The story of Jonah (in the Old Testament) gets off to a rough start. The Lord’s call comes to Jonah to go to Nineveh, but instead of complying, Jonah flat-out refuses, books passage on a ship and heads off to Tarshish. Jonah is not only disobedient; he is conniving and irrational—attempting to flee from the very presence of God (1:3). One of many ironies in the story is that, when the great storm came up that threatened to break the ship apart and the sailors asked Jonah what he had done to bring this great trouble on them, Jonah replied, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah is trying to flee from God’s presence on land and sea, yet he acknowledges that God made the sea and the land, implying that God is also present there. So how does Jonah expect to get away from God’s presence, really?! The attempt to flee from God is irrational, and surely Jonah knows it. But he does it anyway.
In contrast to Jonah’s disobedience is God’s relentless pursuit of Jonah. 1:4 says “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea…a mighty storm that threatened to tear the ship apart.” In some mysterious way, God is in this storm. He is the instigator of turmoil that appears to put the lives of innocent sailors at risk…at least the sailors certainly fear for their lives. What kind of God is this that endangers the lives of others while trying to get Jonah back on track? That’s not the main part of the story, but certainly disobedience (including our own) can make life miserable for others. So Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, which they do. But God’s prevenient grace is way ahead of Jonah--“The Lord provided a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). Jonah’s disobedience is no match for God; God is out in front of Jonah, and in spite of Jonah’s rebellion, God corrals Jonah and puts him in confinement until Jonah comes to his senses. The story is thus not only about Jonah being disobedient, but about God’s relentless pursuit of Jonah. Better to have a God in hot pursuit of us than a God who just lets us go our own way.
Jonah is now in the belly of the fish, and for the first time in this story, he begins to pray (chapter 2). Prayer is what helps Jonah in the belly of the fish (2:1-10). This is not a spontaneous or original prayer; it comes from the Psalms. Almost every phrase of Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 comes from the Psalms. Jonah is in the rawest condition imaginable, but instead of extemporaneous outbursts of his own words, he uses words and prayers that he learned from the Hebrew prayer book—the Psalms. There is no better place to find prayers that are adequate for the complexities of our own lives than the Psalms!
For the time being, however, the belly of the fish is a place of confinement—a place Jonah cannot manage or control or fix. It’s a place similar to the primordial chaos of Genesis 1:2 where it says the earth was formless and void, and where darkness covered the face of the deep. But that primordial chaos in Genesis 1 was also a place of divine brooding and creativity; a wind (or Spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters and created the world. Out of the chaos came order and life. That is not lost on Jonah; the belly of the fish—slimy, dark, smelly, yucky—is like that formless, empty void over which the Spirit of God hovered and brooded and brought forth life. The belly of the fish is also similar to the experience of the Israelites when they were trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s approaching army. (“Moses, why did you lead us out here to die?!”) They thought God had abandoned them, and they were done. But they were so wrong! God was just getting started.
God is just getting started with Jonah too; he’s not giving up on Jonah or his calling/mission to Nineveh. In the belly of the fish Jonah remembers the Lord (2:7) and pledges anew to keep his vows (2:9). It turns out that the belly of the fish is not only a place of confinement and a place which Jonah cannot manage or control, where it seems there is no hope, all is lost, and he will surely die…the belly of the fish is actually an incubator—a birthing center—out of which God creates new life (for the Ninevites, in particular, who were Jonah’s enemies). The journey of the Israelites through the wilderness is in some ways similar to Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish, and not unlike some of our own experiences of trouble or chaos. Finding ourselves in the belly of the fish (metaphorically speaking) is a place where we are forced to depend on God…which is not a bad thing! Our natural instincts are to flee experiences of trouble and perplexity, and sail to our own Tarshish. Yet sometimes the best place we can be is in the belly of the fish where we submit ourselves to the God who brings life out of these experiences. The storm in chapter one of Jonah is not merely an episode of bad weather, but an event that brings Jonah into an encounter with the brooding, hovering, creating, Spirit of God.
I wonder if COVID-19 will turn out to be a kind of “fish’s belly” for us—an incubator for imagining and testing new ways of being church? What new life might God be birthing in us as individuals and congregations as we deal with disruptions and lockdowns? Will the current leadership transitions at Weavers, and the resulting interim period, be a period of incubation—a birthing center—for a new chapter of congregational life? In any case, it will be well worth our time to be diligent in prayer during this season—listening, hoping, trusting, prayerfully waiting for the life-giving Spirit of God to sweep across the water of our lives and the Weavers congregation, bringing us to the land that he will show us. “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (2:2). “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (2:9b). And it shall be so!
Phil Kanagy, pastor
August 19, 2020