Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My first sermon: Jesus and Jonah

I was raised as an atheist and the myth of Jonah and the whale as written in the Bible seemed absurd to me. I did not understand or respect the idea of prophecy. Even now I don't feel I understand it and I have been a Christian since I was 18, twenty seven years ago. Jonah was ordered by God to spread the word to his people's enemies? What god would do that? And so those enemies conquered the Jewish peoples. That seemed like an own goal. And also Jonah is swallowed by a whale? Spat out on land? A crew drew lots and the Jewish guy is thrown overboard. It sounds made up.

I have heard sermons on Jonah. One sermon noted that Jonah was not swallowed by a whale, according to the Bible, but a fish. Whales are mammals and fish are not. But fundamental to the Bible, and oblivious to those who feel evolutionary theory somehow disproves the Bible, is that the Bible is the word of God, compiled from the writings of inspired people. Their understandings are not those of us today. They did not write about sea creatures with an understanding of the distinction between mammals and fish. They did not know what a whale was. It doesn't add to the story, it still sounds ridiculous. One 19th century scientist decided it wasn't a whale which swallowed Jonah, as that was biologically too hard .. but possibly a great white shark. Some Great White Sharks have been found with whole bodies. And still the story sounds silly.

Assume for a moment there was a person named Jonah who preached to those in Ninevah and secured their temporary devotion to God so that Jerusalem was sacked. What does the fish swallowing aspect mean? Without witnesses to the event, in the modern sense, could the writers of the day be referring to a person who survived at sea and ended on shore? And not even Jonah would have known precisely how he survived. That would make sense with someone with modern sensibilities and the Bible would not have a single word changed or inferred. But maybe God summoned a big fish which swallowed Jonah.

The story of Jonah was powerful and put into perspective why God trashed the promised land he had given his people. But the story of Jonah includes that interlude where he is swallowed by a great fish. Its interpretation is vague and challenging for the modern believer. And there is more. Jesus referred to Jonah's time in the great fish. Unlike Jonah, Jesus's death and resurrection is public. There are witnesses and eyewitness accounts that puts what Jesus did beyond doubt. Jesus died after being crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Put in its proper perspective, why doubt the element of the story of Jonah and the fish?

In isolation, these acts of God seem strange. Why must Jonah be captured for three days and nights outside of mortal boundary? Why would Jesus copy it? It seems strange that Jesus would steal the story and change it for his own end. More likely, Jesus copied that story. What needs to be remembered is that God has authority .. but that his people don't always know or understand what he is telling them. Jonah's claim would not be so profound if the Assyrians didn't trash Israel. Jesus' sacrifice would not have been so meaningful had he not risen after. Jonah did not respond well to God's call. Jesus' disciples didn't understand what Jesus was telling them. There is considerable evidence that the disciples were trying to get Jesus to lead an army and assume power. And so Judas leads Jesus' enemies to him. Peter no longer feels safe in his presence, and acts as if the crucifixion is a loss.

Jonah was right to swing the Assyrians into faith in God. Jesus' crucifixion was a crushing victory. But popular feeling didn't colour it that way. And both of these acts are coloured by the miracle three days. Jesus at Gethsemany prays to God that he might find an alternative to his path. He accepts there is no alternative and approaches his mission with great dignity. He doesn't defend himself and doesn't provoke. He is beaten severely, but still has the presence of mind to share a moment with Peter. Naked and beaten, on the cross, Jesus is thirsty, and to humiliate him further, some legionaries give him a vinegar soaked sponge, much like those used in ancient toiletry practise to clean a bottom, lifted on high to his lips. It isn't Romans responsible for Jesus' death, nor Jews. It is the world. An echo of Jonah being dumped at sea by lot. The world prosecutes it's authority with zeal. Who can survive in opposition to the world?

Jesus dies and crushingly, to the devil, rises. Jesus opposed the world, and although the world had no right to kill Jesus .. he was innocent of the charges he was condemned for. Jesus is killed. Jonah tries to follow the world, fleeing God. But he is in opposition God and so he is swallowed by the fish. Jonah spends his time fasting and praying in the belly of the fish. He repents, and sets about doing God's bidding .. resentfully. Jesus is aware of God's purpose. Jonah is not. Jesus is separated from God by the sin of man, not by his own doing.

It seems that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was about, and so he shared his common currency with Jonah. How are the disciples to understand what Jesus meant? Did Jesus mean he was going to preach to heathen and so bring them around from their opposition to God? Was he to be swallowed by a fish? Jesus' resurrection answers the questions of his surviving disciples. And so early Christians adopted the fish symbol. It suggests the resurrection and did so some 800 years prior to Jesus' birth. Today, there is debate as to what happened to Jonah. Was he swallowed by a fish? Did he die? Was he raised from death to serve God's will? Or was he merely sick and delusional? Whatever happened to Jonah, it was God's will and great things resulted. When the devil had corrupted Jewish kings and their people's faith, Jonah, as God's instrument, inflamed the faith of others and so saved Israel from ignominious opposition to God. But the story shouldn't benefit an Atheist view that God doesn't exist. Because Jesus died and was resurrected. And that is beyond doubt, with numerous eyewitnesses and compelling testimony. And if we accept that Jesus died and rose, then the Bible has validity and currency .. and so we reach the conclusion that Jonah existed and served the Lord. I don't know how God did it, but he has the authority to have done it.

And what of Jesus' mission? was it to be swallowed by hell and spat on the beach of the Kingdom? Or, is that merely a journey, and his mission, like that of Jonah, to convict those in opposition to God for their salvation.

I have prayed to the Lord asking for guidance. I believe Jesus' journey was not symbolic, but purposeful to the end of the salvation of all those who are lost in opposition to God. I believe he wants you to be right with God. He knows who you are. You aren't perfect. But if God looks at you through the cover Jesus gives, God will see you, and not your imperfections. He knows what you do and why. He knows who you are. You don't need to do anything more to be in communion with God. You don't need more money or better clothes. You don't need to be a better person. He calls for you. He loves you. He loved you before you were born. And he made himself in flesh, and burdened himself with your sin. So that he might walk with you and be with you. You need do nothing more, than accept his gift. He calls you. You who have not known his love. You who have rejected him and spat in his face, saying he doesn't exist. But he does. And he loves you. And he calls to you. Don't let pride deny you from your gift. Claim it. Come.