More Than Just Another Fish Story
Text: Jonah 3:1-5,10
When most people think about Jonah, they think about Jonah and the whale. But the Bible doesn't say it was a whale that swallowed Jonah; it just says that it was a big fish. Perhaps you've been gill-ty of making that mistake. Another error that people sometimes make is that they think that Jonah was Scandinavian, that he was a Finn. But no, Jonah was an Israelite.
Yet what exactly is the porpoise of this story? After all, Jonah is just a shrimpy little book in the Old Testament. Maybe from where you're perched, Jonah doesn't look like it's much more than another fish story. All right, for the rest of the sermon, I'll try to scale down the number of puns, before you start to moan and wail, and wonder what kind of school teaches this kind of preaching. Because maybe you're starting to wish that you were someplace else right now, maybe even in Al-toona. Well, before you start to get a haddock, let's get down to business.
Jonah was one of the prophets in the Old Testament. One day God came to Jonah and told him to go to the city of Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria. But the problem was that that was about the last thing in the world that Jonah wanted to do. After all, the Assyrians were the bad guys. They were sort of the Nazis of the ancient world. The Assyrians were known for being brutal and cruel. When they defeated you in battle, the victory alone wasn't enough for them. No, the Assyrians went on to force you to pack up your stuff and they carted you off to some strange and distant land to live out the rest of your life. So when God told Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh, so they could repent and be saved, that wasn't a mission that Jonah was interested in.
So, as we all know, Jonah hopped on a boat and headed the opposite direction. But God proceeded to whip up a fierce storm that was just about to sink the ship. Finally, Jonah had himself thrown into the sea because he knew that that storm was his fault, that it was God's way of punishing Jonah for running away. But then, just as Jonah was about to drown, the Bible says that a big fish swallowed him. After keeping Jonah in his belly for three days, the fish coughed Jonah up and left him on dry land.
So for a second time, God goes to Jonah and orders him to go to Nineveh. This time, Jonah goes. As Jonah walks through the city streets and warns the people that they'll be punished if they don't repent, the people listen. It says that all of the people of Nineveh, from the king right on down to the lowliest slave, they all began to fast and pray and repent.
Then God does something that makes Jonah really angry. Because what God does is he announces that he's going to forgive the people of Nineveh. And that makes Jonah mad. That's why he didn't want to go to Nineveh in the first place, because he was afraid that that was exactly what God was going to end up doing. Didn't God realize how nasty and evil and rotten those people in Nineveh were? Why did God have to forgive them? Why didn't God just zap them and make them pay the price for what they'd done?
But as Jonah sits there, fit to be tied, God says to him, "Jonah, what right do you have to be angry?" But we understand how Jonah felt. It's like when the Prodigal Son comes home after he had wasted the family inheritance on wild living. He comes home, and what does the father do? Instead of scolding him, the father welcomes him back and throws him a party. We feel like the older brother in the story, the one who has been there with the father the whole time, knocking ourselves out doing what was right. We just can't understand how the father could treat that scoundrel of a son with such love and mercy. It just doesn't make sense. It makes us angry.
Or when Jesus was nailed to the cross, why didn't God make those people pay for what they were doing? Why didn't God destroy them, for taking God's Son and nailing him to a cross? But no, instead, we find Jesus saying from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." What kind of justice is that? That God let those people off the hook like that, doesn't that make you angry?
Well, that whole idea of forgiving the people of Nineveh was something that Jonah didn't want any part of. It's like Groucho Marx, who once sent a letter to a very exclusive club in Hollywood. The letter said: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." But the thing with Jonah and with us, is that if God is going to forgive and accept those kind of people, we don't want any part of it. We just don't want to hear it.
Or what about John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, notorious for their kill for thrill spree 19 years ago? Just a few weeks ago, Governor Ridge signed a death warrant for John Lesko, for him to be put to death by lethal injection on March 18. But when that death warrant was announced, didn't you know in the back of your mind, that something would come up and he wouldn't be executed? And sure enough, a county judge agreed to delay the execution, giving Lesko more time to work on an appeal. Does that make you angry? That's the kind of thing that made Jonah angry.
After all, Lesko and Travaglia committed horrible, evil acts, killing people. Sure, at least one of them now says that he's a Christian. But for the most part, we don't want to hear it. We point to the Bible where it says: "He who kills shall be killed", and we say, "There you have it." And even though in his recent trip to the United States, the pope again announced the Catholic church's opposition to the death penalty, surveys find that more than 70% of U.S. Catholics don't accept the pope's teaching, and instead support the death penalty. And the statistics are roughly the same for Protestants.
It seems that when it comes to quoting from the Bible we're a bit selective in what we quote. For instance, yes, in a couple of places it does say that those who kill should be killed. But it also says that the death penalty may only be carried out when there are at least two eyewitnesses to the murder. Not too many executions in our country meet that standard.
Or what about the fact that murder is not the only offense that calls for the death penalty in the Bible? You see, the Bible says that adultery should also be punished with death. Are we prepared to exterminate the President of the United States? According to recent popularity polls, I don't think so.
It's like if you go in the post office and look at the wanted posters. When you see pictures there of bank robbers and kidnappers and terrorists, that makes you feel better about yourself. Because you figure that in comparison to the sins of those people, your sins don't look so bad.
Or we like focusing a lot of attention these days on drug addicts. Of course, drug addiction is an awful thing. But by focusing so much on that one kind of addiction, we conveniently draw the attention away from ourselves and our addictions—our addictions to alcohol, caffeine, sex, money. As long as we can point at the drug addict and say, "Ain't it awful", we hope that no one will have the time to look at us and see our sins.
I was reading a book the other day written by a man named Karl Barth, who was an important theologian earlier this century. In that book he made a very powerful point. He said that when we look at what we think of as godless people, why we get so upset is because as we look at them, we see ourselves. We point to them and say, "They've done evil. They deserve to be punished. They should pay for what they've done." But the whole time we're saying that, we know that what we're really saying is: "I've done evil. I deserve to be punished. I should pay for what I've done." That's why "evil" people trouble us so much, because they are a physical reminder of the people that we really are.
The people of Nineveh didn't deserve to be forgiven. Jonah knew that. But God forgave them anyway. And you know what? When you get right down to it, we don't deserve to be forgiven. But God forgives us anyway. Maybe that makes you angry, that God works that way. It made Jonah angry. But the next time we point at someone and say that that person doesn't deserve to be forgiven, remember that the person we are talking about is none other than ourselves.
Rev. Dr. C. Edward Bowen
Trinity United Presbyterian Church Slickville Presbyterian Church
Vandergrift, PA Slickville, PA