Tuesday, February 5, 2013
2013 01 27
Sermon: the Baltic Parish: Jonah Tries To Run from God’s WillGod's instruction to Jonah is very clear. "Arise, Go to Nineveh and prophesy against it because it is wicked!" That seems pretty clear. And Jonah was a professional, royal, prophet, so you would expect Jonah to understand clear instructions from God and to do them, in proper, "Thus says the Lord" fashion. After all, that is what a prophet is for, to be the mouthpiece of God. Prophets are always to speak for the Lord, often they are to speak the very hard truths that we don't want to hear – and they are never to speak for themselves. That's how it works.
But that's not how it worked with Jonah. Jonah arose alright. And then he made a 180 degree turn from the direction on Nineveh and went down to Joppa, intent on fleeing the presence of God altogether by going to Tarshish. Tarshish was as far as one could get from Nineveh at that time, way out on edge of the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of what we now call Spain. Tarshish was literally thought to be at the "end of the earth."
And here we get the FIRST point of the story: it won't work! It is not possible to escape from God when God is intent on calling us to a mission. And so, in a masterful use of metaphor, the writer tells us that Jonah then begins a series of "descents" from God. He goes "down" to Joppa; he goes "down into the ship;" (most translations says "went on board" but the Hebrew word is "down.") he then goes down into the hold of the ship; he lies down; and he drops down into sleep. He is forced to get up, but not of his free will, is thrown overboard, and then he goes down into the sea.
Before Jonah gets anywhere near Tarshish he is already going down, down from God, down, he says, to the very roots of the mountains, down to where the deep surrounds him, where weeds wrap around his head and the gate of the Pit closes upon him….Down to a place where, without help, he is as good as dead.
Jonah thought he knew what he wanted: to do whatever it takes to flee from God; to go to Tarshish; and, if necessary, to die. But we learn here the SECOND point we need to know: that it is impossible to escape the presence of the Lord. The Psalmist knew what Jonah did not: you can never escape the presence of God. From Psalm 139 :
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
And a THIRD truth is revealed to us here: it is impossible to escape the tasks that God assigns to us. After all that happens to Jonah, after the fish spits Jonah safely onto the beach, God does not say, "Well, I hope that you have learned yours lesson. Take a few days off. Get some rest. Then report to me next Monday and I'll find something for you to do that isn't so disagreeable to you." Not a chance. In the very next line, before Jonah has time to take a shower, comb his hair, shave, brush his teeth and put on some clean clothes, we are told, "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, 'Get up; go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you!'" Jonah is back at square one.
But more important than these teachings is the FOURTH teaching that is inherent in this story of deliverance: that it is impossible to escape the LOVE of God. Psalm 139 also clearly says this as do many other places in the Bible, such as Paul's great hymn of God's love in Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord."
Jesus himself tells a story, perhaps the most beloved story that he tells, of the prodigal son, who could not bear being at home with his father, and so he demanded and got his inheritance, left, squandered it, and then sunk "down" into the pit with the pigs that he fed to stay alive, literally eating the scraps thrown to the pigs he tended. And so at the end of his rope he returned to his father. He came home, content to be a slave, not a son, if that be his father's will. Yet, upon arriving home he learns that, in all his attempts at running away, he had not escaped the love of his father, who was beside himself with joy that his son had come home.
Jonah, like the wayward son in that story, has to learn the hard way. And it is not by accident that, only after Jonah had exhausted all his own options, only when he reconsidered the death that he had shortly before thought he wanted, only when he was one tick away from drowning did God send the fish to save him. It was sent not simply to save his life, but to save Jonah from himself!
Moving into Chapter Two we see Jonah within the belly of the fish reconsidering all he had done, a changed man, far different than the one we were coming to know in the first chapter. In fact, most scholars, including me, think that this prayer, a poem in the style of a psalm, was added to the story by a later writer who sought to rehabilitate Jonah by making him thankful for his deliverance from certain death. We will learn later on that Jonah’s rehabilitation did not take.
But, regardless of who wrote it, we are expected to learn something from this prayer, this psalm. Which brings us to the FIFTH thing we can learn: and that is that when we are down, when we have exhausted all of our own resources, the only thing left to do is to pray to God for deliverance.
For someone of faith, and often also for those who have previously had no faith at all, when we, like Jonah, go down, and then the bottom falls out; when we reach the end of our rope; when we cannot possibly create a new future for ourselves; when the god we have made of ourselves fails us, all that is left to us is to pray to God for deliverance.
When he was going down into the depths of the sea Jonah's initial thought was that he had been thrown into the sea by God, and then had been abandoned by God. But when we read the story carefully we know that neither of those things that Jonah thought were true. Jonah did it to himself! Can we learn something here? I think we can.
And so we come to the FINAL lesson for today. Isn't it often true that when, by our own decisions and actions, we are cast into the depths of despair, of desperation, real or imagined, we want to blame our misfortune on someone, and often that someone is God?
Well, so did Jonah. But when he finally realizes that he is getting his death wish, that he will forever dwell in the Pit, when he fears that he will be barred from the face of God forever, then and only then does he wake up. "When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, God!" And God remembered Jonah. And so Jonah completes his psalm of praise with the one thing that he now knows for certain: "Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"
Unfortunately, too often we think that deliverance is something we can handle ourselves. But our faith teaches us that when things get really rough, when we are finally done shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic, and God points us toward a way out of our despair, we finally figure out that our salvation comes as a pure gift, a free grace from God. Salvation does, indeed, belong to the Lord. Jonah learns that much, but only for a short while.
And so we end this exploration of the first half of the Book of Jonah. Next, in the third and final sermon in this series, we will learn lessons every bit as important and practical as those we have learned today. Like today’s lessons, the lessons for next week will be clearly applicable to our daily lives, and the big question is whether we will willingly open our hearts to the lessons we learn in this series, and make them a part of our lives.
God bless you all. Amen.