I begin this sermon with excerpts (including a few minor edits) from the first chapter of a novel entitled Galore. The novel is written by Michael Crummy, who is a is Newfoundlander, and this particular novel is set in a fictional Newfoundland town, a coastal town, called Paradise Deep. Galore won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best book and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Aware for fiction a few years ago. So as we begin, some excerpts from the opening chapter of Galore.
Most of the shore’s meager population – the Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance – were camped on the grey sand, waiting to butcher a whale that had beached itself in the shallows on the feast day of St. Mark. This during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens when to rot in the relentless rain and each winter threatened to bury them all. They weren’t whalers and no one knew how to go about killing the Leviathan, but there was something in the humpback’s unexpected offering that prevented the starving men from hacking away while the fish still breathed. As if that would be a desecration of the gift.
They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work… The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.
Eventually the whale expires. And we continue reading:
Black fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber to oil, and the stench stoppered the harbour, as if they were labouring in a low-ceilinged warehouse. The white underbelly was exposed where the carcass keeled to one side. The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with slitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.
For a time no one moved or spoke, watching as if they expected the man to stand and walk ashore on his own accord. Devine’s Widow waded over finally to finish the job, the body slipping into the water as she cut it free. The Catholics crossed themselves in concert and Jabez Trim said, “Naked came I from my mother’s womb.”
The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to have a look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared…
Her father lifted the corpse by the armpits while James Woundy took the legs and the sorry little funeral train began its slow march up off the landwash. There were three stones steps at the head of the beach, the dead man’s torso folding awkwardly on itself as they negotiated the rise – the men carrying the body slipped and dropped it on the rocks.
Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the men argued about what to do. A man delivered from the whale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled [suddenly] from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running for their homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.
Devine’s Widow turned the stranger by the shoulders, thumping his back to bring up seawater and blood and seven tiny fish, one after the last, fry the size of spanny-tickles Mary Tryphena caught in the shallows at Ralph’s Pond.
They hauled the stranger onto the fish barrow and started up the path toward Selina Seller’s house. Mary Tryphena had never been inside Selina’s House but the grand-ness of it was lost on her. She had the queerest sensation of falling as she stared at the naked stranger. A wash of dizziness came over her and she took off her bonnet against the sick heat of nausea as it sidled closer. [She was shifting away from the boy standing next to her], when the man she would marry opened his eyes for the first time, turning his face toward her across the room. Those milky blue eyes settling on Mary Tryphena.
Well, there ends our reading of excerpts from first chapter of Michael Crummy’s novel, Galore.
And now we are in for a dramatic change of scenery. We go now from that harsh and hungry beach in remote Newfoundland, to a city of Galilee some two thousand years ago. We go from a coastal Canadian fishing community that we might half understand to a dusty middle-eastern context that will be less comprehensible to us in many ways. Though both present narratives that are shocking and strange.
We turn to the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and we find, there, that Jesus has just performed a miracle. “Then they brought to Jesus a demoniac who was blind and mute; and Jesus cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see.”
The religious leaders – the Scribes and the Pharisees – they hear about this miracle Jesus has performed, and they say to themselves and to anyone else who will listen: “It is only by the power of Beelzebul that this fellow can cast out demons.” The religious leaders are saying that the only reasons that Jesus has power over demons is because he himself has a demon. He’s in league with those demons.
Just a few verse later in Matthew’s gospel we find scribes and Pharisees approaching Jesus and saying to him: “Jesus, we wish to see a sign from you?” Jesus reply is something along the lines of this: “Excuse me? You want a sign? I just cast a demon out of a man, and you want a sign?” Jesus knows that their request doesn’t arise from any desire to know him more deeply – he knows that their request for a sign is not born of a growing faith in him. They are only interested in tripping up Jesus – in making look bad before a watching public – in undermining the path he follows since it is at odds with their own. And so Jesus answers them with these words in the narrative: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will give to it.. except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three night sin the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
No sign will be given – because they aren’t really interested in faith. No sign will be given – because they have refused Jesus and his way. No sign will be given – because they won’t believe one anyway. No sign will be given to them – at least not immediately. They will, eventually, be given one last sign. But that last sign will not be given to convince them to believe. Rather, that sign will be a vindication of Jesus identity and a vindication of the path he has followed – it will be the sign of Jonah.
You will get a sign – and it will be come in the form of a man cut from the belly of a whale. You will get a sign, and it will be in the form of a bleached and more than half-dead man pulled from the guts of a great sea creature. That he is not dead comes as a shock to all of them – a shock that sends more than a few of them running away – what is this, a demon? There are two women who stay with the half-dead man pounding his back, clearing his lungs of so much blood and detritus – they take him to a home, and lay him down to recover.
The sign of Jonah – he’s dead, or should have been dead. But he’s not dead.
The narrative of Easter as we have read it this morning in John’s gospel is not, however, the story of a half-dead man being revived. The story of Easter is not the story of a cleared airway, or of blood and tiny fish coughed up – it is not the story of a surprising resuscitation. Rather, it is the story of a dead man coming to life. Jesus said: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Dead and buried. Not in the belly of a fish, but in a cold dark tomb – behind a wall of rock.
What can we say about this event? Is there anything we can say about what exactly happened, or how exactly it happened? This astonishing sign of Jonah – how is it possible? In fact it turns out that there is not much at all that we can say – after all, it happened behind a wall of rock. Returning to our theme of darkness from Good Friday, we read again this morning some words from Barbara Brown Taylor:
Jesus was born in a cave and rose from the dead in a cave. The cave in which he rose from the dead is long gone, covered over by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Today visitors stand in line to enter a mausoleum that looks nothing like a hole in the ground. This may be just as well, since no one knows for sure what happened there. By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus, saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.
As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. I let this sink in. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.
In other words, Jesus was not spit up on a beach in broad daylight. Nor was he cut from the side of a whale, surrounded by a group of starving and startled fisherman. This was not a semi-comprehensible act of CPR and resuscitation. Whatever happened, it was in the dark of a cave that there was a stirring of life in a lifeless body,
a drawing of breath where breathing had stopped
a rising of love in a heart that had ceased beating
a return of vision for eyes that had been closed
a processing of thoughts in a mind that had been silent.
As John Updike has written in his well-known poem, 7 Stanzas at Easter, as he confronts us with the incomprehensible and impossible nature of the event:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The sign of Jonah – 3 days in death – 3 days in a tomb. And then, life realized in the dark silence of a tomb. What happened we don’t know; how it happened we don’t know; but at some moment in the darkness, new life begins.
Perhaps it is also the case that faith in the risen Jesus also makes its first appearance in the dark – where it cannot be seen; and where we ourselves cannot see it with full clarity. In our passage this morning from John’s gospel, we read: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was rolled away.”
While it is still dark out, she goes to the tomb. Well before the sun has risen, Mary goes and finds the rock has been dragged to the side. Without even looking in, she runs to tell the disciples – then follows them back to the tomb. And perhaps it is still before daybreak – perhaps the sky is just beginning to glow pink when Mary is finally alone again in the garden. And perhaps that is why she doesn’t recognize Jesus when he stands there in the garden with her – why she mistakes him for the gardener. In the grey dimness of early day, Mary hears her name spoken by a familiar voice. In the grey dimness of early day, Mary speaks a word of faith and realization that she herself must find shocking and surprising: Rabbi. My teacher.
A sign has been given – the sign of Jonah. A man spit up on the beach. A man cut from the guts of a great beast – Leviathan. “[F]or three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” He is there in the garden, a sign given as confirmation of who Jesus is – a sign given in vindication of his way.
It is a sign that invites faith.
A sign that invites us to worship.
A sign that invites us to walk in the justice and compassion of his kingdom.
Thanks be to God, for the sign of Jonah. Amen.