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Jonah 1:17-2:10

17 [a] Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish:

“I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me.
        From the belly of the underworld[a] I cried out for help;
        you have heard my voice.
You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas,
        and the flood surrounds me.
        All your strong waves and rushing water passed over me.
So I said, ‘I have been driven away from your sight.
        Will I ever again look on your holy temple?
Waters have grasped me to the point of death;
        the deep surrounds me.
Seaweed is wrapped around my head
        at the base of the undersea[b] mountains.
I have sunk down to the underworld;
        its bars held me with no end in sight.
        But you brought me out of the pit.’
When my endurance[c] was weakening,
        I remembered the Lord,
        and my prayer came to you,
            to your holy temple.
Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.[d]
But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks.
        That which I have promised, I will pay.
            Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.

Here in today’s portion of the story, I think it’s safe to say that Jonah ended up somewhere he didn’t want to be.  After that terrible storm rises and he’s tossed overboard by his fellow shipmates, here comes a huge fish to swallow him.  And this is where he spends his time… for three days. 

And don’t you think it’s interesting to note that a full quarter of an otherwise action-packed tale is wrapped up in describing what it was like for Jonah inside the belly of that fish?  So much stuff happens so quickly in the other three chapters of Jonah; but here in this chapter, we just sit with Jonah in his misery for ten whole verses.

   Of course, if any of you have ever been around fish that have been gutted, you would probably already decline the chance to spend three days inside one; but for the ancient people, Jonah’s scenario of imprisonment within the fish’s belly would have evoked an especially acute sense of horror.  The sea itself was viewed as a place of tremendous chaos and mystery.  In contrast to the heavens, which were the home of the gods, up above, the depths of the sea was thought to be the location of all unholy powers.  This is why most ancient religions worshipped on the highest local mountains: because that’s closest you could get to access the powers of the gods from earth.  Meanwhile, it was imagined that the “underworld” –the place of the dead- was located far below, in the hidden depths of the ocean, where it’s always cold, damp, and dark.  Both symbolically and literally, the sea was the ‘abyss’: it is the bleak, primordial pit into which we need only glance for icy fear to grip our hearts.  In the creation story of Genesis, it’s the waters of the abyss that are separated, so that God has room to create: there are the depths above, and the depths below.  And we all live in the middle.

And not only that, but many –if not all- of the Mediterranean cultures from this time period had a sacred story about a chaos monster that lived in the sea. We have references of such a creature even in the Hebrew Bible, where it’s called ‘the Leviathan’ or sometimes ‘Rahab.’  And this chaos monster was always the enemy of the powers that lived in the heavens.  There in the hidden depths it lurked, threating to devour civilization and the created order established by the heavenly powers, at any moment.  All it needed to do was rise up from the salty depths and wreak its havoc. 

And if that sounds too distant or obscure: think about the Godzilla movies.  Think Pacific Rim, or War of the Worlds, or even Jaws: they’re all stories about scary things that come up from the sea, or rise from below, and overwhelm ordered civilization as we know it.  These are Chaos-monster stories: one of the very earliest genres of horror stories.  Because the things in those stories threaten everything we love; and we cannot stop them; and worst of all, we can’t even see them coming.  Suddenly: bam!  There they are and your life is in shambles, or you’re just dead. 

Is that a true story for any of you out there?  Have any of you been visited by a big thing that came out of nowhere and completely overwhelmed you, and totally disrupted life as you knew it?  Maybe it was the sudden discovery of an illness, within your body or that of someone you love.  Maybe it came as a terrible accident or bad news.  Or maybe you just lost something: maybe you lost control of yourself; or lost a loved one, or a job, or a relationship.  Maybe you lost your hope or even you’re your ability to feel happiness.  And you don’t know what happened to it –it was there and things were fine, but then you turn around and, all of a sudden, it’s gone, like somebody or some-thing took it. And you are powerless to get it back.  If that’s a sentiment you can –in any way- relate to, then you have been visited by a chaos monster. 

Jonah was caught in a storm –a storm between him and God- and his past got him tossed out of a boat into the middle of the sea.  And there he was, all alone, floating over the pit, trying to keep himself from dropping right down into oblivion, when up out of the depths, a chaos monster comes up and swallows him whole.  And against his will, it takes him down, and down, and down.  He ends up sinking so deep he’s down among the dead.

“Waters have grasped me to the point of death;” says Jonan from the innards of the chaos monster, “the deep surrounds me.  Seaweed is wrapped around my head at the base of the undersea mountains.  I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.” 

Can we see here how this isn’t just a story about a prophet who, once upon a time, didn’t obey God –so God, in turn, sentenced him to three days in a stinky fish-prison?  Can we see that? This is a story about everyone who has ever been disoriented and lost control.  This is for everyone who’s ever gotten into a conflict, and taken the blame for it and ended up cold and alone and in the dark.  This is a story for everyone who’s ever got stuck trying to doggie-paddle over the pit of despair and got sucked way, way down into it. 

Here Jonah doesn’t just hit rock-bottom, but he is drug down even deeper into the realm of cold death itself.  Jonah is in a living hell. 

Not only is he personally having one of the worst kinds of days humanely imaginable; but he is also, simultaneously, undergoing a radical and traumatic spiritual crisis.  God sent the storm.  God called the sailors to toss him into the water.  God sent the fish to swallow him whole.

And it’s one thing to have a terrible day, right?  But it’s a whole other thing to find out that the cause of that terrible day –it’s source, was God.  But wait, wait, wait, there’s one more layer to this story.  Listen to this: your minds will be blown. Are you ready?  In the earliest form of written languages, before letters represented sounds as they do today, whole words were depicted by simple pictures.  Egyptian hieroglyphics worked like this, and so did many of the Mesopotamian languages, in their earliest forms.  And then sometimes these little simple pictures would be combined in various creative ways to represent other words.  In Akkadian, guess what pictures were used to write “Nineveh.” Two pictures were used to write the name of the city Nineveh.  A fish.  And a house.  In other words, the name, Nineveh, means ‘Fish House’ or house of fish.  That’s where Jonah was sent: to the Fish House.  But when he turned tail and ran off… God sent a fish to him, and that became his home for three days and three nights. Do we see what God did there?

Now, that probably just sounds a like a silly play on words here; but look at the actual history.  About a hundred years after the time Jonah was the prophet in Israel, the Assyrian Empire came and invaded the land.  The king of Israel refused to keep paying an outrageous tribute, so the Assyrian army swept down and swallowed up the Northern Kingdom whole.  They broke down the walls, plundered the cities, tortured and executed its prominent leaders, and divided the remaining captives and had them sent out all across the empire so they’d forget their culture, customs, and God.  At the same time, they sent Assyrians down to take over and impose their laws, customs, and faith upon the land.  It was a form of cultural sedition that was so thorough and effective that the Israelite identity never recovered from this event.  To this day, we still speak of the Jewish people (the tribe of Judah) –but the Israelites are extinct. Even by Jesus’s time, the people of that area were called Samaritans, and they were thought of by Jewish people as being sort of ‘half-breeds’ because their bloodlines and cultural and religious practices had become all mixed up with that of their invaders. 

Anyway, can you see what this story was –and what it might have meant- to God’s people to have a story about one of their prophets sent to the Assyrians? This prophet refuses to go, and is then in turn swallowed by a symbol of their capital city. We’ll share a little bit more about that in two weeks.  But for today, I wanted to illustrate as quickly and as intimately as possible for all of you that this story of Jonah is a personal, psychological story.  At the same time, it is also a spiritual story –it’s a story about God’s involvement in our daily lives and in history, even today.  But finally it is also a story that has a scathing political commentary built into it.  It’s a story that makes the foreboding observation that when we don’t serve our neighbors, then often-times their issues will turn around and become our issues. The hurts, cravings, and dysfunction of our neighbors can turn around and break down the doors we’ve locked against them, thus leaving us open to the full force of the rage that was incited by our denial.  Suffice it to say that real human problems do not exist in isolation, because we do not exist in isolation. 

This is why the topic of human sexuality is so difficult for the Church to address in a global conversation.  Because everything is connected: our intimate personal experiences and our shared political life, and our spiritual faith are all wrapped up together.  And the ethics of human sexuality touches on a whole network of deeply imbedded values and personal yearnings about one of the most basic and fundamental relationships our species can be blessed with.  The question our global denomination has no longer been able to suppress is a powerful one: they’re asking who gets to be a family blessed by God together?  And who gets to be an official leader?  Are particular sexual orientations or gender identifications enough by themselves to say ‘no’ to someone seeking to become a family or a leader? 

And the conversation they’ll be having at the special session of General Conference next month goes one layer deeper, and they’re asking: who gets to decide?

Do the leaders at the top make the decision for everyone across the globe?  After all, we’re a global church, so we’re not just asking these questions for us in Iowa, or even in America; we’re asking them for the varied nations of Africa, and for Asia and Europe and South America too.  And they have different norms and customs and values from our own. 

Or, on the other hand, do we let local conferences and local churches get to speak what is right in their circumstance?  Or do we let our politics completely redefine us –should we cease to be United Methodists, and become instead two churches: Conservative Methodists and Progressive Methodists?

The whole scenario has led a lot of us who care deeply about our tradition –this grand boat we inhabit together- to panic.  We worry about the ship coming apart, and the storm raging around us.  Some of us good United Methodists are already going around conspiring about who needs to be tossed overboard as a sacrifice to the god of the angry seas.  Meanwhile others are jumping ship on their own volition, testifying from below ‘that the water is just fine!’  Still others have identified the Chaos monster of Financial Trouble lurking about. 

But amidst all of the clamor and panic, I want to calmly invite all of you consider our options.  What is it that you and I can actually do together?  I do believe we can speak some peace into the storm, with our quiet, humble voices. It may not quiet the storm everywhere, but we could bring some momentary peace here.  And I think there can be a way for us here at Valley, and in thrive, to make enough room in our midst for all of the people who God has called to be with us. 

Maybe we could even do some patchwork on the big old ship.  That would be nice.  However, we’d never be able to salvage the whole thing just by ourselves.

Still I also believe that if the worst thing we imagine should happen –if the whole ship would go down, then we could yet be capable of swimming a bit too.

This is the detail I wanted you all to notice and take to heart from this story today: the fish –the chaos monster –the thing we’d feared and viewed as the enemy all along, was here in this story the vessel of deliverance for Jonah.  The fish didn’t swallow him to punish him or make him suffer; it was sent to save him.  It was meant to transport him back so that he could fulfill the thing he was called to do in the beginning. Jonah couldn’t swim all that way on his own.  The fish came so that he could prophesy God’s holy will to their neighbors.  Yes, it took him on a tour of despair, where he was humbled by the cold, lonely effect of the grave.  That’s what happens when you run away from God.  But his miraculous discovery was that, even in the pit of death, God was still there.  God could hear his voice even from the belly of the chaos monster as it swam through the underworld. 

There in that dark, lonely place Jonah learned the truth: “deliverance belongs to the LORD!” 

And that is where our faith should be in the days ahead.  Not in our powers of reason and argument, or our own righteousness, or the strength of the structures we’ve built together.  Though we may be able to trust them, our hope is still not founded in our leaders and teachers and pastors.  Our whole faith is invested in the Lord who delivers us.  Remember, our promise was never that we would be spared the experience of storms, or of death and despair, nor even of Chaos monsters.  For even these can be vessels that bring us closer to our true calling, and our true nature. 

Thus let our energies and our faith be focused on our calling: to serve God and the least and the lost.  May we become a people who dare the lonely waters and dark places to share news of God’s holy deliverance.

Let’s pray.