Jonah - Writing Poems in the Belly of a Fish
Reading - Jonah 1:17-2:10
There's a story about a small child who, after an unhappy incident, was told by her mother to ask forgiveness during her prayers at bedtime. As she snuggled into bed, and as her mother was tucking her in, she said, "Please, God, make me a good girl. I have asked You before, but you just don't try!"
There is something funny but deeply human about this right?
We all know what it is like to dabble in a little bit of self-justification.
In fact, there is even a recent book written by two social psychologists entitled: “Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.”
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, the authors of this book, talk about self-justification in our everyday life and how it is a very human thing to do, it just seems to come naturally.
Self-justification isn’t the same thing as telling a lie or making an excuse. To self-justify is to convince ourselves, even if we have done something horrible or unwise, that in fact it was the best thing we could have done.
An excerpt from the book unpacks the mundane and everyday nature of self-justification:
“We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to clearly assess the benefits of leaving. We buy a lemon of a car because it looks gorgeous, spend thousands of dollars to keep the damn thing running, and then we spend even more to justify that investment. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real of imagined slight, yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace – if only the other side would apologize and make amends.”
As I read this I became aware of the way I justify elements of my own life. Maybe you do too.
It’s an entirely human thing to do. We want to have a sense of cohesion about our decisions and our identity – we don’t want to live with cognitive dissonance or a sense of guilt. We seek to be righteous in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.
We have been reading through the book of Jonah over the past few weeks together and what we have discovered along the way is that Jonah had a sense of his own righteousness, and he also had a sense of the wickedness of his enemies, those Ninevites who God called him to preach to.
But what finally happens in the next part of the story is this:
Jonah’s self-justification and his self-righteousness begin to be challenged as he discovers the grace of God.
Last week we read about how Jonah was caught up in the storm because he was running from God. He eventually convinces the sailors to throw him overboard so that the storm may cease, and it does.
Perhaps Jonah had just given up entirely and wanted to die, perhaps he was being noble. But we find out for certain that God doesn’t want Jonah to die, and won’t let him.
God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah up and we are told he was in the belly three days and three nights.
2:1 What we see is that finally Jonah prays. Here is a turning point in the story, we can see that Jonah is starting to get it…
R. T. Kendall says it well: “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”
God in his mercy has given Jonah another go around – it turns out that this is one of the most common themes in all Biblical literature – God’s is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
And so, Jonah in the fish does something most surprising.
He writes some poetry.
Not my go to if I was stuck in the belly of a stinky old fish. I think I’d be scheming up an escape plan.
What we find here in Jonah chapter 2 is a classic Psalm of Thanksgiving.
This Psalm has a structure of four typical elements:
1 – A summary of answered prayer
2 – A personal crisis
3 – Divine rescue
4 – A vow of praise.
Whether this Psalm was composed in its current form in the belly of the fish or after the fact is not the main point – the main point is that it reflects on the experience of Jonah and his response to what God was doing.
2:1-2 The Psalm begins with Jonah crying out.
Jonah says, “I called out to the Lord out of my distress and he answered me.”
Jonah acknowledges God has heard him and responded, providing the great fish to save him from death. A strange and severe mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.
But just notice something here.
Did you pickup on the language.
Jonah begins with “I”
The “I” of Jonah is significant.
Jonah says: “I called” – this same word is what God asked Jonah to do – God asked Jonah to “call” or as some translations put it “cry” out to the Ninevites. Jonah was unwilling to do this.
The Ninevites were in desperate need of God yet Jonah would not call out to them. However, when he is in desperate need Jonah cries out.
Jonah is happy to accept God’s mercy for himself and he give thanks for it.
A major irony in this book is that Jonah willing and thankfully accepts God’s forgiveness yet he wants to deny it to the Ninevites. He denies it by running away from his call and near the end of the story he denies God’s mercy by getting the pip with God when God forgives the Ninevites.
Jonah is making progress in the sense he recognizes he needs God’s help, yet he still has some way to go realizing the implications of God’s love and mercy for others.
2:2-6 – In the next section of the Psalm Jonah outlines the personal crisis he found himself in. He uses dramatic and poetic language to paint a picture.
Jonah talks of being cast into the deep, into the heart of the seas, the waters closing over him and the deep surrounding him. He speaks of being in the belly of Sheol, the very depths of the grave. Sheol was the Hebrew term that referred to the place of the dead. Jonah is depicted as being on the very brink of death.
He describes bars that close him in, perhaps an allusion to Sheol once again as it was thought to have gates.
The point is that Jonah is on the verge of death and in this near-death experience.
Here is a moment where all of Jonah’s resources are spent. He can’t run any longer and he is at rock bottom. Then Jonah has his God moment.
The Psalm has a turning point saying: “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.”
At Jonah’s lowest moment God intervenes.
Like the Prodigal son in the parable Jesus told, Jonah has nothing of his own left to give.
The Prodigal son ran from home leaving everything behind until he had run out of money and lost everything, even his dignity. It was only then that the Prodigal returned back to the Father, to be accepted by his loving and graceful arms.
Jonah like the Prodigal encounters God in this moment as pure grace because he has nothing else to fall back on.
Reflecting on this, Luther said: “The rope breaks when it is at its tightest. Therefore, God is called a Helper in need, because He lends His aid when our position is desperate and impossible.”
2:7-9 – As Jonah’s life was ebbing away God heard his prayer and saved him.
Jonah encounters grace. But he doesn’t get it entirely just yet.
v8 – Jonah contrasts the idols who are useless to save and God who is mighty to save. There is an element of self-justification lingering in these words. We get a glimpse that Jonah still has some way to come – he essentially says “others may worship vain idols but I will give sacrifice to you.” Jonah puts himself once more on the right side of the equation with God in comparison to others.
We see that although Jonah has begun to turn toward God and give thanks for all that God is doing, he still has something to learn about God’s grace.
Jonah lands his Psalm with a conclusion that we might even say is a good one liner to sum up much of the message of the Bible:
“Deliverance belongs to the Lord” or as the NIV puts it – Salvation comes from the Lord.
The story of Jonah unveils the truth we need to know deep in our bones… “Salvation belongs to the Lord”
The big point is this - God and God alone saves.
Jonah had to learn the lesson that his ethnicity wouldn’t save him, his religious credentials wouldn’t save him, his own efforts wouldn’t save him. Only God could.
So, what does this mean for us? What does it mean in a world where we are so used to self-justification, proving ourselves, and our own self-righteousness?
We live in a world where we are constantly trying to justify ourselves to others and to ourselves.
Many people walk around with a sense of not quite being “enough.” You can insert a whole lot of words here “Not quite good enough”, “Not quite smart enough”, “Not quite pretty enough”, “Not kind enough”, “Not strong enough” Not enough.
And so there are all kinds of ways we might seek to remedy this – to self-justify. We can build our entire lives around this.
A Christian Pastor and Writer, David Zahl, has recently written a fascinating book on this topic with an equally fascinating title. It’s called: “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance became our New Religion and What to do about it.”
In this book Zahl states the reality that we live in an increasingly secular world where people are more likely to think that belief in God is implausible rather than plausible.
He argues that this has left a kind of vacuum for our religious longings and desires.
Take God out of the equation and we naturally try and find ultimate meaning, significance, security, and yes perhaps even salvation in all kinds of other things.
Zahl uses the term seculosity to refer to “a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”
He goes on to give examples such as how people seek ultimate meaning in their careers or parenting. Or how people seek salvation in the next diet that makes them feel righteous or put ultimate hope in politics as if the right party or the right prime minister might fix everything.
He rightly points out that this seculosity leaves us burnt out, tired, frustrated and without hope – because none of these things can truly save us, none of these things can truly set us right or make us righteous.
He contends that what we need is grace – the message that is at the heart of Christianity – that God alone saves us, God alone justifies us and will put what is broken in our lives back together.
So maybe the little girl who prayed did understand something true of God’s grace when she prayed: "Please, God, make me a good girl. I have asked You before, but You don't try!" Even if her prayer is irreverent at least she acknowledges the Gospel truth that it is God who puts us right. It is God’s action in our lives that counts the most. We must respond, but on our own we find ourselves frustrated and at sea, or perhaps even worse, like Jonah in the depths of a hell of our own making.
Like Jonah, it won’t happen overnight – our journey toward embracing God’s grace will likely be in fits in starts, it’s been like that for me. Martin Luther affirmed the fundamental reality that even when we turn to follow Jesus we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Like Jonah we may struggle to get grace, like Jonah we will have plenty in our hearts and in our lives that God wants to work on.
Today all that matters is this – will we acknowledge that God alone saves us, and will we respond by giving our lives to him afresh, and looking to him to justify us, to set us to rights, to bind up that which is broken in our lives?