A Big Fish Story
March 17, 2010
Updated March 3, 2022
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Jonah 1:1-16
Sermon prepared by Rev. Michael Bootsma, Frankford, ON
Once upon a time, in a land far away and in a time long forgotten, there lived a prophet of God. The prophet’s name was Jonah son of Amittai. The land in which he lived was Israel. Jonah lived in Israel during the days in which Assyria was the local superpower. In due time, they would be conquered by the Babylonians. But that is another story. This one takes place before the Babylonians rise to power. The king of Assyria was an astute leader who had three palaces in three major cities of his kingdom. He ruled from each city for 4 months at a time. There were various advantages to this arrangement. It dispersed power through out his kingdom. It dispersed his army throughout the kingdom. It encouraged trade to be dispersed throughout his kingdom. And it dispersed his wives and children. One of those cities was called Nineveh. And Nineveh is the city which comes up in the story of Jonah.
In order to understand the story of Jonah, son of Amittai, you need to know some things about the Assyrians. The Assyrians were cruel and brutal. One Israelite prophet had this to say about the people of Nineveh:
“Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!
The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots!
Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears!
Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses” (Nahum 3:1-3).
They often made war against the people of Israel, and generally the Assyrians won and forced the Israelites to pay them taxes. The Israelites, a proud people, were humiliated by these taxes and wanted revenge. They hated the Assyrians.
Not only were the Assyrians cruel and brutal, they were evil. The same prophet ended his words about their cruelty with this charge:
“all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft” (Nahum 3:4).
He saw the Assyrians not only as cruel and brutal but also involved in a hosts of sexual sins and witchcraft as well.
In order to understand this particular story you also need to know some things about Jonah. Jonah was also a prophet of God. He was supposed to give messages from God to whomever God sent him or to whomever asked for a word of God. Jonah lived and prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). Jonah prophesied good things for Israel even though Israel was not obeying God. Jeroboam II did evil in the eyes of the Lord, yet God gave him success in his kingship so that he restored the boundaries of Israel to some of its earlier glory.
It was in those days that our story takes place. It begins on the day, no one knows exactly when during that day, just that it happened. What happened is this: Jonah got word from God that he was to go to Nineveh. Now, that in itself would not have been so bad. Jonah was not a very righteous man and was sort of curious about all the stuff he had heard about Nineveh. Yes, he would have liked to have a look around, unnoticed of course.
But he was not sent on a spy mission or a vacation. He was sent as a prophet of God, sent to tell the Ninevites that they needed to repent or else. The sin of that city had become too much. God planned on dealing with it. This, according to Jonah, was a problem. It would have been just fine with him if God simply destroyed Nineveh. Better yet, that God send out Jeroboam II with his army to annihilate the city. Then Israel could benefit from all its riches.
But that’s not what God was planning on doing. Oh, no. God was sending Jonah to that great city. And that could only mean one thing: God wanted to give the Ninevites an opportunity to repent and change their ways. God wanted Jonah to warn the Ninevites of the impending judgement so that they would give up their evil ways and do what is right. If there is one thing that Jonah knew about his God, it was that his God was full of mercy. When God warned people of coming judgement it meant God was giving them time. If they turned to Him for mercy, He would give it.
This is where our story starts. Jonah, in our language, responded to God, “Over my dead body.” There was no way that he was going to give the people of Nineveh an opportunity to receive mercy from God. The Lord God belonged to Israel. That meant He was against Israel’s enemies and Nineveh was an enemy. This was just wrong.
But Jonah knew better then to argue with God. So he ran away. Those of you who know something about God, know that you can’t run away from God. Jonah knew that too. But he decided to forget about that for a while and run away anyway. He was hoping that if he ran away far enough, God would forget about him and find someone else to give this message. Or maybe God would come to His senses and realize that He ought to just zap the city, not give it another chance.
By now, I am sure that you are disgusted with Jonah. How could he be so dumb as to directly disobey God? You would never do that, would you? And you are probably thinking that Jonah ought to have a little more love for Nineveh. But how easy is it for you to love your enemy? How quickly do you forgive the people who hurt you? You see, Jonah is not that different from us, is he?
So Jonah went down to Joppa. There he paid the fare to get on board a ship to flee to Tarshish, which is the equivalent to our Timbucktu. Tashish has never been found on a map and no one has ever heard of it except that Jonah hoped to go there. The word actually means “open sea”. Jonah wanted to get away, as far away as he possibly could. God could find another prophet to talk to the Ninevites. So Jonah got on board a ship in Joppa, which was a non-Israelite coast city. The sailors were undoubtedly not worshippers of Jonah’s God and didn’t care yet that he was running away from his God. But very soon they would care.
You see, shortly after they set sail God sent a great storm on the sea. It struck the ship so hard that the sailors were afraid that it would break apart. These sailors did not worship our God, but they were religious. They worshipped other gods. So when the storm struck, each member on the ship began praying to their god, hoping that their god could put an end to this storm.
All the people on the ship, that is, except Jonah! Jonah really did think that he had outsmarted God. He went down into the bottom of the ship and fell fast asleep. I mean, fast asleep. He slept so deeply he did not even notice the storm. The language in which this story was first written uses the same word for Jonah’s sleep as it used to describe Adam’s sleep while God made Eve. When the captain was doing a head count, in between his prayers, he realized that one was missing. Jonah was not on board. And so he found Jonah fast asleep in the cargo hold.
“"How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish."
But by this time the sailors have decided that this is no normal storm. This is a judgement storm. Some god is angry and is taking it out on their little ship. They decide to draw lots to find out who had made their god so angry. The lot falls on Jonah. You can be sure that God had something to do with that. That’s when the questions start flying at Jonah. They didn’t mind some guy coming on board who was running away from his God. But they did mind a God who was about to destroy them. They wanted some answers.
So Jonah tells them, "I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land." This was a major problem for the sailors. Their gods were small gods who only had control over little pieces of land. They had heard of this Hebrew God, but up unto now they had not had anything to do with Him. But now the stories of His power appeared to be very true. If the reach of Israel’s God reached all the way from Samaria (that’s where Jonah was from), past Joppa and out on the sea, then He was a very great God. And if He was a very great God then in their minds He could be very angry as well!
But Jonah’s answer is also a confession. He knows what many of you knew all along: you can’t run away from God. Jonah had failed to flee from God. He was not outside God’s territory.
“What did you do?” they asked Jonah. Suddenly it appeared that this was more than just running away. The sailors now want Jonah to tell them what they must do. He tells them to throw him over board. Now, I don’t know what you would do if you were faced with such a thing. But the sailors were not about to mess with Jonah or his God. What if this God was only slightly angry? What if He wanted Jonah alive and He got really angry if they drowned him? Life was bad enough right now; they did not need to get any further into the bad books of this God.
So they grabbed the oars and began to row back to land. Well, at least, that is what they tried to do. But the harder they rowed the harder the wind blew. The harder the wind blew the higher the waves grew.
Finally they realized that they had no choice. Their ship was not breaking apart as they had feared. Neither were they getting anywhere closer to shore, nor was the storm letting up. In desperation they cried to God, "O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased." By this time they fully believed that Jonah’s God was fully responsible for this storm. Their lives were in His hands.
So they took Jonah and threw him over board. It was like time slowed down to a crawl. They watched Jonah sail through the air and finally land in the water. Some were looking up into the sky, watching for the lightning bolt that would split the ship in half. Some had their eyes shut tight, not daring to see what would happen. Others were looking at the water, to see what would happen.
What happened was not a lightning bolt. But a huge sigh of relief as the wind died and the waves leveled, the ship began to bob gently in the water and the sailors dropped to their knees in exhaustion and thanksgiving. They worshipped the God of Jonah. They had discovered that He was indeed a God of mercy. They had given passage to His fleeing prophet. He could have destroyed them. They had thrown His runaway prophet overboard but He had not punished them. They liked this God.
And what about Jonah? Down there, in the depths of the water, Jonah discovered God’s mercy too. You see, he fully expected to die. In a way, he would have accomplished his objective. The Hebrews believed that when some one dies their soul goes to a shadow world under the ground, somewhere called Sheol. We don’t know much about Sheol, except that God is not there. Jonah expected to end up there.
But instead he finds himself in the belly of a large fish. In fact, he stayed there for three days and three nights. Now, I don’t know exactly how this could take place, but I have no doubt that God can do this. If He can make the world and raise people from the dead, God can keep Jonah alive in the belly of a fish. It was a miracle: a miracle is something which God does which is different than the way natural laws usually function.
And this is where we will leave Jonah for now: in the belly of the fish. I suspect that by now Jonah has learned a thing or two about God. There is no such place as Tarshish. You can’t run away from God. He had probably also learned that you can’t oppose God and get away with it. I suspect that he was also learning that God needs to be merciful and loving because that is who He is. He can’t help but be this way. God is never unfaithful to Himself. He has said that He is merciful and therefore He will act that way. But I’m not sure Jonah really got that, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
But then again, a more important question is, did you get it? Did you get the point that God is full of mercy? Did you get the point that you can’t run away from God? Think about it for a moment: most of us run away from God or probably just try to avoid Him because we are afraid of Him. But we don’t have to be afraid of Him. That’s what the sailors found out. Jonah was right, God did want to be merciful to Nineveh and God wants to be merciful to you. That’s the nice part. The more difficult part is that He wants to be merciful to your enemies too, but will you let Him?
Our Heavenly Father, You are Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. All people are your creation and precious in your sight. Keep us from snubbing our noses at those who are different and from hoping they won’t respond to your mercy. Make us faithful testifiers of your love. In Jesus name, Amen.
Suggested Order of Worship
“Come, Thou Almighty” (PH 246)
“I Love to Tell the Story” (PH 530)
Confession and Assurance
Song: “And Can It Be” (PH 267)
Scripture: Jonah 1
Message: “A Big Fish Story”
Song: “O Christian Haste” (PH 525)
Song: “Shout for the Blessed Jesus Reigns” (PH 539)
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