Last week, we began a new series together on the book of Jonah in conversation with the great commission. The Great Commission is found at the very end of the book of Matthew and it is the last piece of instruction that Jesus gives his disciples. Jesus says, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Last week Pastor Joe led us in exploring how Jonah models what can often be our response to this calling--which is by running in the opposite direction and trying to hide. Jonah was comfortable with his relationship with God just being for him and maybe his family and people he liked or people that were like him. But God doesn’t allow Jonah to remain in that place, because as God continues to reveal, though his is for Jonah, he’s not just or only for Jonah and people like Jonah, but for every tribe, nation and tongue. In fact, one of the main tasks of people who God calls as his own is to show others who God is so God’s family can be bigger and bigger. So God calls Jonah to bring a message from him to an enemy nation, the people of Nineveh--people that Jonah really doesn’t like--to invite them into relationship with God too. Nineveh was in Assyria which really was known for being a violent and cruel nation in the ancient world. As we read about last week, Jonah doesn’t like this idea at all. It makes him very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that he literally travels as far away from Nineveh as he possibly can.
On his journey away from Nineveh, there is a big storm. Jonah tells his shipmates that if they throw him overboard the sea will become calm again as he is the reason for the storm. Jonah is thrown overboard and the sea becomes calm. Then something very strange happens. We read that God provides a great fish to swallow Jonah and that Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights. That brings us to the part of the story that we read today.
First I’d like to point our attention to how closely God pursues Jonah throughout the story so far. From the first word we hear God speaking to him, Jonah’s instinctive response is to run away and hide. But God is right on his heels. He sends a storm to stop Jonah, he sends a whale to swallow him up. I find this both unnerving on one hand and comforting on the other. Because though we can certainly resist God and his work, God is very capable of pursuing us hard and stopping us in our tracks if need be. God is persistent and doesn’t give up on his people. (I try to remind myself that persistence is a quality Davey shares with God when he doesn’t give up in asking me the same questions over and over again).
Second, I wanted to point to how God brings Jonah to a place where he’s able to enter into conversation with God again. Up to this point in the story, Jonah hasn’t talked to God. God has spoken to Jonah, the others on the ship cried out to God, but Jonah has never spoken to God. Jonah has been resisting, running and hiding. But Jonah can’t get up and go anywhere from inside the belly of this whale. God brings Jonah to a place where he has no real option but to face God and to face where he is in life.
Have you ever been brought to a place like that? Where you had to somehow face something you had been running away from? Maybe it was a place where you recognized just how much of a hold drinking had on you, or some other addiction. Maybe you were brought to a place where you really saw the impact of your anger or passivity on someone you love. Maybe somehow the emptiness of a particular pursuit was revealed. Maybe like Jonah, you were brought to a place where you had to face God somehow in a way you were avoiding. Maybe you had to endure a time of illness. Or maybe you found yourself in a season where things were stripped down or someone was stripped away.
God doesn’t let Jonah get away. God chases him down until Jonah has no choice but to face God again. From the belly of the whale, Jonah has no choice but to face where he is. He’s in the depths of the ocean. He’s on the brink of death. It turns out that God uses the belly of the whale, a place of dark confinement, to draw Jonah’s heart to himself. It’s a place where everything else is stripped away and Jonah is able to see God. In some ways, in the belly of the whale, Jonah is in a very special place. It’s not at all a comfortable place to be and it’s not a place we would want anyone we loved to be in. But in some ways, this dark, stinky, confining belly of the whale is like a womb for Jonah. Something new is being born in him here. From this place, Jonah is able to talk to God. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do that before. From this place, Jonah is able to praise God. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do that before. From this place, Jonah is able to express his trust in God. Again, he couldn’t or wouldn’t do that before. In the belly of the whale, trust and faith and gratitude to God are being grown and nurtured and brought to new life.
But I bet it didn’t feel like that to Jonah at first. My guess is that Jonah himself didn’t have the perspective at the time to view himself as being in a place where God was going to give birth to something new in his life. He probably didn’t picture the belly of the whale like a womb. It’s more likely he pictured it as a tomb. We don’t get to hear on which day in the whale Jonah prayed this prayer. My guess is that it wan’t within the first hour. My guess is that Jonah had a lot of other conversations with himself before the Holy Spirit was able to work through all the other movements in Jonah’s heart during this time.
That’s the thing about birth. It takes a long time. It’s really messy and there is a lot of pain involved. Sometimes I like to think of new life in Christ as being like a little bud opening up in the sunshine. And there are moments when it is like that, where this new life feels simply gentle, beautiful, tender and new. But it’s also true that when God is birthing something in us, it’s really uncomfortable. It feels awkward and heavy. And it hurts, it really hurts. (This is kind of my mothers day part of the sermon, by the way). Birthing is a long, messy, painful process. When you’re actually pregnant and you are in labour, you endure that pain for the sake of the joy and the life that will come of it. In other moments in life, we don’t always have that perspective to know that we are in labour for the sake of new life. We don’t always have the perspective to know when we are in a womb as opposed to a tomb and the two can feel quite similar. Both are dark, confining spaces in which it is very difficult to see.
Maybe God is birthing deep trust in your life, but right now you just feel the pains of being distance from him or your doubt.
Or maybe God is birthing thankfulness in you but right now you are feeling keenly what you don’t have.
Maybe God is birthing in you desire for himself and for his way of doing things, but right now you feel that everything you want to happen is coming to a dead end.
I wonder if there is any space in your life that you may have been viewing as a tomb but which God might be inviting you to view as a place where he is in labour with you, bringing about new life? Is there a place in your life where you might ask God to give you the perspective to see where you are? If there are ways you are working against the labour pains and the promptings of his Spirit? If there are ways that you can work with him though the pain so that life can come a bit more easy?
It’s fitting in so many ways that baptism is the sign that God gave the church to mark out the beginning of our journey of faith. Because baptism is a picture of drowning and resurrection. It’s a picture of dying and rising.
Romans 6:3-4 says “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
From the belly of the whale, Jonah is acting out the pattern of the Christian life. Jonah is acting out the dying and rising again that God calls his children to again and again as they follow him. Dying to self and rising to new life in Christ. This isn’t a one time event, though there are certainly times in our lives where this is more dramatic than others. This is a work that God is constantly doing in the lives of his children. He’ll invite us to die to our desire for control, or to our pride, or to our fear, or to our selfishness. He Invites us into places where he can bring about resurrection, where he invites us to die to what will eventually lead to death, so that we can have his life instead. In some ways Jonah is a picture of baptism. This baptism of Jonah in the heart of the sea is a place where he dies to his running and hiding and where God raises him again to relationship and trust.
We say that sacraments (in our church sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper) Sacraments are an outward sign of an inward reality. At the beginning of our journey of faith, we’re invited to act out the mystery of the inward reality that God will work out again and again throughout the course of our walk with God. We act out going down into the water and dying. This is something God will invite us to do again and again. And then he’ll do the miracle of raising us back to life. He’ll raise us to a life of trust and of freedom in him. This a work that God is continually doing in us as he shapes us more and more into who we really are in him: his free, loved children.