of national shame, like the systematic disadvantage of Aboriginal people, prophets who prick our conscience until we take notice and make changes, as in our treatment of refugees – and we’ll also have prophets who help us to laugh at ourselves, to identify the currents of humour and tolerance and irreverence that make us worthwhile as a people.
And the church needs prophets. We need prophets to remind us that the great commission applies to us, that the people Jesus sends into all the world to teach and baptise and serve – are us. We need prophets to challenge us when our worship becomes self-serving or our fellowship grows cold or inward-looking, and we need prophets to assure us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us. Jonah gets the first part of the prophet’s job. He just doesn’t get the second part.
So, rejected by the fish, Jonah finds himself arriving at Nineveh. Actually, at a symbolic level the three days in the fish’s belly represents despair, it’s certainly Jonah’s lowest point, and it is a good metaphor as well for what happens to us when we recognise the direction God wants our lives to go in, but we think we know better. We end up all at sea, swamped and swallowed up by stuff we can’t control. But at the end of three days, the fish regurgitates Jonah – hardly a very attractive image when you think about it, but as Christians we can hardly miss the parallel with Jesus’ own death-to-life experience after three days. Jonah, the world’s most reluctant missionary, is restored to life and brought back to dry land because, even when we choose death over life, or withdrawal and isolation over life and growth, then God is still in the business of transforming death into life. With us or without us, but preferably with us.
Even when he gets to Nineveh, Jonah doesn’t have his heart in the job. As he walks into the centre of the city he preaches about the world’s shortest sermon, just five Hebrew words that translate, roughly, into Aussie: ‘Forty days and you’re cactus’. Hardly a very inspiring message, but the Ninevites hear and respond, every single one of them from the king on down, including all the animals, donkeys, dogs and cats, puts on sackcloth and heaps ashes over their heads and they all repent of their fast living and loose morals. You can see how this would take the wind out of a certain kind of missionary’s sails! Especially when God lets them off the hook! And for the rest of the whole story, Jonah berates God for being such a softie, ‘I just knew you’d do this, it’s why I didn’t want to come to Nineveh in the first place’. And the point is that God doesn’t change – God’s concern for human life doesn’t stop at national or religious boundaries – but neither does Jonah change, in this story. ‘It’s not fair, and I’d rather die than have anything to do with such a wishy-washy system’.
And this is the whole point, right there under the comic image of dogs and donkeys covered in sackcloth and ashes, and Jonah sitting in a sulk because God is as God always is. And the point is that we’re invited to recognise ourselves, maybe even to have a laugh at ourselves. Maybe we could start by recognising ourselves as Nineveh. How do we react, as a nation, as a church, or as individuals, to the lone, ridiculous-looking prophet pointing out that God’s idea of where we should be heading is a bit different to the way we are actually going? Do we listen and repent, or do we label the prophet a do-gooder or a radical, and insist that the only real criterion that matters is that we do things the way we’ve always done them? Certainly, we’re invited to see ourselves as Jonah, aware of our calling to be prophets of change and evangelists of God’s liberation, but actually, in our behaviour, arguing the point with God. ‘For a start, it’s somebody else’s job. You should be looking after us, not expecting us to do your job for you. We’re happier going this way, it’s what we’ve always done and we’re good at it’. And the clincher: ‘You want us to talk to them? They don’t even like us, and they certainly don’t like You!’
The good news is that Jonah ends up in Nineveh. In spite of himself, he doesn’t waste the rest of his life floating around in an esky. God’s saving purposes get accomplished through him, in spite of him. It’s just, I think, that he would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if he had recognised that God’s promptings pointed him in the direction not only of his mission, but of his own transformation. Perhaps it’s a good point for us, as well.