Praying from the belly of a fish. #sermon #exile

How do you pray from the belly of a fish?

At one level it’s a pretty basic biological question – and a basic biological problem.

In the belly of a fish, there isn’t any air.

In the belly of a fish, you’re wedged in tight, unable to breath.

In the belly of a fish, you can’t even speak.

So how do you pray from the belly of a fish?

To push these biological questions further, we have to ask whether anyone can actually survive in the belly of a fish for three days and three nights – let alone pray there. Could a person survive even one day and night in the belly of a fish?

What we’re asking at the outset, of course, is whether we should think that this ancient prophet actually got thrown off the side of a sailing ship – whether he actually ended up in the guts of a fish. On the face of it this seems unlikely for the simple reason that after three days and three nights in such cramped quarters he would he would have been good and dead. That isn’t to say that the creator of the universe could not have worked some miracle in this situation – couldn’t have preserved his life in that context.

But the bigger question, perhaps, is how this narrative is presented to us within the Hebrew Bible. Given the original context in which it was written, it seems more likely that this story is actually a kind of parable. It is not a recounting of historical events. The story of Jonah is a parable about the life of God’s people – a story that teaches us about who God’s people are, and who God’s people are called to be.

So then before we get to the question of how you pray from the belly of a fish – we have to first ask what it means to be in the belly of a fish. For God’s people, where is the bell of the fish. What experience does this narrative speak to?

In all likelihood, this story of Jonah was written and shared in the period just after the exile of God’s people. You’ll recall that Judah, the southern kingdom, was attacked and defeated by the Babylonian Empire – God’s people, the people of Judah were sent into exile. This story of Jonah likely belongs, or was written in this period when Judah’s exile is coming to an end. So in that historical context, a the time Jonah’s story was written, to be in the belly of the fish meant to be in the place of exile.

Jonah went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Jonah went down into the ship.

Jonah went down into the hold of the ship to sleep.

Jonah went down into the waters.

 Jonah went down into the guts of the fish.

This place of abandonment is the place to which God’s people have gone in exile – family members killed, temple destroyed, land occupied, home lost forever it seems.

In the prayer that Jonah prays, he speaks about this place of exile in a variety of ways. He says that being in the belly of the fish, that being in exile, is like being in the belly of Sheol.

Sheol in that ancient Hebrew context is the place of the dead. In that time everyone was understood to go to Sheol when they died. It wasn’t a place of punishment in the way that we think of hell as a place of punishment. It was simply the realm of the dead – where everyone goes regardless of age or wealth or piety. Sheol is the realm of the dead and is a place, according to the Hebrew Bible, where silence reigns supreme a decisive silence reigns where there is neither knowledge nor feeling. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is represented as a dreary, dark place.

To be in exile – to be in Sheol – to be in the belly of a fish – is to be in a place where identity is lost, it is a place where utter silence of heart and mind defines reality – it is a place where one loses all sense of orientation within the world.

From such a place – Jonah prays. From such an impossible place, Jonah offers words to God. From this place of distress and death, he reaches out to God with words of prayer – with a Psalm to the God of Judah.

Now perhaps we can get out heads around the possibility that God’s people can reach out with a Psalm from such a place of distress. And perhaps we can get our heads around the possibility that women and men in our day might learn to speak to God from such a place of abandonment. But in this prayer of Jonah there is perhaps one aspect that we will find difficult or troubling.

In verse three Jonah says to God, from that place of exile and Sheol, “you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.” In effect, Jonah is saying to God: You are the one who has cast me into the sea. You are the one who has sent Judah into exile. You are the one who has sent your people into this place of abandonment. God you are responsible for our suffering.

At some level, though, perhaps Jonah is wrong – God did not cast his people into the deep. The exile of Judah into Babylon was the result of the expansive and violent nature of the Babylonian Empire. The last king of Judah before the exile actually rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar – and paid the price of that rebellion. In a similar way, Jonah has made his own bed. He has walked away from the place to which God has called him – God called him East and he went West. In both cases, we might say, Jonah and Judah abandoned themselves to the deep. ]They turned their backs and paid the price for their own actions. In this sense it seems like Jonah is wrong: God did not send them to exile, to sheol.

But at the same time, within the narrative of the Hebrew Bible it is certainly God who allows and to some extent sends the Babylon to lay siege to Judah and Jerusalem – sending his people into exile as a punishment for their wrongheaded ways. And in the narrative of Jonah it is God who hurls a storm at the ship on which Jonah sails. It is God who corners the sailors until they are left with no choice but to follow Jonah’s advice and throw him overboard.

Within the wider narratives of the Hebrew Bible there is always some ambiguity around God’s role in the suffering of his people. Sometimes that suffering is a punishment that God sends or allows. Sometimes the suffering has causes that are more ambiguous. Very often suffering and exile and abandonment don’t come directly from God but are a result of the relationships and contexts within which our lives are inevitably lived out.

But even here, God is in some way implicated. Is God not the loving creator of the world? Does God not hold our world and our lives in his hands? It seems possible to at least say that there are times when God does not prevent our pain, our suffering, our exile.

How do you pray from the belly of the fish? Well, we pray honestly, with Jonah. Saying to God “You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.”

This week at Wednesday morning prayer we read a reflection that is pertinent here. Let me read those words of reflection from the Northumbria Community:

What can you do, in your hour of hurting, that might please your Lord? My guarded answer is: very little.

You can rejoice. That’s one possibility. You can yield to God. With joy you can offer up to God the situation and say, “Lord, I know this is from Your hand.” But the chances are you are not going to get anywhere near that. So what can you do in the midst of adversity? You can kneel; you can weep, and weep, and weep. This you can do.

There is one thing you must not do. Complain if you must, groan if you must, and get angry if you must. But oh, dear sister or brother, stay far distant from bitterness, and from blaming others. Do that you are dangerously close to forfeiting all spiritual growth.

To acknowledge that God may to some extent be the source of our suffering is to be honest, and perhaps to get angry with God, and to speak with God in our anger. Throughout the scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, this approach is often taken. How do you pray from the belly of a fish – you pray honestly and sometimes angrily.

And yet, as the reflection from Northumbria reminds us, we do not want to become bitter. Maya Angelou has written these words:

“Bitterness is like cancer. It feeds upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

We don’t want to end up in that place of bitterness. Bitterness is the result when our anger puts down deep roots in our lives. Bitterness results when our anger at the world or at others is transforms into a settled disposition that contaminates our joy and our love and our relationships. Bitterness is an anger that closes us off from relationships and from the possibility of renewal and healing. In the case of our relationship with God, bitterness also can take root. When we become bitter we are no longer able to pray from the belly of the whale – we can only mutter to ourselves about unfairness – we lose the possibility of conversation with God even in the place of exile.

In fact, later in the narrative of Jonah we will have to return to the question and reality of bitterness in Jonah. But for now he avoids bitterness. And he avoids bitterness by speaking openly and honestly with God – while at the same time reaching out to God. From the belly of the fish, God’s people continue to reach out to God, to seek God’s face, through prayer.

How do you pray from the belly of a fish? Jonah offers another insight through the prayer we have read today in chapter two. Not only does he pray honestly, and without bitterness – he prays as if God’s deliverance has already happened. In their exile, God’s people pray as if God has already acted for their deliverance. We read in verse 6 of Jonah’s prayer: [SLIDE]:

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;

Yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

People don’t come back from Sheol.

Women and men don’t come back from the dead.

Nations don’t come back from exile.

Men thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish, don’t survive.

But Jonah prays in the middle of exile and suffering:

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;

Yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

It hasn’t happened, yet. God hasn’t delivered. But Jonah prays as if it has happened.

Jonah prays as if the great fish has already spat him up on the beach.

Judah prays as if God has already delivered them back home to their land and temple.

How do you pray from the belly of the fish: you pray honestly and sometimes angrily. You speak out your grief. But in order to ward off bitterness, and to pray faithfully, you pray as if God’s deliverance is a sure thing – as if it has already happened.

Perhaps here it is helpful for us within the context of our Christian faith to think about the reality of baptism.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes these words: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Through our baptism we share with Christ in his death. Through our baptism we are united so closely with Christ that we are in the belly of the fish with him – we are in exile with him – we are in Sheol with him – and he with us. Through our baptism we are bound so close to him that our lives are defined by his death, by his passage through the valley of the shadow of death. Which means that in the midst of our own exile we are with him, and he is with us.

The parable of Jonah is a parable of Jesus also. Jesus said to the religious leaders: “You want a sign? You want proof of who I am? The only sign I will give you is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so for three days and three nights will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth. Through our baptism, we are united with Christ in his death – we are united with him in his three days and nights in the heart of the earth.

But the Apostle Paul continues: “[W]e have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Through baptism we are not only united with Christ in death – we are also united with Christ in his resurrection life. His new life is ours and will be ours. His healing is ours and will be ours. His vindication is ours and will be ours. His justice is for our world and will be for our world. So how do you pray from the belly of a fish – you pray in anticipation of what God will do. You pray as if God has already done it.

While he is still in the belly of the fish, Jonah prays.

While they are still in exile, the people of God pray:

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;

Yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

This is a prayer offered in a posture of faith and anticipation. No doubt it takes courage and grace and strength to pray in this way – to pray in anticipation of what God will do. Yet Christ has given us his Spirit to lead us into such a prayerful life and such a prayerful way – to lead us into a place where we can learn to see and to trust that Christ is at work – that God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s goodness, God’s love will be realized in our world and lives, through Christ. Let us pray our faith. Let us live our faith. Thanks be to God through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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