There aren’t too many people who know exactly what Jonah experienced in the guts of that fish. And there aren’t too many people who can appreciate what it feels like to be spewed out of a fish onto the dry land. In a metaphorical sense, in a figurative sense, many of us can perhaps understand it.
But it seems that a man named Paul Templer can understand Jonah in a very concrete sense. In London’s Guardian newspaper this past week, Mr. Templer offered a first-person account of an experience he had on the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe. The title of the newspaper piece was this: “I was swallowed by a hippo.”
Paul Templer owns a business that takes clients on tours of the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. And many times over the years he has seen a particular, grouchy two-ton bull hippopotamus in the stretch of river he often travelled – a bull hippo that occasionally went after tourists and guides in a half-hearted kind of way.
But on one particular afternoon, late in the day – in a quiet and tranquil moment as the sun sank low – the hippopotamus attacked. First it went after one of the apprentice guides who was along with Templer, tipping his kayak. When Paul Templer saw what was happening, he turned around and sped his own kayak to help – and as he began to help something bizarre happened. He recounts it this way: “Suddenly I was engulfed in darkness. There was no transition at all, no sense of approaching danger. It was as if I had suddenly gone blind and deaf. I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around. My palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realized I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.”
If ever we needed confirmation that a hippopotamus is an aggressive and violent creature, this story reminds us of that pretty clearly. Paul Templer managed to push himself loose, but the hippo grabbed him and dragged him down to the bottom of the river again. He describes what happened next.
“The hippo lurched suddenly to the surface, spitting me out as it rose. My colleague was still waiting for me in his kayak and managed to paddle me to safety. I was a mess. My left arm was crushed, blood poured from a wound in my chest and when he examined my back he discovered a savage wound to my chest and lung.”
It so happened that there was a medical team nearby, on an emergency drill, which almost certainly saved Paul Templer’s life. The damage to his left arm was too extensive to save the arm, though surgeons later managed to repair some of his other serious injuries.
Our text from Jonah today is just a few short verses. And the first of those verses is so direct and simple: “Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”
The narrative of the prophet presents Jonah in this moment
as one who is exhausted,
as one who is defeated,
as one who stinks,
as one who is covered in slime,
as one who’s skin is shriveled.
Yet as one who is alive.
The story doesn’t leave Jonah injured in the way that Paul Templer was injured by a violent and death-dealing hippopotamus. But the narrative presents him as similarly and unceremoniously spewed out onto the shore. Another chance at life. Another opportunity to get up and move. Another chance to be alive in the world God gives as a gift.
And in this moment – after this unceremonious dumping onto the beach, God shows up with a word for Jonah. If ever there was an appropriate moment for that phrase, perhaps this is it: “No rest for the wicked.” And in this moment we are, in away, back at square one.
At the very beginning of the book, in chapter 1, verse 1, we read: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying…”
In chapter 3, verse 1, our passage for today, we read: “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying…” Deja-vu, anyone?
Jonah hardly has time to catch his breath. He hardly has time to get a shower and get rid of that awful stench. He hardly has time regain his strength. He hardly has time to get his bearings. And already God is speaking to him. Already calling him. Already reminding him of the Word he spoke at the very beginning.
Maybe we want to stop and ask how exactly the word of God came to Jonah – whether the first or the second time. How did Jonah know that God was speaking to him? What did it feel like? What did it sound like?
In fact the text doesn’t tell us how the word of God came to Jonah. Was it through the voice of another prophet? Was it through some inner voice? Was it though a dream or a vision? We don’t know. Whatever is the case, however, the voice of God comes to him directly – it comes with force and with grace. It doesn’t come when he is looking for it. The word of God does not come because of Jonah’s searching or his openness or his reaching to God – the word of God comes to him and confronts him from outside of himself. As one commentator puts it: “The story Jonah proceeds as if the word of the Lord is unquestionably the most real thing in the world and that the rest of the universe can only catch up with its reality.” God’s word comes to Jonah.
But how do we know when God is speaking to us? Are we even listening? Are we ready to hear?
This past week I was at the Guidance Conference of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. It is not a conference in the typical sense of the word. Rather, it is four-day event held for women and men who are exploring a call to ordained ministry – who think that perhaps God is calling them to be a minister within the church. As a counselor at the guidance conference, it was my role to work with other counselors to interview and examine and discuss with these women and men about this possible call of God to ordained ministry.
In this process of seeking and discerning God’s call,
we think with the candidates about what animates them and excites them,
we explore their gifts and abilities in terms of preaching and pastoral care,
we listen to what others have said about their gifts and their personality,
we reflect together on their life challenges and how they have worked through them.
Above all we prayerfully listen to the narrative of their lives. Where they have come from and where they are going on the way with the risen Jesus.
It is difficult and beautiful and powerful and sometimes painful work to explore the leading of God in this way. I have participated in this event once before as a counselor. Before that I attended on the other side, as a candidate exploring my own sense of call to ministry.
But here’s something we want to consider this morning. That too often within our Presbyterian tradition, it has been assumed that seeking God’s call, and exploring what God is asking us to with our lives, is something reserved for ministers. Even the text of Jonah reinforces this in a way, because Jonah was someone called by God to proclaim a message to Nineveh – he was called to make a hue and cry about the evil that was going on in their lives and society. And so we might naturally make a link between Jonah’s call and the call to publicly proclaim the message of Christ. It is too often the case that we have forgotten that God calls each and every one of us to serve within the church – God speaks to each and every one of us about our place and our role and our gifts and our life. He calls each one of us in our particularity.
At this level, it is not only potential ministers who need to explore and remain open to the voice of God, the leading of Christ, the moving of the Spirit. Indeed, having this kind of openness to the Spirit is simply a part of what it means to be a Christian – simply a part of what it means to be one who worships and serves the God who shows his face in Jesus.
In various places in the New Testament we are reminded that in Christ we are one Body – bound together in love and service – and that each of us has been given gifts to build up the Body of Christ. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul talks about those who have gifts of teaching or of encouraging or of giving or of compassion or of healing. The Spirit of Christ gives gifts to us – gives us energy and excitement and joy in some aspect of service in the Body of Christ – calls us to offer those gifts. It is not only for the minister-to-be, but for each one of us to prayerfully discern what God is inviting us to do – what the Spirit is equipping us to do. Life in the church should not be simply about filling in where help is needed. Life in the church should not be simply about falling into some activity that happens to be needed. It is ever and always about discerning God’s leading – prayerfully opening ourselves to the purposes of God for our life.
Perhaps we can come back to the narrative of Jonah for a moment, as we spend these few minutes thinking about the need to listen for the call of Christ. These few verses in Jonah aren’t only about exploring our specific giftedness in the Spirit – the narrative leads us in another more general direction also.
What the narrative invites is reflection on those moments in our lives when feel like we have been spewed out of the guts of a fish – or when we feel like we’ve spit out of a hippo’s mouth. Those moments in life when we have been at the bottom, we have lived through some grief and pain, and we feel it coming to an end.
These are moments when the pain of life lingers, but we also experience some sense of release and newness.
These are moments when are still a little out of breath and lost, but we also see a new day beginning.
These are moments when we almost hesitate to get up, lest we get knocked right down again, but we are nonetheless hopeful that we might be able to stay on our feet.
Within our society there is no end of the approaches we could take in such moments. But within the context of our faith, the faith of Jonah and the faith of the one who gives the sign of Jonah – within the context of our faith we declare that God is alive and at work. And speaks to us in these moments.
The doctrine of providence is the Christian doctrine that affirms God is at work in our world and our lives in every moment. As it says in Living Faith, a confessional document of the Presbyterian church: “We hold in reverence the whole creation as the theatre of God’s glory and action… Ever at work in the world and in our lives God, directs all things towards fulfillment in Christ.”
Jonah lies there on the firm ground of the shore. He is still shaken. The silence of Sheol, from which he has just risen, still shapes him. Yet in this moment, he is not just someone struggling to get up. He remains the dove – the beloved. He remains the one pursued by God and caught up in God’s loving purpose. “Ever at work in the world and in our lives, God directs all things toward fulfillment in Christ.”
And Living Faith adds: “We cannot fully comprehend, nor is it our task to justify God’s rule of the world. We experience evil in the midst of life. Yet evil cannot ultimately prevail, for it is against God’s will. The resurrection of Christ and the new life he gives us are assurance of his ultimate triumph.”
Beyond the question of what has happened to us – beyond the grief and pain that may linger in our memory – and beyond the question of why – in this moment of recovery and renewal – we are not our own, but belong body and soul to our faithful and loving saviour Jesus Christ.
It’s not simply that we learn things through life’s struggles. It’s not simply that we are lucky to have a second chance. It’s not simply that you take what life gives you. Rather, when God directs the fish to spit us out on dry land – when the hippo releases us from his powerful grip – in those moments we may open our eyes to the love of God in Christ – and rediscover what it is to live in his kingdom of mercy and love and service. In such moments
we may open ourselves again to the joy of the risen Jesus.
we may walk again in the love of the risen Jesus.
we may seek a reminder of our gifts for service to others in the Spirit.
Remembering that the name Jonah means dove – means beloved – in these moments of renewal and second chances – we may open our lives to the truth of our identity as a child of God – embraced, equipped, and called. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.