I remember reading that when baseball great Ty Cobb was in a slump, he would battle it by resorting to bunting. Something about the simplicity of bunting—just putting the bat on the ball—helped him regain his confidence and eventually swing away.
I have always felt that way about preaching narratives. Sometimes I go through what feels like a slump in preaching. Fortunately, they never last longer than a decade or so. But when I do, I love to preach a narrative text from Scripture. I think that's because people—including me—love stories. When I can't handle a tricky, abstract passage from Paul, a story can help me preach in a way that will connect with people.
One challenge in preaching narrative well is to find resources or commentaries that are truly helpful. Often those informed by great scholarship are so technical, or follow such an academic agenda, that it's hard to use them for our preaching. On the other hand, those resources that focus on devotional thoughts rarely have much substance. Still, there's great stuff out there. There's just no magic formula to find it! It's a hunt and peck search (at least for me). I have a few friends who teach, and I'll ask them where I can find the good stuff. I also look for reviews in places like Books & Culture. While preparing for this particular message, I found that the Brazos commentary series had a terrific volume on Jonah.
Another challenge with preaching biblical narrative is identifying where the sermon is heading in an effort to make sure I highlight only the details that fit the agenda of the sermon. The temptation is to throw more details in simply because I find them interesting. This only ends up boring people, while also keeping the sermon from achieving its mission. I always try to aim at those moments in the story where the primary truths that need to get hit are revealed most clearly.
One last note: Jonah can be tricky because of its genre. It's a challenge to explain what a thoughtful, evangelical commitment to biblical authority looks like, while also giving people permission to explore what genre Jonah is best assigned without getting sidetracked in a long debate.
One of the problems with the Book of Jonah is that a lot of us think we know the story, but we really don't. If you ask the average person about the Book of Jonah, they will say it's a story about Jonah and the whale. They will insist the whale's name is Monstro, and Jonah is running away from Geppetto because he wants to be a real boy. (People obviously start to get a little fuzzy at that point.) But the story doesn't even use the word "whale," and that's actually quite significant. We will come back to that a little later on in the sermon.
At the beginning of the story, the Word of God comes to Jonah, telling him to go to the city of Nineveh to tell the people about God's love. Jonah doesn't want to do that, so he gets on a ship that's going to Tarshish—the opposite direction of Nineveh. God sends a storm, and the ship is going to go down. Jonah says, "Throw me over the side!" and once the pagan sailors do just that, they are converted and start worshiping the God of Israel. Jonah goes over the side of the boat, and the storm stops. Lost at sea, Jonah thinks he's going to die. Let's pick the story up at this point, and I want you to pretend like you have never heard this story before—like you're hearing it for the very first time. At this point Jonah is sinking into the sea, but the Lord appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah stays inside that fish for three days and three nights. Now, does that strike you as kind of funny? Isn't that an unusual, unexpected detail? Well, it's supposed to be!
Pushing past the debates to see the point
The word "appointed" could be translated "commissioned." It was a governing word in the ancient world—what a king would do if he was going to appoint an ambassador or a messenger. It was something you did to a person, but in the Book of Jonah, it's a fish that's being commissioned. Here's the picture being painted: God turns to a large fish and says, "Hey Fish." The fish says, "Yes, Lord?" God says, "Go pick up Jonah. Directions will be given on a need-to-know basis. This is important, fish: swallow, don't chew. I'll tell you where to drop him off." The fish says, "Okay, Lord." God "appoints" the fish. This is an odd story!
I want to pause at this point to talk about something serious. Because of the nature of this story, many thoughtful people will say, "I don't know if it's okay to say this in a church or not, but the idea of a fish swallowing a guy—and the idea of that guy living inside that fish for three days—is kind of hard to believe." I want to talk directly to anyone who is having these kinds of thoughts. First of all, I want to say I'm so glad you're here, because we want to be the kind of church where nobody ever has to pretend to believe anything. We want to be the kind of church where we can say what we really think and not what we think we are supposed to say in church. What we really think is what matters—both to God and to us.
I also want to point out that we want to be the kind of community that studies the Bible in a thoughtful way. When I was younger, I remember hearing rumors about scientists finding a fish that you could actually live in for several days—all in defense of the Book of Jonah. I checked with a friend of mine who teaches Old Testament at Westmont College, and he said that according to the best ethological knowledge available, there is no such fish in the world. You see, the point of the Book of Jonah is not to prove that there really are giant fish that humans can live in for three days. The point is it that it would take a miracle for such a fish to be in existence. So, the real question is this: are miracles possible? In answer to that question, I would say: At the heart of our faith is the claim that there is a God, and he is an all-powerful God. This all-powerful God raised Jesus from the dead. To God, nothing is impossible. If he can raise Jesus from the dead, I think he can keep a guy in storage in a fish for a few days!
I would encourage everybody not to get hung up over things such as what genre would you put this story in or what kind of fish swallowed Jonah or any of those kinds of details. If you do, you'll miss the overall point of the Book of Jonah—that God is always up to something great.
Jonah hits bottom and discovers a great God.
There is one word that is associated with God throughout the story of Jonah—"great." When Jonah runs the other way, the Bible says God sends a great wind, and it produces a great storm. The pagan sailors are converted through a great fear. Then God appoints a fish for Jonah. Does anybody want to guess what adjective the Bible uses to describe the fish? It is a great fish. God is doing something great in the story.
On the other hand, Jonah messes everything up. If the main word associated with God in this book is "great," the main word associated with Jonah is "down." When God says, "Go to Nineveh," Jonah goes down to the port city of Joppa. Then Jonah hops on a ship that is going down to Tarshish. While in the ship, Jonah goes down into the bottom of the ship to sleep. When he's thrown overboard, he goes down into the stormy sea. And as we all know, he soon goes down into the fish.
When Jonah finds himself in a fish in the sea, Jonah has hit bottom. In the minds of the Israelites, you can't get any lower than the sea. It is a place of great fear, great terror. It's a place of death. So, guess what Jonah does while he is in the fish? He prays. From the guts of the fish, Jonah prays to the Lord his God, saying, "In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave, I called for help, and you listened to my cry." Jonah hits bottom, and from the guts of the fish, he physically and emotionally cries out: "In my distress, I called." On a spiritual level he cries out, "Out of the depths of the grave, I called."
Keep in mind that Jonah had gone a long time without honestly praying to God. He had received a word from the Lord to go to Nineveh, but he goes down to Joppa. He didn't pray about going to Joppa. He gets on a ship to Tarshish. He didn't pray about whether or not he should get on that ship. Jonah was not talking to God at all—at least not honestly. That is, not until he ends up in a fish.
Why do you think Jonah prayed in the fish? Because he had nothing better to do! Think about it—what else are you going to do while you're in a fish? He had nowhere else to turn. Let me share something humbling: Do you want to know why we often have a hard time praying? It's because we have so many other things to do. We have so many crutches, so many screens that we can turn on, so many noises we introduce into our lives to avoid having to face what is going on in our minds. We don't pray because we have other things to do. The same was true for Jonah. But God brings Jonah down, down, down to a place of desperation in a fish in the sea.
The whole first chapter of the story of Jonah is human action: Jonah makes plans; Jonah has resources; Jonah is going places. But all of his plans turn out disastrous. Then the storm hits, and Jonah's story finally grinds to a halt. In the second chapter of Jonah, there is no action at all—just prayer. It is only when Jonah hits the absolute bottom that good things start to happen again. Jonah comes to realize that what looked so bad—hitting bottom—is actually the best thing that ever happened to him because it has brought him back to a God who is doing great things.
Let me take a quick time-out to talk about the importance of prayer. Have you ever been in over your head in life? Pray. Is it your own fault? Pray anyway. Have you not been living the kind of life you think God wants you to live? Pray anyway. Are you concerned that even if you were to pray, your motives might be mixed—that you might be more concerned about your own well-being than you are about God's will? Pray anyway. God is never more than a prayer away. One of the amazing things about God is that he is a gracious God. When we come to him simply because we've hit bottom with no place else to go, God still chooses to say, "Come to me."
Jonah as comedy
What happens next in this story is so goofy—so slapstick—that I would not mention it except that it is in the Bible, and we have to talk about it: Jonah gets delivered on the third day. The third day is a big day in Bible stories. When there was a dramatic rescue on the part of God in the Old Testament, it often came on the third day. Jonah 2:10 says: "The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land."
Is it just me, or is that a little more detail than we really want? This seems like the eighth grade version of the story! If you wonder why the English translators of the Bible didn't choose a more dignified, churchier word than "vomit," it is because in the original text, the Hebrew word is even more graphic than the word "vomit." The writer is hitting us over the head, making sure we see that Jonah wasn't dropped off by an angel. The whale had a protein spill—tossed his cookies, lost his lunch, launched the food shuttle, took a ride on the "Regurgitron." And because of the protein spill, Jonah ends up on the shore. He's not there as a tragic figure, covered with suffering. He's no heroic figure, covered with glory. He is a ridiculous figure, covered with shrimp cocktail and tuna tartare (or whatever it is that great fish eat).
There is a reason the writer emphasizes that the fish vomited up Jonah. You can place all stories in one of two categories: a tragedy (joy loses, life loses, hope loses) or a comedy (joy wins, life wins, hope wins). If you had to guess, which is Jonah—a tragedy or a comedy? It's a comedy! Jonah keeps going down, but then these funny things keep happening. Jonah ought to be the hero of the story, but when God tells him to go east, he runs west. A prophet ought to know better. He can't flee from God by sailing to Tarshish! In the story a Gentile captain calls on the man of God to pray. Pagan sailors—who were never known in the ancient world for their piety—are converted to the God of Israel. When Jonah is thrown overboard, he thinks he is going to drown, but God sends a fish to serve as some sort of Enterprise rental car. To top it all off, the writer throws in a regurgitation scene.
In Israel's eyes Jonah's predicament was as bad as it could get. But it turns out that when human beings are going down, God is up to something great. From God's perspective, death and the grave and Sheol are not problems at all. Stiff-necked, rebellious, stubborn humans are not a problem. God laughs at it all. This is why Jonah ends up getting vomited onto the shore. It's a way to say that joy wins—that the Book of Jonah is a book of joy. It is comical in the most sublime, transcendent, wonderful sense of that word.
Part of the reason why Jonah is such a joy to read is because there is another character between every line in the book. Jonah, we are told, is from a town called Gath-hepher, which is a few miles away from Nazareth. Does anybody remember another prophet who came from Nazareth? Jonah is asleep on a boat in a storm while everybody else on the boat panics. When they wake him up, the storm is stilled by his actions. Does that remind you of anybody else in the Bible? Jonah's name means "the dove"—a name that also means "given to a beloved one." Does anybody else remember someone who went down into the water, came up out of the water, all while a dove descended and a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son"? Toward the end of his life, Jesus said he had one sign to give this tragic world. He called it the sign of Jonah. "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish," Jesus said, "so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." There comes that third day again!
The message of Jonah is a little foretaste of the victory of Jesus who comes to meet us at the lowest place, telling us that death loses, sin loses, sorrow loses, sadness loses—and joy wins. "Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Grave, is your sting?" God gets the last laugh. This is the story of Jonah.
Consider this: Because of persecution, the early church in Rome met for worship in a place called the Catacombs. The Catacombs were tombs—underground burial places. Doesn't that seem like an odd place to try and grow the church? But they had to do it because of persecution. They had to be in a hidden place. You've heard the phrase "the underground church." This is where that phrase came from. The first art inspired by Jesus was not art that appeared in great cathedrals or enormous frescos; it was etched on the walls of tombs in the hidden Catacombs. And which Old Testament figure is found etched on the walls of the Catacombs more than anybody else from the Old Testament? Not Moses, the lawgiver. Not David, the great king. Not Abraham, the father of Israel. It's Jonah. He was everywhere on those walls because they got the joke! They knew that deliverance was coming. Resurrection was coming. The third day was coming. They knew that Jesus was all over the high, holy, comical Book of Jonah.
I've been thinking about how the hope that Jonah found is our hope, too. What if when the dead in Christ shall rise, when disease and aging cease, when cancer and heart disease fall away, when AIDS and dementia have done their worst, when we go all the way down into the grave and come back out on the other side—what if in that day life is so good, our healing and redemption is so complete, our new bodies are so wonderful, the community of the saints is so rich, our fellowship with God is so sweet that we look at each other and say, "This is what I was afraid of? I thought death was going to be awful. It's nothing at all! It's a joke! It has no power before God! It's just a door to life!" That's the message of the Book of Jonah. Jonah hits bottom, and even there God is greater than ever before.
What do we do with the lessons of Jonah? Perhaps we should recognize our own Jonah moments and act accordingly to what God is up to in our lives.
There is a Jonah I know who is a lawyer. He was on his own ship to Tarshish with a lot of cash. His sea was a sea of alcohol. Because of his addiction, he just kept going down and down and down. The managing partner of his law firm told him at one point, "Your next bender will be the last one you ever take when you work for this firm." For a couple of months, he stayed sober. Then he suddenly blew off a few meetings. When a few co-workers went looking for him, they found him in a hotel. He had been on a three-day drinking binge. He lost his job, entered a rehab clinic for a month, and was assigned to a sponsor who told him he would have to get up every morning at 6:00 for an AA meeting. His response was, "No way am I getting up at 6:00 in the morning to meet with a bunch of drunks!" His sponsor said, "You're not just going to meet with them; you're going to get up even earlier and fix coffee for them!" This guy had obviously been assigned to a tough sponsor! Well, this guy ended up finding Jesus in that AA group. He is delivered. His life is saved. His marriage is saved. He goes down as far as he can go, and to his great surprise, hitting bottom was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. Why? It was at the bottom that he met God, and God was there doing something great.
Or consider another Jonah I've met. He made a ton of money when he was still in his twenties. At the time I met him, he had a penthouse in San Francisco. He lived life in the fast lane with fast cars and fast women. But when the real estate bust came along in nineties, he lost it all. Worse yet, he had been involved in a few illegal financial practices, and he ended up in San Quentin. Imagine that: from a penthouse to San Quentin!
He wanted to die, but there were some guys in San Quentin who wouldn't let him. They had received life sentences, and they had discovered that God was in San Quentin. They got a hold of this Jonah, and they wouldn't let him quit. They told him that God loved him. Over time, this Jonah started getting up at 5:00 in the morning to pray. Now, why would you pray in San Quentin at 5:00 in the morning? Because you have nothing better to do! You have nowhere else to turn. This Jonah, who was such a success, was grateful that God brought him all the way down. Why? It was there that he met God. He learned that the dangerous place—San Quentin—wasn't the bottom; the dangerous place was the top.
Remember that moment when Jonah says to God, "You hurled me into the deep"? It makes me think of a friend of mine. I worked with him years ago at a church in the Midwest. He was a worship leader, and he played the keyboard with so much energy that worship would sometimes go on for 45 minutes. This fried of mine was so gifted at leading worship! This last year, his wife woke up next to him very early in the morning, and he was thrashing around in bed. He had had a massive stroke. While he was in the hospital, he went down to 120 pounds. When I saw him a little while ago, he could only speak in short phrases. He used a white board to communicate. It took this amazingly gifted man so much time to communicate what he wanted to say. While we visited, he started to write a verse of Scripture on the white board, and I knew what it was going to be before he wrote it down: John 21:18—"When you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." That is now my friend's life.
But my friend wasn't done writing. He then wrote the word "Silence" with an arrow pointing down to "God." Under that he wrote the word "Peace." He pointed to the whiteboard, and he said, "It is good. It is good. I have been hurled into the deep." Somebody who had such a gift for music and words had been hurled into deep silence—and as it turns out, God was there. Way down there was peace.
That's the story of Jonah. That's why what looks like tragedy ends up as comedy. That's your life, too—if you want it to be. Jesus comes and says: If you'll let me, I'll meet you at the Cross. I'll meet you at the tomb. The third day is coming, if you'll meet me."
To see an outline of Ortberg's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?