Some of the best and best-known stories of the Bible are the ones that leave us asking, “Now come on…did that really happen?” Today is one of those stories. It’s the story of Jonah, one of the early prophets, and about what happens when he tries to run away from God.
So, what’s the one thing we all know about Jonah? He gets swallowed by a whale, right? Jonah and the whale. It’s another one of those stories we hear as kids: there was a guy named Jonah, he got thrown overboard from a ship, a whale swallowed him, and then a few days later the whale let him go.
We teach this story in Sunday school every few years because it’s a great kids story. There’s God, there’s a big whale, and everything turns out fine in the end. But there’s this one hitch: the kids aren’t so sure they believe it. I know that, because when kids are suspicious about whether or not you are telling the truth, they ask a lot of questions. And they’ve got questions about this Jonah guy.
For example: What kind of a whale was it, exactly? How did Jonah stay alive in its stomach? Wasn’t it dark? How could he breathe? And finally, is this really true? Did it really happen?
In other words, they don’t buy it. They’re smart kids, and they’re not so sure this story is true.
So right about now, you might be wondering, “Then why do we keep telling our kids these stories”? And maybe the bigger question is this: why do we keep telling ourselves these stories? We are not mindless. We know the difference between fact and fiction. So, why do we insist on reading stories like Creation, and Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the whale? Why not just stick with Jesus and the things he said?
It’s a good question. And it’s one I’ll at least start to answer with words that one of you shared with a while back. Many of you know that Lois Royal is a master storyteller who has spent time listening to a lot of other storytellers share their stories. And she said something once that made me think. She said, “a story does not survive, unless there is something about it that is true.”
She’s right. Because we don’t repeat stories of any kind that don’t have at least some kernel of truth in them. And Jonah is a well-repeated story. Long before it was ever set down on paper for the first time, it was being told. In fact, it’s been around for the better part of three thousand years ago. And we still tell it today, because there’s something about it that rings true to us. And, though that whale is memorable, this truth of this story really has nothing to do with a big fish.
Listen to the story again: There was once a man named Jonah. One day God asks him to do something he does not want to do. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city where no one was living the way God wanted them to live, and to tell them to change. But Jonah doesn’t want to, so he decides to run in the other direction and get on a ship bound for another city.
And here’s the first reason why this story is true: because we all run away from God. It’s true. We’ve all done it. We’ve all at some time in our lives been asked by God to do something hard. Maybe we’ve been asked to go deeper in our spiritual lives. Maybe we’ve been asked to take a stand. But whatever it is, we’ve said “no way”. And we’ve run. I’ve done it. And maybe you have too.
And that’s why, whales aside, this is a true story.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jonah gets on the boat and midway through the journey, a storm comes. The others start to panic. They throw the cargo overboard. They start to pray. And when that doesn’t work they even cast lots to try to figure out who is responsible. And when it becomes clear that it’s Jonah, they ask “where are you from and what are you doing here”?
When Jonah confesses that he’s running away from God, they know why there is a storm. And they know nothing is going to get better with Jonah in the boat. And in the end even Jonah himself knows this, and he tells them “throw me overboard…it’s the only way you’ll survive”. And so they do.
Jonah probably thought that was going to be the end of things, but it wasn’t. Because God sends a “big fish”, which we call a “whale”, to swallow him. And for three days Jonah is inside the whale. And it takes him three days, but finally Jonah calls out to God and says “okay…I’m here…use me…I’ll go to Nineveh!”
And here’s the second reason this story is true: because God sends us whales.
Now I don’t mean literal whales. But I do mean that God sends us second chances. God sends us places where we have to slow down for a little while and think about how we ended up like this. And God waits patiently with us until, three days or three years or three decades later, we decide that we have had enough, and we can’t do it our way anymore. God sends us whales because in the end, God doesn’t let us go. Even when we try to throw ourselves overboard, God still has a grip on us.
When Jonah prays and tells God that he will go, the whale spits Jonah back out, onto dry land. And Jonah goes to Nineveh, and he tells them to change, and despite the fact Jonah thought it was hopeless, they do it! And God says, “I will not destroy Nineveh because they listened.”
Now, this would be a good end to the story. Jonah runs. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale. Jonah ends up doing what he didn’t want to do in the first place. And in the end everything works out.
But it’s not the end because Jonah isn’t happy about this. Jonah had been through a lot on his way to Nineveh. Jonah had been in the belly of the whale. He had just been minding his own business when God had come to him, and it had not been easy for him. And now Nineveh, the city that could do nothing right, gets off scot-free. It sure doesn’t seem fair to Jonah.
And so Jonah tells God this: “I’m mad at you”. In fact Jonah says to God, “I am so angry with you that I could die”.
And here’s the third reason this story is true: because, whether we admit it or not, I think almost all of us have been mad at God before.
Have you? I know I have. Maybe I haven’t been as angry as Jonah was in that moment, but I’ve wondered “God, what are you doing? I did everything you wanted me to do, why didn’t everything work out like I wanted.
The truth is that if we have a real relationship with God, a deep one, we will probably get angry at times. The trick is learning how to stay connected with God even when you are angry because Scripture shows us that part of living a life of faith is caring enough to get angry from time to time.
After Jonah tells God that he is so angry he could die, God responds. God causes this tree to grow over Jonah to protect him from the sun while he sulks. And God waits.
Now that would be a lovely place for the story to end, but Jonah doesn’t get off that easily. Because after Jonah has been angry for a while God decides maybe Jonah has been angry a little too long. Because that happens with us too. And so God… makes the tree die. And Jonah is out in the sun, with no protection.
And God says, “Jonah, are you still angry?” And Jonah, angrier than ever, says, “I’m still angry…angry enough that I could die”.
And so God talks to Jonah once more and says this: Jonah you’re mad about one tree dying. I just wanted to save a whole city. 120,000 people, each of whom I loved. Was that so wrong?
And that’s where the book ends. With God having the last word.
And here’s the final reason why this is a true story: because God’s love always has the last word. Even if it’s God’s tough love.
The book of Jonah, at its heart, is a story about God’s love. It’s about God loving Nineveh enough to want them to turn back to God. And it’s about God loving Jonah enough that when Jonah ends up in the ocean God sends a way for him to live.
And it’s also about God loving Nineveh enough that God does not destroy them. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to protect him with a tree. And it’s God loving Jonah enough to say “okay, you’ve been angry long enough…now listen to me.” And in the end, it’s about God’s love having the last word, even when we don’t want it to.
I will always think of whales when I hear the name “Jonah”. I can’t help it. It’s just the story we all know. But I will also thing about this: I will think about what it means for a story to be true. And I will know that, somehow, this is a true story. It’s true enough that it keeps being told. And it’s true enough that the truth can change our lives.
In the end, that’s how you know you have a story worth repeating. And that’s why one day, years from now, the children of this congregation will probably tell their kids about Jonah and the whale. I hope that they do, because true stories like this are always worth sharing.