Sunday message: Jonah’s lesson in the belly of the fish (The sign of Jonah part 3)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019


Psalm 130

Matthew 16:1-4

Jonah 1:11-2:10

We are at scene 3 of the 6-part story about the reluctant prophet Jonah. There have been times when think I could identify myself with this prophet. It’s certainly not equally easy to speak to all people with the same level of comfort. Sometimes it is a cultural difference, and other times it simply is that the other person is at a different place in life than I am. I think you too might be able to identify with that. Jonah did not want to go and address the people of Nineveh. 

In the first scene, it was God who called Jonah. Jonah fled to Tarshish by way of a ship out of Joppa to “flee from the presence of the Lord.”

Then in scene 2, Jonah is onboard the ship, but Jonah realizes that he cannot hide from God. God causes a fierce storm and the ship threatens to break up. Jonah says that he’s the reason that the Lord is angry. The only way the Lord will be appeased is if they throw him overboard. So the sailors throw Jonah overboard. As Jonah goes overboard, he doesn’t know what we know. He doesn’t know about a great fish or being saved from drowning. He sees only death by drowning at sea. 

By a show of hands, who here today has ever experienced a close drowning? I recall a time in my life when I had just finished high school and I was at the coast of what is called Namibia today, north of Henties’ Bay. It was the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of summer. I was going deeper and deeper into the waves and my uncle was calling me to come back to shore. I indicated that I was OK, but he said I must come back. The teenager that I was, I didn’t pay heed, until those anxious moments came when it felt like I lost control. 

Fortunately, the tide brought me back onshore. But what a scary feeling! I never wanted to admit it, but it was scary.

So, in scene 3 today we see Jonah being swallowed up by a fish. What type of fish this was is beside the point. Whether this could have happened seems to miss the point of the human encounter that a reluctant servant of God has with God. Nevertheless, at the end of the scene, we learn that Jonah was back on dry land, literally after being vomited out by the fish. That is the way the original Hebrew puts it. Jonah is despised by the fish, to say the least.

Is Jonah learning a lesson? Does Jonah “soften up” so to speak? Does a near-drowning, but being swallowed up and spit out on top it all, change Jonah’s heart? Is there a change of attitude? 

We here at Dayspring Presbyterian Church are at a crossroads in a sense. As I’ve been saying for a while now, we are at a point where we can put more focus on looking outwards than on maintaining ourselves. Yes, that has been the case all along, but even more so now. 

Do we need to be swallowed up and spewed out by “an enormous fish” before we can see beyond ourselves? I don’t think it needs to happen to us. 

However, from time to time we as individuals all go through times of chaos, of not knowing whether we will ever make it. It happens to a greater or lesser extent. 

When we are at the bottom, in troublesome circumstances, it is a great time to begin to talk to the Lord. 

We can resist the chaos by trying to build for ourselves such ordered lives that we shut all chaos out. We can seek to so arrange our lives so that we are invulnerable to anything unexpected and disorderly – to any storms, confusions, conflicts or uncertainties so that chaos is buried and under control. A teacher wrote on a first grader’s report card, the following: “Johnny seems to march to the tune of a different drummer, but don’t worry, by the end of the year he will have joined the great parade.” Poor Johnny, and poor teacher! Of course, we deceive ourselves. The chaos is always a hairbreadth away. Jonah goes from running away, to being caught in a storm, to being thrown overboard, to spending time in the belly of a fish. Could it ever get more chaotic? There is no resisting chaos for Jonah! 

What does Jonah learn? Would it be fair to say that Jonah learns that God is not such an angry God? Perhaps yes. Jonah learns that God is mercifully saving him from drowning. God, in God’s mercy, has sent this fish to save him out of the destruction that he had brought upon himself. God didn’t need to, but God chose to. 

The Lord teaches Jonah that he cannot go on his own and dictate the way his life will be. There isn’t only Jonah in Jonah’s world. There is more to life than just myself. 

Jonah’s lesson in the belly of the fish was preparing him for more to come. In scene 4 we will see that Jonah gets called a second time around. How will the transformation affect Jonah’s response? But that’s for next week… 

Let us always remember that God is constantly working through us, sometimes in spite of us, truly in spite of us. Perhaps Jonah was about to learn that when it isn’t all about him, and that God uses him, in spite of his reluctance. Amen 


Copyright 2019 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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