When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
There is the increasing tendency these days — across all denominations — to discount stories in the Bible that veer away from the ordinary as exaggerations or outright fantasy. I have heard people in pulpits say the miracles that Jesus worked never happened; they can all be explained away by natural means. I have also heard people say that many of the stories in the Bible can’t be considered factual — as in, actually happened — but were fantasies or parables.
One such story that is said to fit into this latter category is the story of Jonah, whom Lord Jesus references in today’s reading. “You ask for a sign,” he said, “but no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40). I have deliberately quoted Matthew’s version.
I believe that miracles take place all the time, but I am NOT going to try to persuade you that the story of Jonah is actually true. Believe what you want, as long as you draw the lessons from the story. And there’s a really big lesson here. But first, let me ask you a question. Have you heard of Daesh? They are more commonly known as ISIS. They have slaughtered people by the thousands around the world. What would you like God to do to them? I bet most of you would wish he destroyed them.
That’s how Jonah felt about the Ninevites. They were a lawless, wicked people and Jonah hated them. But God wanted to save them. He wants to save everybody. His only condition? Repent. But repentance has to be preached so God told Jonah to go to the Ninevites and tell them to repent. Jonah had no desire to talk to them about anything (any more than I imagine many of us would want to talk to ISIS about anything) so he went in the opposite direction. Bad idea.
A storm hit the boat that Jonah was in. The sailors found out it was because of Jonah so they hurled him overboard. He got swallowed by a huge fish. It took three days of living in the darkness and stink before Jonah capitulated. He went to the Ninevites and preached repentance. They repented. God saved them. You think Jonah would be happy they had turned to God and were saved. He was furious. What would you have felt if you were in Jonah’s places?
Just ask yourself this question and you will know the answer to that: What if people in ISIS were to repent and God took them to heaven? Tough one, ya. But seriously, we all needed saving, no? So why not them?