Sermon: In the Belly of a Fish
Brookings – St. Paul’s
Fr. Larry Ort
Jonah 3.1-5, 10; Psalm 62.6-14; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
When God Calls, What Do You Do?
This question contains an assumption – that we hear God’s call. Last Sunday, we noted three imperatives – “Listen! Come and see! Follow me!” Today’s readings reflect two very different responses to God’s call.
First, we have Jonah. The text for today begins, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3.1-3a; NRSV). God had a bit of work to do to get Jonah to this point of obedience.
The book of Jonah begins, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1.1-2; NRSV). But what did Jonah do? He went down to Joppa, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, caught a ship, and fled to Tarshish. Scholars are not sure of the location of Tarshish – suffice it to say, it was figuratively as far away from the Lord as Jonah could go! Jonah thought he was safely ensconced below decks; he was sleeping when a mighty storm blew up. It was so bad the sailors were jettisoning the cargo. The captain found Jonah sleeping and said: “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your God! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish” (Jonah 1. 6; NRSV).
The sailors decided to cast lots to determine on whose account the calamity had befallen them, and the lot fell to Jonah. They said to Jonah: “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew…I worship the Lord the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1. 8-9; NRSV). Hearing this, the sailors were even more afraid, and they asked Jonah: “What is this that you have done!…What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?” Jonah, having previously told them he was fleeing the Lord, responded, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1.11-12; NRSV). To the sailors’ credit, they continued to fight the storm only to see it worsen. They finally threw Jonah into the sea and the storm abated. As you know, Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, and was in his belly three days and three nights. Yuck! That must not have been too pleasant! It is one thing to gut a fish; another thing to be in the guts of a fish!
Jonah began to pray! God had his attention! The last few lines of his prayer are a wonderful confession: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. ‘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 2.7-9; NIV). The Lord then spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon dry ground. I suspect Jonah washed in the sea; it probably took him a while to look reasonably presentable.
God then commanded Jonah (the second time) to go to Nineveh, and we are told, “So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh,” where he proclaimed God’s message, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3.3-4; NRSV). Nineveh repented! Jonah was indignant! He probably thought, “I went through all of that, I delivered your message, and they repented! Here I was looking forward to a good old fire and brimstone destruction, and you changed your mind!” The story tells us Jonah “prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4.2-3; NRSV). Although Jonah experienced the belly of the fish, he was in a good pout!
Well, that is one reaction to God’s call. Let’s consider other reactions. In Mark we read that Jesus was walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he spied Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1.16-17; NRSV). They immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus. As Jesus walked a bit further, he spied James and John, the sons of Zebedee, repairing their nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their nets, their boat, their father, and the hired men to follow Jesus.
How have you responded to Jesus’ call? Were you more like Jonah who ran away, or more like Simon, Andrew, James, and John who immediately dropped everything to follow Jesus? It is probably safe to say that most of us are more like Jonah – after running away we discover we must jettison some idols and spend some time in the “belly of the fish.”
And just like Jonah, I suspect we also know how to pout when God doesn’t do things as we would like! “God, you know I deserved and wanted that promotion; you let me down!” “God, you know how hard I have worked to be financially secure; you let me down! This is going to wipe me out!” “God, you know how much I loved her; why did you allow her to reject me? You let me down!” “Why did you allow my child to die? You let me down!” These instances reflect something in common. We tend to see God as visiting these calamities upon us—"It’s God’s fault; God let us down!” In the stories of Job and Jonah, God is portrayed as either permitting the calamities or as bringing the calamities upon us. Once again, we come face-to-face with the classic problem of evil. If God is all-loving, all knowing, and all-powerful, why does God permit us to undergo such experiences and so much unhappiness?
Our portrayal of God as visiting these calamities upon us reflects our view of God as wrathful and judgmental. Yet, Jonah said, “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Ibid). If we think of God more as we would think of a loving parent, we realize that God may allow us to experience the consequences of our own decisions and actions. This experience leads to knowledge (if we learn from our mistakes). Yet this does not account for illness or the untimely death of a loved one. We experience these things, not at the hands of a wrathful God, but as the natural consequences of a fallen order. Our loving God assures us that someday all things shall be made whole. As we come to understand the amazing love and mercy of God, we can say with Job, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.3,5; NRSV).
Simon, Andrew, James, and John had it right! When Jesus calls us, we are expected to drop everything, and follow him. Yet some of us, yes, perhaps even most of us, must experience the belly of the fish before we are ready to drop everything and follow Jesus. But even that experience reflects the marvelous grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For this very reason, St Paul reminds us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18). Remember, Jonah discovered his song of thanksgiving in the belly of a fish!