Jonah Week 3: Prayers From the Belly of the Fish

This is part of a Lenten sermon series on the Sign of Jonah

Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10

I have been hounded by dogs this week. It seemed that everywhere I turned there was something about dogs. Last Wednesday, we talked about the poem “The Hound of Heaven” where the writer describes God’s relentless pursuit of us like a hound on a trail, following us down the labyrinthine pathways of our lives. There was the memory I shared of the dog chasing me on the bike—a familiar childhood scene–and then the reality as an adult reflecting on this incident that the little dog of whom I was so afraid saved me from peddling into traffic by scaring me (or more likely herding me) off the road into a minor accident with a bunch of brush and leaping to love me with licks on the face as if to say “horary! I saved you!” My neighbors across the street have two dogs, Kaiser and Atlas, who have come to visit me almost daily as of late; greeting me as I get out of the car when I get home and escorting me to the door. Everywhere there have been dogs and their people outside enjoying the spring weather. In a week’s time not a day has gone by that I have not seen or talked about dogs.

 And then there was the preparation for tonight’s sermon.

‘The Lord provided a large fish…’ When pastors prepare a sermon they often look at the text in the original language, in this case Hebrew, to see if there is something in particular that sticks out or some kind of better understanding or interpretation than can be gained than from just the English. ‘The Lord Provided a Large Fish.’ I almost couldn’t believe it. The Hebrew word for ‘fish’ is pronounced dog. Actually it’s the good Southern pronunciation too—DAWG. The Lord provided a large DAWG.

Sometimes God hounds us and hounds us about something and we resist and resist as hard as we can, often times fearing the outcome or consequences. What if? I can’t! If only. Why me? Not now! Finally, we give in, grit our teeth and do it, bracing ourselves for the worst—for the fangs and claws—and sometimes it is hard, sometimes it does hurt, and sometimes it’s just a puppy.

Or a fish.

So where did we leave Jonah last week? He left us, once again, with a few questions didn’t he? That feather headed man had attempted to fly away from the presence of God, jumped a ship to Tarshish and gotten caught in a big storm. Not just any storm either. God hurled a wind upon the sea and no matter what those experienced mariners did, they finally gave in and pitched Jonah overboard into the churning waves. The storm subsided. The frightened men left on the boat are saved.

Now what? Will Jonah drown in the sea? Has God found him only to punish him for running away? Or will God convince him to do what he asks? And still we want to know: what’s the real reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place?

‘The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah and Jonah was in the belly of that fish three days and three nights.’ Nope, Jonah does not drown. In fact, God provides a way. Though I’m guessing it sure didn’t look like a good way. We can only imagine, but my guess is that seeing the gaping mouth of a giant fish didn’t look at all like a life preserver or personal flotation device.

When we think of Jonah this is what we picture: a little guy in the belly of a whale. There are countless cartoons and images of Jonah like this. I remember a cartoon where Popeye had been swallowed by a whale and he did all kinds of things to make the whale sneeze him out onto shore, including tickling him with a seagull feather. This is the place we are all familiar with, right here in the belly of the great big fish. Could there be a reason why we all think of him like this? Obviously it is a pretty memorable image, but there may be more to it than this?

Like many people in scripture including Jesus himself, and even like all of us from time to time, Jonah is spending some time in the wilderness. Wait, you may say, Jonah is in a fish, not the desert or wilderness. But Jonah is like the people of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years; Moses spending time as a shepherd before meeting God at the burning bush; or Jesus himself spending forty days in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil and even crying out to God on the cross. The wild lands in scripture are the uncharted spaces; the places on the map of our lives where it says “Here there be Monsters”; the places we feel lost and abandoned; the times when we do not know what to do or where to turn. Be it in the desert, in our living room, in a hospital room, in a dorm room, or in the gut of a giant fish, we all have those times when it seems like nothing right could ever happen. When we feel abandoned. My God why have you forsaken me?

On Jonah’s map of life where it says Uncharted Waters: Here there be Monsters, there is also an X marking the spot that says: You Are Here. I think we have such a fascination with this part of the story because at some time or another, we know this feeling.

It is here that Jonah prays. This is an interesting prayer, too, because unlike my prayers from the belly of life’s sea monsters which are usually some super simple version of “heeeelp!!!”, he is praying as though he has already been saved. “I called to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me, out of the belly of the land of the dead, I cried and you heard my voice.” Why this even sounds like a psalm doesn’t it? There are several psalms that talk about things like this, too. In some places he even takes words almost exactly like words from some of the psalms.

Almost. But not.

Truth is that Jonah’s prayer is centered on himself and his own suffering. Sure, several psalms have an account of the writer’s sufferings, but these are usually only a part of the verses and a smaller part at that. The far greater focus is on God. But here, Jonah goes on and on about the seaweed and the waves and the life ebbing away.

Is there even any place in here where Jonah says he is sorry? Nope, there isn’t. Let’s not forget that the whole reason we’re here in the belly of the beast with him is because he ran away from the presence of the Lord. God called him. He said no. More than that, he did the absolute opposite of what God called him to do. And he ran. That’s how he ended up in the boat. That’s how he ended up over the side of the boat down into the waves. But here in his great psalm to God he says “you cast me into the deep into the heart of the seas and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ ” Suddenly, it is God who “drove him away”?? Hmmm.

Some say Jonah was repentant. Oh really? Where? I fail to see any clear evidence in this prayer. The best he can muster is: ‘As my life was ebbing away I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you in your Holy Temple.’ Then he adds some sort of flourish to compare himself favorably to those pagans who threw him out of the boat: ‘Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.’ Really? Those vain idol worshiping guys who didn’t want to kill you and prayed to YOUR GOD when you wouldn’t? After all of this it is hard to swallow that last bit: ‘But I, with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you, what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

But then, an amazing thing happens. Deliverance does belong to the Lord and, apparently, the Lord is willing to deliver unrepentant prophets. The Lord spoke to the fish and it spewed him up onto dry land. If we look seriously at Jonah’s prayer I don’t think we can say that he repented or even actually asked for God to forgive him for running away. He does speak well of God, after a whole lot of speaking about his own struggle that was, at least in his view, brought about by God. But that act of mercy—making it back to dry land—that was nothing we could say he “deserved” from that prayer. It was God’s act of grace.

So what of our questions? Jonah didn’t drown in the sea after all. But did God hound him on the sea and send a (DAWG) fish to swallow him as punishment for running away? No, actually, it looks like those three days in the belly of the fish were so that God could save Jonah! He hounded him and caught him to save him.

Last week I said that the theme of this story is that God is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and overflowing in steadfast love. Jonah’s three days in the fishbelly and ending up on dry land are a fine example of this truth about God. There will be more. But what now? Will God convince Jonah to do what he asks? And still we want to know: what’s the real reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place? Well, you’ll just have to come back next week to find out.

In the mean time, we can know that our God is a God of mercy and second chances. Even when we are too stubborn to realize what we’ve done wrong, who knows, he may just be gracious and merciful anyway.

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