Tuesday, March 1, 2016

In the Belly

Jonah 2

I hope that you’ve been thinking all week what it would be like to spend three days in a whale’s belly because that’s where we left off last week and today we encounter Jonah.  This was probably not a pleasant experience with all those gastric juices swirling around him.  If anything would make a person turn from their old ways and start fresh again it would be an experience like this, or one would think.  How did Jonah find himself in this predicament?

A quick review of chapter one from last week reminds us that God tells Jonah to go to the evil city of Nineveh and prophecy repentance.  Jonah flees in the opposite direction on a boat to Tarshish.  A storm arises.  Jonah, it is discovered because of his fleeing, is the cause of the storm.  Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, they did and the sea calmed down.  And as luck, or providence would have it there happened to be a big fish just underneath the boat to scoop Jonah up. 

Let’s move on to chapter two from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’, the Bible in contemporary language………….Then Jonah prayed to his God from the belly of the fish. He prayed:
"In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God.
He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, 'Help!'
You heard my cry.
You threw me into ocean's depths,
into a watery grave,
With ocean waves, ocean breakers
crashing over me.
I said, 'I've been thrown away,
thrown out, out of your sight.
I'll never again lay eyes
on your Holy Temple.'
Ocean gripped me by the throat.
The ancient Abyss grabbed me and held tight.
My head was all tangled in seaweed
at the bottom of the sea where the mountains take root.
I was as far down as a body can go,
and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever—
Yet you pulled me up from that grave alive,
O God, my God!
When my life was slipping away,
I remembered God,
And my prayer got through to you,
made it all the way to your Holy Temple.
Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds,
walk away from their only true love.
But I'm worshiping you, God,
calling out in thanksgiving!
And I'll do what I promised I'd do!
Salvation belongs to God!"
10 Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore.
This is quite an experience to live through but I don’t think that is what Jonah wanted.  Salvation in the form of a big fish saves him from drowning but it was death that he was looking for when he asked the sailors to toss him out to sea.  And so the power struggle between God and Jonah continues. 

After the sailors threw him overboard he hits the brackish cold waters and begins his descent into the deep dark waters.  While God is present, there is still something that is unresolved between the two of them.  It is Jonah’s will over and against the will of God.  Usually that’s not a good place to be in. 

Even though God provides a means of rescue you know that God continues to hold Jonah in the whale’s abdomen vacillating between life and death.  While we cannot claim to know the mind of God we can have a look at this character named Jonah and begin to build a portrait of him.  Parts of his entire story might resonate with you because his weaknesses and qualities display some of the most basic human emotions and attributes. 

Jonah is a complicated man and I believe he wrestles greatly in his relationship with God.    He displays a very willful disobedience when God asks him to perform something that he just flat out doesn’t want to do.  Jonah is a fool to think that he can run away from God.  He couldn’t run and he couldn’t hide in the bottom of the boat.  Yet Jonah knew what needed to happen when that storm blew in.  He needed to extricate himself from his sorry situation so that others don’t perish on his account. And what did he do in the belly of the whale?

He prayed.  He prayed in the cadence of a Psalm which would have been deep within his Hebrew tradition and within his heart.  Psalms are powerful that way.  This could have been a ‘dark night of the soul’ experience for Jonah where he would painfully look at his life and the ways in which he placed self over God.  It could have been a time for soul searching, hard, cathartic work.   But no.  Jonah’s Psalm of Thanksgiving reveals very little of a penitential heart.  In fact it was quite the opposite and incongruent with storyline. 

Rather than take these three days to really re-examine his life he prayed, “When my life was slipping away, I remembered God, and my prayer got through to you.”  Pretty doggone boastful, and filled with hyperbole if you ask me.  As an aside, some scholars believe that this Psalm was added much later than when the rest of the book of Jonah was written which is why he seems to already know the end of his story.  But this is what we have canonized in the Hebrew Bible and so this is what we use for reflection.

The question for all of us is if we had three days in a vile and hopeless place would you take that time to re-examine your life?  Would you or could you be honest with yourself?  What would your prayer sound like?  Jonah really didn’t pass the test if this were a test.  He failed once again. 

Reviewing your life and faith is what these forty days of Lent are calling us to do; they are our ‘belly of the fish’ experience.  They beg us to look at the ways in which we have been willfully disobedient, when we have not trusted God with our whole hearts when we have not walked in the path of Jesus.  These days beckon you to be brutally honest with yourself about every aspect of your life.  They bid you to chip away as the mistakes that you have made in the past and in the present and to realign yourself with the God who created us.

Michelangelo painted a lot in his lifetime.  But the Sistine Chapel was particularly challenging because it was not an oil painting but fresco painting which is much more difficult using pigment and plaster.  When you make a mistake it’s not a simply matter of painting over it but you must take a hammer and chip away at the plaster and remove it entirely before repainting the correct image. 

This process in fresco painting and indeed all painting is called pentimento, which is related to the word for repent.  The artist is in effect repenting for the mistake in the fresco that he has made.[i]  When Michelangelo made a mistake he had to chip away at his work before he could realign it more properly to make a pleasing image, before this great masterwork, the Sistine Chapel ceiling could be called complete.

We must chip away the plaster mistakes that we have made and begin to paint fresh an image that is pleasing before the Lord. Pentimento is not for sissy’s. Repentance is not easy work but if we are to walk with Jesus toward the cross of salvation it indeed must happen.  Before we taste life we must experience death, death to our old ways, our ineffective manners of communication, our inability to live to our greatest potential that God has lovingly given to us.

Three days and three nights in the belly of a whale and even the whale, in the end, could not stomach Jonah.  Jonah knew what to do it’s just that his experience did not change him as we will see.  He missed the mark.  And with a great, whale size heave, out Jonah comes onto the seashore and still the tension between God and Jonah is unresolved.  Let us learn from this.

May these days in the belly for you be provocative and move you to a different place of understanding.  May your Lent be a time of introspection, examination and pentimento.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you as you contemplate and envision the transformation that is possible with God who makes all things new. 


[i] MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  Fellowship of Prayer, Saturday March 10, ‘Chipping Away’.

No comments: