Luke 18: 9-14
It’s that time of year again. Friday Fish Fries. Lent. The time set aside during the liturgical church year not just to acknowledge and confess our sins and prepare for the Resurrection, but to soak in God’s holiness, goodness and mercy. This is also a chance for us to learn more about who God is. If we have a deeper understanding of his character, we might be more eager to approach him, trust Him and experience His amazing rest. We might be changed forever.
God’s character is actually everywhere in the Bible, but here I will focus on glimpses radiating through in Jonah, Luke 18: 9-14, and Hebrews 12:1-14. I chose these scriptures because they are part of the Book of Common Worship and Daily Prayer prepared by the Theology and Ministry Unit for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to launch the season of Lent.
We will start with Jonah. Three short chapters of God’s incredible mercy, grace, patience and judgment. God gives Jonah some directions. Go to Ninevah and warn the people to either repent of their sinful behavior, and live to honor me or I will bring judgment on them. Sounds simple enough. God as parent and judge is drawing a line in the sand with Ninevah, a large, thriving metropolis, capitol of the Assyrian empire, and most importantly, Israel’s primary enemy. But the last thing Jonah wants to do is to rush off to who he perceives as “them.” So, like any normal kid who doesn’t want to do as he was told, he tries to duck and avoid. He boards a ship heading the opposite direction of Ninevah. At this point, God could have given up on everyone. God could have used the great storm he stirred up next to throw Jonah into the waters and let him drown. He had used a great flood centuries before to wipe out the world’s evil population. But not this time. God knows the potential in both Jonah and Ninevah, and is sovereign over the future. Instead, God sends a “great fish” (a humpback whale perhaps?) to swallow him. (Seriously? A whale? How does someone have enough oxygen to survive in a whale? The skeptic in me is rolling her eyes by now.) I’m going to interpret this literally for a moment.
So there Jonah was, in a cold, dark, wet, cave-like tomb. Three days. Miserable. He had a lot of time to think. As a parent, this sounds to me like a “time-out.” (with the exception that time-outs generally don’t last as long as three days.) I can only imagine what might have been racing through Jonah’s mind now. Terror? Despair? Thoughts of how do I get out of here? Oh bummer, I’m trapped and I can’t run away again. “Hey God? Yeah it’s me, Jonah. Can we talk? It sure does stink in here. I hope this whale isn’t as hungry as I am. Please tell the whale not to eat me. I think I screwed up. Um, the smell is getting worse, or is that me? Anyway, God I owe you an apology. I should not have tried to run away from you. I was so consumed with hating those stupid Ninevites that I acted selfishly.” God then sends the whale to the surface to spit Jonah out. After a hot bath, food and water (presumably), Jonah goes skipping to Ninevah where the people are actually responsive to him and God’s message.
At some point in our Christian walk, God will send some of his kids into “the belly of a whale” or a “desert” or a deep, dark pit, or some other figurative dark place. Not because he is cruel and abusive, although it sometimes feels that way. Not because he doesn’t love us. God sent his own son into a literal desert for 40 miserable days. In fact, it is because he does love us. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son [or daughter] is not disciplined by his [her] father . . . Our fathers discipline us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7-11).
In this information saturated culture, sometimes the only way God can get our undivided attention is to isolate us in a cold, dark scary place where we have no one but him to turn to. This is when he wants to teach, comfort, and prepare us for further directions and test us. But in our crippled, short-sighted humanity, it sometimes feels impossible to see beyond ourselves and God’s higher purposes.
For some, suffering is the training ground for Christian maturity. Maybe Jonah was stuck in the whale’s belly because that’s how long it took him to realize his mistake and repent. Like a good parent, God patiently waits for his kids to understand their errors. When we recognize and acknowledge our wrongdoing, we pave the way for further growth. The next step. Maybe Jonah figured out that his disobedience was just as bad as Ninvevah’s. Maybe Jonah’s whale-time better prepared him for his calling, because now he was not going self-righteously, but having experienced of God’s mercy and grace.
Who was farther along in his spiritual growth, the tax collector or the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14? The Pharisee just wanted everyone to know how holy he was, thankful he wasn’t like that awful tax collector. Sounds a lot like Jonah before his “whale-time.” The tax collector was just begging for God’s mercy, acknowledging he was a sinner. Sounds like Jonah post “whale-time.”
Oh Heavenly Father, I am grateful for your mercy and grace and your infinite patience when I flounder and flail in self-righteousness and disobedience. Thank you for never leaving me, for teaching me and disciplining me so that I may become more like you everyday. Amen.