(On Sunday, October 8, 2017, the following sermon was preached by Wendell Amstutz)
Text: Luke 11:29-32 The sign of jonah
29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Who doesn´t know about Jonah and the Whale?? We don’t even need to read the text to tell the story– It might be one of the most universally recognized stories in the Bible! Jonah and the whale and Noah in the ark are probably the 2 most recognizable Bible characters for a Biblically illiterate public. If you are a Bible reader going through the Old Testament , the book of Jonah appears like a brief comic interlude in a serious drama: it´s easy for me to envision Jonah as a script for a Walt Disney cartoon— it´s got great visual comedy, a great caricature of a grumpy prophet that does everything wrong, and it lends itself really well to a short“moral of the story” type retelling for children.
Matter of fact, almost everyone considers it a children’s story, a fable—not much substance there for serious reflection. Especially because Jonah´s example as prophet is more bad example than good example. Cant really take that guy seriously as a man of God!
But, the apostle Paul reminds us that ALL scripture is inspired and profitable for spiritual edification, and so we come to today´s kind of surprising text in Luke: Jonah is the prophet that Jesus cites as his proof text, his signbearer, his prophetic forerunner. When the Jews asked him for a sign, they meant a supernatural sign from above—an intervention that proved his ministry was from God. They were thinking…Moses and the Red Sea, Noah and the rainbow, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Elijah calling down fire—visible signs that God was intervening on behalf of his people.
But Jonah?? Of all the prophets in the book, Jonah was probably the least likely as bearer of a sign to Israel. In the first place, he wasn’t even sent to the chosen people of Israel, he was sent to Assyria, the cruelest enemy of the Jewish nation. So if Jonah had some serious disagreements with God´s handling of His mission to Nineveh, most Jews in Jesus’ time would have said, “I should say so!” Why would Israel’s God waste His perfectly good mercy on the enemies of His chosen people? Why would God send Jonah there in the first place, if not to destroy it?—which didn’t even happen, actually.
In the second place, Jonah was a disgrace to the prophetic tradition of Israel—disobedient, cowardly, a grumbler who argued with God through most of his ministry. If Jonah was a pop singer we would call him a “one-hit wonder”—he got it right for ONE song and then disappeared.
Nonetheless, Jesus chose Jonah as his sign. That means there´s something else to this story than Jonah surviving the whale and learning his lesson. It means we can´t dismiss it as a fable or a child’s story. As I read the book more closely, I began to see why Jesus named Jonah as the sign for his quarrelsome, unbelieving generation… it’s because Jonah represented them exactly! And so, if Jonah was a sign to Jesus generation of Jews, why would we, Christians in the 21st century, still read this story? Because he represents us exactly today! The book of Jonah is important today because he represents US—God´s reluctant, recalcitrant, inconsistent, self-centered messengers. The book is a portrait of our spiritual responses to the call of God in our lives. The book has four chapters that narrate Jonah´s 4 responses to God´s call. Every one of us responds to God in one of the 4 basic ways Jonah did. Chapter by chapter,.
- Jonah runs away from God
- Jonah runs after God.
- Jonah runs together with God.
- Jonah runs ahead in spite of God..
And so this morning, people of God, prophetic voice, royal priesthood, let´s take a good look in the mirror of the book of Jonah…
- Chapter 1: Jonah receives a call to preach judgement to the worst enemies of his nation …that would be like sending an American preacher to announce the the judgement of God on Teheran or Baghdad, or Mecca– cities governed by leaders who are declared enemies of this country and this faith. You say, “but we hear that all the time from the televangelists!”
Oh yes… But Jonah was not to preach that message on the television or post on the internet or speak from a pulpit in a large church in the USA—he was to announce it walking down the streets of that city! For THAT preacher, it meant sure death at the hands of ISIS! Jonah ran and hid from his calling not because he didn’t believe in the word that came from the Lord, but because he heard his mission as a death sentence! Nineveh was East of Israel, so he took off in the opposite direction: due West over the Great Sea, the Biblical symbol of chaos and rebellion. He bought passage on a boat but he never arrived at his intended destination—maybe he never even had one—he was just getting as far away as possible. He didn’t bother arguing with God, he voted with his feet: “Not me! I’m not missionary material!”
So when the hand of God reached that boat in the form a a huge storm, jonah already knew God was coming for him. But Jonah was done fighting it: he believed that he had destroyed his ministry with his disobedience, that he was no longer useful to God, that the storm was a punishment for HIM PERSONALLY and that his presence on this boat was actually a danger to his fellowmen in stead of a blessing!
That’s why he told the sailors to throw him overboard. Jonah didn’t even bother to beg God for salvation like the sailors who were all busy chanting for their lives each to their own idols. Jonah was done. He hated his mission and he hated his response to it. He laid down to die in the bottom of the ship. When they found him, he told them to pitch him overboard. Jonah’s exit was actually a very passive-aggressive suicide attempt! We better check his family tree, he could have been Mennonite!
So even though the sailors didn’t feel right about it, they threw him overboard because he insisted and because they were desperate. And then…the storm calmed down just like he predicted. The sailors all threw out their idols and worshiped the God of Israel, first converts of Jonahs prophetic and sacrificial ministry!
But Jonah right then was going down the tubes of a different kind. Incredibly, it got worse for him after drowning—he got eaten! But right there, right there at the moment of death, the closing in of darkness, right there the inexplicable grace of God appears. Jonah does not die! The miracle is that God gives him another chance because God still has a purpose for that cowardly prophet. In his last moments of conscientious, down there in the belly of the whale, Jonah realizes God is still listening and he cries out to Him. If there is a “come-to-Jesus” prayer in the Old Testament, this is it. The Message portrays his prayer in these words that mark the moment Jonah turns the corner into …
“In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God.
He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, ‘Help!’
You heard my cry. You threw me into ocean’s depths, into a watery grave,
With ocean waves, ocean breakers crashing over me. I said, ‘I’ve been thrown away, thrown out, out of your sight.
I’ll never again lay eyes on your Holy Temple.’
Ocean gripped me by the throat. The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.
My head was all tangled in seaweed at the bottom of the sea
where the mountains take root.
I was as far down as a body can go,
and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever—
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive, O God , my God!
When my life was slipping away, I remembered God ,
And my prayer got through to you, made it all the way to your Holy Temple.
Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds, walk away from their only true love.
But I’m worshiping you, God , calling out in thanksgiving!
And I’ll do what I promised I’d do! Salvation belongs to God !
And God does save him! –but what a salvation!! Jonah makes it to the promised land but what a trip! He shows up at the beach resort dressed in whale-vomit!!
- Chapter 3 So now that Jonah is listening again, God renews his call and reconfirmed Jonah as his prophet. He gives him a second chance to fulfill his destiny. Now, Jonah picks himself up and runs to do the will of God while he has the chance. In chapter 3 Jonah is running hand-in-hand with God. He goes out to preach the message because now he has a personal deal with the Lord who gave him a second life. He now owes his life to the Lord. He also believes firmly in the message of judgement he is carrying—that God punishes sin and wants to destroy the enemies of his chosen people. He preaches with the focus of those who have faced death and come through with a new lease on life. Jonah preaches with no thought for his future because he believes this will be his last mission, that he will be martyred then and there , he will die for the cause of Jehovah, and then the wrath of God will wipe out the entire city just as he had prophesied. Jonah preached one of the most fearless sermons in the Bible!
To his great surprise, he barely finishes the first day of his three day walking crusade and he turns to find people on their knees everywhere, begging for the mercy of God, and even the king is calling for everyone to fast and repent. Jonah finishes his crusade amazed at this response and he leaves the city sort of stunned and sits down to wait for the fulfillment of his prophesy—he was still expecting the destruction of Nineveh to confirm his ministry.
This is the biggest evangelistic success story in the entire Bible! 120,000 people saved in 3 days!. But There is nothing in chapter 3 about Jonah discipling any new converts, teaching the people how to live after turning away from their sins, none of the things we associate with a massive response to his preaching the word. Did he go to the temples and palaces to guide the people in the way of the Lord? No, he sat down to wait for the consuming fire! Because Jonah still did not understand the intention of God for the message he himself had preached. He did obey, but it becomes clear that he was more concerned with the fulfillment of his prophesy that in the salvation of the city! Jonah believed he had done his part in announcing judgement and now he was waiting for God to come through on his part—sending the fire!
But it never happened! Once again in this story, the grace of God surprises Jonah and this time it is too much for him! Because in chapter 4, when God saw the sincere repentance of the citizens of Nineveh, the Bible says GOD repented of the destruction of the city. God made a U turn!
And Jonah, who was coming right behind him, didn’t see it coming and blows right past it. JOnah was earnestly waiting –not for the salvation of the city but for its destruction– now Jonah feels really put out! “I knew it!’ he fumes. “ I knew You were a God of mercy! Isn’t that why I hid from the presence of God when he called me?” . Never mind that Nineveh ’s acceptance of Jonahs message actually saved his life for a second time, (They didn’t kill him like he expected!) The prophet Jonah was waiting for a sign from above and it never came. He took that to mean he failed; he prophesied something in the name of God that never came to pass.
Jonah was waiting for a sign, but maybe he missed the one that had already been given. Jesus gives us a clue for his choosing the sign of jonah saying Jonah was in the belly of the whale 3 days just as he would be in the tomb. But there was another sign of Jonah that was even more public than the whale. The gospel account mentions that during Jesus crucifixion the sun turned dark for 3 hours—approximately from 3 to 6 in the afternoon.
It turns out that modern astronomy has confirmed that the city of Nineveh experienced a total eclipse of the sun on June 15 763 BC– during Jonah’s approximate lifetime. Many modern Bible scholars say the massive repentance of Nineveh may have been in response to that celestial sign from God which prepared them for Jonahs message. In any case, the Nineveh eclipse was well known in Jesus time and it did parallel the darkness during his crucifixión. That discovery has also led a number of present day prophets to label the recent American eclipse last August as The Sign of Jonah for the USA.
In any case chapter 4 chronicles Jonahs quarrel with God over his decision to spare the city. Jonah stormed ahead without bothering to listen for Gods updated instructions and found himself again at odds with Gods calling. When God gives Nineveh another chance, He takes it so personally, he even preferred to die rather than accept God’s mercy for the people of Nineveh.
Isn’t he just like us? Don’t you recognize in Jonahs tantrum our responses to God when God dares to do things that don’t fit into our plan, our theology, our timetable? Chapter 4 records God’s reprimand to his prophet, but as far as we know Jonah couldn’t pull out of his disbelief and resentment. He probably never showed his face again in Nineveh, or worse yet back in the heartland where people were clamoring for “shock and awe”. It’s a very sober ending to the only book in the Old Testament that is entirely about foreign missions.
God is a personal God. He calls us by name and gives us a purpose. Each of us has a calling. Our responses to that calling are all right here in the book of jonah. Perhaps your spiritual history doesn’t follow Jonahs cycle of responses, but he pretty well runs through all our reactions to God’s voice: ignore, distance, cry for help, promise and obedience, courageous service, stubborn arguing, sidelined for the big game.
So if you feel unsure, undefined, uneasy thinking about your response to Gods call, take stock, get clear and get real! take the word from the song: “Don’t mess with mister in between!” How are you running with God?
Are you running in chapter 1, running away from a clear voice you don’t want to hear? Or just Keeping a safe distance from God-things? Here’s the good news for you: Its going to be alright when He finds you.
Or are you drowning in chapter 2,feeling like you just lost your chance to do something meaningful for Him? Are you crying out to Him now, ready to do whatever He says? Your good news is: He’s ready to pull you up and give you a second chance.
Are you living the dream in chapter 3, running with Jesus hand in hand? Has he got your attention right now? Do you freely recognize that you owe Him your life? Are you hearing his voice? Following his lead the minute he gives you the nudge? The good news is: He will protect you and guide you when you are running blind with Him.
Are you one of millions of Christians stuck in chapter 4: Sitting out the action because God isn’t cooperating in your life plan? Do you feel an inner resentment when you hear his voice? Is it easier for you to see Gods will for others than for your self?
The good news? You don’t have to prove to anyone that God is on your side. If you are following his voice, He takes care of the final score. And most important, you CAN cry out to Him if you feel aggrieved. Cry out like Job, cry out like Jesus! God hears us even in our protests!