The boat is heaving on the waves – at one moment riding high on the crest of a wave – and the next moment plunging downward into a great trough. Water is coming across the bow and into the boat. Everyone on board is soaked and exhausted. Everyone is afraid.
And then, all of a sudden, in a flash, it’s over. The wind stops blowing. The waves stop their pounding. The boat stops its rising and falling. There is peace and calm.
Yet astonishingly, in this moment of peace, in this moment of calm – all those on board the boat are suddenly afraid. The sea is suddenly placid, but in this new moment those on board live with a new kind of fear.
As we did last week, this morning we have to ask. Which boat are we talking about? From everything I’ve said so far, we could either be talking about the disciples in their boat on the Sea of Galilee or about the sailors on that ship of Tarshish on the Mediterranean Sea.
In both cases we have a storm that threatens a boat and those aboard.
In both cases we have someone sleeping through it all.
In both cases there is fear in the hearts of those who battle the waves.
And on top of all of these parallels there is that other parallel we’ve already mentioned: that when the wind stops roaring – and the boat stops rising and falling – and when peace is restored – there is a new fear. In Luke’s gospel we read that when Jesus had stilled the wind and waves, the disciples were afraid. In the story of Jonah, we read that when the sea had become calm, the sailors were even more afraid.
In both cases, this new fear comes from the realization that they are dealing with someone unique – someone powerful – someone awesome, in the true sense of that word. The disciples on the sea of Galilee are afraid and say to themselves: “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” And we read of those sailors on that ship of Tarshish, once the sea was calm: “Then they feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
The fear in each case is a religious or spiritual fear – it is awe and respect and worship and praise. This fear is not the anxiety and dread that we associate with that moment in the storm. It is not a desperate fear for their lives. Rather, it is a posture before God in which the mysterious power and grace of God are acknowledged – God’s strength and singular deliverance.
In a way that moment on the deck of the boat – that moment of calm and worship – this moment of relief and praise – this moment is precisely what the short narrative of Jonah drives toward. Those men on the deck of the boat represent the nations of the world. Those men represent the peoples of earth. In these sailors, the nations gather in praise of Yahweh, the God of creation and covenant.
There is much in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Bible, that pushes toward just such a moment – much in the Hebrew bible that pushes toward the hopeful possibility that women and men from every corner of the earth will discover the goodness and glory of God. To give just one example, this hope is captured with particularly beautiful words in the 60th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
There is this longing, this desire, and this promise throughout the Hebrew bible that the peoples of the world will discover the Creator, the covenant God of Israel. And that’s what we have on the deck of that ship of Tarshish – a moment when the nations worship the God of Israel. This is what the narrative of Jonah pushes toward.
But how do we get to this moment? How do we get to this moment where these sailors are offering worship and praise to Yahweh? It’s a particularly interesting question when we realize that their first instinct is not to call on the God of Israel.
When God hurls the storm at the boat – when the fear starts to grow – we read: “Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god.” In that ancient context, there are many gods – there are local deities, families deities, national deities – and each of these sailors cries out to his particular god. Each performs the rituals required by his religion.
This is a multi-cultural and religiously pluralistic context. You have your god. I have mine. So when the captain of the ship awakens Jonah, he naturally tells him – get up, pray to your god. We all need to seek the favour of our gods – maybe one of them will save us.
But how do we get from point A to point B, in the narrative. How do we get from all of these sailors worshipping different gods, to all of them calling on Yahweh, the God of Israel? This is the question that preoccupies us this morning.
And perhaps the first thing we have to do is point out something that is obvious, but something also worth mentioning. It is this. That the world of Jonah is not our modern, disenchanted world. The world of Jonah is not a world where physical and material realities are cut off from divine realities. Jonah’s world, rather, is one where divine realities or spiritual forces infuse everything. This is a world where God might encounter humans through storm and wind and rain and waves. A world where physical realities can bear of divine things – where the God of creation may come close to us through created things.
In that kind of enchanted world, it’s not surprising the sailors are convinced someone on the boat might have offend his god. This storm isn’t just a storm – it is a divine communication. This storm isn’t just a storm – it is encounter with some god. For the sailors it is simply a question of figuring out who is responsible – to figure out which god has hurled this storm. And in order to answer this question, they follow the only course left to them – they cast lots.
We’re not sure how exactly they cast lots, but the essential point is that Jonah draws the short straw. This casting of lots points to Jonah as the culprit – and his drawing of the short straw becomes a demand that Jonah fess up. “Jonah, we know you’re responsible for this. You have brought this storm on us. Tell us what’s going on.”
The confession tumbles out of his mouth – and it’s interesting to look at Jonah’s confession. Now you would think that his confession would be this: “Ok, it’s true. I’m running away from my god. My god told me to go East and I went West. My god told me to go to Nineveh, but I’m heading for Tarshish.” But that’s not the confession he makes. Indeed, the sailors seem already to know that he is running away from his god. That’s not news to them.
So when he draws the short straw, the confession that tumbles out of his mouth is not the confession that he has turned his back on God. Rather, the confession that he blurts out is this: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah’s confession is about the identity of his God. And he declares that his God is not just one god among many. This god from whom he is running has a name: the name Yahweh: the name given to Moses in the narrative of the burning bush. This god from whom Jonah runs is the covenant God of Israel, and the creator of the sea and the dry land.
This moment of Jonah’s confession is, we might say, a first step toward the sailor’s worship of the God of Israel. And it is also the moment in which the sailors really begin to panic. The sailors say to Jonah: “What have you done? And what are we supposed to do? You are running from this god of yours and we have been caught up in God’s pursuit of you. This isn’t just some local household deity who is pursuing us – you say it is the God of all creation who has hurled this storm at us. We are lost. What have you done? What are we supposed to do?”
Jonah can think of only one answer to their question. I have descended this far – I have sunk this low – I have withdrawn myself this far from the presence of God. “You know what – just throw me all the way into the deep.“
Jonah thinks it’s futile for them to try and ride out the storm. There’s no use in trying to run further from the God who is on his trail. In the story, Jonah willingly offers himself as a sacrifice. If you throw me overboard, you will be safe. God will relent. God doesn’t want you – God wants me. If I sacrifice myself – you will be saved.
Now the truth is that the sailors don’t like this idea at all. And instead of listening to Jonah’s advice, they double their efforts to save themselves. They go back to their oars – they double their efforts to reach a safe harbour. They row and they row and they row – but it is no use. No matter how hard they try, they cannot turn the boat – the storm is too much for them.
Which brings them to their first moment of prayer to Yahweh, Jonah’s God. We read: “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.”
The sailors give up. They relent. They accept what Jonah is saying – the only thing left to do is to throw him overboard – the only thing left do is to give Jonah up to the ocean and give him up to God. Otherwise they will all die. At the same time, they don’t want God to blame them – they don’t want to have this man’s blood on their hands – after all, they are only doing what Jonah’s God, the God of creation, seems to want.
So they offer their prayer to the god of Israel, the God of creation and covenant, and then, we read: “So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared Yahweh even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
This is where we started. With these sailors, with these gentiles, with these representatives of the nations of the world, worshipping the God of Israel.
When we read this narrative – as we look at this transition from the worship of many gods to the worship of Yahweh – when we read this narrative, there are some elements of the story that resonate deeply with our life and faith in Christ. Here are a few of those elements:
There is the sacrificial love of Jonah – Jonah is willing to give himself up to the sea, in order to save the lives of the sailors.
In the narrative we also find a God who pursues the beloved in a way that is persistent and relentless. A God who pursues us even to the place of darkness to which we sometimes abandon ourselves.
In the story we find that these sailors have discovered the God of creation and covenant and have turned to worship God.
In these few elements, and perhaps in other ways as well, we are reminded of the good news of Jesus – of God’s love shown in Christ.
But alongside these elements, there are also real difficulties in this story. To name only two, we have to ask: Is it really ok to throw a man overboard in the hopes of appeasing God? Is the God of Israel a God who will really destroy a ship full of innocent sailors on account of one wayward soul? We cannot skip over the challenges and problems in the text – even as we seek to discern something of the good news of Jesus in the narrative.
But the narrative of Jonah is a kind of parable, and with parables we want to look at the big picture, rather than bogged down with details. Here’s what we want to focus on : Jonah was called to Nineveh, a great gentile city. He was called to make a hue and cry about their evil. Jonah’s task was to point that gentile city to the way of goodness and truth demanded by Yahweh. But for some reason – and we still don’t know the reason – for some reason, Jonah refused his calling. He refused his vocation. He would not go and serve that great gentile city. He would not preach to those gentiles.
But here’s the thing – even though Jonah has refused to serve the gentiles – even though Jonah would not preach to those gentiles – nevertheless Jonah has been an instrument of God’s purposes. Look what has happened on this ship. The nations, the gentiles – embodied in these sailors – have turned to worship Israel’s god. They have discovered the God who made all things – they have discovered the God who holds the wind and waves in his hands – they have come face to face with the God who has power and grace to deliver those who are in distress. And they have worshipped Yahweh – they have made vows to the God of covenant and creation.
Jonah didn’t want to serve the gentiles, the nations – but Jonah’s disobedience hasn’t thwart God. Precisely through Jonah, and through God’s pursuit of Jonah, those who did not know God, have come to know God.
This morning we aren’t going to try and apply this narrative to our individual lives. Rather than talking about ourselves, and about our lives, we simply want to acknowledge that this is a narrative about what God is doing – it’s about God’s persistent love in reaching out to the whole wide world. God will not be thwarted, even when his servants neglect to embody his love for the world
In a way it is perhaps most fitting to conclude this morning by quoting words from the opening chapter of the book of Acts, where God’s love for the whole world again comes to expression. The risen Jesus says to his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.