Jonah and the Whale
Epiphany 3B Jonah 3:1-5
(With the story of “Jonah and the whale” as the Old Testament lesson for this coming Sunday, this text lends itself to producing a children’s musicals on the theme of Jonah. On that Sunday, our children’s choir sang A WHALE OF A TALE and the bells played JONAH AND THE WHALE by Tamli Rawlinson, 1988.)
(The following sermon was preached on “children’s Sunday” at Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, and numerous children and their families were present. “Children’s Sunday” is not like Confirmation Sunday nor Youth Sunday. Children’s Sunday focuses on younger children who are under the age of twelve.)
How we love children. How we love children’s Sunday when so many children are in church. How we love it when our younger children lead worship. The children usher, read the Scriptures, collect the offerings, sing special music, and give prayers. On children’s Sunday, when all the children are present, we feel their smiling aura of energy, happiness and enthusiasm.
Yes, you people today also loved the musical about JONAH, A WHALE OF A TALE. You loved the refrain from the musical, “Jonah was going to Nineveh town. In Nineveh town, there were to stop fooling around. Just between you and me, he was trying to avoid responsibility.” Yes, the Jonahs of life always tries to avoid responsibility for being a missionary and servant to the Ninevehs of life.
I have been thinking about children here in the life of our church and how God uses children to convert the city, to bring people from the cities of Nineveh to faith. Nineveh is symbolic of a city which has little or no faith in Christ. The Lord often uses children to bring their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors from Nineveh to faith. The Old Testament says, “a child shall lead them” and children often lead their families to Jesus Christ…even in Nineveh.
God often converts Nineveh through the power and presence of children.
Let me explain:
Nineveh is symbolic of our neighborhoods that surround our congregation, Grace Lutheran Church. We remember that here in King County, 67% of our population does not belong to church. Our neighborhoods are more unchurched than Tanzania, Madagascar and Namibia, our traditional mission fields. According to statistical studies, one fourth of the membership of congregations such as ours do not believe Jesus Christ is important. That is another 8%. In other words, 75% of people around us don’t think Jesus is important enough to belong to a church. Our congregation is situated in the middle of Nineveh.
I am thinking of the Christmas pageant that we do here at church. Our church is full for the Christmas pageant, plum full, right up to the rafters. These people from Nineveh, our surrounding neighborhoods, come out to see their kids sing the songs of the Christmas story and play the roles of the sheep, shepherds and angels. This past Christmas eve, our church was full of parents who don’t belong to this church, who don’t come to this church, but who bring their kids to Sunday School. And very often through the years, these young kids will become slowly drawn into our bell choir, our vocal choir, confirmation, retreats and mission trips and their young lives will become transformed by Jesus Christ. And these same kids bring their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters to be members of our community. That night at the Christmas pageant, Pastor and I knew very few of these families as they walked out the doors of the church. We hadn’t seen these people before. Yet, there was the possibility that these families could become Christian.
The kid shows up for the Christmas pageant. And then the mother or father shows up to see the pageant. Then a brother or sister shows up in another Sunday School class. Then a friend shows up at confirmation or bell choir.
In other words, our community is Nineveh, and many times children lead their families to faith while living in Nineveh.
I think of Confirmation Sunday and the sanctuary is again jammed to the rafters with numerous people from our neighborhoods of Nineveh around us. The confirmand stands up before the whole congregation and bellows out so that even grandma can hear in the back row, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord.” We are inspired in that moment. Then three to four kids get up and read their confirmation papers. People are always blown away by the superb quality of those personal papers. And people from Nineveh are here, people from our neighborhoods, people who may not know Jesus Christ. We simply know that 75% of the people around us don’t feel a need for the church nor from God for their daily lives. How do such people from Nineveh come to faith? Often, through the faith of children. As the Old Testament says, “A child shall lead them.”
I attended a conference recently where there was a pastor from Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio is famous in the Lutheran Church because we have a Lutheran seminary there where they prepare pastors for ministry. I have been in Columbus and taught a seminar at the seminary. I am personally aware that at the seminary they are unaware that Columbus, Ohio is the least churched place in the state of Ohio with 50-60% of the people in that city not being a part of the church. The seminary was oblivious to that, so it seemed to me. I talked to a pastor from Arlington Heights, Ohio who knew and understood that Columbus, Ohio, was his Nineveh. In that unchurched town, they had a Vacation Bible School that grew from 400 to 3000 children in attendance…there in the middle of Nineveh, Ohio. What I know is that those children often lead their families to faith. It happens all the time. Parents often (but not inevitably) follow the faith formation of their children. This congregation was converting their town, their Nineveh, to Jesus Christ.
One way that our congregation penetrates into Nineveh is through ministries to children of parents and families who don’t belong to church. One of the ways to reach Nineveh is through children, through Sunday School.
Here within our congregation, we sponsor a latchkey program. There is no latchkey program for children of grades 4-6 in our fair city of Des Moines. There will be 50 little kids from Nineveh here in our congregation. Des Moines is 75% unchurched. Then we will get Malia over there to come and teach them bells and then those little kids will play bells during our worship services and those parents of the little kids from Nineveh will show up at worship to watch their kids. And who knows, these parents from Nineveh may be converted to Jesus Christ.
The point is: it is often a child who leads people to faith. God often uses children from Nineveh to bring people to Nineveh to faith.
It is with this theme that we approach the story for today about Jonah and the whale. God wanted to convert this large city of Nineveh to the ways of God and Jonah didn’t want to go that city nor live in that city nor work in that city. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh and I know why. The Bible said that it was a wicked city. It was a wicked city, a violent city, a mean city, so the Greek language says which it calls Nineveh a wicked city. It is much safer out in the countryside. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh and he was going to let that city spoil and rot in their violence; and Jonah was going to stay out there in the country where it was safe. He didn’t want to go to the big urban city where are the violence, wickedness and nastiness were.
As I read this text, I thought of an experience that I had with our sister church in Haiti so many years ago. We had traveled through the big capital city of Puerto Prince. It was like slumsville like you have never seen. We passed the city of Puerto Prince and went down to a smaller village in southern Haiti where there were palm trees, cool breezes, lush small farms, and verdant rural beauty. I was talking to a young couple who were about twenty years old and were from that southern area in Haiti. This young couple wanted to get married and move to the city of Puerto Prince. I said, “Why do you want to go to the city? Why. What for? It is mean and nasty in the city. Don’t you know how nice it is here and Puerto Prince is all slums. It is violent, mean and nasty.” But they didn’t know what that meant. They were like millions of other children of the earth who are drawn to the big town, the urban areas, freedom, independence and the possibility of the rich life.
A second story about people living in rural areas and moving to the big city. I was at my home town in Minnesota this summer and I went to my hometown of Jackson and the neighboring little village of Sherburn where my sister lives. Sherburn has 1200 residents. It is a turn, small American farm town. We were having dinner with my family, including my nephew and his wife. His wife, Heather, is a parole officer in none other than Jackson, Minnesota. I asked Heather, “What kinds of crimes to kids in Jackson commit now a days?” “O, they kick over paint cans, write graffiti on walls, drink, do some drugs.” I said, “If you want to see violence in the raw, show up in Seattle on some weekend, in our neighborhood over on 272nd and 99, and you will see violence and shootings and muggings. Move to the city and you will see real violence.”
What I am suggesting is that Nineveh was an urban city with urban violence. That is why it was called wicked. Nineveh was too busy for God, too busy for God’s way of life. And Jonah said, “I don’t want to go to Nineveh. It is too mean. Too violent. Too wicked.”
“I am going elsewhere.” So he went over to Joppa. Jonah got on a boat and started out on the sea. Jonah was going the opposite direction that God wanted him to go.
Suddenly, there was a storm. A big storm arose. When you start to go in the opposite direction of God, when you snub God and go contrary to God’s will, often God throws a big storm into your life and your life will be turned upside down.
The storm came up and the boat was going up and down. Jonah said, “The storm is getting worse and you need to throw me overboard or you will die in the storm.” The sailors looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and threw Jonah overboard. Jonah sunk in the waters of the Mediterranean sea, deeper and deeper and deeper. The storm began to get quieter, and quieter and quieter. And the sailors said, “This man has a strong God.” The sailors started to believe.
In the story for today, Noah goes down deeper and deeper and deeper and there is a big whale down there in the deep that sucks Jonah up. Jonah ends up in the belly of a whale and it is dark, and dank, and damp.
This story is a story. It is not about literal history. It is not about Pinnochio and Gepetto being in the belly of a whale on a raft and floating around with a sail on their raft. This isn’t what this story is about.
Rather, when you and I go in the opposite direction than God wants for our lives, you are going to go down and down and down and down and down until you finally hit the bottom. When you live a life that snubs God, and when you live a life in a different direction than God wants you to, you are going to go down and down and down and down and down. Until you finally hit the bottom. And then you finally start talking to God, saying “Things are not going right.” God will say to you, “You have to start actually walking my ways. You have to start being the kind of man that I want you to be, the kind of woman that I want you to be, the kind of child that I want you to be, the kind of father that I want you to be, the kind of husband that I want you to be, the kind of pastor that I want you to be. I want you to be the kind of person that I want you to be.”
Finally, at the very bottom, you say, “OK. I will do it. I will be the kind of person that you want me to be. I will be the kind of man. I will be the kind of woman. I will be the kind of child. I will be the kind of human being that you want me to be, Lord God.”
When that happens, God spits you out and you land on the shore.
Fort the second time, God says to Jonah, “I want you to go to Nineveh.” And Jonah said, “OK.”
Today, in the musical about JONAH, A WHALE OF A TALE, I read the musical by Rawlinson, and she has the bells saying at that time in high ranged sounds, “OK.” This woman, in her musical composition that we heard today, she absolutely understood the Book of Jonah.
So now Jonah goes to Nineveh. It was a big urban city, and it took three days to walk across it. Jonah walked one day into the city and stopped and shouted, “If you continue to live like you are for forty days, God will turn your life upside down.” Forty days is a symbolic number. The people believed Jonah. They repented. They turned their lives around. They said, “We agree.” They put on sack cloth and ashes.
The Scripture says, “And God changed his mind and decided not to punish them for all the evil that they had done.”
That ends Jonah, chapter three.
Now we go to Jonah, chapter four. Jonah goes into a funk. Jonah goes into a pout and he is really ticked off at God. Jonah was ticked off at God because he wanted the people of Nineveh to be punished. “God, if all those people did all those bad things, they should be punished big time.” Jonah was in a pout and funk that God wasn’t punishing the people like God should have.
God spoke to Jonah and said, “My mercy is stronger than your sinfulness. My forgiveness is stronger than my anger. I will forgive the people for their sins and not punish the people anymore.”
Jonah went into a funk and said, “God, you’ve got to nail them. All those bad people who did all those bad things, you’ve got o nail ‘em.”
About that time, a bush grew up over the head of Jonah. It was 120 degrees hot in the sunshine and this bush grew up over Jonah to provide shade for his hot head. The bush started to shade him as he was pouting to God and wishing that God would punish the Ninevites.
It finally started to down on Jonah that in the midst of his wanting revenge, God was providing protection for him from the hot desert sun.
Thus ends the story, a story of grace, the story of Jonah and the whale.
So what do we say about this story for today?
There are four things that I would like to mention. This story has touched my life in four ways.
First, I recall the end of the song that was sung with the bell choir. The words say, “Why does the person who walks in the way of the Lord, foolish is the person who strays from his path because God wants to do great things for your life.”
A temptation in your life is for you not to be the kind of man that God wants you to be. A temptation in your life is not to be the kind of woman that God wants you to be. The kind of child that God wants you to be. Not to be the kind of husband. Not to be the kind of father. The great temptation in my life is not to do what God wants me to do with my life. I thumb off God and say to myself, “I am going to do what I want with my life.” You finally get down to the bottom of the belly of the whale and God finally gets through to you and says, “Edward, come on Edward. Come on. I want you to be that quality of man to your wife. I want you to be this kind of father, this kind of grandfather. Edward, come on Edward, I want you to be the kind and quality of person that I want you to be.” Finally, there comes a time in your life where to say to God, “OK. OK. OK God. I will do it.”
That is what God is saying to you today. I do not know the nature of your sinfulness. I don’t know what it means that you are not being the kind and quality of person that God wants you to be, to fulfill your God given potential. I don’t know, BUT you do. You know. You know what you are doing wrong that interferes with living up to your God given potential. God wants to get a hold of you and your attention so that you say, “OK Lord, I will live the kind of life that you want me to live.”
The second theme that I hear in this story that God wants us to reach out to our Nineveh and help people come to the knowledge of God in Christ. Now, I don’t know how that works itself out for you, but I know how it works for me. That is, I have the possibility to teaching my seventh graders about God and calling their parents and sometimes I don’t do it because I sloppy and am spiritually lazy. And I suspect the same is true for you. You are sometimes too spiritually lazy to go into your neighborhoods of Nineveh. You have other things to do which are more important and so you don’t talk to your family and friends in Nineveh about the living God.
Your name is Jonah and God has sent you to your Nineveh. I know that God has sent or is sending you to someone in Nineveh.
And you and I often say, “I have other things to do. I don’t want to go to Nineveh. God is sending you personally to Nineveh and he wants you to bring that person or family to Jesus Christ.
The third theme that I hear in this story is that Nineveh was a wicked city, an evil city, a corrupt city. If you look at the Greek word underlying the word, “wicked,” you realize that Nineveh was a violent and mean city.
When I hear these words, I think of some of the inner cities of America. I think of the urban violence and urban decay, and I sometimes feel that those of us who live out in the suburbs say, “I don’t want to go there. We have it pretty nice out here, thank you very much. I am sorry for all those poor suckers who are trapped living in that part of the world and I have it pretty nice out here. I don’t have time for those poor suckers who are stuck in the inner city with all that urban violence and urban decay.”
I think that Jonah is a message for the suburban church that God wants to send us to the urban Ninevehs. And the suburban church often says, “I don’t want to go there.” But God will send us down to the belly of the whale until you and I truly understand that God has not forsaken the Ninevehs of the world. God has not forsake the inner cities. God has not forsake people who are trapped in urban violence and decay. God has not forsaken such people. Sometimes the church has but God has not. God sends us his church to Nineveh.
And sometimes we realize that our neighborhoods themselves are changing and Nineveh has sprawled right out here to the apartment complexes on the east side of Highway 99, only five minutes from our congregation. We discover that urban violence and urban decay are right in the neighborhood of our suburbs and that 95% of the children in our adjacent grade schools are on federally subsidized lunch programs. Many of these kids only have two meals a day and come to school hungry. In the last PTA meeting of our adjacent grade school, only two parents showed up.
Our church is filled with children but not with children from our next door neighborhoods which are very poor.
The fourth theme that I hear in this story is this: In chapter four, Jonah really gets into a pout and he thought that the bad people of Nineveh should be punished for their badness. That God did not punish the Ninevites was shocking to Jonah. This is best part of the story. Up grows a fig tree to shelter Jonah from the heat of the noonday sun. While Jonah is throwing a tantrum (I love this the best in this story), God puts shade over his head, even in the middle of Jonah’s tantrum. Grace. That is pure grace. Even in the midst of my selfishness and even in the midst of my personal evil and even in the midst of my spiritual pouting, God graciously comes up over me and gives me his forgiveness.
It is true: God’s forgiveness is stronger than his anger. God’s mercy is stronger than his punishment.
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