June 8, 2014
I will be out of the pulpit for the next two Sundays, as I start vacation tomorrow. Tanya asked me what I was going to do and I said it begins with an “f” and ends with “ish.” She said, oh, you’re going to finish some things around the house finally? Actually, that was just a joke I told her I was going to use today, but that was the actual response she had.
Some years ago a friend of mine asked how things were going. It had been one of those weeks that became very busy with everything but what I had planned to do, so I remarked that I could get some ministry done if it weren’t for all of the interruptions. In his wisdom he offered me a really great response, saying maybe the interruptions are the ministry.
I have never allowed myself to forget those words.
As we continue our study of Jonah this morning we come to the most familiar part of the story, where Jonah is swallowed by the great fish and spends three days in the belly of the fish before being expelled back onto dry land.
1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’
5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.
7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
That ends on a rather picturesque image, doesn’t it?
How many interruptions have you experienced in life? By interruption, I mean some event or experience that triggered a time of questioning, suffering, difficulty, conflict, or other generally negative event. How many times did you see those experiences as a teachable moment? I’ve always been a bit wary of that expression – teachable moment – because it’s generally a euphemism for pain or suffering.
The story of Jonah tells us that God brings this event upon Jonah in order to get his attention. It’s an interruption. It’s a course correction.
I’m not willing to say that everything we experience in life is caused by God. I regularly hear people say it was meant to be or everything happens for a reason. I don’t look at life that way. Feel free to believe that if you wish. Rather than saying everything happens for a reason, my preference is to say that God can bring a redemptive moment out of everything we experience. And some of those moments are ones we would never welcome and ones we would avoid if at all possible, but still they come our way. The important question is not so much why do they happen, but what will they teach us?
Teachable moments or interruptions, whatever we want to call such life moments, are very important to us because of the opportunity to learn something God desires to teach us.
Jonah had some things to learn –
1. Jonah needed to learn to love people.
The story of Jonah dates to the time when the people of Israel were coming back to their homeland after decades of captivity in Babylon. It was an experience that made them distrustful of others who were not like them, people of other nationalities, people of other ethnicities. They became more tribal in their thinking and caused them to believe that God confined his love and grace only to them.
They returned to their homeland and they found it populated with all manner of nationalities and ethnicities, and they didn’t at all approve of their presence in the land.
When you read the pages of Scripture we find God is, time after time, seeking to stretch people’s hearts and minds to be accepting of others. This is the heart of the story of Jonah. In the Gospels we find Jesus trying to open the hearts and minds of people to love others. In the letters of Paul we find him encouraging the churches to not reject the Gentile people.
And here we are today, in our modern age, still suffering from the same deficiency of heart and mind. For all of our supposed openness today, so many hearts and minds remain closed to others. It’s not just one group of people who suffer from this deficiency of heart and mind, but all kinds. People of all manner of perspectives gather in their groups and in various ways assert their pride in their belief that they are not like those others.
When Jesus called us to love others, he really meant it. He meant it for everyone – everyone is called to love others. Jesus called us to love our neighbors. And when he said to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27) one of the teachers of the law asked and who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) Can’t you hear the smugness and arrogance in his voice? He was seeking to excuse himself from who he was called to love. Jesus said our neighbor is whoever is in need, and he used the example of not just someone in need but someone who was despised by most people.
It’s tough to love other people. Some people work really hard to make themselves lovable, don’t they? But we are called to love them anyway. The Ninevites were people. They weren’t enemies of God, but his children. Jonah couldn’t see beyond the borders of Israel, in terms of mercy. Where do we erect our borders? Where is the limit beyond which we won’t go?
I think it’s fairly obvious in the Jonah story that Jonah represents faith and the sailors represent the world at large. There is, far too often, a gap between the two. Sometimes, religious people can be far too condescending towards the world at large. But the opposite can also be true; sometimes, the world at large is far too condescending towards religious people. The church too often sees those on the outside as unrepentant sinners and those outside of the church too often see it as a place of uptight hypocrites. Both need each other.
2. Jonah needed to learn that God is relentless in pursuing us.
C. S. Lewis spoke of God’s relentless pursuit of him.
I like that way of describing God’s love for us, and for others – God is relentless in his pursuit of us. He doesn’t push himself on us, certainly, there is free choice, but I believe that God is working always in the lives of every person in some manner. It may be very obvious to us or it may not be obvious at all, but he is there.
The question is, what does it take to get the attention of some people?
The time in the great fish was a time of reflection and reorientation for Jonah. His dire circumstances, as is often true for us, grabbed his attention. Unfortunately, his attention quickly reverted to his old prejudices as soon as he was back on dry land.
It’s hard to maintain the sense of conviction that often accompanies our times of struggle, but it is imperative that we learn from those moments. Richard Rohr says, We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers.
Jonah’s experience in the great fish was a great teacher, but he turned out to be a poor student, quickly forgetting what he had learned in his time of adversity.
Do not forget that God is pursuing you, and me, at all times. He is pursuing us with his love and his grace.
3. Jonah needed a lesson in grace.
Jonah somewhat learns his lesson. I say somewhat because Jonah does not come around totally to the mission given to him by God.
The sad part of the story of Jonah is this – it wasn’t his mission that bothered him, but the idea that his mission might succeed. Jonah did not want to see the Ninevites repent; he wanted to see them destroyed.
There are many things we need in this world, but perhaps what we need most is more grace.