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08.09.20 Our Center is Prayer Jonah 2 Sermon Summary

by on August 11, 2020

The most famous of the Minor Prophets is Jonah, probably because it is short—only four chapters long, a narrative—actually a parable, and there are so many great Sunday school lessons to derive from it. Still, underlying this fabled tale are some major theological themes.

I start with chapter two for several reasons. First, it appears to be a later insertion. The prayer of chapter two is inconsistent with Jonah’s attitudes and actions. Plus, it speaks of a deliverance that has not yet happened. If it is a later insertion, then the later editor has a lesson in mind for later readers.

Parables generate many conclusions, and the way this one ends is so abrupt and open ended, the original ending must be preserved. It cannot be closed. So chapter two offers one early alternative or auxiliary conclusion to the parable of Jonah.

Consider this: the word “belly” in the prayer is a synonym of the “belly” of the fish into which Jonah is swallowed. This single word is the clue both to the prayer’s connection to and disconnection from the parable.

So what are we supposed to learn from this psalm? In a sentence: No matter how far down in the darkness we go, God hears our prayers still.

When you are making your descent while SCUBA diving, you signal to your partner and orient yourselves to above-surface landmarks. Then you release air from your vest and slowly drop below surface of the water. The light above you dims, and the sounds you hear narrow to your own breathing. You have to equalize the air in your sinuses because of the pressure of the water tightening its grip upon you. As a beginner, my greatest fear was getting tangled up in something down below.

Two summers ago I dived in the Mexico Cenotes. These are underground rivers and lakes. Technically it’s not cave diving, which is a specialized skill. But in fact it really is. Except for your flashlight, you look up and there is nothing above you. You are in complete darkness. Trapped!

I was reminded of this when I read Jonah 2:3-6: God cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all the waves and billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from God’s sight; how shall I look again upon the holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.

Descent into darkness can be terrifying. You don’t know how long it will last, how deep it will go, how dark it will get, or what else is in the darkness. In SCUBA you always have a “buddy.” The author of Jonah two had no one. “Jonah” was alone.

Miriam Greenspan writes, “The imagery of descent, stasis, emptiness, captivity, sterility, and darkness vividly communicates the interior landscape of despair as a place of inner paralysis, abject loneliness, spiritual barrenness, and existential meaninglessness.” (Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, p. 117)

Jonah two asks, “How will I look on God’s holy temple?” A better translation is more adversative: “Nevertheless, I will look towards God’s holy temple.” This “nevertheless” helps explain a hard concept. The author says, “God cast me into the deep.” It fits with the parable of Jonah, and with many other verses of scripture.

But what kind of God is this, who casts Jonah into the darkness of despair? Who sends Joseph to be a slave in Egypt? Who allows foreign nations to conquer his people? Who forsakes Jesus to die on the Cross?

What kind of God is this? One to be worshiped out of fear; fear that at any time, this could be us? Some people say yes, as we’ll see next week. But is there another way to read this?

We can’t change the words of scripture or the author’s understanding. But we are called to interpret passages of scripture in light of the whole of scripture and what God has revealed of Godself otherwise. Here’s how I interpret such passages.

Jonah has found himself in a deep darkness. He feels alone and abandoned. He feels powerless and indeed he is. He needs a power greater than himself, a power greater than his circumstance, a power outside this experience, to rescue him.

If such a power exists to save him from this experience, that same power could have prevented it. And so, he reasons, that power must have caused this experience. Fair enough. But under this reasoning is the assumption: God can save. This, I believe, better resembles God than that God blesses us, only after cursing us first.

“God can save” the passage is saying, “so I will look to the holy temple and I will pray to the holy temple.” In the hopeless pit of despair, even from within the captivity of Sheol, the author remembers God, looks to the holy temple, and he prays. “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”

Though we despair of seeing God—and God seeing us—God hears our prayers. This is the message of the psalm: “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and God answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and God heard my voice.”

God is a savior. It is God’s nature to save—which is good news–because we need a savior. It is our nature to be saved. This is why the psalm ends, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to God; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Those who look to others to save them forsake their true loyalty, their true nature. Our true nature is to look to God for salvation. That’s how we were created.

Jonah doesn’t understand this until he hit the bottom: The deepest, darkest despair of his life. Sometimes it takes that. And sometimes we realize it earlier. But always the message is the same: We are never so far down, never in such darkness, never under such distress, never experiencing such despair, that God fails to hear our prayers. And even from behind the gates of Sheol, we are saved by none other than God.

At the end of a dive you look up to the surface—a place you cannot see but you know is there. You have to swim slowly and even pause before reaching the surface so your body can adjust from the unique experience of the depths of the ocean to the routine of life on land. Then you and your buddy break the surface and breathe as God made you to breathe once again.

Ephesians 4:9-10 asks us: When scripture says, “Christ ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.

In the depths of despair let us remember the message of this psalm: God hears our prayers, and sends a buddy to save us. Amen.

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