I’ve started preaching a short series through the Old Testament book of Jonah. The popular understanding is that this book is a story about a man and a giant fish. It’s not! The fish is only mentioned in a total of three verses (1:17; 2:1, 10) and while the story a man named Jonah, the book of Jonah is about God.
To Worship Is To Fear
That’s right. The book of Jonah is about God, the God whom Jonah claims to worship. As Jonah flees God, sets sail with a bunch of Gentile shipmen bound for Tarshish, and the violent storm erupts on the sea, Jonah proclaims his worship of God, saying, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9).
Jonah’s declaration was the typical way a Jewish person would speak of God among Gentiles but considering the context, it’s a laughable claim. The word “worship” (yârê) literally means to fear. It has to do with the sort of reverence that results in obedience to God. In the broader sense, such reverence may include ceremonial acts of worship but it will always includes moral and ethical obedience. In the book of Jonah, the prophet’s claim of worshiping the Lord means he should mean obeying God’s command to go and preach against the city of Nineveh.
But Jonah doesn’t! And that is the beginning of the irony in his claim to worship God.
While Jonah claims to worship God but instead flees God in disobedience, the Gentile sailors encounter God though the testimony of Jonah and the violent storm. Though they attempt first to call upon their own gods and then turn to their own ingenuity in trying to survive the storm, they eventually learn to fear the Lord. After throwing Jonah overboard, we are told that “the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (1:16). This is to say that these pagan sailors learn to worship God through ceremony and the making of promises regarding how they will act in the future.
Jonah is a Hebrew, one who knows God and claims to worship God but proves through his disobedience that such worship is a feeble notion. The sailors, on the other hand, are pagans who learn to worship God. This is not to say that they have become monotheists who ascribe to every orthodox dogma regarding God. What it means is that the sailors have acknowledged God as the Lord, who must be obeyed. The irony is that the one who knows God and claims to worship him, fails to do so while the ones who did not know God, came to know him and render worship to him!
Christian Worship and the Question
So who do Christians worship? I know that sounds oxymoronic but I’m guessing that if Jonah, who knows God, can fail to worship God then Christians, who claim to worship God can also fail to worship God.
When worship is understood as obedient living and not just singing and praying for an hour or two on Sundays, the question of who Christians worship takes on a greater urgency. Jesus redefines what obedience looks like, saying that the Torah hangs on the two greatest commands of loving God and loving neighbor (cf. Matt 22:37-40). I saw a great quote attributed to Scot McKnight in a tweet from David Fitch that said, “The Pharisees taught love of the Torach, and were good at it. Jesus taught a Torah of love and he was good at it.”
Worship as obedience involves living as Jesus teaches us. Jesus shows us what it looks like to love God and neighbor. This isn’t about turning Christianity into a new set of legalisms regarding church life and worship, it’s about living a life of humble service, dying to self while following Jesus to the cross as people who point to Jesus in the very way we speak, think, and act. How we speak, think, and act towards our neighbor is how we speak, think, and act towards God. . . and our neighbor is everyone, including those we regard as an enemy, foreigner, freak, stranger, and so on. Similarly, such obedience demands consistency between what Christians sing and pray about “in church” and how they live in their homes, neighborhoods, work places, and even in the world of social media (i.e., Facebook).
So if you’re a Christian like I am, then the question is: Will we walk in obedience, following in the footsteps of Jesus?