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Mainline Protestant

Sermons and essays

Jonah and the Whale preached by Rev. Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr., St. John's Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL. Long and detailed sermon attempts to cut through the common misconceptions of the work:

"... it is a sad reflection of our misunderstanding of its purpose that a story which has so much of the spirit of the gospel in it should be generally thought of as a story about a whale, either to be dismissed as ridiculous or to be defended as a proof of our orthodoxy."
Wisnewski goes on to describe the story's "bitter pill":
"God is merciful to those we hate. And we have the challenge to swallow perhaps the greater pill: God is merciful to us. Once again we are invited to consider the great love God has for his creation and the ends to which he will go to help us accept that love"

Prayers from the Belly and Heartless Obedience , back-to-back sermons delivered by Dan Baumgartner, Bethany Presbyterian Church, Seattle, WA (May 21/28, 2000). To start, Baumgartner dismisses the historicity controversy, focusing on its remarkable polyvalence, a very fitting introduction to this site as well.

"It reminds me of a cut diamond, with all of the different faces and edges and bevels. Every time you turn it even a little, the light hits it differently, and a different color bounces off of it. This story changes each time we turn it."
His examination of the alternation of ELOHIM and YHWH is a glint I've not seen elsewhere.

The Cruciform Shape of True Ministry by Peter Moore[1]. Convocation address to Trinity Episcopal seminary students contains a very entertaining paragraph on Jonah:

"For years I had a Pinocchio view of Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the great fish. I pictured Jonah safe inside the fish, perhaps on a little raft sailing on a cavernous gastronomic lake. I believed that Jonah was there being preserved from the deep for great things to come. But I had it all wrong. All the words Jonah utters inside the great fish indicate that he was not on some safe little raft; but he was experiencing death and dereliction."
My wife admitted to me her impression was much the same. Disney is a powerful force indeed!

The Book of Jonah by Bishop John Shelby Spong, extracted from Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. Spong contextualizes the Book of Jonah in a 5c. BC protest against notions of Jewish racial purity.[2] He closes with some comments on literalism, noting how Catholic opinion shifted between the 1913 (1908) Catholic Encyclopedia and today.

On being a Ninevite by Martha Juillerat. A ringing, righteous, angry attack on Presbyterian attitudes toward gays. Juillerat starts off with a perceptive critique of the "standard line" on Jonah, which she finds "patronizing":

"They go something like this: Jonah, like most of us we're told, is from the religious mainstream; a faithful and well-intentioned man with a blind spot. Nineveh is defined as 'the other,' those who at best warrant our initial suspicion and at worst are seen as evil, unworthy of God's mercy. Jonah is understandably reluctant to go to that place; those heathens make him nervous! We can feel a little sympathy for the guy; we're wary of people like that, too. But like Jonah, we come to learn that God's love extends even to 'those people.'"
The rest of the sermon is very stirring—even exhaustingly so—but Jonah passes from the limelight. Juillerat runs the Shower of Stoles project, a "collection of hundreds of liturgical stoles from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons."

Deliverance Belongs to the Lord by the Rev. Frank Logue[3], King of Peace Episcopal Church, Kingsland, GA (August 11, 2002). Logue's take on the last sentence of the book is striking:

"That's it. The book ends right there. Jonah himself never answers the question. It is then that the reader realizes that the book of Jonah is not about Jonah. Not really. The book of Jonah is about God. It is about our gracious God who is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."

A Fish Tale That Tells a Love Story preached by The Rev. W. Mark Koenig, Noble Road Presbyterian Church, Lakewood, OH (January 23, 2000). Koenig contrasts the theme of God's love for the Assyrian "other" with Lakewood's recent rejection of domestic partner benefits for city employees.

Five successive 2003 sermons from First Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA: "Man Overboard" (Jonah 1:1-17), "A Prayer from the Belly" (Jonah 2), "When You Do the Right Thing..." (Jonah 3:1-10), "It's Hard to Let God be God!" (Jonah 3:10-4:8) and "Entitled To Grace" (Jonah 3:1-10). The first four are by Randy Riggs, the last by David Powers. A complete review cannot be attempted here, but some quotes and comments are in the footnotes.[4]

"The Worm That Ate The Bush (Or, Angry Enough To Die)" preached by J. Mary Luti, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational UCC, Cambridge, MA (22 September 2002). Luti's sermons come from an explicitly left-political[5] position, taking for granted that Bush and Rumsfeld merit divine punishment. Kudos therefore for realizing this puts her into a Jonah-like position:

"If I find it enraging that a sincere evangelical Christian like George Bush seems to believe that God loves only those who hate the terrible regime of Saddam Hussein, what rage will I fly into when it finally registers with me that God loves George Bush as much as God loves me (and all the other people who voted for Robert Reich[6]), and God loves Donald Rumsfeld too?"

When the Wheels Come Off: Homiletical Reflections on Jonah 2 by Stephen W. Ramp, Word & World (Fall 1999). Professor of homiletics works through the production of one of his sermons, on Jonah's prayer. Footnote 5 has a very full bibliographies of commentaries on the book.

Mutant Ministry by Paul Keim, originally from The Christian Century (January 11, 2003), includes a very funny summary of the story, eg.,

"From the belly of the whalelike fish, [Jonah] delivers himself of a prayer so lousy with pious platitudes that the poor sea creature pukes him up onto dry land."

Jonah and the Whale Tale preached by the Rev. Roger Straw, Community Congregational Church, UCC, Benicia, CA.

"In the heat of the desert sun, we sit with Jonah beneath the wilted greens, pondering the mystery. How is it? How can God be so completely in love with us – with all of us?"

"Anger: Channel for Justice or Stream of Destruction" by the Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio. On Jonah and its perils.

Audio: Three sermons: Escape (Jonah 1:1-17), Return (Jonah 3:1-10) and Resentment (Jonah 4:1-11), preached by Sara Olson Dean, Prescott United Methodist Church, Prescott, AZ. The audio is found here. Dean takes a fairly standard, psychological line on Jonah[7]. Her delivery is excellent.

"Angry Enough to Die" by the Rev. Dr. William L. Dols, retired Episcopal minister (September 22, 2002), exploring the Justice-vs-Mercy interpretation, and connecting it to his listeners' lives:

"Don't waste time trying to figure out if or how this story might have ever really occurred. The question is not whether it ever happened or not, but whether it is true. It's true if it is taking place right now in the lives of people like us, not just like us, but in you and me."

"Jonah: An Unexpected Success" preached by David A. Renwick, Second Presbyterian Church, Lexington, KY (February 13, 2005). Renwick neatly observes that although God could have kept Jonah alive in a whale, this is hardly the point of the tale:

"But, whether or not it happened, the real question is "is this the central message of the Book of Jonah: that God can save people who fall into the sea? Or that a big fish can keep a human alive for three days?" Or is there another message that the big fish sometimes blinds us to? Let me put it another, way, if the story of Jonah is just a story, what's the message? … If you ask the question like this, then I believe that you'll come to see that there's a whole aspect to the message and meaning of Jonah that begins after the whale of a tail, a message that many people never get to!"
He ends with one of the more stirring Jonah-inspired calls to action:
"The least likely responding to the least likely prophet, second chance Jonah, runaway Jonah, prejudiced Jonah, imperfect Jonah, responding in massive numbers. So who knows, then, what God will do through you and me, if God did that through Jonah. Through the lives of ordinary people, even today, what marvelous things God may do!"

A Cautionary Tale preached by Donel McClellan[8], First Congregational United Church of Christ, Bellingham, WA. Pre-war sermon: "Does the cautionary tale of Jonah have something to contribute to the discussion about America's role in addressing the evil in Iraq?" (It does.) McClellan's first reaction was:

"'Oh no,' I thought to myself, 'Jonah is coming around again!'"

Jonah preached by Elizabeth S. McWhorter, St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, Washington DC (August 11, 2002)

"We are most like Jonah when we do not believe that other faiths can be of God as ours is."

Jonah and The Purple Lady by Henry G. Brinton, Fairfax Presbyterian Church, Fairfax, VA (January 12, 2003). Brinton locates Jonah's disobedience in an obsession with self; obeying God would "cramp his style, crush his happiness, cut into his personal fulfillment, and completely violate his own freedom."

"Does God Notice?" by the Rev. Dr. Stanley D. Walters, First Presbyterian Church, Bucyrus, OH.

"Reluctant Servants" by the Presbyterian minister Bob Bohl (June 15, 1997).

"The most pervasive tendency of Christians today is to be reluctant servants. It is the belief that if God wants something done hopefully God will call on someone more able than me to do it."

PDF: God's Unexpected Mercy by Rev. Russell B. Smith, Covenant-First Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH. Smith starts off on a literalist note:

"Miracles, by definition, are suspensions of the natural order of things. Miracles are extraordinary events God does for the purpose of advancing his own glory. The problem is not so much that people have a problem with the incident; they have a problem with the idea of miracles."

Jonah Cries Out by Craig S. Williams, Trabuco Presbyterian Church in Trabuco Canyon, CA. Blog-based sermon follow-up, tackles the importance of silence.

"Salvation is of the LORD" by Pastor Colin Maxwell, Cork Free Presbyterian Church, Shanakiel, Cork, Ireland. Somewhat disjointed sermon notes speak of Jonah as "every gospel text condensed & rolled into one."

"Reluctant Disciples" preached at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, Vancouver, BC, Canada (author uncertain, but their "Lead Minister" is A. H. Harry Oussoren). Anti-war sermon:

"Because our righteous hate has long been radiating like nuclear poison, it's not hard to support other righteous haters. Jonah would have been pleased."

Jonah, the Real Story by Clifford Schutjer, First Congregational Church, Mansfield, OH (March 17, 2002). Schutjer focuses on the character of Jonah.

"When that border is crossed, into complete and utter certainty, her goodness becomes self-righteousness. What was his commendable determination now becomes pigheadedness. His moral indignation becomes maliciousness. His convictions become the occasion for pompousness. His self-esteem evolves into arrogance. Again, as the ancient saying has it, 'When the evil one wants to destroy us, he tempts us, not through our wicked desires, but through our most virtuous qualities and aspirations.'"

"Return" preached by Sara Olson Dean, Prescott United Methodist Church, Prescott, AZ (April 17, 2005).

Goin' Fishin' preached by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger, First Presbyterian, Warren, PA. Not too much about Jonah here, but the "fish stories" at the start (including one from Twain) are priceless.

The Sign of Jonah by Max A Forsythe, preached at Christ Covenant Reformed (Presbyterian), Columbus, OH. Discussion of the meaning of the "sign of Jonah" devolves into the most hackneyed of topics: how Jesus could have spent three days in the tomb between Friday and Sunday. Although the real answer—inclusive counting, the absolutely normal and unremarkable way Greek expresses time—is raised, Forsythe prefers to imagine a special "leap-year" scenario.[9]

"Don't You Know? Haven't You Heard?" preached by the Rev. Rich L. Smith, Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ, Bethesda, MD. The sermon isn't about Jonah, but I include it because it's an excellent summary of how non-literalists read the bible, and it was the first place I saw the wonderful quote of William Jennings Bryant:

"The Bible says Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and I believe it. And if it had said that Jonah had swallowed the whale, I would believe that too!"


  1. A profitable evening or two could be spent reviewing Moore's essays. I do not agree with all of them, but they are uniformly well-written and well-argued. (back)
  2. The book also fits well into a 2-1c. BC Hellenistic environment as well. (back)
  3. Father of the Griffin Logue, who has some attractive black and white photos of Egypt, and an appealing wild animal site. She's got some serious web-design chops. (back)
  4. The sermons take a somewhat uncertain line about the historicity of the event. "Man Overboard" draws some humor from misunderstanding fable as a more realistic genre:
    "We are kind of like that first grader who was listening to his teacher read the story of Chicken Little to her class. The teacher came to the part of the story where Chicken Little tried to warn the farmer. She read, '... and so Chicken Little went up to the farmer and said, 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling!' The teacher paused then asked the class, 'And what do you think that farmer said?' The first grader raised his hand and said, 'Holy smokes! It's a talking chicken!'"
    Also aiming at humor "A Prayer from the Belly" retells a joke found all over the web, sometimes connected with Jonah, other times with Noah or another biblical event.
    "Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human. He told her it was physically impossible. The little girl said, 'When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.' The teacher asked, 'What if Jonah didnšt go to heaven?' The little girl replied, 'Then you can ask him.'"
    To my ear, this is a pretty cruel joke, and an un-Christian one—I guess all humor really is founded on cruely. I do not find a little girl convinced her teacher is going to Hell either cute or funny; Christians are explicitly forbidden to judge others. Nor does Christian faith require a literally reading of the story, something the minister has already himself said! Anything for a cheap laugh, I guess.
  5. Read my criticism of her Noah's Ark sermon here. (back)
  6. Non-Massachusetts residents may be unaware the Clinton advisor competed to be the Democratic candidate for governor. Despite a lock on the Cambridge vote (see his results page), Reich lost out to a candidate with broader public support and a history within local politics. (back)
  7. It is a softer line than I feel comfortable with. For example, rather than irony, Dean sees didactic psychology in God's questioning of Jonah's "compassion" for the vine, arguing that God uses Jonah's compassion for the vine to teach Jonah. In this vein, she urges her congregation, when angry, to "remember Jonah's compassion for a simple plant." But isn't the whole point that Jonah's compassion for a plant is twisted, self-centered and monstrous in the context of the mass slaughter he was hoping for? (back)
  8. Searching around for his email, I discovered McClellan's died on May 13, 2005. He and his family worked on a blog , which records his passing. It looks like he was a very loving and loved man. (back)
  9. This whole issue is so queer. Do "sceptics" really assert Matthew would suffer such an obvious flaw, particularly as they believe he was largely "making it up" anyway? Wouldn't it have been much easier to write it smoothly in the first place? (back)
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If you enjoy this site you may like this other site by me:

Mermaids on the Web. Similar site, with over 1,320 pictures .

Angels on the Web. Images and other web resources on angels in Western culture, religion and art.

Griffins in Art and on the Web. Like this site, but Griffins.