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Sermon Ideas For Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Part 3

The famous poem by Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven, beautifully illustrates a major theme of the book of Jonah. The poet Thompson, not unlike many people, spent a restless life running away from God and writes of this life's experience in words which have etched themselves into many hearts:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days….1
In recurring lines found throughout this lengthy poem, Thompson describes God's pursuit of him:
But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbed pace, Deliverate speed, majestic instancy,...2
Robert Frost, in a short play written in 1947, uses the Jonah story to highlight a discussion of the dynamic between God's grace and God's mercy. The play is titled, The Masque of Mercy. The figure of Jonah in this retelling of the Bible story, repeatedly laments, "I can't trust God to be unmerciful."3 Unraveling the double negative, the meaning here seems to have to do with human conflict with a God who can't be trusted to join us in our hatred of our enemies. This God will not honor the way we organize the world according to our sense of who deserves mercy and who doesn't.
Jonah presents a portrait of a human being undone by mercy. A Middle English poem titled, "Patience" is a retelling of the Jonah story with interesting embellishments. The descent of Jonah into the belly of the whale becomes, in this poem, a harrowing descent into the mouth of hell. Jonah is treated as a rather comic figure who is undone by God's mercy. The poem concludes, in lines 520 and following, with God's rebuke of Jonah's tendency to judge others without mercy:
If I were as hasty as you, sir, wrong would be done. I could not be so severe and yet be regarded as merciful, for severity is not to be exercised unless there is mercy in it.4
Another approach to the book of Jonah is through the experience of the exile. There is an interesting correspondence in the third chapter of Jonah between the prophet's sojourn in the belly of the fish and the size of Ninevah. Jonah was in the fish three days. It is noted that Ninevah is so large it requires three days to walk from one end to the other. The experience of the exile in Ninevah can be linked to something like the experience of helplessness and peril associated with being in the belly of a fish. But in both cases, the exiled one is not removed from the realm of God's grace. In fact, the exiled one is in a position to realize the presence of grace more readily.
Contained within Melville's Moby Dick is a sermon delivered by a Father Mapple to a ship's crew. The sermon is about Jonah. Preparing to deliver the sermon, Father Mapple begins to pray. His prayer replicates the experience of the exiled one captive in a fish:
He (Father Mapple) paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit's bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.5
Jonah, in the fish's belly, is completely dependent upon grace. His liberation occurred because God spoke to the fish and the fish expelled the prophet.
The experience of the exiled one is a major theme of literature. From Ovid to Dante, the exiled one becomes a major spokesperson of the dangers and opportunities of the age. The Latin poet Ovid might be considered the father of all literary exiles. He pours out his heart in his Nine Books of Pontical Epistles and an autobiographical poem, Tristia (Poem of Sadness).
Either from the point of the view of the hesitant prophet or the anguished exiled one, the unfolding of God's grace is the hallmark of this book.
Joel Whiteside
1. Hugh T. Kerr, John Mulder, Eds, Conversions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 145. 2. Ibid. 3. Edward Connery Lathem, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost, "The Masque of Mercy" (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), pp. 493-521. 4. J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, Second Edition (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996). 5. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Philadelphia: David McKay Company).