Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).
Amid the doom and destruction of Joel, the jeremiads of Jeremiah, the abominations of Amos, and the cosmic upheavals of Daniel, the canonizers of scripture in ancient Israel placed a little piece of comedy, the Book of Jonah.
Yes, Jonah, too, was a prophet, and whereas Isaiah cried out his unworthiness to the cherubim and seraphim and heeded their call to prophecy after they purified his lips with burning coals, Jonah responded to his call by turning tail and running. Straight to the port. He bought a one way ticket in the opposite direction of Nineveh, the great and terrible city to which God called him to lay down the divine ultimatum.
We remember Jonah from Bible School when Mrs. Harris and her teenaged helpers made a giant mural of a fish with a hapless but smiling little dude in its belly taking a ride in the deep, blue sea. And we thought of the sunny beach, the whispering tide, sandcastles, and the smell of suntan lotion. But to Jonah and the ancient Israelites, the deep blue sea conjured up no vacation fantasies. If there was a godless place, it was out there. Think chaotic waters. Think Sheol, the realm to which listless shadows of the dead descend for a joyless, intensely boring eternity. God had better places to hang out.
So not only heading away from Nineveh, from the godless place where God promised to meet him, but heading out to sea seemed a way to get away from God. And in Bible school, of course, we thought Jonah fled in fear. We were small, he was small, God was big, so we got it. God scared him so he sailed away.
But the text never says that. We read far into the story before Jonah reveals his motive. This is comedy, and we must wait until the punch line for that.
In the meantime, we only have the sea, and oh, so pious Jonah, out there sleeping in a boat sailed by pagan sailors whom he normally shunned. They headed far from the temple in Jerusalem, far from the holy of holies, the atoning sacrifices, and the glory of God. But when a storm almost decimated their vessel, the sailors had enough religious sense to wake him up and demand that he get his God to settle down. Give Jonah credit, he told them that to appease this God, they must cast him, the rebellious prophet, into the godless sea. So after trying every alternative to dooming poor Jonah, they gave him the old heave-ho into the breakers, praying all the while with sacrifices to God. Lo and behold, the hapless prophet converted them in spite of himself.
The deep blue sea. Modern folks like us have other names for it, like divorce, unemployment, cancer, pandemic, or insurrection, to name a few. Jonah does not go through anything so different than we go through in the middle chapters of our lives when we flee or fall into liminal space where virtues once rewarded get punished and routes that once led to success lead to failure. Sometimes it happens because we run from God, sometimes because we run to God, but for a spell God seems absent as we pray desperately until something terrible and gracious comes along like a fish that swallows us and carries us to where God intended for us to go all along. This is deadly serious stuff until much later when we can see the comedy and have a good laugh.
If you search online for my name, Marshall Jenkins, and add the keyword, “sailor,” or “whale,” you will find among the other Marshall Jenkinses a sailor from Boston momentarily swallowed and spat up by a sperm whale in 1771. Fundamentalists cite this in their case that the Jonah story is true in the factual sense of truth. But I know that it is true in the much more important existential sense of the word because the Marshall Jenkins preaching this sermon has descended in the deep blue sea a few times in my family and career life and something unexpected and initially very frightening like a giant fish just about killed me but ended up upchucking me back to earth.
And I can tell you that back on earth, staggering on the shore, Jonah and you and I get really serious about where God wants us to go once we get our legs back. More so than you or I, Jonah knew exactly where God wanted him to go since God told him very clearly before the voyage and the big fish puked him out somewhere near Nineveh. So the comedy setting shifted from the deep blue seas to the big bad city.
In spite of himself, Jonah obeyed and marched into the hated city so wide it would take three days to walk to the other side. One day’s hike in, he finally did his due diligence and shouted the most minimal prophetic message in holy writ: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4)
Then he got the most maximal prophetic outcome in all of scripture: The people believed instantly, donned sackcloth, and fasted. The wicked king of that heathen nation did likewise and spoke like the prophet Joel, ordering all subjects including animals to join in a Lenten event on steroids, repenting and begging God for mercy. For as the king said, “
Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9; see also Joel 2:14).
Again in spite of himself, Jonah fulfilled his calling like no other character in scripture, this time converting not just a boatload of pagans but a New York-sized city full. But God’s conversion of Jonah remained incomplete. His body skulked about in Nineveh but his heart still sailed the wrong way in the chaotic waters of the deep blue sea.
Hungry, he looked around. The restaurants and street vendors were too busy repenting to serve food, and if they did, it wasn’t kosher. So he turned and lurched out of city, hating it like the Grinch hating Whoville, hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, not to mention hot and hoping to sit on the slope by the nasty city and watch it burn after all.
He never saw God in the city, although God was everywhere to be seen as God is wherever hearts catch fire and prayers ascend and humility takes hold. He could not see God in the city because he could not believe God would set foot in there just as he wrongly believed God would not go to the farthest reaches of the sea with a guiding hand and a light in the darkness (see Psalm 139:9-12). Of course, God dwelt in the temple in Jerusalem, but as of old, God kept an affinity for the wilderness outside the city gates for the third and final scene of our comedy.
So Jonah went out there to sit and sulk and hate, half-hoping to meet God there to join him in his loathing of Nineveh. What else could Jonah expect? For in years past, Nineveh cruelly attacked God’s people, sacked God’s temple, exiled God’s chosen ones numbed by trauma, and humiliated them in a foreign land. Surely God would crush Nineveh at last.
Otherwise, he wanted a meeting to object to God’s reckless grace. For Nineveh looked for all the world like the Israel God had in mind all along, so passionate in prayer, so anguished in contrition, so childlike in appeals for mercy. And as blind as Jonah seemed to God in the sea and the city, he was, after all, a prophet, so he knew God’s heart very well. Thus, in the prayer he cried out from the hillside, he confessed the motive for his flight in the first place:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (4:2-3).
This merciful God, of course, not only cares for teeming, sinful cities like Nineveh, but for hard-headed, forlorn prophets with hearts hooked on revenge for anyone who terrorized God’s own chosen people. How dare God extend mercy beyond the borders of Israel to those who would humiliate and destroy her! How dare God protect those outsiders when God did not protect God’s own children!
God listened and did not mention the protection and rescue God gave Jonah as he sank like a rock in the deep blue sea. Oh so gently, God provided Jonah a little more protection, sprouting a little shade tree to cool him from the sun when the heat of his anger would not die down. Jonah welcomed the shade and the breeze. But God gave the tree a short lifespan, and soon enough it withered and died, leaving Jonah to sulk under the midday sun. In fact, he told God the loss of that little protection made him angry enough to die.
So, God asked rhetorically, “If I should care about protection from the sun for my prophet blessed with knowledge of my heart, why should I not then care about protecting over one hundred thousand lost souls and dumb animals in Nineveh?” (4:9-11, paraphrase)
So ends the comedy, it seems, as Mrs. Harris puts away the crayons and Dixie Cups of Bible School, and Marshall Jenkins swims back to the boat in shock after gagging a whale. Smiling, God sits down next to Jonah and watches the sun set over Nineveh, as Jonah burns like the horizon. I doubt Jonah gets it yet because I do not quite get it myself, hard as I find it to forgive those who hurt and humiliate me, blind as I am to my own hypocrisies that I learn all-too painfully after sailing the wrong way and having pagans teach me the lessons I thought I was supposed to teach them.
But the main thing that Mrs. Harris, her teenaged children, the Bible School children, both Marshall Jenkinses, the Grinch, all the Whos down in Whoville, and you have in common with Jonah is that from the comedy and tragedy of our lives, there emerges the ultimate story of a merciful God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. We know because God’s mercy saves us even as it scandalizes us, and God will sit with us on that hillside through a million sunsets until at last we give in and join in the laughter (see Isaiah 55:6-13).
The above meditation is the text of a sermon I delivered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rome, Georgia, on Sunday, January 24, 2021. To listen to the sermon, click here.