by Daniel Harrell
I was late for last Sunday’s pot luck meeting due to the football game. My years in Boston made me a diehard New England Patriots fan (this despite Bill Belichick’s reputation as the Darth Vader of football). I had planned to set my DVR for the game, but the lure of live TV got the best of me. As most of you know by now, the Baltimore Ravens drove the length of the field in the final minute only to have their Pro Bowl placekicker, Billy Cundiff, shank a 32 yarder (the NFL equivalent of missing a tap-in putt for the championship). As thrilled as I was for the Patriots to win, I admit I felt horrible for Cundiff. I still can’t believe he missed that field goal. Going from hero to goat in a matter of seconds will haunt him the rest of his life. “It’s a kick I’ve made a thousand times,” Cundiff said. “I just went out there and didn’t convert. There’s really no excuse for it.” Not that he didn’t try to find an excuse. By Wednesday he said he’d had to unduly rush onto the field because of a scoreboard “malfunction” at the Patriots’ stadium. Something about how he coordinates his pre-kick routine to the scoreboard and thought it was only third down when in fact it was fourth down. Everyone knows how Belichick Belicheats.
For Cundiff it was what you might call trying to escape the belly of the beast—the beast in his case being the agony of defeat and the pillory of the press. In the case of the prophet Jonah, who missed his field goal on purpose, the beast was a big fish. Like Billy Cundiff, Jonah went from hero to goat in a matter of verses. The Lord ordered the prophet to the vile Assyrian Death Star city of Nineveh to warn them of their pending destruction. But Jonah, the only prophet ever to disobey a direct order from God, fled in the opposite direction. He went down to Joppa and bought a boat headed for Tarshish—the veritable end of the earth in those days. Knowing God as he did, where exactly did Jonah think he could hide? The Lord hurled a hurricane at Jonah’s ship to stop its forward progress. The ship’s pagan sailors, fearing the Lord’s fury, in turn hurled Jonah into the sea to stop the storm. Chapter 1 proved a study of contrasts. The pagan sailors respected the Lord more than Jonah did. They were willing to do whatever God wanted, as soon as they could figure it out. Jonah knew exactly what God wanted, but could not stand to be a part of it. The chapter ended with Jonah in the belly of the beast, setting the scene for one last hurl.
In the Veggie Tales Jonah Movie, this moment is set to music. Jonah is played by an asparagus who ponders his grim fate to the tune of a peppy Newsboys song:
Up to my ears
In bitter tears.
Can’t believe I’ve sunk this low
As I walk the plankton
Got outta Dodge,
Sailed on a bon-less
You said North,
I headed South.
Good Lord, that’s a really large mouth…
I’m sleeping with fishes here,
In the belly of the whale.
I’m highly nutritious here,
In the belly of the whale.
Had the book ended here, you’d conclude that to sleep with fishes is to be digested with them too. It wasn’t enough for disobedient Jonah to drown. Make this the end of the story and the huge fish a shark, and the moral would have been “disobey God and you’re doomed.”
But as we know, what looked like Jonah’s demise was in fact his deliverance. Even though Jonah rejected the Lord and disobeyed his commands, God saved him anyway. The belly of the beast became Jonah’s lifeboat of grace. Now I need to resist getting into the plausibility of whether humans can actually survive being swallowed at sea. I remember one Easter hearing a sermon on Jonah devoted to evidence regarding people who had spent various amounts of time lodged inside sea creatures. The Easter text was from Matthew 12 where Jesus treated Jonah’s travail as a sign of his own: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” After that sermon a number of listeners were appalled. They’d brought guests to church only to have the preacher that morning go on and on about how people get eaten by whales and survive? What about a whale’s stomach containing a noxious concoction of highly acidic bile that surely would have consumed Jonah in a matter of hours, not to mention days. Then there’s 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 by itself?
The preacher that Easter (not me by the way) used the famous tale of a 19th century whaler named James Bartley. Bartley was lost overboard in a struggle with a sperm whale but was reportedly found alive in the animal’s stomach when they hauled it aboard minutes later. If it happened to James Bartley it could have happened to Jonah. Unfortunately, evidence—both historical and anatomical—strongly suggests that the Bartley tale was a giant fish story concocted by some sea-faring opportunist eager to generate publicity for a local whale exhibition. The story got passed along to anybody gullible enough to believe it. Christians nevertheless insist that because Jesus treated Jonah literally—comparing his three days in a tomb to Jonah’s three days in a fish—that Jonah had to have been swallowed whole. Does this mean Jonah was dead like Jesus? That would make his regurgitation more like a resurrection. Only God could do that. Which may have been the point.
Jonah definitely considered himself as good as dead. His prayer—a classic Hebrew psalm of thanksgiving—has him descending all the way to the land of the dead. Fleeing God’s command, Jonah first goes down to a ship, and then once overboard, he goes 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 land”—to the netherworld, to the Pit of Sheol—whose bars closed upon him forever. They say drowning is a horrible way to die. When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. But for Jonah, his consciousness allows him one final plea: “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you.” And God intervenes. “You brought up my life from the Pit.” Jonah’s prayer comes from inside the fish—an underwater grave that would be his salvation. As with Jesus, death was not the last word.
That Jonah would pray is appropriate. Believer or skeptic, we all come to bleak moments when prayer is all we have left. I’m sure that Billy the Kicker said a prayer as that football hooked to the left. I just finished the best-selling book, Unbroken, by Laura Hildebrand of Seabiscuit fame. In it an Olympic miler and World War II bombardier named Louis Zamperini went down with his plane in the Pacific. He floated for almost two months with the two other survivors, living off rainwater and occasional albatrosses that perched on their heads. Never a religious man, Zamperini nevertheless prayed that if God would get him through this, he’d serve him with the rest of his life. Jesus prayed the same sort of thing in Gethsemane, asking that God might save sinners some other way. God’s answers didn’t come as one would want. That kick stayed left. Louis Zamperini was rescued from sea, but his rescuers were Japanese military who tortured him mercilessly until the end of the war. No sooner did Jesus say Amen than Judas showed up with soldiers to betray him. And while Jonah was saved from drowning, it was only so that he could be eaten alive.
To Jonah’s credit he does equate his being devoured with being delivered. With God, like it or not, life usually comes by way of death. You have to lose your life to find it. Thinking about this can be depressing—which led me this week to the existentialist writings of Søren Kierkegaard. I’ll often read Kierkegaard when I’m having a bad day to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth. Kierkegaard wrote a lot about human despair. He wrote how person who despairs bears all his past problems as the present. Memories haunt and extend their hampering effects into every moment of your existence. It’s what makes despair feel likes it’s going to go on forever. He wrote, “The most painful state of being is thinking about the future—particularly the future you’ll never have.”
Kierkegaard considered despair to be a basic loss of faith; the refusal to trust God. Despair takes two alternative shapes, he said: Either it is “the despair not to will to be oneself;” that is, the loss of will to be the person God calls you to be. Or it is “the despair to will to be oneself;” that is, the defiant, self-sufficient will which disdains the person God calls you to be. The first kind of despair is indifference while the second kind is arrogance. Arrogance cares only for itself while indifference doesn’t care about anything. We see both of these in Jonah. Jonah thanks God for his salvation, but is indifferent toward the pagan sailors who risked their own lives for his. He says no prayers for them. And though Jonah praises the Lord and promises to go to Temple every Sabbath from now on, he arrogantly includes no willingness to repent and go to Nineveh to do what God commanded.
Kierkegaard labeled despair as The Sickness Unto Death, a borrowed and juxtaposed phrase from John’s gospel. Jesus, when told that his friend Lazarus is sick, replies that “this sickness is not unto death.” Of course, Lazarus did die—Jesus even delays going to him to assure that he would. But in dying and then being raised by Jesus, we get a sneak preview of what Kierkegaard calls “the final death of death by death” that would be fully accomplished by Christ on the cross. “I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus said to Lazarus’ sister Martha in her despair, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” “This sickness is not unto death,” he said, “but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” You might say the same about Jonah. The last line of his prayer reads “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” Or another way to put it, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Either way, there are any number of Hebrew words for salvation or deliverance, but Jonah chooses the word yeshua, the same word given as the name for Jesus—another reason, perhaps, that Jesus, yeshua, ties himself so closely to Jonah.
Faith in Jesus often happens at the outer limits of our effort, in that despair where all we have left is a prayer. Confronted by the failure of own capacity and will, we recognize the necessity of that failure. It is only in failure that a lost creature can be finally found. Faith is the decisive act of surrender; we get up by giving up and giving ourselves over to God. “Those who cling to worthless idols,” Jonah prayed, who put their trust in their own capability and power, “forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” Aware of his utter failure and lostness, Jonah surrenders and is cast into the sea and onto the mercy of God. Though the sailors pitched him overboard, Jonah recognizes that God was really the one who did it. It was God who “engulfed me,” whose “waves and billows swept over me.” It was God who pulled Jonah as low as he could go, to the very Pit of Sheol itself, so that Jonah could fully experience God’s grace and be swallowed by it.
Jonah’s deliverance was itself a miraculous Old Testament sneak preview of Jesus’ resurrection. It was something only prayer could accomplish because it was something only God could do. Faith occurs at the outer limits of our effort, in that despair where all we have left is a prayer. Confronted by the failure of own capacity and will, we recognize the necessity of that failure. It is there that a lost creature can be finally found.
For Louis Zamperini, his return to America after years of Japanese torture brought him a hero’s welcome. But it also brought him financial ruin and a slow descent into depression and alcoholism. It wasn’t until his desperate wife dragged him to a Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade in the 50s that he remembered his promise to God on that life raft. Finally found by Jesus, Zamperini never took another drink, went on to run a camp for disadvantaged teenagers, and got involved at Hollywood Presbyterian Church where he met our own Dave Williamson. Dave wrote me this week about skiing with Zamperini, about his return to Japan in seek out and forgive his torturers. While in Japan at age 81 Zamperini made it back to the Olympics, running a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Nagano Winter Games. Dave says he’s still doing remarkably well at age 95. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” In Christ, the lost get found, sinners are redeemed, grace exonerates the guilty, justice comes for the oppressed—and wayward prophets get hurled onto the beach.
Clearly salvation can sometimes be messy. The Veggie Tales movie had Jonah singing as much:
Woke up this morning kinda blue,
Thinking through that age-old question:
How to exit a whale’s digestion?
It might behoove me to be heaved.
Head out like a human comet.
Hmm… I wonder what rhymes with comet?
I couldn’t help but recall Dawn and I flying home one time with Violet standing at our feet on the plane. She turned and gave us that funny look kids get before they throw up all over you. And then she threw up all over us. We still had a couple of hours left in the air. Taking for granted that whale vomit can only be worse than an toddler’s, Jonah had a lot of cleaning up to do. While we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we still must do something to show we’ve received it. Having experienced the deep grace of God, Jonah gets another shot at obedience. Chapter 3 will open with the Lord repeating his command to get up and go to Nineveh. Will Jonah do it? Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “It can be so hard to believe God, because it is so hard to obey God.” May Christ help us do both.