Are You Ready for Deliverance?

Jonah in Nineveh
Image via <a href="">Christian Clipart</a>

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

God spoke to Jonah again: “Get up and go to Vegas, that great city, and tell them what I told you.”

So, following God’s direction, Jonah got up and went to Vegas. (And indeed, Vegas was a huge city. It would take three days to walk from one end to the other.) And as Jonah started into the city, he started yelling, “In forty days, Las Vegas will be wiped out.” And the people of Las Vegas believed God and put on funeral clothes, from the Mayor all the way down to the street people.

When God saw their response, how they gave up their vices, God overturned God’s own decree, and decided not to destroy the city after all. And so, God didn’t.

Regardless of how it is often misused (a test case for adherence to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy), Jonah is about deliverance, first, second, and third.

First, it’s about deliverance that comes to a ship of storm-tossed sailors.

Second, it’s about deliverance that comes to a faithless prophet.

Third, it’s about deliverance that comes to a city of wicked people.

In the Christian context, it is, Jesus says, the single sign a faithless generation will ever receive: no matter how far gone a person or a community is, deliverance is still possible.

There is only one requirement: willingness to repent: to do what doesn’t come naturally.

The whole story of Jonah is a parable. This part about Jonah’s arrival in Nineveh (Las Vegas) is an invitation to imagine yourself in two different positions. What if you’re Jonah? And what if you’re a Ninevite?

If you’re Jonah, the parable invites your reflection on what it means to be called to go to a place you don’t want to go, to a people you despise, taking a message nobody wants to hear, on the remote chance that instead of running you out of town they will be delivered. Your job, Jonah, is to announce the truth that might be in order to set in motion a better alternative: deliverance.

If you’re a Ninevite, the parable invites your reflection on what it means to realize the futility of your current path, and what it will take to change it. How will you realize the deliverance that is available to you, even in your far-gone state?

Any given community might find itself in either of these positions, or both: so far gone that it seems impossible to take an unwanted message to a “depraved” society. (Sounds like a lot of churches I know of.) In any case, the deliverance of the two go together. Deliverance takes embracing the prophet and the society simultaneously.

Did it really happen? Not likely. But the point isn’t whether or not it did. The point is that, hearing it, you’ll make deliverance a reality here and now.

Deliverance Over Fear

Fish and Boy faceoff
Photo credit: <a href="">Steve Jurvetson</a>

Jonah 2

Then, from inside the fish, Jonah prayed to God:

When I was stressed out, I called on God,
And God answered me.

When my life had gone to hell,
You heard me calling.

You threw me in over over my head,
Into the sea,
Where I was drowning,
The waves and whitecaps
washed me under.

Then I said, I’ve been driven away
Out of sight.
When will I get to see your temple again?

The water devoured me,
Suffocated me,
Seaweed choked me
At the bottom from which mountains rise.
I arrived in the netherworld
Behind its eternally locked gates.

But you saved me from that pit.
Just as my life was fleeing
I remembered you,
And my prayer arrived in your temple.

People who worship idols
Do themselves in.
But I will, with thanks,
Give you everything I promised.

God delivers!

Upon these words, God directed the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Just about everybody is familiar with Jonah and the whale. (I know, I know, “It’s not a whale, it’s a big fish.”) I wonder how often it’s been used in Sunday School to scare children (like it was used in my childhood Sunday School experience) into accepting other (unrelated) impossible doctrines. “See what God will do to you if you don’t do what God says…”

But that’s not the point at all. The point isn’t to show what God will do if you don’t believe, but what God can do when you do. This poem at the center of the story is about deliverance. When Jonah finally does go where he was supposed to, the result is deliverance.

The point is deliverance. The narrative construction of a big fish story around this poem is to make the point even more sharply: God delivers even from impossible situations.

For some, the idea of God is just as implausible as the story of Jonah and the big fish. But I can’t help but wonder, if the Jonah story were more often taught correctly would there be so many people in that boat?