Jonah and the Power of God

Book of Jonah; Matthew 12: 36-41

The Voice of God

Have you ever had one of those spiritual moments when you felt at peace with the world? A time when you knew in your heart (or in your kidneys, as the Hebrews might have said) that all of life was on the right track and that everything would work out in the end? I've had those moments, too. I've heard the devil calling sweetly: Life is good, everything is OK, just relax and float with the flow of things as they are.

But to hear the voice of God calling – well, that's something else entirely.

Jonah was a man who heard the voice of God. He didn't much like it. Go east! God said. Pack your bag and head to Nineveh. Inspired by the awesomeness of hearing God's own voice, Jonah immediately booked passage as far west as the boats would sail. The end of the world. Spain. Jonah figured that God wasn't going to pursue him the whole length of the Mediterranean Sea. Jonah wasn't too good at figuring the mind of God.

Out of the sea rose up the fiercest thunderstorm Jonah had ever seen. Or the boat crew, either. Waves tossed, wind blew, rain fell, thunder roared. The ship pitched and shuddered. Jonah knew in his heart (or in his kidneys) that God was pursuing him and now had caught up with him. Jonah told the sailors that he had run away from God. That was an awful thing to do! they said. Demonstrating the generosity of a man who has nothing left, Jonah volunteered to sacrifice himself in order to save the ship and crew. Jonah figured that he was a dead man either way. When the crew decided he was probably right, they threw Jonah overboard to drown.

When God wants you, you can't even drown in a hurricane.

Jonah went into the sea, the storm abated, and Jonah was swallowed up by a fish. Or something. The Israelites weren't exactly a sea-faring nation; the best word they had in Hebrew was fish. Whether it was something we'd call a fish or something for which we'd use some other word is not the point. The point isn't even that Jonah was swallowed up. The point is that Jonah was spit back up – on the road heading east.

So that's the voice of God. Thunder and vomit. God said, Go east! You've lost your pack and you lost your way, but you're still going to Nineveh.


This Nineveh was a big city. Not so much like Green Bay as Milwaukee. Or Tehran. Jonah walked a full day and he still wasn't downtown. He started preaching the word that God had given him: You've been leading an evil life, he said. Turn back! Change your ways! You've got 40 days! Jonah never figured they'd actually listen to him.

But, of course, it wasn't Jonah that they listened to. It was the Voice of God. Jonah just happened to be the voice through which God spoke. God spoke, and Nineveh listened. They turned back. They changed their ways. They fasted and prayed.

The Power of God

In the meantime, Jonah found himself a nice hill east of town where he could sit and watch the fireworks. After all that he had gone through, Jonah wasn't about to miss the grand finale. The way Jonah figured it, watching the Smiting of Nineveh would be about the only compensation he'd get.

Jonah believed in the power of God. At least he thought he did. Jonah believed that God could destroy Nineveh. It never occurred to Jonah that God would be able to bring Nineveh into the family.

So Jonah settles in on his hillside to watch. The sun is really hot in Assyria, but Jonah doesn't want to risk missing any part of the show. He throws together some dry branches to give himself a bit of shelter. That helps, but it is still hot. Then God sends some sort of weedy bean plant to grow right over Jonah's little shelter. The shade! All those wonderful leaves! A gift from God to the faithful prophet. The one who ran away toward Spain.

You can see there is something more coming.

Finally, the great Day of God arrives! It is time for God to send forth Judgement upon the Earth! This is the Day which Jonah has been waiting for. At last, it is time for God to teach people a lesson about the Power of God. Which is what God does.

God sends a little worm to chew down that weedy bean plant that was growing all over Jonah's shelter. And the sun comes up in a cloudless sky. And God sends a hot east wind to blow across the hillside. And Jonah is about to faint.

What did you do that for? Jonah demands. Why not? asks God. It's nothing but a weedy bean plant. You aren't concerned about a bean plant, are you? And Jonah says, Yes, I am! And God begins to laugh and laugh. What's so funny? shouts Jonah, who is getting really hot out there on that hill under the sun with hardly any shade.

What's so funny? God says. Here you sit, hoping to watch me burn up the whole city of Nineveh, including 120,000 innocent children (not to mention all of the animals), and you feel sorry for a weed!

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus offered no miracle except the Sign of Jonah. People assume the Sign of Jonah has something to do with that fish, or whatever it was. But what was the point of the fish in the story of Jonah? Here's what I think. I think the Sign of Jonah is the Big Joke. Really. The Big Turnaround. You think you're running off to Spain, Jonah? Well, the joke's on you! You think Nineveh is going to be cut off forever? Wrong again! They're part of your family now!

Think about how Jesus came. Who would figure that the Creator of the Universe would visit earth as a migrant baby? It's a joke, right? If you were God and you had a message for the people of Brown County – God's chosen people! – where would you chose to be born? In the backseat of an Oldsmobile outside of Wrightstown?

The Sign of Jonah isn't in the three days swallowed up in darkness. It's the change of Jonah's course from west to east, the complete turnaround that happened when he was swallowed up by God's power.

The Sign of Jonah isn't found in Jesus' sleeping in the tomb, but in his return to the path toward God in spite of the fear and anger and violence.

The Sign of Jonah isn't in sitting on the hill, waiting for the Smiting of Nineveh. The Sign of Jonah is in the people of Nineveh turning around in the Power of God.

The Sign of Jonah is this: When life finally turns around so much that it seems completely absurd, when everything you thought was important is swallowed by the sea, or maybe eaten by a worm, when life spits you up facing the opposite direction from where you had been heading, then you're finally on the right track.

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January 19, 2013