Jonah 2: 1-9
August 21, 2011
I have something I need to share with you this morning – something I’ve been dealing with for a while now. It’s time I come clean. I have what’s called Instinctive Biblical Correction Disorder. It’s what happens to ministers when, without realizing it, they start correcting others on Biblical misquotes or incorrect information. And it’s always the kind of trivial stuff that, in the big scheme of things, really doesn’t matter much. This disorder is fostered and exasperated through years and years of seminary training and a minister’s innate desire to show that all the intricate details they absorbed in books and lectures actually mean something to the average person. It’s rooted in our subconscious; a knee-jerk reaction that can make for some awkward situations.
For instance: when I hear someone refer to the last book of the Bible as Revelations with an “s,” I’ve been known to obnoxiously blurt out, “It’s Revelationnnnn!” I do it without even thinking, which is part of the problem. Or if I hear someone talk about how it says in the Bible, “God helps those who help themselves,” I’ll quickly respond that no, that’s not a Bible verse at all, often waving my hands wildly like I just did. And if I’m reading a children’s book with some kids and there’s something in there about Jonah getting swallowed by a whale, I’ll immediately correct them that no, it doesn’t say “whale;” it says it was a big fish.” A revelation usually met with blank stares of disinterest.
So I want you all to know that I’m working on this, okay? And acknowledging it before you, my church family, is the first step. So if I may: Hello, my name is Steve, and I have Instinctive Biblical Correction Disorder. And I feel so much better sharing that with you all!
Although, truth be told, when it comes to that whole deal about the whale and the big fish, there’s really a lot more going on in Jonah’s story than meets the eye; more than just sea creature identification issues. You know, what we typically think about this story is pretty different from what’s actually there, if we take the time to look.
This is how we often imagine the Jonah story: God tells this guy Jonah to go do something God wants him to do. Instead, he does the exact opposite. So God has a whale swallow him up in his belly, where he stays for three days and three nights. And when he gets out, Jonah has a change of heart and goes on to do God’s bidding. That’s pretty much the way we’ve heard it, right? But see, therein lies the problem. Instinctive Biblical Correction Disorder issues aside, there are some differences here that really do matter.
For one, take a look at Jonah himself. He was a prophet – and a fierce one at that. He was extremely passionate about his faith and God’s nation Israel. Jonah’s zeal for the Hebrew faith was matched by his disdain and disgust for anything and anyone else. And for that reason, Jonah much preferred to stay in his comfort zone, doing only what he was comfortable doing.
So we can understand, then, why Jonah reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh – a heathen, non-Jewish city with bad news written all over it. Think Las Vegas meets New Orleans at Mardi Gras. It must’ve felt like fingernails running down the chalkboard for ol’ Jonah! And that’s why he runs away. In fact, he makes a point of running in the exact opposite direction from where God wants him to go. If you looked at a map of ancient Israel and the way the scriptures describe it, it’d be like being in Kansas City, getting summoned to go to New York, and instead heading to California. He goes out of his way, it seems, to go out of God’s way.
And that’s when he finds himself on the ship at sea, and the storm that wouldn’t stop, and then in the belly of the big fish. Three days later he is out of there; and this time he’s off and running in the right direction, Nineveh-bound, doing God’s bidding and fulfilling his call.
Now - conventional wisdom has always held that Jonah’s radical change of both direction and heart had something to do with whatever he encountered during those 72-plus hours inside the belly of that great big fish. Which, of course, makes sense – an experience like that would have a profound effect on any of us, wouldn’t it? The real question, though, is what kind of change. Most folks assume this was about divine punishment – God’s retribution on Jonah for his mistakes. Punishment can be a tremendous motivator, after all; whether you’re talking about correcting your kids’ behavior with some “time out,” or rewarding a professional athlete’s shenanigans with a multiple-game suspension, or a low test grade due to lack of study.
And that would be all fine and good, and a perfectly acceptable way of understanding the story of Jonah, if it weren’t for our scripture that Jessica read earlier. Because when we actually read and listen to the prayer that Jonah offered up to God inside that big fish’s belly, we really don’t get the feeling this is about punishment, do we? This doesn’t sound like a man who’s been sent to the corner for a time out. This sounds like a man who’s in the process of being redeemed. Listen again to what he says, this time with The Message translation:
In trouble, deep trouble, I prayed to God –
He answered me.
From the belly of the grave I cried, “Help!”
You heard my cry.
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!
You know what’s really amazing about Jonah’s prayer? And I don’t think this is my Instinctive Biblical Correction Disorder creeping in; I think this is legit! What’s amazing is that Jonah refers to all his trials and tribulations in the past tense, and his redemption and his transformation as if they’re happening right now. This in spite of the fact that, as he’s praying this very prayer, Jonah is still in the fish’s belly! He’s not out yet!
Is it really possible to encounter redemption and renewal, to be transformed into who God wants us to be and equipped to do what God wants us to do, even as we are still stuck in our place of contempt? So often we think that the change in ourselves takes place after the struggle, not while we’re still in it. So often we think that redemption is something we have to wait for until things get better. But that wasn’t Jonah’s experience, was it? For him, the pain was in the past. Redemption was here and now. In his darkest hour. In the belly of the fish. Could this be the hidden message; the one that so often goes unnoticed as we focus on whales and punishments?
Last spring I got an email from a friend with the subject line: You must watch this! It was a link to some web video. I almost deleted it without even checking it out; I get these things all the time. You know how it is, right? But I decided to open it anyway. Turns out it was a video of the commencement speech that late night talk show host Conan O’Brien gave to Columbia University this past spring.
Keep in mind, this is a man who had the world at his fingertips a few years ago, the successor to Jay Leno on NBC’s heralded The Tonight Show. And then, in a twist of events that left even industry leaders dumbfounded, Conan was unceremoniously dumped from his post and succeeded by the man he’d replaced himself. Listen to what Conan had to say to these Ivy league graduates about that:
Nietzsche once famously said “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But what he failed to stress is that IT STILL ALMOST KILLS YOU! A little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment; something that felt like it was almost killing me. I did not get the thing I so very much wanted; the thing I had worked all my life to achieve. I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid.
Sounds a little like being in the fish’s belly, doesn’t it? Listen:
But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things. I grew a strange, cinnamon beard. I dove into the world of social media and started tweeting my comedy. I threw together a national tour. I played the guitar, did stand-up, recorded an album, made a documentary, and frightened my friends and family. I followed my heart and followed my calling. And it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life. To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged, and this is important ---- had more conviction about what I was doing.
Conan concluded this part of his speech with an incredibly profound thought: There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.
What are your worst fears? Is it a fear of failure, like it was for Conan? Is it a fear of following God’s calling even when it takes you out of your comfort zone, like Jonah? Is it a fear of living in a broken world, dealing with a struggling economy, a family stretched to the seams, a tough semester class load, ailing parents, an overloaded calendar, or simply not mattering to anyone anymore?
And what’s it like when those worst fears are realized – when they come to pass? Do they paralyze you so that the belly of the fish becomes your new reality? Or do you somehow, somewhere see in the midst of those fears and failures the kind of hope and transformation Jonah saw – a chance to hit the reset button and begin anew? You know the saying: there’s nowhere to go but up. Or, in Jonah’s case, there’s nowhere to go but out.
As it is for us! Kind of a gross image, I know, but you and I are vomited out! Out into a world that hasn’t stopped spinning while we’ve been tucked away. Out into a world where there are plenty of other fears for us to latch on to if we so desire; plenty of other opportunities for disappointment and failure. And yet, even so: we are vomited out into a world that needs us desperately, more than we could possibly imagine.
Because if there’s one thing Jonah’s story tells us, it’s that we are never children of God more than when we’re at our lowest. God does God’s greatest work in our lives and in our world when the hour is dark. Our redemption and our transformation don’t happen after the hard times are over, as much as it happens right in the thick of it.
I’m going to try and be better about not correcting people when they stick an “S” at the end of Revelation or when they quote Bible verses that aren’t really there. But let me warn you: I will never stop telling you over and over and over again how much you matter to God, how much God loves you, and how God renews and redeems you not after your darkest hour, but in it. If you look for God’s love in the places you least expect to find it, I have a hunch you’ll wind up like Jonah: sitting there in the big fish’s belly, singing yourself a little prayer, redeemed and ready to be spewed out into the world! Thanks be to God. AMEN.