July 1, 2007
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
There's an old story that has any number of versions, but it seems while reading her Bible on a public bus, a belligerent man confronted a rather bashful Christian girl. With disdain he asked if she believed everything in the Bible. She said she did.
The guy rolled his eyes and said, "If you believe EVERYTHING in the Bible, then explain to me how Jonah lived for three days in the belly of a whale!"
The young woman answered, "I don't really know, but I believe he did."
The guy became even more agitated. "Look, Lady, you should be able to explain what you believe!"
She respectfully and quietly repeated her inability to know exactly how Jonah survived. She talked about it all being a matter of faith but that wanted enough. This guy just kept pushing until finally she said, "Well, I guess I'll just ask him when I get to heave."
Sarcastically, the guy said, "And what if Jonah didn't make it to heaven?"
She paused for a second and said, "Well, then you can ask him." And then she went back to reading her Bible.
This is one of the most famous fish stories of all time. Granted most people don't really know how it ends or how it begins. They know the Pinocchio version of the story about Jonah getting swallowed by the big fish or the whale if you will.
But there's no Jiminy Cricket as a conscience. There's no Geppetto or there's certainly no Blue Fairy. But this has all the humor, drama and pathos of any Disney movie. So, let's look at the story. I had an English literature professor tell the class that he thought this was the perfect short story. It's only 4 chapters long and only contains 48 verses. But let's look at Jonah 3 as our reading today.
 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,
 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.
 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.
 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
[CLIP]* Before we go any further I want to show you a little clip which I think may be best summation of the story of Jonah that I've ever seen. It's even short like the book.
So, let's look at the story.
A. So, here he is, one of the most unlikely prophets of them all. I'm pretty sure Jonah was kin to Gideon. He has a lot of the same traits multiplied.
The story is simple. One day Jonah is minding his own business and suddenly God's there and says, "I want you to go to Nineveh and hold a revival. Tell them they better get there act together and straighten up. I'm watching."
Jonah give God a big smile and says, "Sure thing Lord." And the minute God turns His back, Jonah spins around and does a perfect Jesse Owens imitation and runs as fast as he can, in the other direction. If you've gotten to see the movie Evan Almighty you know that Evan was pretty reluctant to say "Yes!" to God, too.
Just like Evan, Jonah heads the opposite direction God wants. He jumps onto a ship headed to Tarshish and hopes God won't notice. Well, God does notice and sets up a storm to trouble the boat.
Now here's the odd thing. The sailors turn out to be praying men. You know I was in the Coast Guard. I've heard lots of people say, "That guy can cuss like a sailor." But I've never heard anybody say, "That guy can pray like a Sailor." This was a God fearing crew. While the storm was raging, Jonah was down below and asleep. The crew was down on their knees praying. They woke him up and told him he better get praying to his God or they're all going to drown.
Jonah says, "Fine, this is all my fault anyway. I'm a Hebrew and I'm running away from God. The only way to save yourselves is to throw me overboard."
Now according to the Midrash, one of the Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament, the sailors were such God fearing men that they were reluctant to toss Jonah overboard. First they tried rowing toward shore to dump him off but the storm was too strong. So, they picked Jonah up and dangled him over the side of the boat with his feet in the water. And the storm started to quiet down.
When they pulled him back into the boat, the storm picked back up. So they hung in water up to his waist and the storm got even quieter. When they pulled him out of the water, the storm pick up again. They dangled him in the water up to his neck and the storm nearly quit. But when they pulled him out, it sprang right back into action.
When they saw that they finally had no choice, if they were going to survive, they even prayed to God asking God to save them and to forgive them for tossing Jonah overboard. Then they tossed him like a salad. As soon as he hit the water, the storm stopped.
B. That's chapter 1. Then along comes this big fish or a the whale. Who knows. But rather than letting Jonah drown, which Jonah obviously thought was better than holding a revival in Nineveh. God sent the whale to act as Jonah's very own private Yellow Submarine Taxi Cab to haul him off to where he was supposed to go in the first place.
It was a miserable trip for Jonah and even worse for the whale. After awhile, even the whale couldn't stomach Jonah. It's a good thing Jonah had spent time praying because the whale or big fish could see the benefit of going back to being a non-prophet entity. But apparently the prayer worked.
So, to oblige God and relieve himself, the whale "spewed Jonah out," that's the Biblical way of saying the whale was sick of Jonah and barfed him up. The whale vomited and hurled Jonah onto the beach. The whale tossed it's cookies and tossed Jonah out of its life.
I can almost imagine that big old tail coming down and slapping the water enough to swamp Jonah on the beach. Maybe it was a little bit of help to get rid of the little bits of kelp. The whale dove into the water and that was the last we saw of him. But I wonder what the whale's story was from that moment on. He really did have a fish story I can hear him telling all the other whales: "Man, you should of seen the one that got away."
C. Well, that brings us and Jonah up to the doorstep of Nineveh and the revival. Reluctantly Jonah walks to the center of the city and delivers this message: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" He might have even been wearing one the sandwich board signs with the words "The World Will End In Forty Days."
It was the lamest revival and revival sermon anyone had ever heard. There was no tent. No music. No stage. No testimonies. The sermon was too brief. There was no plan of salvation given or explained. There was no invitation to discipleship. Jonah didn't even offer a closing prayer. He just told them they didn't HAVE a prayer. "Nineveh is going to be destroyed in 40 days." And then he left. He didn't even stick around to see what happened.
Instead he went out to wait hoping he was going to get to watch a really good fireworks show. He was already to see Nineveh destroyed like Sodom and Gomorra.
But you know what happened? It was the biggest revival of all time. 120,000 people got right with God. They all repented, the whole nation even the animals fasted and wound up in sack cloth and ashes. Nobody wanted to be left out.
Now you'd think Jonah would be happy wouldn't you? But he wasn't. Instead he got right in God's face and said, "I knew you were going to do this. I knew from the get go, that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. That's why I ran away."
That day Jonah sat there in the sun in a stew of his own anger. God on the other hand, took pity on Jonah and made a gourd plant grow up in one day so Jonah could sit in the shade of its leaves. The next day though, God sent a worm to destroy the plant. And that made Jonah even madder.
And that's when god said, "OK, enough is enough. You've had your say. Now here's mine. You're angry about the bush and the loss of shade and yet you did nothing to grow it. I did.
You're more concerned about the trivial insignificant things than you are about the people of Nineveh who are my children, too. Shouldn't I be concerned for these 120,000 people and their animals, who don't know their right hand from their left?"
God reminds Jonah that He is the God of everyone, everywhere and there's no getting away from it or from God.
[CLIP]* That's one of the lesson Evan Baxter learned in Evan Almighty.
A. There's lost of little things to be learned from this passage and form Jonah. First, you can't outrun God. I tried when God first called me to preach. You see who won that race. I didn't want to do it because I couldn't see how god could use someone like me for something as awesome as this. But no matter where I turned, God was there, reinforcing that Call.
B. Second, we are not the only God fearing people in the world. I believe that all of the people of the world are God's children. I believe that all expressions of faith are windows into the love God has for us. But because of the fall, some of those windows don't let us see the full picture of God. God revealed Himself fully and completely in Jesus who was both the perfect likeness of God but also the perfect human being. What and who we would have been had the fall not occurred.
Does that mean I believe all expressions of faith are equal? No, what it means is that God has reached into their lives in some way. How God will deal with them at the end is God's business, not mine. My job is to love them and treat them as one of God's children. I think that's one of the things Jonah learned.
C. The Third little thing we learn is God is in charge. Like Jonah we have trouble with that sometimes. But there it is, God is in charge. God has always been and always will be in charge.
D. And fourth, little things do matter. Jonah gave a little sermon but God used it in a powerful way. The sailors had a little humility, enough to allow them to pray to God even though He wasn't their God. That little bit of humility and faith was enough to save them. And God used a little thing like a worm to teach Jonah about how much God loves the world and how much God wants to save the entire world.
And that leads directly to the little things we can do and are doing. Let me give you some examples. Our asking this year for Metropolitan Board of Missions is $1,176. In the grand scheme of things such as building payments, Apportionments, our electric bill even Vacation Bible School, it's not very much. Just a little thing. But let me tell you what you helped make happen by your giving.
Because of that little gift and because of you: Through NICA, the Northside Inter-Church Agency: A child went to bed with a full stomach. Last night a mother enjoyed a bath with soap and clean clothes for tomorrow. A father found the right clothes, the right information and the right encouragement to find a job to support his family. A senior citizen didn't have to choose between food, medicine or the electric bill. A young teen stayed in school and found confidence by helping adults learn computer skills.
Our little bit helped Marvin and Kerry and their 2 month old baby get back on their feet after Marvin lost his job and couldn't afford rent anymore. The Arlington Life Shelter helped both Marvin and Kerry find jobs. They've been able to open a savings account. And the computer skills Marvin has learned had spurred a desire to go back to school to learn even more so he can upgrade his learning potential.
It's little things like the canned goods, food other supplies we bring to the pantry. They helped 400 plus families with groceries last year.
Flood buckets. Mosquito Nets. Acts of Random Kindness. All of these are little things which remind us that God is in charge. God is everywhere. And through those little things God can make great things happen, even when we're reluctant.
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