The Gospel in Jonah
Rev. Doug Floyd
Pentecost 10A 2017
Jonah 2:1-10, Ps 29, Rom 9:1-5, Mt 14:22-33
As darkness swallowed the day, the wind swirled around their boat. For hours, the disciples battled to stay afloat as waves encircled them, rocked them, and pounded their boat. Hours ago, they had been sat with the Master, but now abandoned, they faced the fury of the sea alone. The dark waters threatened to swallow them alive. Then in the middle of the fury a presence: a ghost? The Evil One? Terror gripped and they screamed out.
The voice of God penetrates their fear as Jesus speaks, “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
As I think about this Gospel story, my mind is filled with classic stories of the sea like Moby Dick, The Perfect Storm, and All is Lost. The film version of The Perfect Storm captures the absolute terror of a turbulent sea that ultimately destroys the people in it. The film “All is Lost” tells the story of one man trapped at sea. Robert Redford stars as the lone sailor who struggles to keep his boat afloat after colliding with a shipping container at sea. There is almost no dialogue in the film as we watch one man trying to solve one difficulty after another in the midst of a troubled sea. His ingenuity is not enough. The sea wins and reveals man’s absolute helpfulness in the face of this vast ocean.
In the Gospel accounts of the disciples at sea, the language hints at the sea threatening the disciples, beating their boat, at war with them. There is almost a sense that the Evil One has been waiting for the disciples to be alone, and now he has come to attack in the dark waters.
This sounds like the 215 million Christians all across the world who suffer at the hands of the enemy. Most of them suffer in silence. Hidden from the cameras of the world. No best-selling book will be written about their lives, no movie will entertain the world abut their suffering. They simply serve, suffer and often die forgotten by most of the world.
It is unlikely that we will ever experience the degree of suffering they experience. May we always remember them in our prayers. May we never forget our brothers and sisters persecuted for the sake of Christ.
I am also thinking of the Christians who have suffered in domestic abuse. Or those who feel abandoned in their dark depression or in their physical ailments. The sense of anguish and loss and fear in the midst of great trials is very real wherever a person may live or however young or old a person may be.
Just as the disciples were not abandoned, the Lord has not abandoned His people in darkness. Even those who have turned their backs on Him and are running full speed away. Think of Jonah who is rushing to Tarshish to avoid the call of God to preach in Ninevah. Once again, a shipped blown about by the wind and threatened to break up in the storm. Only in this case, the writer of Jonah tells us that the Lord hurled the great wind. The terrified pagan sailors cry out to the gods of their countries. Jonah sleeps deep in the bowels of the ship. The captain wakes up Jonah and cries out, “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” (Jon 1:6).
When Jonah reaches the deck, he tells the sailors that he is a Hebrew and he worships the God of Heaven who made the sea and the dry land. Then he explains that this storm is his fault. He has been trying to flee from the presence of God. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea, and all will grow quiet.” Instead, they keep trying to row back to land. Finally in desperation, they throw him into the sea and the water instantly grows calm. Then the writer tells us that they fear YHWH and offer a sacrifice to the Him.
In the midst of rebellion, Jonah is still bearing witness to the Lord. God raised him as a witness and his very person is a witness to the Lord. Even those Christians who suffer in silence whether in prisons far away, in hospital beds, or at home, they have been called as priests and kings. Through them in their broken estate Jesus continue to reveal His kingdom. Though they may grow weary and fearful, He has never abandoned them.
Back to the story of Jonah. He is tumbling down into the sea. This should be his final moments of life as the sea swallows him alive. But instead, God sends a great fish. This fish becomes a means of salvation. Jonah is preserved in the fish, reduced from the depths of the sea. In God’s timing, he will be restored to the land of the living.
As we following Jonah into the great fish, we hear his prayer in today’s reading and discover the great grace of God in the midst of judgment. All through the prayer, Jonah rehearses the presence of the Lord. The very presence he sought to escape. Jonah prays,
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me. (Jon 2:3)
In the midst of the great sea, Jonah was surrounded by God’s presence. Jonah indicates that he was drifting down to death, when he says,
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever; (Jon 2:5–6)
In this place where Jonah is sinking into death, the Lord raises him up through a great fish. Jonah sings,
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’ Jon 2:4.
you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God. Jon 2:6.
From the great fish, Jonah’s cries goes up into the very temple of the Lord.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple. Jon 2:7.
His very song becomes an offering of praise to the Lord,
I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Jon 2:9.
The Lord speaks to the fish and it spits Jonah back upon the dry land. A second time, the word of the Lord tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim the impending judgment of the Lord. He obeys this time and the whole city repents.
But Jonah is still not happy. He didn’t Ninevah to repent, he wanted God to destroy the enemies of Israel. Instead, the God of lovingkindness extends mercy and grace to the enemies of Israel. Jonah is not happy about this and this is most likely why he ran away to being with. He know the mercy of God and didn’t want the enemies of Israel to receive that mercy.
It could be that he realized that one day this empire would crush Israel and bring an end to the Northern Kingdom. This story is not unprecedented in the Old Testament. Both Elijah and Elisha minister God’s grace to those outside of Israel. For instance, Elisha speaks the word the leads to the healing of Naaman the Syrain Commander. In 2 Kings 8, we read the story Elisha prophesying to the servant Hazael that he will replace Ben-Hadad the King of Syria. While Elisha is prophesying, he begins to weep. Why?
Because he sees that one day, Hazael will turn against Israel and bring fire and death upon the people. This is the situation that Jonah finds himself in. He has been called to bring the word of the Lord to a people who will one day crush Israel. So even when they repent, he is unhappy.
The Jonah pushes the Hebrews to their limits of understanding God’s grace. His blessing will pass through Israel to their enemies even when it means Israel will be harmed in the midst. Yes, Israel is judged for their sins when Assyria attacks and finally destroys them, but like Jonah even in this judgment, God has not abandoned Israel. This is the beginning of the redeeming of all nations.
This may sound confusing but to simplify let me reiterate. The book of Jonah tells the story of one prophet sent to Israel’s enemy to bring the Gospel of God. In spite of his ministry, this nation will still attack and destroy Israel one day. In the mystery of God’s grace, this attack and destruction will be the beginning of God redeeming the nations.
So Jonah is a picture of Israel. He is thrown into the sea and swallow by a great fish. But he is not abandoned. And in three day, he is restored to the land to complete his role as prophet. Israel and Judah both will be swallowed by the nations. And yet, in captivity, God will preserve them, refine them, restore them, and one day spit them out on the land (that is bring them home to the land) where they will be restored to their role as a priestly nation.
Hopefully, it is clear at this point that Jonah and Israel imperfectly reveal the plan of God to redeem the nations, but Jesus will reveal this plan perfectly. Like Jonah, he will go to the enemies of God. Like Israel He will suffer at the hands of God’s enemies (Jews and Gentiles alike will put him to death). He will go down into the earth for three days before He is called forth from the grave in victory, resealing God’s plan to redeem His enemies even when they are killing His Son.
We can also point to the twelve disciples in terror in the boat during the storm. They were not abandoned in the storm, but they were allowed to face this small test because one day they would proclaim the Gospel to the enemies of God. And most of them would suffer and die at the hands of their enemies. What looked like failure would become a great harvest that would sweep the world.
As we look around our world, we may at times feel the terror of the disciples beaten by the wind and water. We may face threats from enemies at home and abroad, and we may suffer at the hands of the evil one at times. But God has not abandoned us. He is revealing His redeeming healing power in and through us. He is calling us to follow in the way of His Son and become a people who love those who hate, curse and betray the Lord. For He is revealing His kingdom through His people. Those Christians who are persecuted overseas are not abandoned. He is present in their midst and revealing His redeeming power even to those nations who hate and despise Him name.
After suffering at the hands of his enemies for years, Richard Wurmbrand discovered the love of God for His enemies. And found this his prison cell become a prayer cell where he could pray for those who hated and despised and persecuted him.
I pray for our brother and sisters around the world who suffer, but I also pray for us when we want to respond to hate with hate, when we are tempted to be angry with the very people Jesus has come to save. I pray that we might discover the healing grace of God in the of our own struggles and we might revealing the redeeming power of Jesus Christ through our bodies, through our words, through our lives.