Jonah 3:1-5, 10
I like fish tales. Great big stories with excitement and adventure, great big stories with humor and a bit of uncertainty. Great big stories with questionable details but big truths.
I fell for them as a kid all the time. Even after I learned to watch for the hand that shows the little minnow with finger and thumb, versus the giant fish the two hands show together, I still fell for them because I wanted the story.
And often, they weren’t about fish at all.
My dad is a master of fish tales. One day my brother and I asked him how he came to have a scar and he replied, “Didn’t you know? I was abducted by aliens as a kid.” He proceeded to tell us about how the aliens took him into their special ship, to their mother ship. How they all had a third eye right up here on their foreheads. They all wore uniforms that matched and made it hard to tell one from the other. They spoke in a strange language, and poked and prodded my dad. They made him do weird experiments and asked him hard questions. In the end, they shot him with a strange syrup and dropped him off back at his home.
My brother and I were so shocked and impressed, we told all our friends. Soon all the kids were talking about how my dad had been abducted by aliens.
It took a few years before I realized he’d gotten hurt as a kid, been taken in an ambulance to the hospital, got a tetanus shot, and was sent home by the doctors and nurses. That’s how he got the scar.
… The alien story is way cooler, isn’t it?
It’s the same story. Just we picture different things in our heads when we hear ‘alien’ versus ‘doctor.’ Or ‘third eye’ versus head mirror. Special ship instead of ambulance.
But for a little kid? This totally felt like an alien abduction! My dad told us a fish tale, but it had roots of truth. And it communicated what this experience felt like to him when he was a child.
The Bible has stories that seem like fish tales too. Consider the book of Jonah. No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. Is it true? But whales don’t eat people. They can’t swallow anything that big and eat plankton. Was it a large fish? What fish could swallow a person whole and alive? Not a shark.
No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. No one really knows if we’re supposed to read it as a parable, or a historic truth, or a retelling of a classic tale with a Jewish spin, or a parody. Since no one knows, let’s consider it as a fish tale today.
Let’s look at the story: God calls to Jonah – a no body – and tells him to get to Nineveh and convert the people there. The story humorously explains all the ways Jonah tries to escape, but God keeps bringing Jonah back to the path God wants. Each run away is more drastic and over the top than the last. Each pull and yank on the fishing rod in this fish tale is told to keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat.
And in the end, Jonah is THE most successful prophet in the Bible and converts an entire city with just a few words. The city converts so strongly that they order even the animals to wear sack cloth and ashes and pray. The gigantic fish is pulled in!
And instead of rejoicing, Jonah complains, “God, I knew you were going to forgive them in the first place. You’re too kind!”
I hear here the cue for the drum snare for the punch line joke! God… is too kind.
We want God to love the people we love and hate the people we hate.
If the book of Jonah started out this way, telling us the punch line first, it likely wouldn’t strike home. It wouldn’t make us feel. Wouldn’t make us think. Just as if my dad had answered my brother and I ‘Oh, I fell on a nail,’ neither of us would have considered what it felt like, how scary it was, to be injured as a little kid.
The story – the wind up, the way it invites us in to view the world through Jonah’s eyes – the way things are exaggerated and blow up large – gives us just enough humor to deal with the not funny part of this story. Just enough humor to look at ourselves… and laugh.
You and I are Jonah.
And when God calls, we try running away.
When God tells us to be loving to enemies, we’d rather see them crash and burn.
And when God forgives and loves people we hate… we get angry with God.
We want God to love those we love, and hate those we hate… we want to tell God what to do. We want to be God.
But… God is uncontrollable. And God chooses to offer love and forgiveness to all.
I think the fish tale of the book of Jonah brings that message home.
The story is not about whether or not you believe in giant fish, bushes that grow up over night, or donkeys and goats wearing sack cloth. The story is about how wide is God’s mercy… and facing our own mercy shortcomings.
No one likes critiqued. No one likes being told they’re in the wrong. So Jonah holds the mirror up to us gently, with humor, to let us see the flaws and laugh. Let us see how ridiculous Jonah and we are being. Lets us be glad God is that loving and forgiving. That loving forgiveness that we rely on, so too does the whole world.
A big message… delivered in a way to make us think.
Mark plays with words to make us think, too. Mark’s word is IMMEDIATELY. If you ever want to read a gospel out loud, try reading Mark. It is breathless. It is fast. It sprints a marathon and when you read it or hear it in one setting, you end up at the end befuddled and breathless and left with all the messy pieces and unanswered questions that the first disciples had tossed on their laps.
When you come to the end, and the final bit is — the women ran away from the empty tomb and told no one because they were frightened — you have to wonder, what then? What then?!
Others have wondered this too. And various manuscripts of Mark have a note at the end that adds Jesus appearing to Mary, and giving the great commission, and rising to heaven…
But in the oldest copies we have of Mark?
The story ends as frightfully and short and as immediately as it began.
The urgent telling of Mark conveys the urgency of his message. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t even name Joseph as Jesus’ dad — just the barest minimum of details are told because Mark wants us to know the time is NOW.
The Gospel of Mark begins like whistle at the beginning of a race and runs from scene to scene in sentence to sentence. What Matthew spends fourteen verses on – Mark spends 2. (Jesus’ temptation.) And while the other Gospels talk about the predictions of Jesus and how he was born… a whole birth narrative… Mark just starts off saying, ‘Jesus came to John.’
Mark is rushing. Running.
And Jesus in Mark isn’t saying, ‘The time is soon,’ but the time is NOW. NOW is the kindom of God. NOW is the time to repent. NOW is the time to believe in the Good News.
Not the future. Not yet to be. NOW.
People need God NOW.
People need forgiveness now.
People need love, now.
Like a fish tale, Mark has us focus on the experience of Jesus’ story, not the details. We don’t know if the first disciples had heard about Jesus before they were called, and that is why they are ready to leave their nets. We don’t know if they had heard sermons before hand. Or had visions and dreams. Or asked Jesus questions when they were called. We know nothing about what leads up to their calling — only that Jesus calls, and they come ‘immediately’.
They respond as quickly as Jesus arrives.
The experience of Christian discipleship, for Mark, is the experience of immediacy. Whenever you hear or feel that call, immediately things are changing.
Immediately you’re swept up into the story of God.
Immediately, not in the future, not after you die, you are in the reign of God.
Mark isn’t concerned with details. He doesn’t want us concerned with details. He wants us concerned with the message and the feeling.
The Good News — as he calls it — and the feeling of the Spirit. The Good News that our waiting is over and Christ is among us. The feeling of a way to God for all peoples, all nations, all ages, all genders, and all sinners and saints. The experience of living as God’s children NOW.
This focus on message rather than details is how we as the United Church of Christ function. You and I can wholly disagree about how many angels were in Jesus’ tomb. We know — Christianity is not founded on how many angels. Christianity is founded on the love of God as known through Christ and is maintained with the Holy Spirit.
You and I can have different ideas on what is, or isn’t, the right way to pray or worship, or baptize. We know these things are important, but even still, are details.
And we’re not caught up in the details. We’re caught up in the story of God.
In the experience of God.
And the experiential story of God is urgently happening now, urgently calling us to unity with one another and with God, and gifting us the good humor to laugh at ourselves, admit our faults, ask forgiveness, and begin again.
And again and again and again.
No one is keeping a detailed record of how often we are Jonahs. Instead, God is remember we’re God’s beloved children, and God wants to share the experience of being that beloved child urgently right now.
So get thee to Ninevah! Or Lancaster. Or wherever God is calling you to go make amends and preach the good news of love and forgiveness. Get thee from the details and thoughts about God — to the experience of God’s love, mercy, and acceptance. Get to the reality of God felt and lived urgently now!