Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jonah: Fish Food

Second in a Series of Four Sermons on Jonah

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2009

Jonah 1:7, 17; 2:1-10

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.”

Do any of you remember those old movie serials from an age gone by, when for a quarter or fifty cents, you could go spend a hot summer day in a cool movie theater and watch an hour of the Lone Ranger or Zorro or some other show? Each episode would end with the hero in a precarious situation — surrounded by hostile natives, or perched atop a cliff with no escape — that all but guaranteed that everyone in the audience would be back next week to see how it turned out.

That’s what we did with Jonah last week, leaving him there in the fish’s belly. I am glad you all came to hear what happened next!

If you were to approach most people on the street or in the hallways of most churches and ask what comes to mind when they hear the name “Jonah,” chances are good they will mention something about a whale. Even the oldest translation still on bookstore shelves, the 17th century King James Version, says “fish,” not “whale” in the translation of Jonah, but, along with others, the King James translators slipped when the story was mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, turning the Greek for “sea monster” into “whale.” And whale it has been in most people’s minds ever since. Even with the mistranslation, there are only three verses referring to this actual incident in the whole book, it is hardly the main theme.

It will come as no surprise to those of you with whom I have spoken about this little sermon series that to me, Jonah is one of the most ingeniously crafted stories in the Old Testament. Whoever was its true author was a creative genius at storytelling. The fact is that Jonah was a missionary tract; it was never intended to be read with a straight face as history any more than parables like the Good Samaritan or stories like Hansel and Gretel. Probably the creator of Jonah would turn over in the grave at the thought of a literalism that strained to make this fanciful tale into a so-called “true” — as in “historic” — story. Which is not to say there is no truth there. Once we let go of the idea that Jonah has to be a factual account of some historic event, there is truth aplenty available here about the nature of God, and the nature of God’s human servants, and especially about the grace of God; yes, especially about grace.

For example, the first hearers of this story would perhaps not have noticed the inconsistency of a Jonah who was willing to give his life to save pagan, foreign sailors, yet not able to bear the thought that the Lord would want to save the pagans of Nineveh. Even the most vengefully minded person would have been impressed by Jonah in his self-sacrifice in last week’s reading, as he willingly offered himself to save the foreign sailors on the storm-tossed ship; his faith had taught him to be considerate of others. But the thought that the Lord might have mercy on foreign Nineveh, no, for them he would accept only wrath.

In his own behavior the character of Jonah demonstrated the complete absurdity of a prevailing attitude among so many of his fellow countrymen. And probably, truth be told, it is not an attitude that is absent among us.

So, we left Jonah in the fish’s belly not for three days, but for all seven since last Sunday. And today we heard the lovely psalm that Jonah recited. What a beautiful psalm. Except that most of it wasn’t original with Jonah. Remember, when Jesus was on the cross he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...?” Well, here in his desperate hour, Jonah did what many of us have done in a tight spot, called to mind some hopeful or helpful verses of scripture, like the 23rd psalm or John 3:16. When Jonah says, “all your waves and your billows passed over me,” he is lifting the words right out of Psalm 42:7. So also when he says, “you brought my life up from the Pit” that’s an idea taken straight from Psalm 30.

Isn’t it true that desperate times call forth our memories of words providing the greatest consolation? And our hero Jonah had hit a desperate time.

Think of all the ways his life had gone literally downhill as he pursued a path leading to the depths of disobedience: Since he first said “no” to the Lord and had run down to the seaport of Joppa, he descended down into a ship for his storm-tossed voyage, down into the hold of the ship for his tempestuous nap, and he had finally found himself thrown overboard, down into the depths of the fish’s belly, down to the bottom of the sea! You can’t get much further down than that! Once there, it took three days — though how he marked the passage of the days in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea we can’t imagine — it took three days for him to come to his senses and begin to sing the prayers of his people, a psalm of deliverance, which, when we look at it, is pretty much in the past tense, as though not only his downward spiral, but also his deliverance were already accomplished.

I am trying to think what Disney would do with this picture of the belly-bound prophet, wrapped in a blanket of seaweed, a sea snail stuck to his forehead, a tiny squid hanging out of the corner of his mouth, coral scratches all over his exposed limbs.1

Jonah really wrestles with himself now that he is caught in his own little corner, in his own tight spot, and the Lord will not let him go. It’s like the experience Francis Thompson described in Hound of Heaven, a poem once on the memorization lists for generations of school children:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways2
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
Even after we have turned our backs on God, even after we buy tickets for Anywhere-but-where God has in mind, we are not alone.

There is an old story of a man who didn’t agree with giving to mission efforts overseas. When a special offering was taken, the plate was passed, an usher put it in front of him but he passed it back, saying, “I don’t believe in foreign mission.” The usher set the plate back in front of him and said, “Then take some out, it’s intended for the heathen.”

Even if in a fit of pique we turn our backs on the church, the church does not go away, God does not cease to call to us, ministry does not come to an end. It is an enterprise that is so much bigger than our small part of it. And yet our part is desired, even demanded by God who will call and call until we respond. That is a reminder we receive particularly in every annual stewardship season in the church. It’ never just a call for financial support, it is much bigger than that. It is God’s ever-present call to Jonah — to all of us — to return to faithfulness.

Jonah’s second chance comes with words not all that different than the ones that announced his first chance, from the same God, announcing the same purpose as Chapter 3 begins for our reading next week:
The word of the Lord was addressed a second time to Jonah: “Up!” he said, “Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to them as I told you to.”
And Jonah turned to go God’s way. Perhaps this time the People of Nineveh will get their second chance too. Perhaps the people of First Presbyterian will as well. Be sure to tune in next week. With God, you never know what’s going to happen.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 I am thankful to my friend Carlos Wilton for sharing images of Jonah’s travails in his sermon, “Jonah: the Journey Home.”
2 Cf. Augustine, Confessions IV.iv.7: “And lo, Thou wert close on the heels of those fleeing from Thee, God of vengeance and fountain of mercies, both at the same time, who turnest us to Thyself by most wonderful means.”