category: Musings, Sermon Starter

Jonah, Jesus, and Whale Puke

By Rachael Keefe

I love the story of Jonah. It’s so human and gives me hope. God called Jonah to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent. Jonah didn’t want to because he thought the Ninevites deserved to be punished for their sins, and he knew God well enough to know that …

Jonah, Jesus, and Whale Puke

Image of a small boat with two people rowing over the silhouette of a whale underneath

I love the story of Jonah. It’s so human and gives me hope. God called Jonah to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent. Jonah didn’t want to because he thought the Ninevites deserved to be punished for their sins, and he knew God well enough to know that God would be merciful if just a few repented. As the story goes, Jonah ran in the opposite direction and sailed away. Yet, God knew where Jonah was and turbulence stirred the waters and scared the ship’s crew. They forced Jonah to jump ship where he was promptly swallowed up by a leviathan, a whale of sorts. Jonah hung out in the whale’s belly for a while. And then the whale puked him up and he went and preached repentance just as God had asked. The people of Nineveh repented, of course, and God spared the city from destruction.

Honestly, I don’t think this story is factual. However, it is truthful. God called Jonah to preach repentance to God’s people. Jonah didn’t share God’s grace-filled and generous heart. He thought the people deserved what they were going to get, and shouldn’t have been offered a chance to repent. Yet, Jonah was a prophet and his job was to preach what God put in his heart. Jonah foolishly thought he could avoid doing as God had asked. Did he not know the story of Moses who begged God to send someone else numerous times, and ended up going to Pharaoh anyway?

Jonah thought he could escape to the sea. I suspect that storm that threatened the well-being of the ship’s crew, was likely a reflection of Jonah’s inner turmoil. It’s really hard to remain calm when God asks you to do something and you seek to escape the doing of it. Into the stormy seas Jonah goes where he is swallowed up by something greater than himself, giving him time to think, examine his conscience. After all of this, he does what he should have done in the first place; he goes to Nineveh and preaches repentance. No doubt, the traces of whale puke would be on him for a while. Avoiding God is messy business, and it takes its toll. Maybe not in literal whale puke, though something will stick as a reminder that God has a way of getting what God wants eventually.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John fared a little better when Jesus encountered them as he walked along the Sea of Galilee. They left everything behind to follow Jesus. Maybe they remembered Moses and Jonah and didn’t want to have to deal with delaying the eventuality or whale puke. Maybe there were others that Jesus called who didn’t respond. I can only imagine the whales that swallowed them whole, from which they may never have escaped. However, these four left their livelihoods and families to follow Jesus.

I suspect most of us are more like Jonah than the early disciples. Most of us try to do everything we can think of rather than follow God’s call and embrace repentance as a way of life, one that can save us and others from self-destruction. Life is probably easier without whale puke, though. And our family and friends might understand if we follow God and endeavor to save lives better than if we try to avoid God and come home smelling like fish guts, metaphorically speaking of course.

In my own life I have done both; I have avoided God and I have left everything to follow. The latter is simpler though not easier. Sometimes, because we are human, it is necessary for us to plunge into the depths in the solitude of a whale’s belly and be tossed up onto dry land when the depths are no longer helpful. A little seaweed, a bit of whale puke, and we’re ready to take our humbled selves where God calls. Other times, though, it is easier to drop everything we are doing and follow God to somewhere new because we have the sense that what we are doing is inadequate. Both are valid responses to God’s call, though one is less messy in the long run.

What might God be calling the Body of Christ to do in this moment that we are doing everything we can think of to avoid? I have the sense that the Church (in all its varied forms) has been hiding in the depths, in Leviathan’s belly, for far too long. We have essentially become indigestible and could do with being spit up onto new shores. Maybe our call for repentance would have greater significance if we bore evidence of our own reluctance to follow in God’s ways?

What might Jesus be calling you to do in this moment? Are you ready to drop everything and follow or are you clinging to what is familiar and comfortable? I think it might be time for all of us who claim to follow Jesus to drop everything, leave it all behind, and see where a new path might lead. Perhaps, the smell of whale puke might fade over time and our voices that cry out for justice, hope, and healing might be heard, and our cities could be spared from self-destruction.

RCL: Year B – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021 Jonah 3:1-5, 10  • Psalm 62:5-12  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31  • Mark 1:14-20

Photo: CC0image by Sarah Richter

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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