"Womb or Tomb?" on Jonah 2 by Michelle Ellis - Nov. 12, 2023
Last week, we began exploring the book of Jonah. Just to bring us up to speed, in Jonah 1 God calls Jonah to bring a message from Him to an enemy nation, to the people of Nineveh, to invite them into relationship with God too. Nineveh was in Assyria which was known for being a violent and cruel nation in the ancient world. Jonah doesn’t like this idea at all! It makes him very uncomfortable - so uncomfortable that he tries to travel as far away from Nineveh as he possibly can.
On his journey away from Nineveh, there is a storm. Jonah tells his shipmates that if they throw him overboard the sea will become calm again. Against their better judgment, the others do throw Jonah 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 huge fish for three days and three nights. That brings us to the part of the story that we read today.
1Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
and He answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
I’d like you to notice a few significant things that happen from Jonah inside the belly of this fish. First, I want to notice that 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 in the storm, but Jonah has never spoken to God. He hasn’t talked to God about anything that has gone on. Instead, Jonah has been resisting, running and hiding. But now, Jonah can’t do that anymore. He’s trapped. And strangely, it’s in this trapped place, this dead-end place, that Jonah is finally able to face himself and what he’s been doing, and he is able to face God and be honest with Him.
Does that sound like a familiar place at all to you?A place where you had to somehow face something you had been avoiding, running from or resisting? Maybe it was (or is) a place where something important to you was stripped away from you. Or maybe you’ve come to a place where you recognized how much of a hold a particular addiction has on you, or where you came face to face with how much anger you’ve been pushing down. 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 you’re enduring a time of illness. Or maybe you found yourself in a season where things were stripped down or someone was stripped away.
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 at a dead end. His options for avoiding, running, or hiding are very few.
In some ways, in the belly of the whale, Jonah is in a special place. It’s not at all a comfortable place. Yet in this place, Jonah is able to talk to God. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do that before. In this dark place, Jonah lifts his eyes to God. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do that in the light of day. From this confining 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. This dark, stinky, confining belly of the whale is like a womb for Jonah. Something new is being born in him here.
My guess is that Jonah 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 read on which day in the whale that Jonah prayed this prayer. My guess is that it wasn’t within the first hour. My guess is that Jonah had a lot of other conversations with himself, and with God too, before the Holy Spirit was able to birth this prayer in Jonah’s heart.
That’s the thing about birth. It takes a long time. It’s really messy and there is a lot of pain involved. When God is birthing something in us, it’s often really uncomfortable, just like giving birth to a baby is really uncomfortable. It feels awkward and heavy and even scary. It hurts, it really hurts! It can hurt so much that it can feel like things are moving in the dying direction instead of into the direction of life. Birthing is a long, messy, painful process, and when God is birthing something new in us, we don’t always have that perspective to know that we are in labour. It can just feel really dark, stinky and uncomfortable. 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 the pain of your doubts. Or maybe God is birthing thankfulness in you, but right now you are feeling keenly what you don’t have. Maybe God is birthing gentleness and compassion in you, but all you feel is deep pain. Maybe God is birthing in you desire for himself and for His way of doing things, maybe He is birthing in you intimacy with Him 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, inviting you into a new life? We can want to cling so tightly to what we have. And because wombs so very often are disguised as tombs in our lives, we resist them, we fear them, we fight them. It takes trust and discernment to know what to lay down and when, what to let die and when trusting that even though we can’t always see it, God will bring about resurrection. Is there a place in your life where you might ask God to give you the perspective to see where you are? Are there ways you might be working against the labour pains and the promptings of His Spirit? Are there 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.
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—dying to ourselves, dying to our selfishness, to our need to control, to our own power. And then He’ll do the miracle of raising us back to life. Only God can do this. Only God can take us to places that look like death and make new life come. Only God can lead us through, not around, over or under death but through it so that resurrection can come.
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 invites us to die to what will eventually lead to death, so that we can have His life instead. 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 into relationship and into trust.
I’d like to close by noticing together the last piece of Jonah’s prayer. Jonah closes by saying “Salvation comes from the Lord.”That’s a statement of trust. Because Jonah hasn’t yet seen that salvation. He’s still in the belly of the whale. Jonah’s whole prayer is in fact a statement of trust because he’s praying it not after he’s safe, but before. Lately Hebrews 11:1 has been coming to my mind, “Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what we do not see.” When you’re in labour, you really need people to come alongside you and say, “There’s a baby coming! It’s so close! New life is almost here! Keep going!” When you don’t have that, you can despair that new life will ever come. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to show us together how to spur one another on in our trust that God is at work. Let’s watch and wait for Him together, through the labour pains, through the discomfort, through the darkness, so that we can say together with Jonah, “From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.”