Sermon preached at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women.
Have you ever ended up someplace you never intended to go? Yeah. That’s what happened to Jonah. God told him to go one place; Jonah paid good money to go in the opposite direction. Then the boat he’d booked passage on got caught in a giant storm. Being superstitious, the crew thought Jonah had made the gods mad, who, in turn, had created the storm. So, they didn’t want to do it, but they had no choice. They threw Jonah overboard.
Then what happened? Yeah. Jonah got swallowed by a big fish. So, after going in the exact opposite direction God had wanted him to go, and then getting caught, Jonah ends up– imprisoned, you might say–in a big fish.
He’s down there for three days. Being inside that fish makes Jonah stop. And think. He prays. I want to read the first part of that prayer to you. See if it resonates.
Then Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the fish, saying, “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. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
What about that prayer? Does any of it resonate? Being in the belly of Sheol…being sent to a place you didn’t want to go…being distressed about not being back home…How about that part about going “down to the land whose bars closed upon me?” Did any of that resonate?
Part of what I love about this prayer is it’s just so real. So honest. It gets down to the nitty gritty details of being inside a big fish at the bottom of the sea. There’s water. There’s weeds being wrapped around his head. I don’t even want to know what those weeds were.
How might you describe the nitty gritty details of your life? Whatever those things are, you can pray them to God. In fact, I suspect God delights when we get that specific. Because if we’re praying the specifics, that means we’re inviting God into every single part of our lives… even the messy parts…even the parts we’re ashamed of. God wants to come in to all the parts of our lives.
Why does God want to do that? Because God wants to heal every single part of us. Every single part of us. And why does God want to heal every single part of us? Because God loves us. Period.
There’s a group of nuns I like to hang out with up in Indiana. Those nuns have a phrase I love: “Always, we begin again.” The story goes that someone asked a monk one time, “What do you all do all day up there in the monastery?” The monk responded, “We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.”
That’s pretty much what the faith life is all about–we fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. No matter who you are or where you live. You fall down, you get up. You fall down, you get up.
When that fish spits Jonah out on the beach, he gets back up. He goes to the place God was trying to send him in the first place, a place called Ninevah. He preaches to the people, just like God asked him to. The people listen to Jonah. They believe him. They become believers in God. Jonah did okay. He made a mistake, paid for it in the belly of the fish, prayed his way out, then got back on the right path. Jonah fell down–way down to the bottom of the sea. Then he got back up. Cool. A really great ending to a really great ending.
Except there’s one more chapter. Want to know what happens after Jonah brings all those people to God? Y’all aren’t going to believe this. I’m going to have to read it to you.
That the people in Ninevah turned their lives around “was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry. He prayed and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Can you believe this guy? Jonah is pouting because God won’t destroy the people of Ninevah. He’d rather die than look on those people with the same compassion God shows them. God asks Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
But wait! There’s more.
“Then Jonah went out of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. (Maybe he was still hoping for God to rain down fire or something.) God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.”
But wait! There’s more.
“But when dawn came the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah’s one of those guys who loves the drama…know what I mean?)
So, God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then God said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” The end. Weirdest ending to any book in the Bible.
Here’s what’s great about this last chapter of Jonah. If the story ended with ch. 3, we’d all think, “Okay. Make a mistake, turn it all around, then everything is hunky dory. But that’s not how life goes, is it? No…We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.
And every time we do–every time we fall down, every time we get up–wherever we are, whatever we do, God is there hoping to heal us in every nitty gritty detail of our lives…in Ninevah, in Raleigh, in Swannanoa, in the belly of a fish…wherever we are, God is there, every minute of every day…hoping for our wholeness. To this I say, “Thanks be to God!”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019