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HYMN FOR EPIPHANY 3 Jonah and the Whale/When Jonah Heard the Lord was Calling

Text and tune: Jonah and the Whale African American Spiritual

Text: Gracia Grindal Tune: Iteke Prins

Jonah andtheWhale William Tavener

When Jonah heard a voice was calling

"Go preach in Nineveh!"

He did not answer, kept on stalling

And ran far, far way.

Soon after he set sail,

He landed in a whale

Where he had time to think things through.

He praise the Lord, and three days after,

the great fish spewed him out.

He went to preach and raised the rafters

The people flailed about.

And with their weeping king

Repented of their sin

And watched to see what God would do.

With joy they saw that God relented,

And let them live in peace!

What mystery that God repented

Their wonder never ceased!

The living God now reigned

And life returned again.

The God they trusted in was true.


Britt G. Hallqvist

There is a bit of humor in the story of Jonah and the whale. I tried to put it in the hymn above, but hymns are not known for their funny sides. Brit G. Hallqvist, Sweden’s favorite hymn writer of the last half of the last century, wrote many little poems on biblical characters for children even a hymn that was comical. My favorite is one she wrote for her children as they were on the ferry between the continent and Sweden. Being cooped up in the car reminded her of Jonah and she wrote this delightful little rhyme:


In the darkness of the whale’s belly,

The prophet Jonah sat,

Completely doubled over

He sighed and then he wept.

He blew his nose, and wrote a postcard

Telling his old aunts not to fear,

“Having a wonderful time,” he wrote,

“I wish that you were here!”

Hallqvist, “Vykort,” Vers på resa 1969. Tr. Gracia Grindal


I love the way she uses Scripture to describe their time on the ferry. And the fact that she found it funny. We should teach children to describe their lives in the language and stories of Scripture. And to see the humor in some of the Bible stories. Laughter is a great medicine.


Oddly like the call to Jonah, the reluctant missionary, the Gospel text shows Jesus calling Andrew and Peter from the job of fishing. In the same way that Jonah had the plans for his life disrupted and turned around, so the disciples did not expect the morning they went out fishing, that their vocation would be utterly changed by nighttime.

Jesus calling Peter and Andrew. Duccio

I am always shocked and pleased by that. They heard Jesus calling them. There was something in the voice they heard that was the voice of their maker, although they wouldn’t have been able to say that. Something obviously was irresistible about Jesus’ call. So they went with him. Although we should take this soberly, there is a kind of joke quality to the story as well.


Jokes are funny because they build up an expectation that the ending will go one way, but then the story turns and goes completely the other way. That is why there are some who describe the gospel as being like a joke, or comedy, as well as a tragedy. By joke, I do not mean silly or untrue. I mean a complete turning around, a different ending for our lives.


Anne Sexton, an American poet of the late twentieth century, wrote a series of poems on Jesus in a book called The Awful Rowing toward God. In the poem with that title she describes arriving at the island called God and begins playing a poker game with him. She thinks she has won—she has a royal flush. Then God announces a wild card. He has five aces, and wins. That sets them both to laughing “great hoops of laughter.”


Some people have missed the point of the poem, saying there goes Anne, losing again. But in the Christian story, the best thing that happens to all of us is that we do lose, as do Jonah, the newly called disciples and Dante who in is his Divine Comedy, is saved from death in the dark woods by Christ who gives him a new ending to his story. The way they were all intending to go would end in death for them. Suddenly, it ends in life!

This is the gospel: Christ comes into our lives and changes them. He turns us around, all for the good. The joke is on us. Now the stories we have imagined for ourselves of growing up, going to school, finding a mate, having a family and a good job—all fine things that ultimately end in the grave—are taken over. Our lives now end in Christ—his life is ours. That means death for our own dreams, but a completely new unexpected and dazzling life ahead. Now that is worth laughing about with great joy. His victory is ours! Praise God.


The spiritual speaks for itself--and like all spirituals, is anonymous in author and tune. I wrote the hymn to catch some of the humor of the story of Jonah who, like the people of Nineveh, is completely turned around in his expectations. Everything is unexpected, even that God repents!


Jonah/the Spiritual

Saddleback Kids/song for kids







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