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09.13.20 Four Faiths in the Parable of Jonah Sermon Summary

by on September 15, 2020

The parable we know as the book of Jonah is among the best known stories for its raging sea storm, giant man-swallowing fish, and eleventh-hour repentance unto salvation among the people of Nineveh. It ends with the prophet Jonah sitting east of the city still hoping God will smite the Ninevites. Along the way four examples of faith emerge to instruct the people of God.

THE MARINERS’ FAITH

When Jonah fled the presence of God’s Word by boarding a ship to Tarshish, the LORD caused a mighty storm to stop him. After several attempts to save themselves, including even prayer to the God of Jonah, the mariners on the ship listened to Jonah’s advice and threw him overboard. “And the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” 

The mariner’s faith was motivated by fear, relief, and awe. Their relationship with God was not all that they were created for, but at least they did have something. They show that even after all our futile attempts to save ourselves have failed, they can lead us to a kind of faith or faithful action. 

THE NINEVITES’ FAITH

After Jonah proclaimed destruction in the town of Nineveh and the king of the city heard it, all of Nineveh performed acts of repentance. They fasted, wore sackcloth, and sat on ashes. All these are ritual accompaniments to prayer. Even the animals were subject to these prayerful acts, and perhaps this is why the parable makes a point to spare even the animals in the end. 

The Ninevites’ faith shares with the mariners’ faith an element of fear and destruction. The difference is the Ninevites received God’s Word and responded to it. They did not wait for their situation to get worse. They heard of God’s holiness and resolved to walk in it. 

THE FAITH OF JONAH

Twice Jonah recites doctrinal formulae that prove he was listening during Sabbath School. As a good Hebrew he worshiped, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” And he had learned that God is, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

But Jonah’s faith did not pass from his head and his mouth to his heart. His faith was not transformative. It did not change him from what he was, which is judgmental, vengeful, and resentful. He prays that God would take his life for, “it is better for me to die than to live.” And the parable ends with Jonah stubbornly refusing to participate in the joy of God’s salvation.

THE FAITH OF THE PSALM

Finally we come to the place with which we began, the psalm that is Jonah chapter 2. Scholars debate whether it is a later addition to the parable, and I believe it is. The psalm is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance that has already happened. The text says that Jonah “prayed” using a word that only ever elsewhere means “a plea for help not yet rendered.” The psalm does not sound like the Jonah of the rest of the book, especially the bitter man at the end. 

I imagine the psalm existing independently from the parable, but bringing the parable to mind because the images and metaphors of the psalm align so well with the events of Jonah’s flight. (See also Psalm 18:1-16.) I think the later editor gave us a tip to hear this as an insertion by telling us Jonah prayed “from the belly of the fish,” using not the same word for “belly” as in the original, but a synonym. 

And one of the reasons a later editor inserted the psalm is because it exemplifies the kind of faith God wants us to have—not just a fearful faith like the mariners, not merely an obedient faith like the Ninevites, and not just a doctrinally true faith like Jonah’s. God wants us to have a faith characterized by thanksgiving for the deliverance God has brought about in our lives: “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” (See also Psalm 116:1-19.)

THE FAITH WE HAVE

The parable of Jonah calls the people of God to a gracious, forgiving, and inclusive faith, a faith based on love and gratitude towards God and a desire to see all people delivered. Whatever our faith may be like today, whether more like the mariners’ or more like Jonah’s, may God come to find in us a faith like that in the author of the psalm. Amen.

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