Jonah: A Fantastic Misadventure
We all have been swallowed by a great fish at some point in our lives.
What I mean by this, is that at some point in your humble, mortal life, you have probably brushed up against the fantastic face of death.
Or you have been so struck by the awesomeness of God in creation that you are left feeling small, like you have been swallowed and spit up by something bigger than yourself.
I will never forget my Jonah-like misadventure.
It happened at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. No, it wasn’t getting married, although that also happened at RMMC. But it happened last summer when I went to camp to have a few days of peace and solitude. I got the solitude part, but peace…not so much.
I was looking for calm and I found an adventure.
To make a rather long story short, I went on a simple hike that I had done many times before, granted never alone.
It should have been an hour up and 45 minutes down.
The mis-adventure part was that I ended up hiking down the wrong side of the mountain.
Once I realized my mistake I began running and praying that around the next corner I would finally see something familiar.
I finally got to a flat meadow in the valley and I realized just how lost I was.
I had no service and I experienced this terrifying moment of, “will I die here? Is this it?”
I quickly found resolve, reminding myself that I had a backpack full of survival gear, thanks to my survivalist-ish dad, and I could always hike back the way I came, even if it was in the dark.
The problem was that it was mid-afternoon, and every afternoon in the summer there are thunderstorms. I needed to find or make some sort of shelter. The last thing I wanted was to get wet and cold.
I started walking down one direction of the path, and by some miracle I stumbled upon the campsite of Pikes Peak trail workers. They were gone but it had just started to storm so without a second thought I dove into their tent, snuggled into their sleeping bag and waited out the storm.
It was the loudest thunder I have ever experienced in my life. I felt almost as if I stepped outside I could drown in the raging downpour of rain and deafening thunder.
It was the closest I have come to sitting safe and warm in the belly of a fish while the ocean waters rushed around me.
When it had stopped I went out again and found a rock outcropping up a steep slope. On that rock I had a bit of service so I called my dad, and I called camp. I also “dropped a pin” to the camp workers who were going to come find me, so they had my exact gps location.
A bit later I heard people calling, “MARIAH, MARIAH!” it is an eerie sound and I will never forget it.
When I got back safe and sound to camp I really felt as if I had been swallowed, digested, and spit out on land. Six plus hours of hiking and running meant that I seriously struggled to walk and move the next day. Soccer workouts had nothing on how this misadventure made my body feel. I even lost a toenail because of my boots.
It’s safe to say I was not left unscathed by my Jonah misadventure.
I was left disheveled and wholeheartedly humbled by the Rocky Mountains.
This is saying a lot coming from a woman raised in the mountains.
My dad was always warning us to be prepared and to respect creation.
“Respect the mountains or they will kill you.” He would say.
I have never understood why the Bible talks about fearing God.
I don’t like this phrase or imagery.
I don’t want to be afraid of my God, I want to feel comforted and feel loved by God.
If God is my mother hen, then why should I be afraid?
That is until the time I stood at the edge of the Niagara Falls, and the time that the thunder of the Rocky Mountains rattled me to my very core.
And I was afraid. And overwhelmed by awe.
And then I think about how much more Awesome the Creator of this masterpiece must be. I am afraid of my Creator God because I am awe-struck and amazed and I fall at my knees in respect and honor when I think of what kind of being could carve out the Grand canyon and paint the skies with the Northern Lights.
So what exactly does this have to do with Jonah? And what about mission? Isn’t this mission Sunday?
While studying Jonah I was struck by how often animals were mentioned and how big of a role creation had in this story.
There are many nuggets of wisdom that Jonah has within the pages of such a short book. But the animals and creation part of Jonah kept popping out to me.
There is the great fish of course, which gets all the attention.
But there is also the great storm and the great winds which forced the fishermen to dump Jonah overboard to calm the seas and appease God.
And then there is the leafy plant that gave Jonah shelter until the worm killed it.
Not to mention the scorching east wind and the blazing sun that tormented Jonah.
Then there is the fact that it was not just the people of Nineveh that repented when faced with Jonah’s prophesy of doom. But the animals repented as well. They also donned sack-cloth. Which is an interesting and almost comical image.
And finally, in the very end, God had concern for the animals as well as the One hundred and twenty thousand Assyrians of Nineveh.
God didn’t want to destroy the animals.
So, again, why pick the topic of creation care when talking about mission?
Well when we think about mission, we think of mission trips to other countries where we build wells or work in orphanages. And maybe sometime talk to someone about Jesus.
This is a rather narrow view of mission and it is problematic in many ways, but mainly because we think of it as work that we seek out and we do.
I want to offer a more well-rounded view of mission that defines mission and missionary work not as a specific role that we enter into for a couple weeks or years and then eventually end, but rather we view mission a God’s work in the world.
Work that is not bound by a particular time frame or in a particular place or with particular people.
God is already bringing about peace and reconciliation and salvation---all over the world---and it up to us, it is our mission, to see where God is working and make the choice the join in on this work.
This is not a temp job. This is the lifelong work of a disciple of Jesus and a child of God.
This might sound a bit harsh. But I believe that this is mandated, necessary work. It is not an optional youth-group mission trip. Mission is part of walking how Jesus walked and living as Jesus lived. It is the core of what being a disciple, or a believer in Jesus is.
We could live our lives with our hands over our eyes and ears, refusing to see and say yes to God’s calling, to God’s invitation to join in on this work.
We could, like Jonah, run away and try to escape God. To flee our calling.
But we see how that worked out for Jonah.
He got a salty adventure that he did not sign up for.
This salty adventure, of course, was not punishment for Jonah’s fear, rather salvation from himself. It was a wild re-direction onto the path that God had laid out for him.
We can run, hide, and live in denial, but at the end of the day we come home to ourselves. We have to be able to live with ourselves. And sometimes this is very uncomfortable. It is so easy to drown out the voice of God with the noise of our busy jobs and loud lives, but like the tide—God will never stop coming back and beckoning us out into the water.
We choose how we want to respond to God’s invitation to a life lead by our maker.
We can choose to pout and be angry with God like Jonah did. Not that anger is necessarily a bad thing, I actually admire Jonah for how boldly and unashamedly blunt and angry he was with God. He couldn’t help but be real with God. But in this anger, and desire for the Assyrians to face just and deadly punishment, Jonah missed out on the joy that he could have experienced in seeing God’s radical mercy, reconciliation, and love at work.
Jonah had a front row seat to witness his almighty Lord, the master of the seas, sky, vegetation, insects, and animals, melt in mercy when faced with destroying Nineveh. But instead of feeling the depths of God’s ever-loving kindness, Jonah was too busy complaining and missing his creature comforts.
In Genesis, it talks about how we are to “subdue” the earth. A more accurate translation would be to “cultivate” the earth. The word calls up images of gardeners tending to their flowers and vegetables. While the word “subdue” implies domination and exploitation, these wouldn’t be very effective gardening techniques. Cultivation and creation were the original intention.
This is part of our call. We were created to create. We have the gift and the responsibility to take care of creation. Both the people and the planet.
What is unfortunate is that “creation care” or “environmentalism” has become politicalized and trivialized as a “hippy-dippy” thing. Caring for animals and the planet is a soft, effeminate trait. It is not one for the more mature, masculine, realistic, people of this earth. Environmentalism is a cause borne out of a vendetta against coal and oil companies. It is for liberal snowflakes.
Let me tell you right now that my personal desire for creation care and environmentalism is not founded in a political or liberal agenda. I am not secretly trying to spread the seeds of the democrats. My “agenda” is an overwhelming love for a God whose face I see in fall leaves, sparkling snow, and yes, squirrels.
My passion for the environment is also, honestly, borne from a practical desire to survive despite the ways that humankind is spiraling our planet into disaster.
In Nineveh, because of the sins of the Assyrians, the people and the animals could have been killed.
Our actions have a profound impact on our environment.
If the consequences of our sin literally burn the world down, then we will take creation and all of the creatures that call it home with us.
As we see in Jonah over and over again. God is in creation and working with creation. We just need to open our eyes, say yes to the call, and join in God’s work.
And it might take being swallowed by a great fish for us to truly face and accept God’s invitation. Because whether a great creature of the deep swallowed a human or not, sea creatures everywhere are swallowing plastic.
And what would our planet be like if instead of arguing over whether or not it is possible for Jonah to be swallowed by a fish and survive—if instead we used that energy to protect and take care of God’s beloved sea creatures?
I must admit that it was exhausting to write this sermon. Most people shy away from conversations about the environment, not because they don’t care, but because it can feel utterly overwhelming to accept responsibility for taking care of our planet.
We want to live our lives in complete comfort, like Jonah under the shade of the bush. And what happened when that comfort was taken away? JONAH WANTED TO DIE.
He was so dramatic. I love it.
It is ok to want to be comfortable. We can’t really help it.
The hard-to-swallow reality is that Jonah didn’t listen to God until he was pushed out of his comfort zone.
Literally…he was literally pushed off the boat.
The beautiful part—the reason why I pushed through writing this hard sermon—is that the God of Jonah refuses to let an uncooperative, dramatic, grumpy, resistant prophet dissuade God from being completely and radically merciful.
I desperately hang on to the hope that God will look on this Earth with favor, and despite the fact that we are sinfully destroying creation, still be merciful and turn destruction and decay into order and new growth.
However, until that day comes I believe that it is our call, our mission, to look beyond our comfortable selves sitting in the shade of a nice little bush, to look to our friends the birds, to our sisters the trees, to our mother mountains, and our brother rivers and treat them like we would treat our Creator God.
IF that makes me a hippy. Then fine—I am a hippy for Jesus.
I hate it when a preacher delivers a thought provoking sermon that convicts me—stirs up guilt in me—to push through my comfort zone…and then completely leaves me hanging with no way out. I want to know exactly how I can get out of my comfort zone. I want practical, do-able, concrete steps that I can take in my walk with Jesus, in my relationship with God and in this instance my responsibility for creation.
So I refuse to do that to you. I won’t leave you hanging. There are concrete, important, some easy and some difficult things we can do to care for creation the way God cared for the animals in Nineveh. To see the ways God is working in nature like God did with the wind, sea, bush, and worm. All it takes is intentionality.
We just have to pay attention and try.
First of all we can stop and smell the roses.
Part of my whole squirrel thing is that I love taking the time to see and feel and experience the joy that is abundant in nature.
Stop. Be still. Watch the animals.
Fell the sun. Feel the breeze.
Let the rain trickle down your back, let it give you shivers down your spine.
Let the snow melt on your tongue.
Taste and enjoy the fruits of the Earth.
Slow down and savor the peach you are eating.
Relish in the sweet and savory delight that is a winter squash.
Spend some free time outside.
If it is winter then by-golly suck it up and bundle up.
You have hats and mittens for a reason.
Get your hands dirty.
When was the last time you touched soil?
When was the last time you bent down and watched a worm squiggle, or an ant carry a bit of food back home?
When was the last time you walked barefoot? Felt grass between your toes?
Stopped and looked up to admire the glory that is the night sky?
Have you ever noticed that the faster a pigeon, or a chicken walks, the faster it’s head moves?
Did you know that cows have best friends?
That pigs are as smart as dogs?
Did you know that when a cat purrs near you, the vibrations of the purr have shown to have healing effects? That petting a cat lowers your heart rate and blood pressure?
Did you know that trees have a complex system of communication through their roots? That young trees will divert water to older trees in times of drought?
We live in a fantastic world my friends.
I am pleading with you to admire God’s handiwork as if it is precious.
As if it is the last time you will ever experience it.
Maybe if you see it’s beauty and take joy in how lovely and amusing it is, then you will feel more motivated to take care of it.
As far as ways you can better take care of creation and tread more lightly on this Earth, I have printed out little things you can do every day. It’s on recycled paper I might add.
Take them home.
Commit them to memory. Try to do at least one a day.
I believe in a merciful, creator God and for that I have hope for our world.
And that hope allows me to continue to try and everyday say yes to God’s call to take care of the Earth.
What is lovely is that I don’t have to choose between taking care of people, or taking care of the planet, or animals. We are all connected.
And if you find yourself in the belly of a fish, then be like Jonah and enjoy the ride, grateful that if nothing else you are alive to have another fantastic misadventure another day.
Little ways to thank God of the Earth we live in:
1. Take your own reusable containers to restaurants instead of using Styrofoam (that can’t be recycled).
2. Take reusable bags to the grocery store.
3. Bike or walk instead of driving.
4. Wash and re-use ziplock bags and tupperwear. Or better yet re-use glass jars.
5. Turn down the a/c and heat (just wear more or less clothing).
6. Plant trees (that aren't invasive species).
7. Shop locally and eat less (or no) meat.
8. Unplug your appliances and turn off the lights when you leave a room.
9. Stop buying bottled water (use a reusable water bottle instead).
10. Use a handkerchief instead of Kleenexes.
11. Use washcloths or rags instead of paper towels
12. Wear your clothing more than once before washing (unless they are super gross obviously).
13. Take shorter showers
14. Avoid buying things that have a lot of plastic wrapping (i.e. fast-food and individually wrapped products),
15. Stop using “single use plastics” like straws, plastic silverware, plastic cups from starbucks or coffee shops.
16. Use recycled paper.
The Jewish Study Bible
Jewish Publication Society
Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah
Daniel J. Simundson
Bible Study Magazine
Irony in Jonah
Eli T. Evans