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Sunday Worship 28 April | Jonah 2: Jonah Prays

Jonah 2 (NIV)
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

So Jonah is in the belly of the beast, and two big questions hang over from last week. Did a great fish really swallow Jonah? And did God do all of this on purpose?

Let's begin with the first of those. Did a great fish really swallow Jonah? When I sat down to prepare this reflection, I confidently started writing that Jonah being swallowed by a fish tells us that we should be looking for theological truth rather than historical fact when we read this story. Of course we believe in miracles, but some things are just so ridiculous that they must surely be metaphorical, although they can still say something deep and significant about God and ourselves. And then something stopped me, and I tentatively googled “can a fish swallow a human?” The answer seems to be not likely but not impossible. The most probable candidate is some sort of whale, but despite their massive size, most only have narrow throats as they eat tiny plankton. However the sperm whale, which swims in the Mediterranean Sea that Jonah was crossing, has an oesophagus wide enough to swallow a ten metre giant squid whole, suggesting that a man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time could go down quite easily.

Being swallowed is one thing, but surviving for three days in the belly of the whale is quite another. Digestive enzymes and no oxygen make for quite a hostile living environment, and so we find ourselves back in the realm of miracle or myth. Perhaps God protected Jonah in that time, or perhaps we might suggest some exaggeration rather than complete fabrication. Sperm whales do come close enough to shore to beach themselves, so could it be that the storm blew up when the ship was not long out of port, then Jonah was sucked in by a passing whale and swiftly vomited back out, into a calmed sea and near to dry land? Three is a significant number in scripture, and events that take three days are often associated with divine intervention, so it's easy to see how that detail could have crept in.

To further add to this picture, one of the gods who was worshipped across Mesopotamia, from the Mediterranean coast Jonah washed up on to the Assyrian city he was sent to, was a fish-god called Dagon. For Jonah to make his entrance into the region via fish would then have been a powerful statement, and if rumours of his unusual mode of transport had travelled with him, they may have helped him command respect amongst the Ninevites. It also seems that the Babylonians, who conquered the Assyrians, told of a mysterious fish-man named Oannes who emerged from the sea to give divine wisdom to men. That name is just one letter removed from Ioannes, the name used for Jonah in the original Greek of the New Testament. If it is not only the Hebrew scriptures that tell of a fishy prophet, then perhaps there really was a strange aquatic event that inspired these stories. I still believe that finding meaning in this story does not depend on it being literally true, but I am reminded that we believe in many marvellous things, and we should always be open to more of them.

I won't say that answers the first question, because I don't think it can be answered with complete certainty, and some questions are meant to lead us deeper into mystery anyway, but hopefully that has given us something to think about. So on to our second question. Did God do all of this on purpose? If we're erring towards a more literal reading of the story, then God did indeed send a storm that threatened to sink the ship, and then send a fish to swallow Jonah and deposit him on the shore. That is what the text tells us, and even without that authorial voice, we may still conclude that it was all too much of a coincidence not to require some degree of divine intervention. It seems that God really wants Jonah to go to Nineveh, and is willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths to get him there, but that only raises more questions. What does it mean for how we understand the way God calls us? Does God actually seek to control us?

It may seem that Jonah has little choice in what happens to him, and yet he continues to exercise free will throughout this story. He chooses to get on the boat sailing to Tarshish, he chooses to tell the sailors that they must throw him overboard in order to calm the storm, and at last he chooses to praise God and proclaim salvation. As we will see when we come to chapter three next week, the scene changes pretty quickly from the beach to the city, so I always imagined that Nineveh was a port, and the fish all but spat Jonah through the gates so he had to start talking, but in reality it is hundreds of miles inland. Jonah has to make a very deliberate choice to travel that distance, and he has to recommit to that choice every time his confidence wavers. There must be a hundred more chances to run away again before he reaches Nineveh, but he doesn't take them. God has not controlled him, but rather convinced him, and I don't think he has done that through fear but through faithfulness. I don't want to dismiss how terrifying the experience of the storm must have been, but at the same time it was Jonah who chose what many of the ancients saw as the primordial chaos of the sea, and it was God who brought him back to the safety of dry land. God has proved to be faithful to Nineveh by not giving up on sending someone to them, and God has proved to be faithful to Jonah by giving him a second chance to do the right thing, and so Jonah declares that he will be faithful in return. 

Let's go back then to those questions about what all of this means for how we understand ideas of call and control in our own lives. The first thing to say is that while there is much we can learn from Jonah’s story, it is ultimately Jonah's story, and it will be both like and unlike our own story. The same is true when we are reading any biblical narrative, because we are individuals and God loves us and treats us as such. God seems to be telling Jonah that there is one right path ahead of him, and his choice is to follow it or not, but I have spoken about my own experience of God telling me there are several right paths, and my choice is to stop dithering and take one. We may experience one or the other, or both at different times in our lives. I think one of the things that is important for us in Jonah's story is that even when God is determined to get us somewhere, the final decision must be ours. God will call us and God will convince us but God will not control us.

Here we come at last to the chapter we heard this morning, Jonah's prayer from the belly of the whale. After an action packed and fast moving first chapter, this is a significant chance of pace. It's a little bit like a musical solo or a Shakespearen soliloquy, in that not much happens, except that Jonah is different by the end of it, and the story is ready to take a new turn. Jonah is in an extraordinary situation and yet what strikes me is that his is not such an extraordinary prayer. “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.” Take the imagery as metaphor and this could be David praising God for protecting him from his enemies, or Paul worshipping God from his prison cell, or one of my own prayers after emerging from the depths of depression. Jonah's words give voice to some of our most profound experiences.

The image of Jonah praying in the belly of the whale is a fascinating one to me. The version of the story in the Prayground talks about Jonah being swallowed by the fish as a punishment, and it is sometimes told in a way that suggests that this was his lowest moment, but I think they are both misreadings of the text. The whale is not reprimand but redemption, and it is the means by which Jonah is lifted out of the depths of his despair. Some interpreters will also speak of the belly as a place of restriction, but I see it more as an experience of swaddling. When Jonah boarded the ship to Tarshish, he wasn't just running from God, he was running from everything he knew. He must have felt like his life was spinning apart, but now he is held together, like a child in distress being gathered into its parents arms until the fear subsides and the world falls back into place. It reminds me of a song called ‘Hem Me In’ by the band Eden Burning, which has the lines: Gather me up, chide me closer / Be Almighty, be my mother / Watch for me, cry for me / Run to meet me, be my father...I taught you to walk, held you to me cheek / Knelt and fed you oh my Ephraim / Just as the sea hems in the shore / Just as the sky holds the hills. Perhaps Jonah is being hemmed in to stop him from fraying.

And so I am inclined to think of the belly as a womb, a place of safety and rebirth. There is even a hint in the text that this metaphor is intentional or at least has not gone unnoticed, as the Hebrew for “great fish” switches from masculine to feminine. David Benjamin Blower, whose book ‘Sympathy for Jonah' I have been reading alongside the text, says this: “The whale's belly creates the space where Jonah's flight from God - which is also his flight from himself - ends. Here is the safe place to collapse, to give up and allow one's inner structures, defences, boundaries and coping strategies to be relaxed, or even demolished, so that some new thought can be thought...When Jonah rolls out of the monster’s mouth, a mucusy whelp sprawled on a Mediterranean beach, he was not simply back where he started, he was a new man of some sort.” If David Benjamin Blower is right in his assessment of Jonah as a radical story about interrupting empire and redeeming it through the politics of enemy-love, an assessment we'll come to consider more fully next week, it is perhaps no surprise that Jonah needed to be reborn, transformed for the task ahead of him.

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