Jonah and the Whale? our first lesson this morning is really about a young man literally forced by God’s intervention in his life to be a reluctant ambassador for God. How reluctant is something we have to think about as we hear about Jonah this morning.

The story is almost nothing about whales: you can get better reports about whales on CNN or the Discovery Channel. Why was the Book of Jonah kept in the sacred books of Israel? Not because it was history, but because, like all great stories, it can be read at several different levels, or perhaps ideally at more than one level at a time. Beneath this simple story are some important truths about the meaning of life, and a question, not just about Jonah, but to us about what can literally push us into searching for a deeper understanding of the nature of God, of our faith and how God is calling us to look at the world around us.

No, the Book of Jonah—like Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick“—is not really about a whale. At one level this story is about a very human young man. He had a deep and abiding faith in God, but he also had an attitude problem. As a Jew he was sure that the Lord God Yahweh was the God of the Hebrews alone, and not the universal creator that Scripture reveals him to be. So Jonah looked down on foreigners, and when God told him to go up into Syria and tell the people of Nineveh to repent, he went to the port of Joppa, and boarded a boat for Tarshish in Spain!—the opposite direction!, hoping to sail beyond God’s reach.

Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. Be careful what you wish for. There came an awful storm. Jonah was sure that God did that because of his disobedience and he asked the ship’s crew to throw him overboard and let him die. But God had other plans for Jonah, and so he sent a big fish—the whale—to swallow Jonah out of the water. And the writer of the story tells how in the belly of the whale, Jonah discovered the depths of his life and the depth of his faith, and finally was able to praise God for his salvation.

I think that Jonah’s experience and discovery can be your own, that the point when we really come to know God, believe in him, and learn to trust in him as the center of our existence, is when we’re in trouble and we know it.


Well, then, what do we do when we’re at a really a difficult crossroad in our life? Plenty of people have questions about the Church and about God. I was certainly one of them. I quit going to church, all through college—except on Christmas and Easter to please my mother. Then in the Korean conflict I was drafted into the Army and came first to Washington. With my life totally disrupted, taken away from a good college staff position, lonely, frustrated, confused about going to law school later, I started going back to church again, here in Washington at Christ Church, Georgetown—and I never stopped going to church, wherever I’ve been since. Because I was finding a centering and relationship to something meaningful I couldn’t find anywhere else. It was at that low point I learned to appreciate the love and reality of God and began to really know Him in Jesus Christ.

Years ago, the revered pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote that this happened for him at a time of severe depression. Despite his preaching and books that drew thousands of followers, all that he had done or said seemed unavailing, until-he recalled- he went down to the depths where self-confidence became ludicrous and where, he remembered, he learned that God, much more than a theological proposition was an immediately available resource and that, as he said, “around our spirits is a spiritual presence in living communion with whom we can find sustaining strength.“

You too, at your times of crisis, may have had a profound experience of knowing God in your life, and, like Jonah, offered your prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance and care. So you may well be helped and encouraged as the second chapter of the Book of Jonah concludes. But that’s not the end of the story. Because we want to be helped and inspired when we come to church I wish I could tell you that Jonah’s eyes of faith were now opened by the Lord God of the universe, to see a bigger world than he had seen before.


I wish I could tell you that Jonah now saw God at work in the whole universe, not just in his own home town and with his own people. I wish I could tell you that Jonah saw his mission to Nineveh in a different light, realizing that the people of Nineveh and the people of Israel lived in an interdependent world—just as we should know that in whatever happens today in Brazil or Beijing , Bagdad or Washington, we are fellow travelers on this small spaceship earth whether we like it or not, and we share a common destiny..

But if you know the book of Jonah at all, you know that this is not what happened. Jonah had his chance, after he had gone deeper into his life with prayer, to see things differently—but he blew it. God’s question to a desolate Jonah at the very end of the story—and his question to us—is “Don’t you know I care for Nineveh as well as Israel?“ Or perhaps the way we might phrase God’s question, “Don’t you know, Jonah my beloved, that we have to take care of each other in this interdependent world, that all have gifts to bring, and all of us need to be open to receive from others?“ No. Jonah had not just been reluctant at first like Moses, Amos, and Jeremiah to the call from God. He had actually tried to flee from it. Then after God had shown him the futility of his ways he carries out his task with a vengeance, warning the Ninevites to repent or be destroyed.

The people of Nineveh did repent—and God showed mercy and compassion and saved them. That made Jonah furious! . Jonah would acknowledge what Scripture said, that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow in anger, and of great kindness—but when God is like that with the enemy, Jonah just wanted to die.

Well, that’s the end of this four- chapter Book of Jonah which some commentators have called one of the most important books of the Old Testament. How does this ending leave you feeling about Jonah? How does this leave you feeling about God?!


It’s said that a sermon should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable. As you answer this for yourself when you leave here, let me give you some points to think about: First: the Book of Jonah is not history, and it’s not just a story, it’s a parable which can turn God’s searchlight on you, as it did on the pious lawyer who asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?“ and Jesus responded with the parable about the foreigner, the Good Samaritan, who helped the injured man in the ditch.

Second, Jonah was like we all can be, in our heart of hearts: sometimes we want to make God in our own image, cutting God down to our own size. If the God of your prayers is too comfortable, if you think you have God all figured out, then your God is too small. I’m reminded of the satiric words from what W.H. Auden called the “average household prayer“:“O God, be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.“

Third: You can’t calculate God by clocks and calculators. He doesn’t give us what we think we deserve but what we need, and it’s difficult—very difficult to figure out God’s judgment on that score. We may think we have it all together, but the truth is, we all mess up. As it’s said, I’m not OK, you’re not OK, and that’s OK. From where God sits we are all in deep need of mercy. Above all, God is a merciful God. When we’re thrown into the seas of life and swallowed by the whales, we can thank God for his deliverance and care for us.

It may not have been just Jonah, it may be you, and me, who need to truly accept that for ourselves. Far beyond that—to accept that mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of God’s great willingness for everyone on this planet. The words of the hymn are true, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea, there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.“

So, whether it’s comfortable or disturbing this morning, I pray that you, and I, can honestly sing that hymn, as we lay hold of God’s great willingness. AMEN