The Sign Of Jonah
A Series Of Special Services for Lent
by Dr. Reed Lessing
Third Week Of Lent:
Praying From The Belly Of The Great Big Fish
One tribe of Native Americans had a unique practice for training young braves: On the night of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, he was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe. But on this night he was blindfolded and taken miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of thick woods. By himself. All night long. Terrifying! How out of his element the young brave must have felt. How very un-BRAVE, in fact. Every time a twig snapped, he probably visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked.
No doubt it was a terrifying night for many. After what must have seemed like an eternity, the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he beheld the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was the boy’s father. He had been there all night long. It is a lesson in bravery … in independence. But it is an important lesson in DEPENDENCE as well. Tribe and family matter. You aren’t alone, even when you are most lonely.
Jonah also found himself in unfamiliar surroundings, and that is putting it mildly! I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in the belly of a great big fish. The sounds? Would they remind you that you are being eaten? Taken on to the next stage of digestion perhaps? Ugh! And the smells? Beyond fishy! Ugh! There wouldn’t, I suppose, be a lot of light, so vision would be limited … or nonexistent. But I imagine that would only make the feelings in that great big fish’s belly even more spooky … slimy … terrifying. Ugh!
I can’t imagine. And quite frankly, I don’t want to try. Ugh! But, like the thirteen-year-old brave, lonely but protected on his night in the wilderness, Jonah was not alone in the belly of the great big fish. The LORD was with him.
We can be absolutely sure of this because we know that Jonah was praying. And WHAT Jonah was praying was the very WORD of God. Jonah was praying the psalms. Listen to this: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Our confession today was the prayer of Jonah. And these sound like those words, don’t they? They aren’t. They are the words of Psalm 42, verses seven and eight. Just because Jonah was an unfaithful prophet doesn’t mean he was an uneducated one. He knew the psalms. And in his loneliness, he reached out to those venerable prayers of God’s people. Not just Psalm 42, either. Jonah’s prayer wanders throughout the psalter. Phrases are found in Psalms 18, 66, 16, 30, 22 and a dozen others.
God’s Word was with Jonah. And we know a couple of things about God’s Word, don’t we? First of all, we confess that God’s Word is a means of grace. In his Word our Lord comes to us with gracious, saving power. Through messages of Law and of Gospel, God calls us back to himself (“Return to the Lord your God”), and offers us his gracious salvation (“for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”). In his Word God comes to us … is with us. So Jonah was NOT alone. God was truly there, with him in the belly of the great big fish.
Another thing we know about God’s Word: It became a human being in Jesus Christ, our Lord. In him we know what God has to say to us. Watching him, following him, observing his passion and death … and, yes, his glorious resurrection … we are exposed to the Father’s love. This living Word of God promises that he is with us always, “even to the end of the age.” And so we are most assuredly not alone. Not ever!
Jonah addresses his prayer toward the temple. That’s significant, not only because Jonah was from the Northern Kingdom of the divided nation of God. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had set up false places of worship in Dan and in Bethel. God had repeatedly condemned these places of cultic worship through his prophets. Jonah turns his face toward Jerusalem—the true dwelling place of God. Jonah was showing allegiance to the true worship of God. But of greater significance, Jonah was returning to God. Although he has spent the entire book fleeing from God’s Word, now he is turning toward it. The temple, after all, was considered the dwelling place of God, and the place where God’s Word was taught in all of its truth. In the deepest recesses of the temple stood God’s mercy seat. Jonah’s prayer is a prayer appealing to God’s mercy.
We, too, address our prayers to the NEW mercy seat of God—Jesus Christ. In his name we make our prayers known to God. By his mercy we are accepted into God’s presence. And what does Jonah finally say when appealing to God’s mercy? “YOU CAST ME!” It sounds like an accusation, doesn’t it? “You did this to me!” he seems to be saying. But with the accusation Jonah appears to finally come to his senses. (Gastric juices would have that effect, I assume.) But underneath the accusation is a recognition of guilt. Jonah knows that God has put him in the belly of this fish because Jonah deserved it.
The judgment of God—God’s law—has come to Jonah. And he is aware of his predicament. Still, he is also aware of God’s mercy. “You ANSWERED me,” he cries. In the belly of the great big fish Jonah is coming to his senses … and to a sense of his merciful Lord.
Jonah’s experience foreshadows the story of Jesus Christ. Just as Jonah faces the judgment of God, so did Jesus on the cross. Jesus BECAME SIN, bearing the transgressions and guilt of the whole world … and bearing them away, eternally “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). At what cost?! At the cost of his holy and precious blood. At the cost of his life. And at the cost of being forsaken by his Father on that cross. Just as Jonah experienced separation from the Lord, so did Jesus.
But here is the point; just as Jonah prayed from the psalms, so did Jesus (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1). “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Those are the opening words of Psalm 22—a psalm that ends with a faith-filled acclamation of God’s saving power. On his cross the Father was with Jesus—with him in the Word, as he was with Jonah in his holy Word.
So, what are we to learn from this? When you are in the belly of the great big fish you are not alone. God’s word in the psalms is with you. And God’s final Word, Jesus, is with you. This is how we survive in the belly of a great big fish! Amen!
By Dr. Reed Lessing. © 2010 by Creative Communications for the Parish. 800-325-9414. creativecommunications.com.