One of my favourite movies is one starring Robert Duval, Michael Caine & Haley Joel Osment called Secondhand Lions. The movie centers around the young Osment, whose mother drops him off at the rural farm of his two uncles (Duval & Caine), who are curmudgeonly old men who initially don’t talk too much. As the movie progresses, the two take turns telling Osment the most outrageous stories of their earlier exploits as young men as world travelers, adventurers and eventually in love – Duval with the daughter of a very wealthy Sheik – whom they fought for years. Despite the fact that these stories are so fantastical that they couldn’t possibly be true, and the fact that Duval & Caine seem so far removed from the young men they claimed they once were, the young Osment learns many truths about the world and about himself, that eventually lead him to grow up to be a mature young man.
One of the reasons I love this movie, and the reason why I share it now, is that it’s the perfect example of how a story, or stories – no matter how absurd and unbelievable, can still be used to teach us. Today, we’re continuing our trek through our own pretty fantastical story – the prophet Jonah – and when we left him, he’d been swallowed by a giant fish, where he resided for three days. And I’d hazard a guess that there are some, maybe many out there that look at this story and can’t get past the absurdity of it. We read this tale, we chuckle and we put it back up on the shelf with Paul Bunyan the Giant Logger and Hercules the ancient hero. They’re nice stories to tell our children, but we can’t honestly be expected to believe them. And to that, I say no. There’s absolutely no need for you to sit here this morning and believe these four chapters concerning the prophet Jonah are literal history. Just like Haley Joel Osment, you are free to sit and listen, sifting through the historicity to find the nuggets of hidden wisdom within the text. I would propose that there is as much, if not more that we can learn from this story, as simply an inspired tale, than a historical rendering – but it requires us to listen. And last we left Jonah, he was in the belly of a great fish…
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry Land.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. (Jonah 2:10-3:3a)
Ok, here we find ourselves in many ways back to square one. God hits the reset button here. Last week, we were reminded that even despite our disobedience and our running from God’s call – God still comes after us, God still cares for us, God still saves us. In this case, God doesn’t simply swallow up Jonah, but he puts him back on dry land, ready for Jonah to respond to God’s Word. God hits the reset button, and we’re back to the prophetic formula. But this time, God’s arise, go and preach is followed by an obedient rising, going and… well, we have to wait to see if Jonah will be completely obedient.
Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.(Jonah 3:3b-6)
Ok, pause for a second. Turns out, Jonah is a way better preacher than anyone has given him credit for. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” – Billy Graham has nothing on this guy! In fact, in the Hebrew, there are only five words used here. Imagine, a five word sermon – hold on a second – come back to me. I’m not good enough to get the point across in only five words. You’re stuck with a few more from me. But maybe that’s the point. Jonah’s message actually lacks some of the more common components of a prophetic message. No, “thus says the LORD” no attestation of “declares the LORD” – nothing. So, it’s probably safe to assume that Jonah’s curt proclamation is not only, not the reason for the immediate response, but it’s probably not even the actual message given to him, at least not in its entirety. And yet the response of the Ninevites is both immediate and impressive. They believe¸they fast and they put on sackcloth. Faith, followed by penitence, followed by humility. But if that’s not amazing enough – it gets better:
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:
‘By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’(Jonah 3:6-9)
Ok, lets back-track to get our bearings for a second. Jonah has run away from God’s call because he didn’t want to have to go to this bloodthirsty and wicked city of Nineveh – hated enemies of the Hebrew people. So he runs from God, which is a losing battle, and eventually ends up obediently responding to God’s prophetic call to go to Nineveh – but when he gets there, he barely gets into the city and proclaims only five words, and the response is so dramatic and so amazing that not only the people believe in God, fast & put on sackcloth, but the King makes a declaration that even the animals participate in this humiliating ritual. Is this really the wicked city that we were expecting? Is this really the reception that Jonah, that we were expecting for him? Probably not.
Jonah’s response to God, while obedient, doesn’t seem too enthusiastic – and yet what happens is amazing. We saw last week how even in Jonah’s disobedience, God was praised – by the sailors & captain on his ship. Should we expect anything less from Jonah’s obedience, even if it isn’t perfect? No way. Whether Nineveh is as wicked as we’re lead to believe or not, we can’t expect anything less than a total upheaval, a total 180 when they’re faced with God – even God truncated in the person of the prophet Jonah. Because once again, this story is not about Jonah, it’s not even about this great city of Nineveh – which takes 3 days to cross, and is even great in God’s eyes – this is a story about God. And when God gets involved, look out. We heard and saw last week what God was willing to do for one man, Jonah, who was disobedient and defiant and ran away – and we see this week what God’s willing to do for an entire city of people who are wicked. God turns their hearts. And I’ll bet we can guess God’s response here:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)
Yeah, didn’t see that one coming did we… of course we did! We know this God. This God that cares for a disobedient runaway prophet – how much more does he care for an entire city of disobedient men and women. The king, in his declaration says something interesting – “Who knows? God may yet relent…” –As the king responds to God’s message through Jonah, he has no clue. He turns from his wickedness out of fear and out of hope. But as we read this story, we know the answer because we’ve already experienced it. We gather here today not out of blind fear, but out of a shared history, out of an experience of God’s grace that leads us into the future.
At one time, we too were probably in the King of Nineveh’s shoes. We too, came face to face with the fact that we weren’t perfect, that sin and death knelt at our door, waiting to consume us. And in desperation, we turned to God. We responded by turning over our lives to him. And in so doing – God responded with grace and compassion. So, as we read this, we know God’s response. Author, pastor, professor Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “our present trust is sustained by memory on the one hand and hope on the other.”
And so, we live our lives today in the same space inhabited by the King of Nineveh – with just a little more knowledge. Because we know what God has done and like him, we hope for what God will do. Not only for us, but for our entire city, for our entire world. We hope, that despite all we see, all we feel, all we hear – God will yet redeem it.
And our part? Respond. Respond to God’s word – turn to him. Respond to God’s call – live it out. And if we’re half as half-hearted as Jonah was, I’ll bet we’ll see some pretty amazing results. Because God will be at work, in our work.
And speaking of God being at work… There’s a great twist at the end of the movie Secondhand Lions – the grown Osment gets a call from the local Sheriff – his uncles have died – flying a WW1 bi-plane into their barn. As they survey the scene on the farm, out of nowhere, a helicopter descends. On the door, the name “Western Sahara Petroleum” – a man gets out, he introduces himself as the grandson of a wealthy Sheik, who was raised on stories of these two brave & valiant men – the greatest adversaries of the Sheik. And he wanted to come to pay his respects. And then, his young son jumps out of the helicopter, and is scooped up into his father’s arms. As this happens, the young boy looks at the scene around him and says “so, those two men from great grandfather’s stories, they really lived?”
Jonah being in the belly of a giant fish for 3 days, and his exploits in Nineveh may be the stuff of legend – or they may be as real as you and I – we’ll probably never know. But one thing we can be sure of. That story is first and foremost about God – a God who cares as much about us, as he does about the wicked people we want nothing to do with. And if we’ll just respond to God, we’ll see God do some pretty amazing things, because yes – he really lives!