This morning at Friday Harbor Presbyterian we had a substitute preacher. Dr. Joe Bettridge is on vacation and the Director of Youth Ministry, Sylvia Sullard, filled in. She talked about the whale of a tale that you find in the book of Jonah.
Sylvia gave a disclaimer at the beginning of the sermon that she wasn’t preaching. She was going to give us some background and ask us some questions. Hopefully we would find something to think about in what she said. She also warned us that, as youth director, she had been to her share of graduation parties the day before. If she blanked out and lost her place, we were just to talk among ourselves until she came back.
The book of Jonah is a really different book in the Bible. It is included in the minor prophets and is only four chapters long. They aren’t even long chapters. Instead of being filled with the prophet’s words, the book is a story about a chapter in Jonah’s life.
God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and prophesy. Ninevah is the capital city of the Assyrians and the Assyrians have invaded, besieged, and deported the Israelites. The Israelites hate the Assyrians. Jonah is one of the Israelites that hates the Assyrians. He has probably spent a lot of time praying that the Assyrians will “get what is coming to them.” Imagine God telling you to go and witness to the people that have destroyed your home and killed your relatives and friends. Would you go?
Jonah knows that God means what he says, so he heads the opposite direction. He boards a ship bound for Tarshish. God may have called him, but Jonah is having none of it. When the ship is caught in a terrible storm, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard. He would rather die than do what God told him to do. Once he is thrown overboard, the sea grows calm and the sailors – a rowdy group of pagans – worship God. Jonah gets swallowed by the giant fish and is eventually vomited back on land. He cleans himself off and heads home to Israel.
Once again, God calls Jonah and tells him to go to Ninevah. This time Jonah goes, but instead of preaching a fiery “repent of your sins and be saved” sermon, Jonah walks a little way into Ninevah and says, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” As far as we can tell, he only said it once.
But the people of Ninevah hear him and pay attention. The king of Assyria proclaims days of fasting. Everyone is to wear sackcloth, repent, and pray to the God of Israel. Even the animals are clothed with sackcloth. God saw that the people, from the least to the greatest, repented of their sins and he forgave them.
Which infuriated Jonah. This is exactly the reason he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place. He didn’t want God to love the Assyrians. He wanted God to wipe them out. To punish them. To make them all die slowly and painfully as justice for what the Israelites suffered.
The book of Jonah is a whale of a tale in the Bible. In the book, everyone does God’s will – except Jonah! The pagan sailors pay attention to God and worship him. The people living in Ninevah repent and follow God. The story is about God’s great compassion and love. It is a reminder that God loves all people, even the people we – the followers of Christ – have decided are not worthy of God’s love.