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          Carl Sandburg wrote:

                   If I should pass the tomb of Jonah

                   I would stop there and sit for awhile;

                   Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark

                   And came out alive after all.


When I read Sandburg’s poem, I can’t help but thinking about the news and the direction we are taking as a state and a country. It seems that Jesus people – people who care about the poor, the children, the “least of these” in our communities – are swallowed deep in the dark. And we question if we will come out alive.

One of the questions I get asked regularly and one I ponder, especially in a tension-filled election year is this: "How can I be a person of faith in this political climate...and how to find any hope?"

This sermon is in response to that query and is about coming out alive after all when you’ve been swallowed by the dark. After all, that is our call - to look for the light of Christ wherever we are and to find hope in an everchanging world.

The story of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible is a literary and theological masterpiece. Unfortunately, its power and message have often been lost amid the preoccupation with whether a human could be inside of a fish for 3 days and nights. It’s actually a wonderfully humorous satire on bigotry and prejudice. The point of the story is, of course, that God cares for our enemies as much as God cares for us.

Our story from the text today paints a ridiculous scene. And instead of reading through three chapters of the book of Jonah, please allow me to capture the highlights in story form:

          Jonah’s story starts with God asking Jonah to go to Washington DC - I mean Nineveh - to tell the people there about their sin and God’s grace. Jonah knew about Washington DC – I mean Nineveh - and frankly, he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t like the climate there; and although he didn’t know the people there, he had heard that they were not his kind of people. Jonah wasn’t interested in going to meet them at all. 

Like many of us, Jonah initially told God “no” – he would not go to Nineveh. What was the point? Those people wouldn’t listen. And if they did listen, it wouldn’t do any good. They were who they were and it was a waste of time and energy to even discuss Godly things with them. And that’s why he ended up in the belly of a whale – because he just couldn’t believe that it would make a difference… so he told God ‘no’. Consequently, God thought that Jonah should have some time to think about his answer, so God gave him a little time –

  • away from daily life stress
  • away from the kids and the wife
  • away from the list of “honey-dos” to keep the tent in shape
  • away from his friends
  • away from the world.

That’s why Jonah got to spend some time in the belly of a whale. Now, let me ask you, have you ever told God “no” and ended up in a proverbial mess, like in the belly of a whale? 

After Jonah had time to think about his response to God, he decided to go to Nineveh after all (imagine that!). The scripture says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time… go to Nineveh and cry into its ear the words I give you to cry. Jonah told the Ninevites that they had forty days to turn away from their sin. Forty days – a window of opportunity. Do you remember back to the Numbers sermon a month ago? Here is the pop quiz? What did the number 40 symbolize? (time to develop a new life, new growth, transformation, a change from one task to another.) If you do anything for forty days, it can become a habit (good or bad). The Ninevites found out that forty days did make a difference in their lives and in their hearts.  They were changed forever. God saw what they had done during that time and how they had turned from their bitter ways, and God was compassionate.  

The story starts with Jonah, a petulant prophet, running away from God and ending up in the belly of a whale. It ends with a pouting prophet sitting under a withered tree as he burns with resentment. Can you see him there, slumped under a dying vine, petulant and pouting, sulking and indulging his immature thoughts? 


It’s easy to think Jonah immature.  It’s easy to shake our heads and judge him. Yet, this story is our story. This story challenges our cultural, religious and pious beliefs. The truth is we have a lot in common with Jonah. The truth is we prefer not to deal with difficult people in power. But our voices must be heard. Not just when we are with our friends who feel similarly. Not just where it is safe to speak openly. We have to go to the steps in the center of the city and declare that all people are God’s people. 

Maybe there are those with whom we’d rather not associate. Like Jonah, we are happy to talk about “those” people on the zoning board, the school board, the bar association, the Koch brothers, Democrat or the Republican followers… but we don’t really want to share God’s grace with them!

Because, when it really comes down to it, if those people we automatically don’t like are the ones upon whom God shows mercy, and we are the ones who spend time in the belly of a whale, we are not happy. We, with Jonah, are tempted to go out of the city to sit under a wilting tree and sulk. When we think this way, we deny the nature of God’s incredible grace. 

The ironic twist in the story is that Jonah went to convert the Ninevites when he, himself, was the one in need of a conversion. And isn’t that they way it sometimes turns out – that we are the ones in need of being turned around, not those people “out there” who are obviously without God or logical reason. We are the ones who are called to step up and step out of our comfort zones and speak God’s truth. We are the ones who need motivation to be advocates for policies protecting children, women, the poor, and those left out in our world.

Jonah would tell us that no matter Ninevah, Wichita, Topeka, DC, or Timbuktu, our calling is about following where God leads and speaking truth. We don’t have to be happy about it. We simply go about our business and continue to speak God’s love.

In the old show “Northern Exposure”, Joel is fishing on a lake in Alaska at night and suddenly imagines his rabbi from home in New York is with him.  They are inside a great fish.

Rabbi Schulman:  We’re inside, Joel.

Joel:  Inside what?

Rabbi Schulman:  The fish… the belly of the beast… You know, Jonah may be the key here.

Joel:  Key to what?

Rabbi Schulman:  The meaning of all this. Think a minute, Joel. Why was Jonah swallowed in the first place? God told him to go to Nineveh, cry out against their wickedness. Instead, Jonah flees, hops a boat for Tarshish. God raises a ruckus. Jonah gets the heave ho. What’s the message, Joel?

Joel:  Next time go to Nineveh.

Rabbi Schulman:  Responsibility.  Jonah was trying to avoid his responsibility.