A sermon in three parts:
Today we will journey with Jonah, who is one of the “minor prophets.” Jonah’s famous for being swallowed by a whale, or a big fish, and going down into the depths of the ocean in that whale’s belly. It’s fair to call that a wilderness experience. It’s pretty wild, no doubt about that, to be in the belly of a whale down in the ocean deeps.
We are entering the season of Lent – the 40 days and 40 nights leading to Easter. This is a season in our sacred calendar for fasting from certain things, for sloughing off stuff that distracts us from God, for preparing ourselves to accompany Christ in his confrontation with the powers of what’s called sin – crookedness, injustice, hate, violence, worship of self over worship of God – we then can accompany Christ in his death and descent, and then rise in resurrection into new life.
The theme we’ll follow this Lent is wilderness: being pushed out of our comfortable homes and journeying through wild places – the experience of seeking, the experience of being lost, the experience of trusting an outward guide or our own inner compass, the experience of being tempted to take the wrong way.
So our first wilderness will be with Jonah swallowed and sunk in the belly of a whale.
How did he get there?
A word from God spoke to him and said, “Jonah, you need to go and confront people for their crooked ways, their wicked ways.” We learn later this means people’s violent ways.
What was Jonah’s response when he heard this word from God?
“Um, yikes, no thanks. It’s a great offer, God, but I’d rather get as far away from all this as possible.”
We’ll see how that works out for him…
Reading: Jonah 1:1-6, 12, 15-17
There was a boy named Jonah. At school kids are teasing and bullying a kid named David. Jonah feels badly about that, but he doesn’t do anything. He just stands by as other kids gang up on David. He feels terribly about it later. He can’t stop thinking about how scared David looked, and how mean the other kids were being to him. He can’t eat and can’t sleep. Finally in the middle of the night he prays to God about it all. He admits that part of him wants to bully David too, but he knows also that’s not right. But he feels afraid about standing up to the bullies too. After he prays he feels better. He falls asleep. When he wakes up in the morning and he knows that he wants to get to know David and become his friend hopefully, sit with him at lunch when he’s alone, and be stand with him when kids are mean to him.
The story I told the kids is a parable about being in a whale belly wilderness. Being in a whale belly wilderness like Jonah is the spiritual state of being stuck and sunk because we have run from our moral convictions. We have shut out the voice of God urging us to be courageous for the sake of what is true and good.
But we can’t shut out that voice entirely. Our conscience itches us, begins to burn, keeps us restless and awake at night.
This happens to all of us, as people living in such a compromising world. This happens to us as individuals and to us as larger groups.
The amazing thing is how easy it is to get comfortable down there in the whale belly. If Jonah could’ve gotten WiFi down there he may not have ever left.
But as we’ll now see, Jonah let himself feel deeply the pain of his spiritual condition, and he cried out to God.
Reading: Jonah 2:1-4,7-10
In his prayer to God in the belly of the whale Jonah vowed to not forsake his true loyalty, but rather to offer himself to the true God, and not to the idols of human powers and human self-regard. How well does he keep this promise?
Once he’s out of the whale belly wilderness and back on dry land Jonah sets his sight to Nineveh, as God urges him. He goes through the great city and speaks the words of a great prophet.
Now the book of Jonah doesn’t go into details of what he says, but here’s what prophets in the bible usually say:
“People, the way we’re going is a crooked way, it’s a twisted way. We’re worshiping our own human powers, rather than the true God. So we are spreading violence, we are spreading fear and depravity. We have forsaken God’s ways: we neglect those in need, we take advantage of those who don’t have power, we are vicious to the stranger in your midst, we let our appetites run wild and devour everything in their path. We worship false gods.
And the chickens are going to come home to roost. What you have sewn you will reap. In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown, and you will be oppressed as you have oppressed others. This is the word of God.”
When Jonah said this to the people of Nineveh, they heard him. And they didn’t just hear him, they heard God speaking through him.
This word spoke to the whale belly wilderness they’ve been keeping in their own hearts all this time about all the lowdown meanness that’s been carrying the day in their society.
They heard the truth of the prophet’s conviction. And they repented.
“When the news of all this reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” The sign of repentance. He told everyone else to do the same.
I quote, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent.’”
And God did relent. God was merciful.
Nineveh did not reap the violence they had sewn. But rather they were given the opportunity to thrive in a more just and devout way of life.
When Jonah saw all of this – it had to have appeared like a miracle – but when he saw the way the people of Nineveh heard God and turned themselves around, he was angry!
He was angry at God for being so merciful.
He had wanted the people to insist on staying vicious, so he could enjoy the bloody spectacle of God responding in kind.
The bible is full of prophets – and outside the bible history is full of prophets – who would have given their lives to succeed like Jonah succeeded. A lot of prophets have given their lives, but it was because people were so angry at what the prophet was telling them that they shot the messenger.
But that didn’t happen to Jonah. People heard God through him, and turned their lives around, and God gave them a second change.
Jonah became the agent for God’s grace, but he resented God for that grace.
He wanted to watch people getting their comeuppance.
And in this part of the story Jonah enters the wilderness a second time. This time it’s the desert outside of the city where, long story short, the sun beats down on him in his bitterness.
So Jonah is a kind of fool story about someone who creates his own spiritual wilderness by denying, first, how God urges us to act with courage and, second, denying the grace with which God urges us to act.
The first wilderness, the whale belly wilderness, comes when we are tempted away from courage. But if we pass through that wilderness and act on behalf of what is true and good with whatever boldness God is calling us to, the next temptation is to self-righteousness, the desire to show ourselves to be morally superior to other people, to be able to say “I told you so.” This puts us in a wilderness where we are scorched by the sun of our own harshness.
The story of Jonah instructs us about the folly that can befall people who dare to be a prophet. It seems to me we feel called to follow the way of Jesus as Christians, we are all called to certain kinds of prophethood, each in our own way. And these two kinds of wilderness is something we all probably have experienced, or are currently experiencing, whether we’re quite honest with ourselves or not.
The teaching of our ancient wisdom is that antidote is grace.
The good news of the story of Jonah is that God’s grace prevails when we surrender to it, even as we continue to be all too human.
God’s grace prevails.
Thanks be to God.
[Delivered March 5, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg]
Image art by Gertrude Hermes