Today’s sermon for the First Sunday in Lent at Griffins Mills Presbyterian Church was about a fish story that is not a “fish story.” Being a history buff, the church was fascinating. You can read more about it here. The area is beautiful and recently had upwards of three feet of snow. The picture is Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites by Gustave Doré. A link to the sermon audio is available nearby and you will find the full prepared text below. For further reading: see these posts about the book of Jonah. One is here. Another can be found here.
A Fish Story (Sermon Audio Link)
Every child in Sunday School hears the story of Jonah. The word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it a message of God’s judgment. Instead, Jonah rose to flee in the opposite direction to Tarshish across the sea by boat. God was none-too-pleased and Jonah soon found his way into the belly of a great fish (not a whale—despite what you may have heard) in the sea where he would remain for three days and nights. From the belly of that great fish Jonah called out to the Lord, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. The book itself never indicates that the people of Nineveh knew this backstory, but Jewish tradition before Jesus and the interpretation of Jesus Himself in Matthew and Luke may suggest that the Ninevites knew what had happened to Jonah. If so, the Ninevites didn’t think this was a “fish story.” The American idiom of a “fish story” for an exaggerated and unbelievable tale began because guys tend to exaggerate the size of the fish that they catch. It would take a very big fish to swallow a person, which I’m sure is why we like to picture a whale. In the VeggieTales movie, Jonah tells the king of Nineveh that he was in the belly of a whale for three days and nights and that it spit him out on the land so that he could bring them a message and they smelled him, which convinced them that it wasn’t a “fish story”–he really had been in the belly of a great fish. But whether Jonah still reeked or not, the movie extras explain that there is archaeological evidence that the Ninevites worshiped using an idol depicted as a fish. If that’s right, because Jonah was spit up by the great fish the people of Nineveh would have recognized that the God of Israel was greater than the god that they worshiped in their fish story of a religion and they should pay attention to Him. So Jonah was a prophetic sign to the people of Nineveh that they better heed his short and simple prophetic message of God’s judgment against Nineveh. Yet that prophetic sign with his short and not-so-sweet sermon provoked a very different response in Nineveh than the many words of judgment spoken by the prophets to the people of Israel and the words of judgment spoken by Jesus to the people of Israel in His day. Hear the word of God:
I. The people of Nineveh from top to bottom believed the sign of Jonah and heeded his short sermon and thus turned from their evil ways, but the nation of Israel refused to believe and turn.
Rather than dismissing Jonah as a crazy person telling yet another “fish story,” the people of Nineveh believed his prophetic word that in forty days the city would be overthrown. The Ninevites believed that their only hope was that God might give them a second chance like Jonah got if they repented. They believed the sign of Jonah. I remember a pastor in seminary who had done a lot of evangelistic work with Muslims and he said that they have a hard time with the sign of Jonah. They don’t believe that Jesus had really died on the cross and then rose from the dead. And they don’t think the sign of Jonah is a prophetic sign of death and resurrection because Jonah was alive in the belly of the great fish. But the professor pointed out to these Muslims that Jonah 2:2 says that Jonah cried out from the belly of Sheol—which is the Hebrew word for the place where the dead go. Indeed, Jonah was dead in the belly of the great fish. The belly of that great fish was his tomb—he was in the deep—the abyss—he was in Sheol or Hades—he was in the place where the dead go. And from that place where the dead go, Jonah called upon the Lord. Thus Jonah was resurrected from the dead when the fish spit him out on the land. It is no accident that Jonah went from the sea to the land just like days two and three of creation in Genesis 1—this resurrection is a picture of new creation. Then Jonah went and prophesied to Nineveh. And whether they knew what had happened to Jonah or not, the people of Nineveh believed Jonah. Therefore, the Ninevites died to themselves and lived to God. They put on sackcloth and ashes and they fasted as if they were dead people and they prayed to God starting on the first of the three days (not an accidental number) it would take Jonah to walk across the city. Sure they knew that God might go ahead and destroy the city, but maybe He would see them and have compassion for them and turn from His anger. They believed God and turned to Him and when God saw how they turned from their evil way, God turned from what He said that He would do to them. And lest someone in Israel say that Jonah was a false prophet since the city was not destroyed, there is another way to understand that short sermon that Jonah himself didn’t understand. That is, the city was overthrown – the people had fallen down in repentance – they were transformed – for another acceptable translation of verse 4 would be: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be transformed!” Since the Ninevites believed God and the bad news about their sins, they experienced repentance unto longer life. (Regardless of what might have prepared them to receive this message of judgment from the true and living God, God gave them a faith and repentance that would rebuke Israel.)
Israel had many chances to believe God’s words of judgment and turn from their evil ways so that God would turn from destroying them. They were given a lot longer than forty days. The Ninevites were not seeking God and His righteousness, but found Him. They were not seeking signs, but believed in Jonah’s preaching. (And if you think about it, they didn’t see Jonah inside the great fish or see him spit up on the land by the great fish, but they believed Jonah’s preaching). Yet Israel knew God’s law and heard the prophets apply it to their day but many of the people of Israel did not believe the prophets. They did not believe the bad news of the coming judgment of their own nation spoken by the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Nevertheless, the Exile did happen according to the word of the Lord. Just as Jesus did in this passage in Luke, we are arguing from the lesser to the greater—from Jonah and Solomon to Jesus. Thus we are arguing from the Books of the Prophets to Jesus. The people did not believe the prophets—dismissing their words of doom and gloom as a “fish story”–and the Exile happened. Likewise the generation in Jesus’ day did not believe Him when He said that Jerusalem would be destroyed. But the destruction of Jerusalem did happen according to the word of the Lord in the year AD 70. In other words, the purpose of the Book of Jonah is the same purpose that Jesus has for mentioning the story – to rebuke Israel for not believing the Lord and turning to Him. Therefore, the only sign that the people of Israel in Jesus’ day would get was the sign of Jonah – as He said, “for as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jesus was a sign to His generation because He preached a message of repentance and He became a sign to His generation because of His death and resurrection. He died to Himself and lived to God. He experienced physical death on the cross and then rose from the dead on the third day. And when they heard the preaching of the apostles it was their second chance to believe God and turn from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands. And God gave some the gifts of a saving faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto eternal life. Many others dismissed this incredible message as a “fish story” and remained unchanged. (But sooner or later everyone will be overthrown in one way or another.)
The risen Jesus can come again anytime now.
The earth came to an end once with a flood and this age will come to an end with fire. Indeed, just as the flood waters cleansed the earth of all that filth the first time so too the fire will purify the earth the next time. But until the Day of the Lord comes you have a second chance to believe God’s word of judgment and turn to Jesus Christ for salvation. Some people will dismiss the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a “fish story” and think that we’re crazy for saying Judgment Day is coming, but others will believe God and turn to Him. All those who do believe God unto salvation will inherit a purified and renewed earth that Revelation says will have no sea—that is, it will have no forces of chaos and death. (Thus at the final judgment the men of Nineveh will condemn the people of Israel who didn’t believe Jesus because they had heard Jonah and were overthrown but Israel had heard Jesus and had not been transformed.)
Those who believe in God and His Christ today have already been overthrown. That is, those who are in Christ have been transformed. To us, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a “fish story.” We believed the sign of Jonah. We have fallen down before God and His Christ. We have humbled ourselves before them. We have willingly submitted to Jesus Christ as our Lord and the Father as our God. God already rules us – His kingdom has already come in one sense. Of course, our old self is still subject to sin and death and our old self will continue to need to repent. But we already belong to the new creation in Christ Jesus. It is easy for us to see the need for Ninevites—and others who worship false gods—to be converted and it is easy for the Gentiles among us to rebuke Israel, but we too need Jesus. Our attempts to be our own king and God have been overthrown by the true God and King. We have been overthrown so that He might reign. And that’s no “fish story.” Thanks be to God. Amen.