The story of Jonah and the whale is my best friend Rob’s favorite Old Testament story. It is such a wild and outlandish story. Weird stuff happens all through this four chapter book of the bible. I encourage you to read it. It is a short tale (a fish tail?) But I wonder if my buddy Rob understands the God Lesson. Without that, it’s just another fish story, about the big one that got away.
It helps to know that at the time this story was told, the people of Israel kept their religion to themselves. They were not spreading the word. To the contrary, they hated their neighbors, and shunned contact with the outside world. They hated the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of their long-time arch enemies. Plus, the Assyrians did not worship the Lord God Yahweh; they worshipped false gods. In our story, God tells Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah did not take kindly to the order. He runs away in the opposite direction.
Most theologians consider this book to be a satirical fable. Jonah personifies the attitudes of Israel, but God has other plans. More on that in The Takeaway. The writer of this book uses blistering satire to make his point. It is a fable because of the involvement of the large fish, especially so because of the fish’s paranormal behavior. If you feel strongly that this was a historical event and not a satirical fable, that’s OK, too. Just be sure that you discover the God Lesson—what God wants you to learn from this fish tale.
- God repeats the command that he gave Jonah in 1:2. In between these verses is the story of Jonah’s refusal, heading in the opposite direction, a storm at sea, he’s thrown overboard, a “large fish” (not a whale) swallowed Jonah, spitting him ashore right where he needed to go to walk to Nineveh! (vv. 1-2)
- Jonah has a bad attitude. He goes to this large city, but his heart is not in it. He doesn’t even go to the city center to do his preaching. I guess he figured a day’s walk was good enough. (vv. 3-4a)
- When he stops, he gives the sorriest repentance speech that ever was, and leaves. (v. 4b)
- The funny thing is that the people of Nineveh take this sorry prophecy very seriously. Not only do the people and king fast & put on sackcloth as signs of their repentance, but they put sackcloth on the livestock, too! (vv.5-9)
- The surprise of the story comes in verse 10. God sees their repentance, and changes his mind about the destruction he was going to unleash.
- If you read on, chapter 4 tells of Jonah’s anger at God’s mercy. He is so angry that God has been merciful to these people. He just wants to die right on the spot.
This peculiar story is just as applicable to us today as it was for Israel back then. We want God for ourselves, and are reluctant to share Him with others. If we do share Him, we want them to come to God on our terms, by our rules. There is no room for variation or difference. God, on the other hand, has a heart that is much larger than ours. He loves everyone, and earnestly yearns for all to be in relationship with him. He can tolerate our differences, if our heart is true.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
I love my Old Lutheran liturgy, my Old German Lutheran hymns, all the candles and robes, and all the ceremony that goes with a traditional Lutheran worship service. This is my definition of “Give Me that Old Time Religion”. Yours might be quite a bit different. Young people today listen to an entirely different style of music, with songs they hear on the Jesus Rock radio station. But they do a fine job of worshiping our Lord. Can we be more tolerant of other Christians’ worship style and beliefs? How should our evangelizing and welcoming mission be shaped to be more inclusive of other types of people? Isn’t this the real work of the church?
1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31
Chapter seven of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is an interesting one. He discusses various issues concerning the Christians there. Today’s verses are interesting to read and consider. They come from the perspective that Paul and his followers expected Jesus to return at any moment. Twenty centuries later, we know that this is not how it happened. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s look at the verses.
- Paul tells us that “the appointed time has grown short”. He expects Jesus’ return very soon. The advice to follow is based on this statement. (v. 29a)
- The list of advice might seem peculiar. (vv. 29b-31a) It is:
- Those who have wives should be as though they have none.
- Those who mourn should be as though there’s nothing to mourn.
- Those who buy goods should be as though they have nothing.
- Those who deal with the world should be as though they had no dealings with it.
- Then, we get the reason: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” (vv. 31b)
Well, OK. Jesus’ return wasn’t just around the corner. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s think about this a moment. Paul expected Jesus to arrive at any moment. Because of this, he recommended a shift in priorities—a sharpened focus on spiritual matters. He is pressing for a sense of urgency in daily life. Maybe, Paul’s advice is a good wakeup call for us. Sure, it’s a bit extreme, but think about it.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
What would you do, if you knew Jesus was returning next month? How do we live our lives with that sense of urgency? Now, a story.
I heard a story, but I can’t remember who it was. (If you know, please tell me.)
A famous old Christian teacher was playing croquet with his pupils. He asked his students what they would do, if they knew Jesus was coming next week. One said that he would stop playing the game, and make peace with his brother. Another said they would go immediately and settle an outstanding debt. Yet another said they would help the poor to know Jesus. They then asked the teacher what he would do. The teacher said that he would continue playing the game. What was the teacher’s point? I believe that he felt that his students should have already done the things they said they were going to do. We should already be helping the poor, paying our debts, and making peace with our brother. Then, like the teacher, we could then simply enjoy the game, and wait for Jesus arrival.
Mark’s gospel jumps right to John the baptizer. No manger scenes or shepherds in the fields. In of 13 short verses, John preaches, and baptizes Jesus. By verse 14, he is already arrested by Herod. Now that John’s mission is complete, Jesus begins his.
- Once John’s work is through, Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of God has come near”. After all, God Incarnate is walking on the earth. He is calling the people to come, listen, repent, and believe. (vv. 14-15)
- In this account, Jesus is walking along the lakeshore, when he sees Simon and Andrew. He calls them to follow him, and they will fish for people (instead of fish). (vv. 16-17)
- They drop everything, and immediately follow him. (v. 18)
- Jesus, Simon, and Andrew are still in the fishing village of Bethsaida. (It is not mentioned here. We know this from last week’s lesson, John 1:44.) Immediately, Jesus spots James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They leave their father with the hired help, and follow Jesus and the others. (vv. 19-20)
There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s writing. Things happen immediately. There is no “I’ll be along, as soon as I…” His disciples drop everything and follow him. Would we do the same? Do we have this sense of urgency in sharing the gospel?
Jesus calls us all to come, listen, repent, and believe. The kingdom of God has come near. It is here now, at least in part. Jesus dwells in our hearts, and we are his disciples. This is the kingdom, at least until he returns.