Monday, March 21, 2016

Palms, Precipice, Passion

Luke 19: 28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  They said, “The Lord needs it.”  Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 2008 it was quite a joyful day in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  It was a hot and sunny afternoon.  At 2:00 pm we gathered on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives at the Church of Bethphage near ancient Bethany. There was a blessing of the palms and then the processional of people began.  There were large palm branches, at least seven feet long and short ones and palms that were folded into elaborate crosses, we each were holding a palm or an olive branch to wave high in the air.

At the beginning of the procession were flags from several Palestinian boy and Girl Scout troops leading the way followed by monks and priests and choirboys and seminarians and people.  Hundreds of them maybe even thousands.  And as we processed we sang because there was so much joy for this day.  We sang our songs in different languages from all over the world, sometimes they converged and sometimes not.  It really didn’t matter; we were all headed to the same place.  Jerusalem.  On Palm Sunday.

When we reached the summit we walked in line along the narrow street on the ridge of the Mount, before we funneled our way through an alleyway.  All I could see in front of me were lines of people perhaps 8 or 10 abreast waving their palms and all I could see behind me were lines of people perhaps 8 or 10 abreast, also waving their palms.  People were not complaining, kind, and full of happiness.  

I looked up and around while I waited patiently to begin the descent.  The sky was a brilliant robin’s egg blue, nary a cloud.  The pale limestone’s of the very old buildings and souks were hardly visible because of the people but you could still have a glimpse of one or two every now and then.  The keffiyah-headed merchants stood outside to sell water to a hot and thirsty crowd. 

And to the west was Jerusalem, beautiful bustling Jerusalem with glorious Jerusalem stone glimmering in the sunlight.  And there in front of us was the ancient walled Old City.  No mistaking it with the iconic Dome of the Rock.  There was no thought of impending doom or betrayal or death or danger. That didn’t even cross our minds; we were part of a happy parade even though the main donkey and its rider were physically absent.  Although not in our hearts.

We marched down into the Kidron Valley and up again to the Lion's Gate at the Old City and we entered. Once inside the Old City we processed into the courtyard of St. Ann's where there was a group singing 'Hosanna' in a very catchy Middle Eastern tune accompanied by the djembe drums.  It was a long afternoon but so very joyful and satisfying.  I ate a little, absorbed the wild diversity of the crowd and then I headed back to my apartment knowing that holy week was about to begin, but not feeling it yet because of the delightful and satisfying feeling of the day.

I think that this could have been very much the same feel that the people who followed Jesus felt on that day as they laid down their cloaks and were grabbing the branches off of the olive and palm trees to wave.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna!  Save us Lord!  You see they recognized him as the Messiah, the one who could save them, the one who could bring about peace and equity to their poor and oppressed lives. 

I wonder how Jesus would have experienced that day.  I think it might have been somewhat similar.  The robin’s egg blue sky, the golden Jerusalem stone, the hot air, the merchants selling their wares and the palm and olives branches waving him onward.

I wonder what it would have been like for Jesus to be atop that donkey meandering in the crowd on the ridge of the Mount of Olives hearing the people shout Hosanna and knowing that the salvation that they were hoping for was not exactly the kind of salvation he would be offering.

I wonder if he was just intent on getting on with it, of traversing the Kidron Valley into Jerusalem for the very last time. 

I wonder if he paused on the crest of the mount, which for him would have been more like a precipice of craggy stone and thought, ‘I’m not going to do this, don’t make me do this Lord’. 

He could see from the top of the mount, the City of Gold.  He would know that in just a few short days the worst would happen to him.  That the message he had been preaching against the Roman empire of domination, God’s message of fairness and equity and love had caught up with him. He’d have his last Passover meal, be betrayed and mocked and then finally crucified. 

He was on top of the mount and was looking at his certain death.  Yet he made a decision to forge ahead.  With the crowds of supporters surrounding him he prodded the donkey to fearlessly take the first step into his future.  That’s how much he believed in the kingdom of God.  He believed that it was time for a different kingdom to rein, a kingdom of abundant peace.  He knew who and what he was facing.  And he rode on.  And the people followed and gave voice to his ministry of hope, that in the world of the Roman Empire there was a merciful God through whom they could depend.  Christ was showing them the way through difficult times.

Palm Sunday presents us with a choice as well. Will we or won’t we stand at the precipice of today and forge ahead?  Henri Nouwen reminds us, “We all have dreams about the perfect life: a life without pain, sadness, conflict, or war. The spiritual challenge is to experience glimpses of this perfect life right in the middle of our many struggles.”[i]

You know there are times in your life when all you can see before you is chaos.  These are the times when the future utterly horrifies you and you wonder how in the world are you ever going to make it.  When will the light of that proverbial tunnel ever come? You don’t even know how to begin.  Well remember Jesus.  Remember that he faced that same chaos and forged ahead.  He has shown us that we must go through the sewage of life; we must traverse that dark and long tunnel keeping the faith.   And then, like Jesus, because of Jesus prod the donkey forward because you know there is a future that is hope-filled.  Hosanna, Lord, Hosanna.

To view photos from that very special day in 2008 please click HERE

[i] Henri Nouwen, Facing Mortality.  From Daily Meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society. 2016.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Jonah, the Pouter Prophet

Jonah 4
In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote a song that was named, “With God on our Side”.  It was quite a poignant song in the day with lyrics about the nature of human thought and behavior and the nature of God.  It still is for our time too.  You see he addresses the idea that humans believe God will invariably side with them and that God will oppose those with whom they disagree.  He makes it clear in the first verse of this song: 

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less.
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Known as a war ballad, each verse then address’ a particular historical event such as the slaughter of the Native Americans, the Spanish-American war, the Civil war, the World Wars, Holocaust, the Cold War and even the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot.  Dylan’s underlying question, does God choose sides, is appropriate today for our scriptural reflection.

We’re finally at the conclusion of our Lenten four part series on the Book of the Prophet Jonah.  Each week has built upon the previous week spinning a tale that at least in part has been told throughout the ages.  I bet you didn’t know that Jonah was so rich and colorful.

Jonah is told to go to Ninevah to set them straight.  He refuses.  He boards a boat, gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a whale, and then regurgitated by that same whale.  Then smelly old Jonah reconsiders and heads off to Ninevah probably under some duress.  Ninevah, as we saw last week, repents of their misguided ways and God love and forgiveness is accepted by all except one unhappy prophet, Jonah.  And you will see today that he continues his pout.  Poor old Jonah.

Let’s hear now the final chapter of this book.

Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!

“So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”

God said, “What do you have to be angry about?”

But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.

God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.

But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”

Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”

Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”

God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”

If only the story of Jonah ended after chapter three.  This pouting prophet would have been known as the preaching prophet getting all those Ninevites to heed God’s word and repent.  It would have been something that he could be proud of.  Remember it took only 8 words of prophecy to turn the entire population of Ninevah around.  But NO!  The story continues. 

What was Jonah thinking?  He’s fuming because God appeared to be on the side of those ‘sinners’, the Assyrians and he runs away from God….again. How’s that anger working for you now Jonah?  He’s just about as bad a pouter as the older son in the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son.  The younger son returns after squandering his inheritance and his father makes a great banquet for him.  All the while the older son who stayed home, and was the compliant and ‘good’ son, has a fit about his father’s acceptance of his wayward brother.  Who’s side is he on anyway?  This is an age-old problem folks. 

But this time when Jonah huffs off he builds a little booth for himself and the leafy branches that he used provided some much needed shade.  Then, God sends a castor plant to grow above and around him giving him even more shade. What a delightful relief on a hot Assyrian afternoon.

Jonah was quick to recognize the blessing of a little shade.  We can give him that, as the scripture says, “Life was looking up” because Ancient Ninevah is in the region of modern day Mosul, Iraq where in the summertime the temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s not a place that I’d like to be without shade or water.

But just then when ‘life was looking up’ it took a nosedive when God released that little worm to devour the plant.  And Jonah prayed to die.  One might ask, what’s with this continued death wish?  Four times in this book Jonah wants to die because he’s not getting his way.  First in the boat and now here in this chapter three more times he exclaims that he would rather be dead then to accept the kindness and wideness in God’s mercy. He’d rather die than have to share God’s compassionate care to the ‘unchosen’ ones. 

God gets it.  God questions the value of his anger.  God doesn’t tell Jonah that he should or should not be angry; instead God invites Jonah to think about the meaning of his anger.  The responsibility is all Jonah’s.  He needs to figure it out. To the end God is persistent with Jonah and Jonah is brutally honest but not so reflective.

Jonah was mad because he knew God was good.  Jonah did understand what God was all about.  He just didn’t agree, his heart and his spirit were conflicted with the intentions of God and his own human feelings of disdain.  He knew that God was merciful and compassionate, that God was slow to anger even in the face of egregious sin.  It’s just that he couldn’t accept the fact that God extended all of those mercies and compassion to others too who were not like him, who were not Hebrews.  And he was angry because he couldn’t change God’s mind. 

The fact of the matter is this, he was mad because he could not change God's attitude toward these people.   Jonah hated the Assyrian, while God loved the Assyrians.  Jonah thought the Assyrians deserved to die.  God thought they should live.  The prophet refused to see them as God saw them, as equal contenders for grace, mercy and peace.

God sees this.  And so God brings about a very abrupt ending to this book and asks a final question.  If you would do anything to save this silly little plant that you had nothing to do with, how could you not see that I would do anything to save the entire city of Ninevah?  I am the God of creation. 

None of us wants to identify with Jonah, do we?  He doesn’t present well.  After all he is self-centered, and full of extremes.  As Anne Lamott says, you can be sure that you have made God over in your image when God dislikes the same people as you do.  That’s what Jonah, in effect, has done.  He wanted so much for God to despise the Assyrians too.  He is a symbol for us today or for anyone who tries to constrict God’s love to those people who are only like us, or those only who we are comfortable with.

The message underlying all of the Book of Jonah isn’t about deciding who is deserving of God’s love or who has a place at the table. The tale of Jonah is about how big God is, how encompassing God’s grace, mercy and peace is.  It’s a reminder for us during Lent, which is a time of introspection, self-examination, and repentance.  God is good all the time and all the time God is good, and big, and merciful.

Lent will be coming to an end shortly.  Our journey is nearly complete.  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday that ushers in the events of the passion of Holy Week.  There will be many unanswered questions that we will be left to ponder in our minds.  Today is just the beginning.  


Saturday, March 12, 2016

If at First You Don't Succeed

Jonah 3

Along I 95 there are many billboards that can catch your eye.  Several years ago now there were some in particular that were sponsored by an organization called Vales and they were a series under the title, “Pass it On”.  They were always very clever and inspirational.  One in particular I remember spoke to me.  It had a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and next to it the billboard read, “Failed, failed, failed.  And then…”[i]  and underneath those words was the word ‘Persistence’ in bold red letters.  Simply put.

What we know and what the billboard does not explicitly say is that Abraham Lincoln first ran for non-public office for the Illinois State Legislature in 1832 and was defeated.  In 1834 he ran again and served four executive terms.  In 1846 he was elected to the House of Representatives but lost his reelection.  He practiced law until in 1854 he ran for the US Senate and lost and again in 1855 he lost for a different Senate seat.  Finally in 1860 he was nominated to run for the Presidency and of course, the rest, they say is history.  He was one of our finest and most influential presidents ever but it took several defeats and failures for him to get there.  Yes, persistence!

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”[ii]  God could be the poster deity for perseverance with our man Jonah. God could clearly occupy a space on one of those billboards because in today’s lesson from Jonah chapter 3 we see that God did not give up on Jonah and some very good things came out of it, for the people of Ninevah at least.  This is the third of four sermons from the Old Testament Book, Jonah.  It is read during the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur for what it tells us about repentance so it is fitting for us to reflect upon during Lent because Lent is a time of repentance and reflection for us too as we journey to the cross of Jesus. 

You will remember that in Jonah 1 he’s asked to go to Ninevah and preach repentance but he flees in the other direction, hops a boat and then is tossed overboard only to find himself in the belly of the whale.  What we learn from this is that God sticks with us even when we are obstinate and do as we please, God never gives up on us.  God may get a little perturbed at times with us, who wouldn’t?  But God is in hot pursuit of us and we are never left alone to our own human devices.  We also learn that God saves us when we are drowning even if it comes in the form of a really big fish. Salvation happens. 

But even inside of the belly of the whale Jonah did not really get it.  Repentance does not come easily for him, he’s pretty thick headed.  Yet God still sees some potential with Jonah and has a job that needs doing.  Good thing God does because I am loathe to really see any ‘redeeming attribute’ with Jonah.  You have to hand it to God for trying once again, persistence.

Today we will think about Chapter 3 and what nuggets of learning and inspiration that it holds for us.  I believe that today’s chapter focuses much more on God than it does on Jonah. We will conclude this story of Jonah next week with chapter 4.

I share with you now from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ chapter 3 of Jonah.   

Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.

Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.

Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”

God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.

This is not what Jonah expected when he stepped foot in the great city of Nineveh. Only eight words of prophecy here, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” and the entire city, which apparently was huge, repented.  The king really took it to heart and traded in his royal duds for some not so fashionable burlap and sat down in the dirt.  This is how the ancient people repented of their sins.  He declares a fast for all the people including the animals!  Then he decides everyone should dress in burlap like him even the animals, once again!  I can’t say that I’d want fasting animals dressed in burlap around me but the king was insistent, NO ONE will go without repenting.  Those must have been some pretty big sins.

“Who knows?  Wonders the king, maybe this foreign God will change his mind, maybe God will turn around and let us live”. (v. 9)  God was taking note of all these repenting people and bleating sheep and forgave them all proving that God can change the divine mind and that God forgives all people, even non-Hebrews as these Ninevites were, and calls them into the covenant of love.  God perseveres, Jonah went, Ninevah repents, God relents, Mercy extended.

There truly is a “Wideness in God’s mercy…for the love of God is broader than the measure of our minds”, as the old hymn reminds us.  We cannot possibly know the mind of God and the ways in which our God loves and forgives and the people whom our God chooses to forgive.  That is beyond our human capacity.  I’ve taken that off my to-do list.  I encourage you to do so also.  It will save you a lot of fretting and worry.  What we can know is that God does forgive generously, and faithfully without conditions.  Even when we cannot.

God’s theology is revealed in verse 10, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” 

Now we know that God is no longer responsible for the calamities of our lives, that God doesn’t send tornedo’s to regions who espouse gambling and drinking no more than does God send tsunami’s to countries who might display lewd and lascivious behavior.  That is just old theology.  We have progressed much further along in our understanding of ourselves and nature. 

We do find ourselves however in these foreign lands of gambling and drinking and lewd and lascivious behavior, and if not that crude, we find we no longer lead a life that we might be proud of, for whatever reason, no matter how you got there, and if not that you are just no longer attentive to God’s call in your life, or if not that you just don’t care, you’ve become apathetic about your faith, not ‘feeling’ it, you’re just going through the motions.

We all are there at one time or another and when you realize that you have lost your way it is time to perform t’shuvah.  T’shuvah is a complete turning around of your ways, of changing your behavior, of letting go of a bad attitude and starting a newer, healthier one.  T’shuvah is the Hebrew word for turn or to return.  There are many places in the Old Testament where people were seriously encouraged to perform t’shuvah.  Ezekiel says to the people, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin (Ezekiel 18:30).  Jeremiah proclaims to the house of Israel, “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord.  I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, I will not be angry forever.”  (Jeremiah 3:12).

T’shuvah asks that we clean the windows of our soul and return to a view of life that once made us so happy. T’shuvah is to turn away that which destroys yourself and others and return to a God whose arms are open and waiting to embrace us in love not anger, kindness not malice, acceptance not rejection.  T’shuvah is a way in which we clean up our lives so the light of God’s love can be received.

This is Lent.  It offers you an opportunity to do that.  It provides a time to empty, to clean, and to return to what is good and wholesome for you.  Do some honest soul-searching.  Get down on your knees.  Pray with your tears if you have no words.  It takes work, yes, like the Ninevites who put on burlap and sat down in the dirt, we need to feel the scratchiness of the burlap and the grittiness of the dirt upon our skin, upon our soul.

What changes need to be made in your life (no one else’s) so that you can live more gracefully and lovingly?  Ask for the grace to see the deepest part of you that hurts, that has sinned.  How might your life be changed when you’ve examined yourself thoughtfully, thoroughly?  Will you be brave enough to perform t’shuvah?  Right now it’s all about you and no one else.  It’s about you and your relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Painful as it may be, it will not last forever.  The Psalmist reminds us, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30: 5b)

Joy does come, and will come.  That is our Easter promise.

Throughout all of this, throughout all of your life God is persistent in pursuing you.  Just like God pursued Jonah, just like Lincoln who finally won in the end and accomplished great things, God will continue to look for you, engage you, forgive you and accomplish great things through you.


[i] Abraham Lincoln billboard,
[ii] T.H. Palmer, ‘Teacher’s Manual’, 1840.

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’.