Friday, 15 March 2019

Lent Address 2: Jonah - ‘Caught up in the storms’


Blessed are you, sovereign God of all,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
You are our light and our salvation.
From the deep waters of death
you have raised your Son to life in triumph.
Grant that all who have been born anew by water and the Spirit,
may daily be renewed in your image,
walk by the light of faith,
and serve you in newness of life;
through your anointed Son, Jesus Christ,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
we lift our voices of praise.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All       Blessed be God for ever.

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
All       Amen.


Week Two:   Jonah 1.4-17 ‘Caught up in the storms’

            4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’
            7 The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ 9‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 10Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
            11 Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ 13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ 15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
            17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

In the story of Jonah, attention, almost inevitably, turns to the eye catching character of the ‘large fish’ often thought of as a whale. In some ways the great fish becomes a bit of a distraction. It sounds so unlikely (although recent press reports tell of Rainer Schimpf, a diver observing whales off the coast of South Africa, who was caught in the jaws of a blue whale, and thankfully spent less than three minutes in its jaws and not three days in its belly).  I don’t want in any way to dismiss the significance of the great fish, for it is the at the heart of Jonah’s story for Christ and for Christians, but I will hold him over to next Thursday.

The stormy sea is representative in Hebrew thought, and indeed our own too, of unleashed forces of chaos, turbulence and despair. The creation itself is inaugurated over, in and through the primeval waters and (Genesis 1.1-3). In our mother’s womb each of us was carried in the waters of amniotic fluid, and it was when the ‘waters broke’ that the moment for our birth came.

This storm is the birth pangs, as it were, of Jonah’s adult life. Just as Nicodemus points out to Jesus one cannot enter a second time into the mother’s and be born (John 3.4), this is not a literal thing, except in the sense that Jesus describes of the need to be born from above (John 3.3). The dominant question for Jonah and for us, through the book of Jonah, is, ‘what will life look life for those born again in Christ’? But for now let us stay in the stormy waters.

This is where the story of Jonah has a clear narrative, but is figurative too. It was, we might say, that the storm, whilst unleashed by the Lord (v1), is of Jonah’s making. But this is not a personal experience. When we are in a storm in life others are drawn into it too. And those mariners sailing from Joppa to Tarshish became implicated in his flight from the call and commission of God, which we explored last week in Jonah 1.1-3.

The mariners could not understand this storm. They sensed there was a divine drive to it, and in some ways they were right, but they defaulted to an instinct in humanity to create the scapegoat to placate and ease their own turmoil.

The mariners hit the nail on the head about how each of us feels in a storm: we fear that we will perish, be blotted out (v6). It is out of that fear that they act, and cast Jonah overboard, dressing up their desperation as a religious act, attributing all this to God. Jonah colludes with that and invites the act of throwing him overboard.

The search for the scapegoat does not achieve a resolution but only a temporary truce. Scapegoats can be guilty of course: Jonah was. Likewise, the death of toppling, arrest and execution Saddam Hussein did not bring a peaceful Iraq; the assassination of Osama bin Laden has not resolved Islamist terror; deposing Theresa May as Prime Minster will not lead to a smooth, uncontroversial Brexit.

But creating a scapegoat makes us feel better. That’s why we do it. And we can justify it. As the mariners reckoned this was the only way to calm the storm, and they even ask in advance to be excused for their murderous act, ‘Please, O Lord we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you’ (v14).

The great mystery of redemption is that the Innocent Victim is turned scapegoat, and the guilt he bears is not his own, but is ours. And whatever the justice we feel better for it: as Caiaphas said in the trial of Jesus, ‘it is better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’ (John 11.50).

One lesson then from the book of Jonah is that scripture exposes our innate desire to blame and point the finger, whether at God or other people. Like Jonah we are to take responsibility for our own decisions and their consequences. Jonah’s rejection of his call and commission and his flight away from God have thrown him into turmoil and a storm of his own making.

This is not to point the finger further at Jonah to absolve myself, or any of us. Indeed part of the move to confession and repentance is to acknowledge precisely our disposition to flee from the mercies of God. The irony, or beauty of this passage of Jonah is that it is the Lord who provides the great fish to swallow up Jonah (v17) which itself is a mercy.

So Jonah is a person caught up in storms. He has been fighting against himself and against his God: it is that sort of fracture in a life that leads to depression, turmoil and withdrawal. Jonah is in denial and that denial leads to self-blame.

Before his ejection Jonah famously sleeps on the boat, down in the hold. Jonah’s first strategy is to withdraw: Jonah’s sleep is Jonah shut down, closed in on himself. This is where the parallels with Jesus, the Innocent Victim, continue. Jesus sleeps on a boat in the midst of a storm and his disciples call out to him that they are on the brink of perishing. The disciples, experienced mariners themselves, inadvertently, perhaps, call upon their God: ‘Master, save us for we are perishing’ (Matthew 8.25; Mark 4.38; Luke 8.24). But Jesus is asleep.

But is this the sleep of withdrawal in the storms? I want to suggest that is the reverse of Jonah’s hibernation in the face of the world and life. Jesus’ sleep embodies peace in the midst of the storm. This peace is the space into which we are invited as the storms swirl around us: this is the peace of Jesus Christ, the Innocent Victim, to whom we cry when we are perishing in the storms that buffet and assail us in our lives. As the antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis at Compline puts it: ‘Preserve us, O Lord while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace’.

So two points to ponder as we approach Compline:

1.     What are the storms in my life at the moment?
2.     Where do I seek solace in times of depression, turmoil or withdrawal?

I weave a silence onto my lips:
Calm me, O Lord, as You stilled the storm.
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.
Let all the tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Lord, in Your peace.
Amen.                                                                        A Celtic Prayer

Recommended further reading:
Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment. Dublin: Columba Press, 2002.
(A limited number of copies are available to borrow, or buy second hand, from the Minster.)

© Andrew Bishop, 2019

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