Do we listen, when God calls or questions us?

You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love

  • Psalm 69 & 148


Introduction – Listen, God is calling ( Sing the Journey #42)

Herman Melville’s 1851 classic novel, Moby Dick begins by identifying the central character, Ishmael. “Call me Ishmael” are the opening words. [See bottom of sermon]. Actually the central character could be said to be “The Whale” but Ishmael is the sailor’s name at the center of the story. Ishmael visits the Whaleman’s Chapel in Massachusetts.

In one poignant scene, chaplain Mapple of Whaleman’s Chapel on the coast of Mass., preaches to Ishmael and other fisherman about to sail off to sea. His sermon is on Jonah.

Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters – four yarns – is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! (chapter 9).

The story of Jonah is one of the most startlingly delightful books in the Bible. It is, as Chaplain Mapple said, ‘a small strand of scripture resounding in the depths of our souls.’

Jonah is a prophet but quit unlike other prophets and certainly no model prophet. This unusual prophet of Israel, is called by God to go and give a prophetic “word from the Lord” to another people and city, Nineveh. Nineveh is a major city of Assyria to the east, probably in what is now Iraq. Tarshish is a glamorous seaport on the western edge of the known world, probably in what is now Spain.

Jonah is filled with competing claims on his life and faith: call and question, prayer and prophesy, disobedience and obedience, humor and horror, sin and repentance, compassion and vengeance, judgment and mercy. How do we weigh and live these tensions Jonah faced is the question that we face with Jonah?

In this worship we hear the whole biblical story. What you may remember of the “Jonah and the whale” story is really the first of four scenes of this prophetic playful story.

Scene 1: God calls Jonah who disobeys and ends up inside the belly off a big fish.
Scene 2: Jonah cries out from inside the fish and prays to God.
Scene 3: God calls Jonah a second time and Jonah obeys God…sort of obeys!
Scene 4: Jonah has a life and death argument with God who leaves him with a question.

I ask you to close your Bible and listen as if you are hearing Jonah for the first time.

Hear the Word of God in the story of Jonah!

Jonah – chapter 1

Now the word of GOD came to Jonah the son of Amit’tai, saying,

“Arise, go to Nin’eveh, that great city, and cry against it;
for their wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah rose….to flee to Tarshish from the presence of GOD.
He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish;
so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish,
away from the presence of GOD.
But GOD hurled a great wind upon the sea,
and there was a mighty tempest on the sea,
so that the ship threatened to break up.

Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god;
and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea,
to lighten it for them.
But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship
and had lain down, and was fast asleep.
So the captain came and said to him,
“What do you mean, you sleeper?
Arise, call upon your god!
Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, so that we do not perish.”
The mariners said to one another,
“Come, let us cast lots,
that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.”
So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

Then they said to Jonah,
“Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us?
What is your occupation?
And where do you come from?
What is your country?
And of what people are you?”

And Jonah said to them,
“I am a Hebrew; and I fear GOD, the GOD of heaven,
who made the sea and the dry land.”
Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him,
“What is this that you have done!”

For the men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the presence of GOD,
because he had told them.
Then they said to him,
“What shall we do to you, so that the sea may quiet down for us?”
For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.

Jonah said to them,
“Take me up and throw me into the sea;
then the sea will quiet down for you;
for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”

Nevertheless the mariners rowed hard to bring the ship back to land,
but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.
Therefore they cried to GOD,
“We plead to you, O GOD, let us not perish for this man’s life,
and lay not on us innocent blood;
for you, O GOD, have done as it pleased you.”
So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea;
and the sea ceased from its raging.

Then the mariners feared GOD exceedingly,
and they offered a sacrifice to GOD and made vows.
And GOD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah;
and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah – chapter 2

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his GOD from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called to the LORD, out of my distress,
and GOD answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.

For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows passed over me.
Then I said, `I am cast out from your presence;
how shall I again look upon your holy temple?’

The waters closed in over me,
the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered GOD;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the LORD!”

And GOD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Jonah – chapter 3

Then the word of God came to Jonah the second time, saying,
“Arise, go to Nin’eveh, that great city,
and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

So Jonah arose and went to Nin’eveh,
according to the word of GOD.
Now Nin’eveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey.
And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nin’eveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nin’eveh believed GOD;
they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth,
from the greatest of them to the least of them.

Then news of this reached the king of Nin’eveh,
and he arose from his throne, removed his robe,
and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
And the king made a proclamation published through Nin’eveh,
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Let neither human nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything;
let them not eat food nor drink water,
but let every human and beast be covered with sackcloth,
and let them cry mightily to GOD;
yes, let every one turn from their evil ways
and from the violence which is in their hands.
Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from fierce anger,
so that we perish not?”

When GOD saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,
GOD repented of the evil which GOD had said he would do to them; and did not do it.

Jonah – chapter 4

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed to GOD and said,
“I pray you, O GOD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country?
That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish;
for I knew that you are a gracious GOD and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.
Therefore now, O GOD, take my life from me, I plead,
for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And GOD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city,
and made a booth for himself there.
He sat under it in the shade,
till he should see what would become of the city.
And GOD appointed a plant, and made it grow up over Jonah,
that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort.

So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.

But when dawn came up the next day,
God appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God appointed a sultry east wind,
and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah so that he was faint;
and he asked that he might die, and said,

“It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah,

“Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”

And Jonah said, “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
And GOD said,

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow,
which came into being in a night, and perished in a night.
And should not I pity Nin’eveh, that great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people
who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”


Jonah is a most imaginative, intriguing, instructive biblical story!
It begins with a call from God and ends with a question from God!
With Jonah we face God’s call and question.

When God calls you what is your response?
When God asks you a question what is your answer?
Do you instinctively resist God’s call and question?
Do you listen long enough to really hear God call and question you?
Just as God left Jonah with a question, can you live with these questions for now?

———————- Moby Dick, Herman Melville —————————–

Chapter 1 (opening paragraph)

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Chapter 9 Chaplain Mapple’s sermon on Jonah