Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
God’s a fisherman. Do you know how I know? What are fishermen famous for? They tell tall tales. Exactly the kind of tales a little boy in Nazareth would have listened to 2000 years ago. Imagine him sitting by a campfire by the Sea of Galilee, arms hugging his knees, spellbound by the fishermen’s tales. You should have a part in this story too. Every time I lift my fish, you say, “Sounds fishy to me!” (Lift the fish) Good. Let’s go.
Once there was a man, and he was a prophet. His name meant Dove, the symbol of his people, and we call him Jonah. Jonah was a good man who did everything he should have. He mowed the lawn and served his wife breakfast in bed and washed the dishes (sounds fishy to me). You’re right; he didn’t do all those things. But he did do all the things a Hebrew prophet was supposed to do. He prayed, meditated, he listened for the voice of God.
One night Jonah dreamed God was calling him. “You calling me, Lord?” “Yeah, you. I want you to go to Nineveh. Tell the people they have 40 days to smarten up or I’ll squish them like Sodom and Gomorrah!” So Jonah jumped up and packed his suitcase and caught the next caravan for Nineveh (sounds fishy to me). You’re right, he didn’t. No Jew went willingly to Nineveh in those days. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the most powerful and evil empire of its time. Nineveh was in the centre of the country we now call Iraq. No Jew goes willingly to Nineveh these days, either.
So in his dream Jonah said, “God, I know you. You’re gracious and merciful. You abound in steadfast love. Why should I risk my neck? You’re going to forgive them anyway.” But Jonah was too smart to say this out loud. In the morning he packed up and went down to the neighbourhood travel agent. “God wants me to go to Nineveh,” he muttered. “Nineveh, huh,” said the agent. “Not too many Jews going to Nineveh these days. I can get you a seat sale on the 7:15 Camel Express.” Jonah shook his head. “So I’m going to Tarshish.” And he bought passage on the next ship for Spain in the opposite direction and as far away as possible from where God had told him to go.
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It was a pretty scurvy lot of sailors on that boat, let me tell you. Some scurvy sailors from Egypt, some pagan sailors from Cyprus, and the scurviest, paganest of them all, a wild and woolly sailor from Ireland. Now Jonah was a landlubber. He’d never been to sea before. He noticed right away there was something unsettling about how the ship went up and down and over and out all at the same time. Jonah slipped down below to his cabin to think green and seasick thoughts.
But a wind came up, and a storm came up, and the ship began to break apart and take on water. Well, those scurvy, pagan sailors began to weep and wail and pray to their gods like they were holy rollers! The captain went below to see how high the water had risen in the hold. When he saw Jonah just lying there, he kicked him and told him to get up on deck and down on his knees and start praying to his own gods too. Back on deck the sailors had begun eying each other, wondering who the gods were so angry with to punish them all this way. They threw lots and dice and tarot cards and knucklebones, and all the portents pointed to Jonah.
“Hey Jonah!” called the captain. “You got any little thing on your conscience you feel like sharing?” A wave swept over the rail. Now Jonah was as wet as the rest of them. He looked a miserable, seasick, water rat. He told them about God’s call, the travel agent, his leaving for Spain instead of Assyria. “Throw me overboard,” he moaned, looking greener and greener with every lurch of the boat, “Put me out of my misery.”
“O no, we couldn’t do that,” said the scurvy pagan crew. “We Irish be too dainty to harm a hair on any man’s head,” said the scurviest, paganest one of them all (sounds fishy to me). But the wind got stronger, the waves got higher, at last they threw Jonah over the side and prayed his god to forgive them. And all at once… the sea grew calm.
Jonah sank like a stone. Thought he was a goner. But a great fish, some say it was a whale, swallowed him up and all of a sudden he was in the smelliest kettle of fish you can imagine (sounds fishy to me). There were carp and salmon and tuna and halibut and pickled herring from Norway and Jonah was right in the middle of it all holding his nose and praying. You can learn a lot of humility holding your nose doing the dog paddle for three days. Jonah swore if he ever got out of this pickle he’d do whatever God told him and that’s when the whale spit him out like a watermelon seed and he was back on shore just where he’d started. His travel agent was there too, but when he got wind of Jonah, he ran away holding his nose, shouting over his shoulder his refund cheque was in the mail (sounds fishy to me). Oh, you mean about the cheque in the mail? You’re right. That’s the hardest part of the story for me to swallow, too.
Well, Jonah picked himself up and walked to Nineveh. In those days Nineveh was so big it took three days to walk across it (sounds fishy to me). Well, it was pretty big anyway. Jonah walked into the centre of town and spoke the shortest sermon you’ve ever heard. Five words in Hebrew, a few more in English. Listen close or you’ll miss it. “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Then he walked away.
Nineveh went wild! Just goes to show how popular a short sermon can be! People shaved their heads and put on sackcloth. Beggars and kings threw ashes at each other. Jonah and Yahweh fasting clubs sprung up all over the place. Even the animals got into it. Cows put on sackcloth and the chickens wore the cutest little twin sets with tiny cotton collars and button-down pockets for their grit and feathers sticking everywhere (sounds fishy to me) and the king called a great fast and everyone prayed to Yahweh to change his mind and forgive them. And he did.
So what did Jonah do? Well, if I ever preached a sermon that stopped everyone in their tracks, even the animals, I’d phone the (name local newspaper) and tell them all about it, but not Jonah. He shook his fist at the heavens, “I told you so! I knew you’re a gracious and merciful God. I knew you abound in steadfast love. I knew you’d change you mind and not punish them. You make me so mad I wish I were dead.” And he stomped up a hill, sat down, arms crossed, facing Nineveh. There was still time for a happy ending if God came to his senses or the Ninevites lost theirs. He wanted a good view for the fireworks and brimstone.
God looked down and chuckled. “Must be hot on that hill.” So he told a little plant to grow overnight till it was tall enough to shade his prophet (sounds fishy to me). And Jonah loved that plant. But the second day, God being a fisherman and all, remember I said God’s a fisherman?, the next day before God went fishing, he plucked a worm out of his bait bucket and set it at the base of Jonah’s plant. It ate through the stem and the plant withered and died. The sun beat down on the prophet’s head, the city gave no sign of destruction, and Jonah shook his fist at the heavens again, “Hey, God! Can’t you get anything right?”
And God answered, “What’s up, Jonah?” And Jonah said, “I loved that plant. Now it’s dead and doesn’t shade me anymore.” But God answered, “You mean you’re making all this fuss about a plant? How much more, then, should I care about a great city of 120,000 souls, never mind how many cows and chickens!”
Imagine a little boy 2000 years ago on the beach of Galilee, hugging his knees while a fisherman tells the story. His eyes sparkle and sometimes he laughs so hard he’s beside himself. When he grows up he’s going to tell stories too. Sometimes to fishermen, sometimes to Pharisees, sometimes to men who collect taxes, sometimes to women who collect other things. Because everyone loves and remembers a story. Maybe he learnt that sitting on a beach listening to fishermen’s tall tales about a local prophet named Jonah.
And he learnt something else too, and so should we. Jonah loved God, and Jonah loved his people, but there was one thing Jonah hated. What was that?Yes, Nineveh. And God help him, he had reason to. They were a cruel and evil people. But Jonah was drowning in hate long before he was ever drowning in the sea. It’s the same when we allow ourselves to hate another person or nation. Hate makes us sink like a stone. We have to let go and forgive. To save ourselves as much as anyone else.
My mother used to talk about a girl who’d hurt my brother. The girl was 5 or 6 when she did it. Mom carried her grudge for 50 years. Mom was suffering a hurt the girl and my brother had long since forgotten. It only hurt Mom now, not them. Mom had to let it go.
Here’s a second thought. God’s a fisherman. Of course he is. Great whales and bait worms, animals wearing sackcloth and everyone converted to righteousness with a five-word sermon, if that isn’t a fisherman’s tall tale, I don’t know what is. God’s a fisherman and he’s out to catch us. He’s sent his prophets and he’s sent his fishermen from Galilee, and now he’s up to his knees in the water trying to reel us in. He says, “They’ve all told you about me. They’ve told you I’m the God who’s gracious and merciful. Abounding in steadfast love. Always ready to forgive. You’ll like living with me a lot better than drowning without. Let me catch you. Don’t be the one that got away. Let me catch you today.”
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.