(In this reflection offered during a midweek ecumenical Lenten service, I expand on my sermon from last week, lingering in the insights to be found in the whale belly itself.)
How does one come to be swallowed by a great monster from the ocean deeps?
How does one come to be pulled into such a belly and dragged into such a liquid depth far past the reach of sunlight, down into a dark immensity beyond measure?
How does one come to be stuck in such a vast and suffocating density, suspended in a womb of death?
For Jonah, this all came because he ran from the claim that his Creator had placed on his life. Jonah heard what God had called him to, and he shut his ears from that call. He ran away as far as he could.
He ran until the land ended, then he rowed out onto the ocean and set sail, and when a storm came to break up the boat, he plunged into the water and began swimming away, only to be taken by the forces of the deep and sink, in the belly of a whale, way down into the watery wilderness – the “belly of Sheol,” the “belly of hell,” as Jonah came to call it, as he cries out to God from the depths of this whale belly wilderness.
I wonder how Jonah’s cry echoes cries of our own, cries that maybe we’ve muffled and suffocated, cries from the depths of our own distress. This whale belly wilderness is a spiritual condition. It’s a condition of being stuck and sunk. It’s a condition that comes when we turn from the claim that our Creator has made on our lives, and we descend into a state of suspended animation. We get depressed beneath heavy waves.
Now, we can see from the story of Jonah that this spiritual condition that I’m calling the whale belly wilderness is a condition that comes when we run away from a particular kind of call that God can place on our lives. This call is the call of conscience, and the call of courage on behalf of conscience.
You see, God called Jonah to go and be a goad for God, to go and be a bit and bridle and spur of conscience for a society, to get that society to stop and turn away from their wicked ways: the ways of corruption, the ways of crookedness, negligence, lies, abuse, and violence. God called Jonah to call out an entire culture for its violent disregard for God and for the way God calls us to treat God’s beloved humanity.
When Jonah heard this call from God, he did not respond with courage, he did not respond with compassion, he responded the way that most of us are inclined to respond when it comes to the insistence of conscience. He shut it out and ran the other direction.
And so he got swallowed and sunk down into a whale belly wilderness. The thing is, it can get comfortable down there. It can feel snug and safe, even as it’s a form of suffering. If Jonah could’ve gotten WiFi down there, he may well have stayed in that whale forever.
But instead he let himself feel the suffering of the condition he inflicted on himself. And he cried out to God from that distress.
And his words can be a good guide for us if we find ourselves stuck and sunk, and realize that it is because we have turned away from whatever courageous task to which God is calling us.
Remember the Holy One.
Forsake vain idols – the idol of our comfort, the idol of our comfortable self-regard, the idols of everything a crooked society teaches us to worship: illusion, wealth, quick satisfaction, power, violence, fear, our own sanctity and greatness.
Instead, may we turn our loyalty to God alone. May we sacrifice everything that keeps us from that loyalty, every attachment that distracts us from the sacred at work in our lives together. This kind of sacrifice is the exercise of Lent.
Giving up what we to, so we can come up out of the whale belly wilderness, and back onto dry land, where we can turn our face to the task to which God is calling us, with grace and good courage.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered on March 9th 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)