The Sign of Jonah

05.11.2017Petri Merenlahti

Sermon at Turku Cathedral, 5.11.2017

Reformation Sunday; Main Celebration of the Anniversary of the Reformation

Matt. 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.

The irritation and impatience ring through the words of Jesus. These Pharisees and Sadducees fail to see what is happening before their eyes, these ones who are sure they know everything about everything and consider it their right to subject another to interrogation.

And it is easy to understand Jesus’s irritation. The Sadducees and Pharisees are waiting for the man of God to show them a sign; he must show them that his words aren’t empty. He must claim his place as a prophet. The same demand echoes among us who are alive today: show us your expertise, show us your faith, show us you are worth something. It lives on in the church as it lives on in society, and it is both burdensome and strengthening.

Jesus’s answer is angry: no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. It’s an odd answer. And no explanation follows it. We are told only that Jesus left them and went away.

So what about the sign of Jonah? Well, you’ll remember that for three days he was in the belly of a fish and nearly died, but that he was spewed out onto the dry land. The easiest and most common interpretation here is that Jesus is referring to himself – to his own death and his Resurrection on the third day. If you look for a sign of what God is all about, here it is: the Resurrection.

That’s one reading, and it is how the text has been read. But for the wise men Jesus is snapping at there can be no such interpretation. They can’t yet imagine that the sign of Jonah might refer to a Resurrection yet to happen. What they certainly know is that Jonah is one of the prophets of the Old Testament. This is the only meat they have to chew on.

Of all the prophets, it’s Jonah Jesus confronts them with. And Jonah is the most remarkable of all the prophets. He lacks the typical power, wisdom and self-awareness of all the other prophets. On the contrary: he is a hapless bungler, a kind of joker among prophets.

At the beginning of the Book of Jonah the Lord gives Jonah a task: he is to go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim its destruction on account of its wickedness. And what does Jonah do? He flees. Nineveh is to the east; Jonah turns to the west and to the sea.

It’s a human reaction: this is not for me; it’s none of my business. Even though you’re aware God’s will is being violated, aware of social inequality, aware of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, aware of the destruction of the environment. Even though you understand you’re going in the wrong direction, you no doubt think that others can attend to raising these issues. You don’t want to earn a reputation for being difficult or find yourself deluged on social media.

So Jonah leaves for the sea. But the ship gets into a storm and Jonah is caught there with her crew, and somehow the crew decide Jonah is the reason for the storm and they cast him into the sea. And God allows a great fish to swallow Jonah.

So God saves Jonah not because he’s done something right, but in spite of what he has done. Of all people, this fugitive, reluctant, timid man is made a prophet. And this is at the core of the mindset of the Reformation. This is about grace – pure grace.

In the belly of the fish Jonah is enthused with words of wisdom – prophetic words. Somewhere where no one is listening. So yet again, somehow, the familiar human predicament: the right words, but at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

And after three days the fish spews Jonah out onto dry land. There is no escape to the sea; again, the task lies ahead. This time Jonah pulls himself together and goes to the city of Nineveh. And when he gets there he goes into the streets and declares that after 40 days God will destroy the city on account of its wickedness. And the citizens are scared, and dress in sackcloth as a sign of remorse. And now Jonah holds his head up high: he is finally someone, he is a great prophet, the messenger of God.

But then God has mercy on Nineveh and does not destroy the city. And Jonah takes umbrage. First, he is sent as a prophet to cry out in the city; and then God doesn’t follow through on his threat. It’s embarrassing, he’s lost face, and he feels belittled.

And finally, Jonah sits on a hillock and looks down on the city. The sun is scorching, and the Lord gives a bush to cast its shade over Jonah. So God takes care of him in spite of it all. But then the bush wilts, the sun beats down, and Jonah gets angry again: he feels he is being mocked, that God is playing games with him. And God tells Jonah to calm down: don’t be agitated because God shows mercy: for why would the one who showed mercy on Jonah not show mercy on the great city of Nineveh?

The Book of Jonah is a story about a grace beyond human understanding, and which therefore constantly overwhelms us. And the Book of Jonah is a story about small things, about clumsy human beings and their lives, about everyman – all whose affairs somehow always sink into the sand.

Jonah is the Old Testament’s Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mr Bean. He is a prophet drawn from the sad.

So is this the sign of Jonah? Of all the great prophets, among all the wise ones of God, look at Jonah, the one who is reluctant and full of doubt, thin-skinned and bungling.

At this celebration of the Reformation we can readily recognise this sign. God’s gaze is fixed on the everyday and the ordinary. The language of the Jonahs of this life is enough for him, and the struggling lives and faith of the Jonahs of this life are what he sees.

And in this age, whose signs speak of performance, success, ability and productivity, in this age when faith is so easily conflated with the right doctrine and the right way to live, and in which heroes of faith, morality, scholarship and accomplishment are sought, Jonah, one of us, is set before us, the one who fled, who failed, who ended up feeling that God had abandoned him; the Jonah who salves his disappointment in social media, the Jonah who quietly retreats into the queue at the employment office, the Jonah who makes a mess of his relationships and is thrown overboard, the Jonah who is unstable and always in the wrong place.

This is the Jonah to whom Jesus points the Pharisees and Sadducees – and us, so that we can see that God’s grace is more than anyone can understand.