Ever felt washed up? Jonah knew all about it! Surely his story of being swallowed by a whale is one of the most widely known in popular culture – along with Noah’s Ark… though surely the band calling themselves Noah and the Whale are a prime example of how Scriptural references can get a bit mixed up out there! But if you want to check out the actual book, whoever penned the 4 chapters of Jonah has given us a salutary tale about what happens if you try to run away from God’s call – or from your own story. If it is autobiographical the author had definitely become a lot more humble by the end of his adventures to be able to write about his foolishness so openly… but maybe that’s the point.
I find I have a lot of sympathy with the miserable prophet – he really is a dismal, self-serving specimen most of the time and even when God comes through and saves the city through his word he petulantly whines, “I knew you would do that! That’s why I didn’t want to go!” Why did God choose him to take the message to Nineveh when He must have known it would be a battle all the way? Is God up for a fight with us sometimes? Actually the whole story seems to have a repeating theme of judgment and salvation… Why did I say I have some sympathy with him again? Ah, because he’s so human – and although hardly likeable, Jonah even has moments where courage and faith shine through.
So first he apparently brings the judgement of the terrible storm on the superstitious sailors – a lot like those scary scenes in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’! They all soon discover whose God is the biggest when finally picked out by lot as the culprit, Jonah, in a redemptive moment, comes clean, admits his fault and decides he’s going to have to walk the plank to save them all. They are more compassionate than he is and do all they can to save his life… in fact God Himself has to point out the prophet’s hard-heartedness at the very end of the book, because he apparently cares more about a useful plant dying than the thousands of people and cattle (cattle? God cares about animals too?) that God has just spared. Anyway, to stop the storm, yes, Jonah has to go into the waves: fortunately at that moment a ‘big fish’ (another of God’s friends) swims by to save him from drowning – disgusting but effective.
The peon of praise rising from the darkness of the huge beast’s belly is an especially challenging twist in the story – have you tried honouring God in such dank and desperate surroundings? Jonah was in an uncomfortable and disgusting place, but he knew he was being saved from something worse through it – and he recognised the idolatry in his rebellious attitude, in the best line in the whole book:
‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD’ Jonah 2v8-9
No more idolatry for Jonah – he has discovered the grace of God and his faith has saved him. Indeed, salvation comes through the belly of the whale – which is just what Jesus said about no sign being given to us except the sign of Jonah as He then gave Himself to death and burial in order to rise again. Salvation comes through the dark experiences of life – as Richard Rohr has it so well: I have quoted him on this before in Buoyancy Aid. It is the paschal mystery of descent and ascent, the pattern Jesus set for us… through suffering to glory. If you haven’t read Rohr’s ‘Everything Belongs’ – that’s the homework for this week 😉
So after all that, Jonah was ‘spat up’… what a moment! Released from his foetid prison, 3 day sentence served – but probably covered in whale slime and feeling pretty traumatised. In fact someone told me the other day that people come out of such marine adventures completely white because of the stomach acid, so he must’ve been a strange and leprous sight when he pitched up in the Assyrian capital with his message of doom – no wonder they listened to him! And there’s the rub: he miraculously got out of one situation and found himself right back where he started, because the word of the Lord hadn’t changed – he still had to go and tell Nineveh of their coming doom! Could be he understood the danger more profoundly now… but still, he lost the battle not to go.
There really is no escape from God’s plans and He doesn’t give up on us. That’s good of course… because I feel like whale vomit right now too! Jonah’s story makes me wince and smile at myself and at our current situation. Just like him we have escaped our fate ‘by the skin of our teeth’ and ‘through the belly of the whale’. We can be grateful for salvation, because much as we love Jessica of course it would not have been happy and healthy to have been legally tied into each other’s lives if there was not enough mutual grace for their relationship to endure. Surely it would only have got worse for all of us and our son’s hard and selfish decision came in the nick of time?
So last Monday 10th instead of having a wedding, we were back at Manchester airport – heavy-hearted parents putting her on a plane back to the US, one way. ‘Lord, please bless her as she starts her life again…’ And I have had to pick myself up and work really hard all week to clear up the mess and regain equilibrium – clean out the flat and settle affairs. Yes, deep down I am relieved and recognise the ultimate rightness of what Sam has done, but if even if this is salvation… I still feel like whale vomit.
And now, just like Jonah, no escape – I have to get up and go back to the start – because Sam still has a brain tumour 😦