Jonah and the Ninevites: Even a whale can't compete with a swooping bat

I don't care what anybody says, I'm not writing another sermon for church this Sunday. The sad truth is, nobody in my congregation heard a word of the last one.

I've been holding forth from a pulpit for so many years I've lost track of time— I could be 80 or 90 or 150 years old, for all I know. What I do know is that after a worship service like I had Sunday last, I feel most all of Methuselah's 900 years.

It's a sad thing my people missed my exegesis too, because that sermon was a classic—a real inspiration. Long ago I decided that when a sermon idea could whip me into a frenzy, it would do the same for the folks in the pew. And I knew last week's topic was memorable.

Sometimes it's nigh unto a curse to be a preacher because you see every last sleepy eye from the pulpit, and in my years I've seen dozens more than my share. But this was a Jonah sermon, one of the great stories of the Bible—a man gobbled up by a whale and spit out on shore like rancid liverwurst.

As I see it, we're all Jonahs: skittish, testy not overly interested in doing God's will. Lord knows we're not all blessed with the stout heart of King David, and I'm sad to report that Coverdale church lacks even a token Solomon. But wherever IVe preached I've found Jonahs—hundreds of them.

If it wouldn't have been for the unwanted guest, I would have had their attention under lock and key. But even Jonah is no competition for a bat. And one of those black-winged mythological bloodsuckers flew into my church last Sunday night and destroyed the sermon I'd spent half a week planning.

One doesn't really hear bats, but Lord knows one sees them. I spotted him first during the hymn, saw him flit around against the stained glass above the empty balcony. There he was, flipping and turning, coasting on some unseen wave of air, while everyone else was looking down in the hymnal at the words of a song none of them knew.

Burt the janitor wasn't in his usual seat during that hymn. I looked for him, but he's got a way of sneaking out once things get started and the sanctuary temperature is just right and the tape recorder's activated. Once he sees things are moving, he's out for a puff on one of his fat black cigars. He won't admit it, of course. When I ask him, he gives me some excuse—like he was in the basement because one of the toilets ran over.

So what could I do but hope that little devil with wings would find some nice warm spot to hang on and not make a run into the sanctuary?

I read Scripture, started in on the sermon, and everything looked fine. Through the story of the storm at sea, even the children were attentive. But when I came to the part where the frightened sailors hoist Jonah overboard, I started to see those same kids looking straight up, all in a chorus, like a flock of penguins. I knew that bat was somewhere in the peak of the ceiling, looking for a place to perch.

Now, Coverdale is an old church, high-ceilinged, with sanctuary lights suspended above the benches from long poles. And since bats, little devils that they are, love the darkness, our little visitor stayed up in the peak of the ceiling during most of my exposition. But his occasional sortie toward the heads of my parishioners was enough to guarantee that no one was listening to me. Each time he descended the whole crowd gasped and sucked in a breath of air so deep that, if we were Catholics, they would have sucked the flame off every altar candle. Mothers clenched their children, and little girls placed hymnals over their heads so that some pews looked like a row of army tents. I saw little Reggie Gullikson, who's been out of control since he was three, start flicking paper wads every time the bat made a dive.

I tell you, if you'd have seen their eyes, the eyes of my congregation, you'd have thought the whole assembly had lost their wits. Everybody, young and old, was following that demonic bat's every last dip and flip, tracing every corner he cut, every dive and swoop, a hundred whites of a hundred eyes rolling like marbles spilled from a bucket.

Finally, the bat found a roost on a beam and hung there, wings tucked, upside down, like a fat blot of tar. By then I was on the whale itself— Melville-like in my thoroughness, I might add. But I might just as well have been out to sea myself. Once that bat came to roost, every last eye was glued to the ceiling.

Every minute of that sermon lost— thanks to that bat. Jonah comes up out of the belly of that whale a changed man, but nobody in my church even heard the gospel. That's what I'm telling you. Jonah wants to take the good news to the wicked people of Nineveh, and nobody heard a word.

When it was over and I was standing at the door shaking hands, some of the people laughed about that infernal bat. Some of them told me it was surely the Devil come in to wreak havoc.

And some of them didn't say a word. Slim Murphy, perfectly poker-faced—excuse the expression—said to me, "Heck-uva sermon, Pastor Angus." That's exactly what he said, "a real heckuva sermon." I could have been preaching on the plague of toads and Slim Murphy wouldn't have known.

After that service, my righteous indignation stole away, perhaps, my better sense. I found my Jimmy's old pellet gun in a corner of the basement, one of those air rifles you pump with your arm, and I marched back to the sanctuary and slapped on the lights. I even took a spot along to find that miserable thing, that emissary of the devil—and when I did, I took aim.

Now, I may have lost some of my ability to hit the mark with sermons the way I did when I was young and full of dreams, but I still have a good eye and a steady trigger finger.

He came down in three shots—flop, like a dead bird. I picked him up in my handkerchief and deposited him just on the other side of the parking lot, where, if I'm lucky, some lazy opossum will come along and help himself to a free, furry lunch.

That's what I did. I say you got to take the Devil down yourself if you're going to beat him. You can't wait for others to act.

Yesterday, Monday afternoon, Burt the janitor said to me, "Wonder where that bat went? I looked and looked, and I couldn't find him anywhere. Must have a secret place."

I didn't tell him what happened. I just said, "I don't want that bat ruining any more of my sermons, Mr. Blankenship. You find him, hear? And you find any of his aunts and uncles and cousins who might come flitting in uninvited too."

So all afternoon Burt looked. I saw him out there, his neck stretched like a goose. That'll teach him not to skip out on my sermons for a deadly puff of his cancerous black cigar. That'll fix my janitor.

And I'm not writing another sermon. Call me a Jonah, if you will. Call those bat-watchers Ninevites. But I'm not going to my study to write another new sermon unless the Lord comes to me like he did to Jonah.

Out here in Coverdale, there are thousands of miles between me and the nearest leviathan. So I'm not particularly worried.

James Calvin Schaap ( is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.

Reformed Worship 29 © September 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.