“’Not Fair!’ (Thank God): Or ‘More Than a Fish Tale”

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | September 20, 2020

Reflections on the Book of Jonah

Some background: The book of Jonah, like the book of Job, is clearly a parable, a teaching tool, not a record of actual events.  It was probably written during the fifth or fourth century before Jesus.  This is shortly after the Jews’ return from exile in Babylon.  During exile there had been some intermarrying between Jews and Gentiles.  During the return from exile, as the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding wall were being rebuilt Ezra and Nehemiah told the Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives.  Scholars believe that the books of Ruth and Jonah were written to counteract this hatred of the Gentiles.  

It’s also necessary to know that the city of Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the hated enemy of the Jews.

Listen to the story.

I’m reading from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Book of Jonah in The Message, with slight revisions.  This book of Jonah refers to God with masculine language which today I’m not going to change.  Here is the entire Book of Jonah.   Listen for God’s word:

1-2 One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah: “I’ve got a job for you, Jonah.  Up! On your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

But Jonah got up, went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish, the exact opposite direction from Nineveh…

4-6 So God sent a ginormous storm at sea, the waves towering and crashing into the ship.

The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, “Are you serious? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we’re in trouble and rescue us.”

Then the sailors said to one another, “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who’s responsible for this disaster.”

So, they drew straws. Guess who got the short straw?

Then they grilled Jonah: “Confess. Why this disaster? Who are you and where do you come from?”

He told them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land.”

10 At that, the men were terrified, and said, “What on earth have you done!” As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.

11 They said to him, “What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm?” By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control.

12 Jonah said, “Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It’s all my fault. I’m the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.”

13 But no. The men tried rowing back to shore. They made no headway. The storm only got worse and worse, wild and raging.

14 Then they prayed to God, “O God! Don’t let us drown because of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best.”

15 They took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately the sea was calm.

16 The sailors were dumbfounded, no longer terrified by the sea, but in awe of God. They worshiped God, offered a sacrifice, and made vows.

17Meanwhile, Jonah is bobbing around at sea and we know what happened next. Yes!  God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights.

1-9 Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish.  I won’t read his prayer.  Essentially, he told God he had learned his lesson and was ready to follow orders, if God would deliver him.

He prayed:
(“In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God.
    He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, ‘Help!’
    You heard my cry.
You threw me into ocean’s depths,
    into a watery grave,
With ocean waves, ocean breakers
    crashing over me.
I said, ‘I’ve been thrown away,

    thrown out, out of your sight.
I’ll never again lay eyes
    on your Holy Temple.’
Ocean gripped me by the throat.
    The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.
My head was all tangled in seaweed
    at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root.
I was as far down as a body can go,
    and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever—
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive,
    O God, my God!
When my life was slipping away,
    I remembered God,
And my prayer got through to you,
    made it all the way to your Holy Temple.
Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds,
    walk away from their only true love.
But I’m worshiping you, God,
    calling out in thanksgiving!
And I’ll do what I promised I’d do!
    Salvation belongs to God!”)

10 Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore.

1-2 Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Well, I hope I got your attention!  Ready to obey me?  Up, on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter. Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.

Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “(I have a message from the true God:) In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.”

The people of Nineveh listened to Jonah, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap (gunny sacks) to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in gunny sacks, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must repent, turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”

10 What do you think happened?  God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. God did change his mind about them and let them live.

Was Jonah happy about this, that the people had listened to his preaching and had been saved from destruction?


1-2 Jonah was furious. He yelled at God, “This really fries my potatoes!  I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were all grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!

“So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”

God said, “What?!  What do you have to be angry about?”

But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.

God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. In one day it grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.

7-8 But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”

Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”

Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”
10-11 God said, “What is your problem? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere bush that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”

The end.  The word of the Lord.

Well, Jonah is quite the knucklehead, isn’t he?  That’s why I love him.  I can identify.

Where might we find the living word for us today, 2500 years later?

Jonah runs away from God.  Why?  As we see from his later actions, it must be because he doesn’t want the Ninevites to be warned of their impending doom.  He wants them to be destroyed.  And he knows that God is merciful, and just might change her mind and NOT destroy the city. So, Jonah heads in the opposite direction.  

Have you ever done the exact opposite of what you know is right?

How did that turn out for you? 

A month before my first wedding, I realized, in my heart of hearts, that this might not be a good decision, almost surely not.  But I went ahead with it.  A lot of unnecessary heartache followed over the next four years.  I would rather have spent three days inside a whale.

So first, when God is leading us, it’s a good idea to follow.  As the spiritual says, “I gotta move when the Spirit say, “Move.”  And not the opposite direction to Tarshish or whatever we think is more desirable than what God has in mind.

Second.  The Ninevites respond to Jonah’s warning.  From the king down to the cattle, they put on gunny sacks and vowed to change their ways.  And God’s heart was softened, and God chose NOT to destroy the city.  Amazing grace!  Hooray!

But, third, Jonah is such a hypocrite.  One might expect Jonah to be pleased that people listened to him.  “An entire city responded to an old-fashioned altar call.” (Timoth B. Cargal, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 77). My goodness, I would be doing back flips. 

Over the years, as I have greeted people at the door following worship (back when that was possible), sometimes people would say, “Good sermon, pastor.”  And often I simply said, “Thank you,” but sometimes I have responded, “Well, we don’t know yet if it’s a good sermon or not.  It doesn’t become a good sermon until you (the members of the congregation) do something in response to it.”  A recent example: I’m so gratified that a large number of people have told me that they are actually reading the book I recommended in a sermon a while back, Neither Wolf Nor Dog.  Thank you!

But Jonah is not happy at Nineveh’s repentance and God’s gracious change of heart.

Jonah is absolutely ticked that God is gracious.  It just steams his mussels.

As Todd Hobbie notes, It never seemed to cross Jonah’s mind that, though he had directly disobeyed God’s command, God had pursued him with persistent love.  At least the Ninevites had ignorance of God as an excuse…

It never seemed to cross Jonah’s mind that if God were unforgiving, God would have let him drown in the storm.  It never seemed to cross his mind that the pagans on the ship, in their attempts to save him from harm at all costs, were much more like God than he was…

It never seemed to cross Jonah’s mind that even the fish was more obedient to God than he was.  At least the fish, when commanded by God to vomit up Jonah, did as it was told.  The fish must have felt much better when (it) could finally throw up the sour, disobedient prophet.  (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 77)

Fourth.  “It’s not fair!”  Any of you parents familiar with that phrase?  “It’s not fair” is possibly the first complete sentence that a lot of children utter.  We seem to be born with a sense of fairness, or at least a sense that we ought to get what we deserve.

The book of Jonah is paired in the recommended lectionary readings with Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20).  Remember that story?  Some workers are recruited to work early in the morning with the promise they would be paid one denarius each, the typical daily wage for a day laborer.  Others started at nine AM, others were recruited at noon, still others at 3 pm and others at 5 pm.  That last group only worked one hour.  Yet, at the end of the day all of the workers were paid one denarius!  “Not fair!” said the ones who started at 6 AM.

A lot of people don’t like the story of the Prodigal Son, because the prodigal is welcomed back with open arms while the older son, the responsible one, the hard-working one, the obviously Presbyterian one, is kind of taken to task.  Not fair!

The concept of Karma has made its way into popular culture.  It’s the idea that what goes around comes around.  If you are a nice person, good things will happen to you.  If you are a skunk, eventually bad things will happen to you.  If not in this life, then in the next.  Karma has become a very prevalent belief in popular culture, wouldn’t you say?  But karma comes from Buddhism and Hinduism.  It is not a Christian concept.  Friends, our theology is not based on fairness.  Because God is not fair!  Thank God.  As followers of Jesus, we don’t preach karma, we don’t insist on fairness, we believe in grace.  That is, we get better than what we deserve.

Jonah was not willing to extend grace to the city of Nineveh, the enemy of the Jews.  

Who is our Nineveh?  

Black Lives Matter folks?  Muslims? Immigrants?  Donald Trump?  Nancy Pelosi?  That no-good brother-in-law that lives in your basement?

Make this a good sermon.  Jesus commanded us to forgive and to pray for our enemies.  Just do it.

Or maybe, just maybe, the person we are not willing to extend grace to is… ourself.  Maybe we believe we are beyond God’s grace and don’t deserve to be forgiven.

Friends, hear the good news: The heart of the gospel is that God’s grace, God’s ability to forgive, is infinitely bigger than your ability to sin.

God is not fair.  

Thank God!

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