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Jonah 1:1-17

November 24, 2014

It’s too bad that we have made this into a favorite children’s story because then we may be prevented from realizing the adult profundity of this parable. The story of Jonah is one of the most spiritually challenging and provocative in the Bible.

The set-up in the first chapter is well known. Jonah runs from the call of God rather than obeys the call of God. Many sermons have used this theme to pressure reluctant youth into becoming missionaries, but that is a misuse of the story. Jonah’s running from God is mysterious. Why would a prophet not want to preach against the people of Nineveh, the capital of the brutal Assyrian Empire–an empire which will soon obliterate Israel itself! This should be a dream assignment for an Israelite prophet. The story purposely withholds Jonah’s reason, creating tension. The reason will not be revealed until the end of the story. (Don’t look ahead!)

Jonah realizes his attempt to run away from God is futile and contradicts everything he believes and everything his life stands for. In deep depression he tries to escape reality by submerging himself in sleep in the darkest belly of the ship. But a fierce storm, caused by God, results in his being found by the desperate captain, and soon the sailors discover that he is the cause of the ship being on the verge of sinking.

Jonah then seeks the ultimate escape: death. He can no longer live with the contradictions within himself. He tells the sailors to sacrifice him to God by throwing him overboard. Does Jonah seek mere oblivion, or does he hope that his self-sacrifice will be looked upon by God as noble?

The sailors–though pagan–want no part in Jonah’s assisted suicide. Human sacrifice to appease a god is soundly rejected throughout the Bible, and it is looked upon with horror here as well. They try desperately once again to row the ship back to land but the storm only gets worse.

God will not let them succeed–even though what they are trying to do is morally right. For me this is the most profound part of the first chapter. God is pushing them into a corner where they have virtually no choice but to sacrifice the life of Jonah. With great reluctance and terror, the sailors pray to God to spare their own lives and to forgive them for sacrificing Jonah’s life. They then throw him overboard to certain death.

What neither the sailors nor Jonah realize is that God wants Jonah thrown overboard–but not to destroy Jonah but to save him. God has provided a great fish to swallow him and protect him–something they could not have anticipated. Sometimes when we try as hard as we can to do the right thing, God blows contrary winds in our face making it impossible to proceed. Sometimes we cannot escape the tragic circumstances and choices of our existence. Sometimes God wants us to throw Jonah overboard, not to destroy him but to save him. Sometimes we must trust that God knows what God is doing, and that a fish is coming that we cannot see.

When people of faith gather together and make a difficult decision that I think is terribly wrong, I trust that God will yet use that decision in ways quite beyond what we can see to bring about a greater healing. We must have hope during these “Jonah moments.”

Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. For early Christians, this was an analogy for Jesus’ death (though Jesus was not in a tomb for three nights). His crucifixion appeared to be the greatest tragedy of all, marking the worst decision humanity could have ever made. And yet, God used that death to surprise us with the resurrection.

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