by Daniel Harrell
One of our ReForming visioning team members whom we commission this morning forwarded a few thoughts from the popular contemplative Richard Rohr, apropos to this season of change as a church. Rohr writes, “Transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart… forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. … Spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, but then allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore. You can see why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol for many Jews and Christians.”
In the grand American whale tale, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville had his literary parson preach it like this: “We feel the floods surging over us; we sound to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! … All the things that God would have us do are hard for us—remember that—and hence, God oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”
Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet ever to refuse to obey God. The only one to run away from his calling and mission. God ordered Jonah to Nineveh—the capital of Assyria and ancient nemesis of Israel—and warn of its doom. With every good Hebrew, Jonah would have welcomed God’s wrath against this odious country: Let drop Thy heavenly hammer and rain down some serious brimstone, plague and pestilence, Sodom and Gomorrah style.
Except Jonah knew God would be merciful—that his justice always bent toward redemption. Jonah hated how God was always so free with his grace. So Jonah runs away from Nineveh to the seaside city of Joppa where he finds what was known as a “Tarshish ship,” headed to the opposite side of the world. We read Jonah “paid his fare”, but the Hebrew actually says he “paid her fare,” implying he bought the whole boat. He didn’t want this ship making any stops. Herman Melville’s parson goes on to expound: “With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign.”
Like any defied boss or disobeyed commander, the Lord could not countenance such insubordination on the part of his prophet. So God hurled a hurricane at Jonah’s boat so furious as to freak out the experienced sailors on board. They started hurling cargo overboard and praying to every god they could concoct. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously put it: “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
In ancient times bad weather was invariably somebody’s fault, so the sailors drew straws to see who to blame. Jonah drew the short straw, so the sailors pounced on him for corroboration: “Why has this calamity has come upon us? Who are you? Where do you come from? What is you job? Why are you here?” Jonah identified himself as a Hebrew prophet who worked for the Creator of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in it. He’s shirked his work. Fled the scene. Skipped town. Gone AWOL. “What have you done?!” the sailors exclaim. “You serve the God who creation the ocean and think you can escape God on the ocean? What kind of dumb prophet are you?” They demanded to know his plans for placation: how to appease the Lord’s anger? The jig was up. Jonah instructed the sailors to toss him into the sea and all will be calm. “This storm is my fault.”
You may recall my own Jonah-like-journey to the pastorate. I got the call to ministry at a fraternity party of all places. I can’t exactly say what happened. I hadn’t been drinking. I just got a clear sense that ministry was for me. I confirmed the notion with a couple of friends and mentors, and by the next afternoon had dropped my business major and picked up religion and Greek. My fraternity brothers were horrified. I was throwing away a budding and lucrative career in design and marketing for the sake of church suppers and countless committee meetings?
Maybe they were right. So I delayed going to seminary, I shirked my call. Besides, I could do plenty of ministry in other ways. In fact, I’d been invited to lead a seminar as part of a Christian fellowship conference. Unfortunately, the conference fell on the same weekend as my university graduation. But the girl I was dating was going to the conference and I wanted to spend time with her. I arranged for the university mail my diploma. Sure, my parents were disappointed: they’d sacrificed and labored to put me through college. But I’d made up my mind. God told me this woman could be the one.
At the conference, however, the woman for me told me God told her something different: that I was not the one for her. She’d been fine with marrying a business major, but she had no interest in being a preacher’s wife. Rejected, I slunk home to live in my parents’ basement, below deck in their ship, so to speak. They said me that if I was going to live with them now I had to pay rent. Needing to make some money. I tried my hand at the only job I could find: selling dictionaries door-to-door.
My first day I knocked on a mobile home door and was greeted by a woebegone housewife who politely agreed to hear my pitch. Mid-spiel, her husband pulled up in his pick-up, saw my car, burst through the door in a jealous rage, having caught me showing dictionaries to his wife. He let loose such a string of expletives that I couldn’t help but recommend he try one of my dictionaries. Instead he went for his shotgun which was my cue to leave. I arrived home to discover the postman had unceremoniously delivered my college diploma. I opened the envelope and started at it, and realized the best years of my life were now over. College was finished, my girlfriend was gone, my parents were charging me rent to live in their basement, my friends had moved on to creative careers while I dodged crazy husbands with guns, a pathetic book peddler trying to make tuition for seminary and become an irrelevant reverend preaching forgettable sermons nobody can understand anyway for an institution in overall decline, sinking with questionable influence, marginalized and meaningless. Just throw me overboard and put us all out of our misery
The sailors concede, but not without first praying to the God they’d never met, begging him not to hold this deed against them. The pagan sailors display more reverence than Israel’s prophet. They prayed while Jonah slept. They fear the Lord, Jonah rejects the Lord. The sailors are willing to do whatever God wants, as soon as they can figure it out. Jonah knows exactly what God wants, but cannot stand to be a part of it. The sailors pitched him overboard and the storm stopped—as with those disciples caught in a boat on a tumultuous sea with Jesus. The storm was scary enough, but Jesus stopping the storm was terrifying. The sailors turned white as sails, and “they feared the Lord even more.” “Who is this?” exclaimed the shocked disciples, “whom even the wind and the sea obey?”
Despite Jonah’s disobedience, God won’t let him drown. Instead, the “LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” If the story ended here, you’d conclude that “to swallow” is the same as “to eat;” as if it wasn’t good enough for disobedient Jonah to drown, God wanted him digested too. But knowing the rest of the tale, we know that what looked like Jonah’s grave was all grace. Jesus tied his own death and burial to this story, calling it “the sign of Jonah.” It is the reason early Christians used the fish as a sign of God’s mercy. Jonah rejected the Lord and disobeyed his commands, but God saved him anyway.
I remember hearing an Easter sermon from Matthew 12 where Jesus treats Jonah’s travail as akin to his own: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The preacher went on to defend the plausibility of a person surviving being swallowed at sea. From the pews, the people were appalled. They’d invited guests to church only to have the preacher go on and on about how people get eaten by big fish and pull through? What about a whale’s stomach containing a noxious concoction of highly acidic bile that would have consumed Jonah in a matter of hours, not to mention days? What about the likelihood of lost limbs, an open gash or decapitation upon entry due to a whale’s narrow esophagus and many giant, jagged teeth? Is Jesus’ resurrection not hard enough to believe on its own? It’d had taken a miracle for Jonah to live. Which is probably the real point.
Running from God, Jonah went down to a ship, then overboard down into the heart of the sea, down through the seaweed that wrapped around his head, down to the roots of the mountains, down the very bottom of the ocean, and ultimately down “to the pit”—the netherworld, the belly of Sheol—whose bars closed upon him forever. They say drowning is a horrible way to go. For Jonah, his consciousness allowed him one final plea: “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you.” And God intervened. “You brought up my life from the Pit.”
Jonah prayed his gratitudes while yet in the belly of the fish. To Jonah’s credit, he equated being devoured with being delivered. I love the King James version here: “They that wait upon lying vanities, forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving, and will pay that which I have vowed: salvation belongs to the Lord.” There are any number of Hebrew words for salvation, but Jonah prays the word yeshua, the same word given as the name for Jesus—another reason, perhaps, that Jesus, Yeshua, ties himself to Jonah.
Cast into the arms oh Jesus, grace gulps Jonah down and pukes him up on a new and unexpected beach. “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” The verb is to vomit. Deliverance, while merciful, can sometimes be messy. But sometimes that’s what it takes.
The grace that saves does not absolve us of responsibility. But neither does it bully us into obedience. I like how the mystic Julian of Norwich envisioned grace as courtesy rather than coercion; as invitation rather than imposition. “God despises nothing of what he has made,” she said, “… he surrounds us so tenderly while we are yet in our sins.” And even when we, like Jonah, forsake the embrace, mercy still surrounds us like a mighty ocean, until finally, we’re swallowed whole and can’t resist the grace anymore.
Richard Rohr concludes, “In the moments of insecurity and crisis, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ don’t really help; they just increase the shame, guilt, pressure, and likelihood of going backwards. It’s the deep ‘yeses’ that carry you through.”
Finally thrown up on that farthest shore, we can look back at what’s happened and see God’s hand in it. Then with Jonah, we will sing our own gratitudes and realize again how our salvation only and always comes from the Lord.