ere we have a story that Jesus himself retold in a sermon. He related the three days and nights that Jonah spent in ...the whales belly... to the same time that he would soon spend in the heart of the earth. (Matt. 12:39-41). Indeed, the truth that Jesus was emphasizing is the same message from the story of Jonah that we focus on today: ...out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. (Jonah 2:2, KJV). God calls to us and sometimes he has to call back before we respond affirmatively. And God listens for our cries from the belly of the whale, or from some tormented hell, or even in a jail cell. He never leaves us, hes always listening, and calling back.
God called Jonah to go to the major metropolitan city of Nineveh (todays Iraq) and Jonah exercised his freedom to shake his fist in the face of God and cry NO! In fact, Jonah was so opposed to preaching in that wild and crazy city that he decided to run and hide from Gods call by escaping by ship to the far end of the Mediterranean Sea. You know the story from VBS flannel graph days; that there arose a violent storm at sea, that the sailors blamed Jonah for causing, and they threw him overboard. Actually, he encouraged them to throw him overboard because he felt guilty and to blame for what appeared to be an immanent death for everyone on board that ship.
The part of the story that gets the usual focus in sermons is that God created a big whale that swallowed Jonah, who was drowning anyway, and then spit him back upon his home shoreline. Folks seem to have a problem with whether Jonah could survive in a whales belly for that long, however there are many unusual things that happen still today that are sometimes hard to swallow. I kind of like the response of the child who was asked his opinion about what the whale story teaches and he simply said, It proves that people make fish sick.
What more startling imagery of hell on earth could we have than being caught in a whales belly with no way of escape. It must speak to guys in prison cells. It must capture the hearts of folks caught up in the addictive power of drug and alcohol abuse, or in the death grip of the many manias that bind us in a hopeless hell. The person who reads the prayer of Jonah from the whales belly must feel that there is even hope in their own pit. For, you see, God heard his repentance and found a way out for Jonah--- for God caused the fish to vomit out Jonah upon dry land. And there, wrapped in weeds and the digestive juices of the fish, he realized what God could do to him and for him.
In that moment, on the sands of that beach, God called back: The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim the message that I tell you. (Jonah 3:2, NRSV). Still somewhat reluctantly, Jonah set out for Nineveh, the great capitol of the Assyrian Empire. He had learned that there is no escaping from God, the hound of heaven.
When he arrived at his mission station, he cried out, Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown! And to Jonahs astonishment the Ninevites heard his message and repented; ...they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. Jonahs was an effective voice of certainty because he knew what God could do. There was not a doubt in his mind that God would destroy Nineveh. And Jonah probably hoped that God would bring this revenge about, for the Assyrians had destroyed his homeland in the early 700s B.C.
To me, the repenting of everyone in this big city of many thousands is more amazing than the whale of a tale chapter. However, because so many repented, this has given encouragement to prophets and preachers throughout thousands of years since.
Then another overlooked event happens in this story: God changed his mind about the calamity... (Jonah 3:10). It almost seems like God was surprised that the people repented in mass. But I really love this insight into the mind of the Almighty--- Arent we glad that we serve a God who can change his mind, and call back, and call back again?
God actually gave Jonah a third call back. In his anger that this hated enemy nation was not after all going to be destroyed, Jonah went out and pouted. God came and saw his plight, and created a large gourd that grew up above him to give him shade. Jonah was grateful for the continuing help of God, but then God created a worm that destroyed the shelter as fast as it was created. Then God sent ...a vehement east wind and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, and he fainted, and wished in himself to die. (4:8).
Then comes the actual moral of the story when God points out that since Jonah had felt sorry for the gourd's destruction, should He not have pity on the people of Nineveh: ...that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand... (v.4: 11).
And that is the end of the story--- we are left hanging. Nobody has written a sequel. As far as we know, Jonah was left to sit and pout for the remainder of his days. And we feel that he probably did just sit there and die, because we have seen so many today do the same thing--- just give up, because of some calamity or heart break, and grovel in their own misery and pain and regrets. God gives us the freedom to, as we express it in the rural South, Wallow in our own miseries... Ours is a Tough Love God who extends opportunities, but on the other hand gives us the freedom of refusal. He continues to call back, but sometimes our phone is busy, or off the hook. And He leaves us to stew in the juice of our own choosing.
But, as with Jonah, God continues to seek us, and He calls us here today. Perhaps this time its your time to say Yes.
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor