My sermon from this morning – in which I in many ways follow the brilliant Brazos theological commentary on the book, by Phillip Cary.
He is sound asleep in the boat. He sleeps so peacefully and confidently that when the storm begins to rage, and the boat begins to rise and fall heavily, he doesn’t even notice. And as the storm gets worse, and as his fellow travelers in the boat start to get worried, and then start to panic, they come to him and they say: “How can you sleep at a moment like this. Can’t you see what is happening? Get up.”
It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? But who exactly are we talking about? Are we talking about Jesus, or about Jonah?
Jesus slept comfortably in a boat with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee. And when the storm came up, and when his disciples awakened him, it quickly became apparent why HE slept so calmly in the storm. He is the one through whom the wind and the waves are created. The wind and the waves obey him. “Peace, be still.”
So why does Jonah sleep so peacefully? Why does he seem oblivious to the wind and waves? Perhaps it is because he is exhausted – he has been on the run – he is tired and to exhausted to pay any mind to a little storm.
Or maybe not. Perhaps Jonah is comfortable and at peace because he rests at a place and point of profound human accomplishment. After all, he is aboard one of the ships of Tarshish. The ships of Tarshish have a significant pedigree.
Within the Old Testament, the ships of Tarshish were famous for carrying valuable cargo – gold and silver, rare lumber (the cedars of Lebanon) and expensive commercial goods. So the ships of Tarshish represent the height of commercial trade. They are a symbol of wealth and power within human life and culture.
Of course the design and construction of such a ship is itself a significant human accomplishment. A ship of its size, and with its ability to maneuver over the heavy seas of the Mediterranean – that represents a real technological feat. Human ingenuity at its best.
When Jonah falls asleep down in the hold of this ship of Tarshish, perhaps it is because he thinks he is secure. Jonah is carried through the waves and over the waves surrounded by a cargo that reflects the greatest of human wealth. He is carried through the waves and over the waves in a ship that reflects the greatest of human, technological achievements. He sleeps soundly, even through the beginnings of a terrible storm – not because he trusts the one who holds the power of the wind and the waves. He sleeps soundly, perhaps, because he has placed his profound confidence in human wealth and technology. He will be fine.
The prophet Isaiah has something to say about those who put their confidence in the ships of Tarshish – those who think that the accomplishments of their culture or of human ingenuity are a significant or ultimate source of security. In the second chapter of Isaiah we read:
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the high mountains, and against all the lofty hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; against all the ships of Tarshish and against all the beautiful craft. The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.
Let’s back up and ask how it is that Jonah finds himself asleep in the hold of this ship. In the opening verse of the book of Jonah, the word of God comes to this prophet – and God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah is called to bring his prophetic ministry to Nineveh – to make a hue and cry about its wickedness.
And from the moment God’s word comes to Jonah, from the moment God issues this command, Jonah moves relentlessly in only one direction. In verse 3 we read that he fled from the face of the Lord and that “He went down to Joppa.” Joppa is a costal city – a port city on the Mediterranean Sea. And if we assume Jonah started out in Jerusalem, which is on a hill or mountain, then in going from Jerusalem to Joppa, Jonah was going down – he was descending to sea level.
Also in verse 3 we read also what he did in Joppa: “So he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish.” But actually, this English translation obscures what is going on. The text actually says, “He paid his fair and went down into the boat.” So not only has Jonah gone down from Jerusalem to Joppa. He has now boarded the boat – he has gone down into the boat.
A few verses later in the narrative, when God has hurled a wind storm at the sailing ship, we read that while the sailors are in a panic; “Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and was fast asleep.”
There is relentless trajectory for Jonah in the opening verses of the narrative. He is going in only one direction. He is going there persistently. The movement of the story carries him down. His own actions and decisions take him down.
When we think of the story of Jonah, we often think of it in terms of horizontal movement. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, which is in the east – present day Iraq. But when the call of God comes to this prophet, he goes in exactly the opposite direction, toward Tarshish. God calls Jonah to go East – and he goes west. God calls him to Nineveh, and he sets out for Joppa, then Tarshish.
Certainly that horizontal movement would have been in the mind of the original readers of the book of Jonah. It is very much a part of the story that God calls him to go one way, and he goes the other way.
But within the narrative there is this other very clear movement of the prophet.
Jonah went down to Joppa.
Jonah went down into the ship.
Jonah went down into the hold of the ship.
Eventually, of course, he will go all the way down into the sea and down into guts of a great fish. The movement is one directional here. Jonah goes down.
So it is not only that Jonah refuses the command of God. It is not only that Jonah refuses the mission God has given.
In fleeing from the command and call of God – Jonah flees also from the face of God. In walking away from the mission of God – Jonah walks away from the place of encounter between God and his people. Jonah seems not to realize it. He seems blissfully unaware – but his flight from the call of God is taking him down.
Throughout the Psalms, especially, a downward trajectory is expressive of distance from the presence of God.
Psalm 147: 7 Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
Psalm 88:4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help.
Psalm 28:1 If you are silent to me, O Lord, I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
In the Psalms the downward trajectory is often expressed in terms of God’s silence and God’s distance – the possibility that God will remove himself from the picture. But in the case of Jonah, it is Johan himself who takes himself away from God, who sets himself on this trajectory.
But Jonah does not realize what his trajectory is. He sleeps comfortably in the boat, unaware of his downward movement – blissfully unaware just how misplaced is his confidence in himself and in human capacities for wealth and technological achievement. He is confident, but his confidence will soon be shaken.
As Jonah goes down – God follows.
As Jonah descends – God is not far behind.
Jonah runs – and God pursues.
Jonah gets on a ship – and God hurls a storm at it.
Perhaps we think that Jonah is wise to run from such a God. That Jonah is wise to run from a God who would hurl a storm at group of vulnerable seafarers. We may think that Jonah is wise to run from a God who seems intent on punishment.
Many in our culture are running from just such a God. A God presumed to be little more than an angry old man. A God presumed to take delight in punishing people for doing wrong. A God who simply wants to tell us what to do, and who wants to take our pleasures from us.
I would say, if my opinion matters much at all – if anyone is running from such a God – keep running. That is certainly not a God worth your time or worth your energy or worthy of your worship.
When we read the story of Jonah, we perhaps think that is just such a God from which Jonah is running. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In order to say something more about the God who pursues and the one who is pursued, we could perhaps say something about Jonah’s name. In this sermon series, next week in fact, it will be important to say something about God’s name – about God’s identity. But this week let’s start out with Jonah’s name.
Jonah’s name means “Dove.” You may recall that in the Song of Solomon, the beloved is referred to as “my dove”. Even in our culture, “dove” is sometimes used as a term of endearment. The name “Dove” is the name given to one who is loved. The name “Dove” is a name given to one who is precious and cared for. Jonah is “Dove”, one who is beloved of God.
Within the text, the prophet is not only identified as Jonah (not only as dove), he is also identified as Jonah, son of Amittai. And we should know that the word Amittai is related to the Hebrew word that means truth. So Jonah is the beloved – Dove. And Jonah is also a prophet called to represent and embody truth.
When God follows Jonah. When God pursues Jonah. When God hurls a storm at the ship that is carrying Jonah, Jonah has not ceased to be the beloved, to be the dove. Jonah has not ceased to be one who is called to represent and embody truth, to be son of Amittai. The rest of the narrative will bear this out.
God does not follow Jonah. God does not pursue Jonah. God does not hurl a storm at the ship carrying Jonah in order to deny or harm or destroy Jonah. God follows Jonah and God pursues Jonah and God even hurls the storm at the ship carrying Jonah – precisely because Jonah is God’s beloved and because God’s desire is that Jonah would live up to his identity as a prophet of truth.
It will eventually become important to see that God doesn’t only pursue Jonah – it will become important to see that in pursuing Jonah, God also pursues the human family more widely. But in this first instance it is simply important to see that God’s pursuit of Jonah is a pursuit of him as the beloved – this pursuit is intended to reinforce and affirm Jonah as one called to be a prophet.
It may be hard for us to reconcile this reality – Jonah as the beloved on the one hand, and Jonah as one who is buffeted by God on the other. Think also of the sailors aboard the boat. In the middle of their nightmare, would they believe you if you told them that this was just an unfortunate side-effect of God’s pursuit of his beloved.
Phillip Cary has written a theological commentary on the book of Jonah and I am following his interpretation and reading of the text closely this morning. Cary describes the hellish experience of Jonah and the other seafarers:
“It is as if the world itself is about to break up. The orderly little human world of a ship at sea, so carefully constructed and maintained, is overwhelmed by the vast unruly waters surrounding it on every side. No work of human hand or mind, no technology or skill, is a match for the huge inhuman power of the waters, a power of disorder that resolves all things back to their elements.”
Is it possible that in our lives, when we will not listen to the still small voice, or when we cannot hear that voice; is it possible that in our lives, when we turn away from the God of love; is it possible that when we think we have to pick ourselves up by our own britches; is it possible that when we have completely forgotten our identity as those called and blessed of God – is it possible that in the midst of all of this it might take a storm hurled at us, to draw us back to the truth of who we are and the truth of God’s love for us.
I suspect that we all know our own capacities for obtuseness or blindness or willfulness or forgetfulness. Perhaps it will not surprise us that in some circumstances it might take a storm to turn our attention as individuals or as a church toward the God who calls, toward the path upon which he would have us walk.
Or perhaps that is why the church is given this narrative or parable within the Old Testament – instead of the storm, the story itself is given as a gentler reminder that we might just be Jonah sleeping comfortably in hold of that ship – that there are ways that we have neglected God’s call to serve in the justice and compassion and reconciliation of Christ. It’s very easy to wag a finger at Jonah, that worse than reluctant prophet – but the story of Jonah may be our story. We may be sleeping, blissfully unaware of our call and identity.
But in our case, also, we remain the beloved – the dove. We remain those called and equipped to serve Christ’s mission in the world. The storm, or the narrative of the storm, is intended to do no more than remind us of who we are. May our hearts become open to the God of compassion, who calls us in Christ as his servants – who sometimes loves his people enough to pursue them to the deepest place. Amen.