The 19th century Scottish pastor Hugh Martin once preached a sermon on this passage from Jonah, and the title of the sermon was “The World Rebuking the Church.” Martin saw in Jonah an image of what the people of God must not be, but often are - a community that is “asleep” and detached from the problems and concerns of the people around them in the world. Jonah is running and seeking to escape from God, but he also seeking to escape from his calling to people who are not like him. Ironically, he runs from God’s call to engage with the pagan Ninevites, and instead he ends up engaging with pagan sailors in the boat. And even more ironically, it is the pagan Sea Captain who reiterates God’s call on Jonah's life to “arise, and call on your God” (1:6), reminding him of his commission as God’s prophet. The sailors recognize that they cannot be saved without help from Jonah, but Jonah is doing absolutely nothing to help. Even though he is literally “in the same boat” as the sailors, Jonah’s own private faith is serving no public good.
Hugh Martin argued in his sermon that this criticism is still true for the church today. As believers, we know the true God through the person of Jesus Christ. Yet it is also true that we share in the common humanity of all people and we are “in the same boat” as our neighbors, whether they believe in Jesus or not. Yet tragically, much like Jonah, many times the church is more concerned with its own problems than with those of the surrounding world, or demonstrate that we are only occupied with the interests of believers. But God shows Jonah, and he wants to show us, that he is the God of all people, and that we like Jonah are called to see ourselves as a part of the whole human community, called to use our faith for the benefit of all. We are to be “salt and light,” in the words of Jesus, bringing our faith to bear for the good of the world, whether that means caring for the poor, working for a more just society, or sharing the good news of salvation with our neighbor.
In preparation for worship, re-read chapter 1 of Jonah and pay close attention to Jonah’s interactions with the sailors on the boat, and reflect on what God could be teaching us about our own relationships to people who are deeply different from ourselves.
4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.