Sabbath in the Belly of a Whale

A Meditation/Time of Confession from Sabbath Worship at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on January 24, 2015

selected verses from the Book of Jonah
The last time I was flying home from a trip, I was struck by the pronouncement made by the flight attendant as they closed the door. I’d heard it before, but really noticed it this time. “This flight is going to BOISE. If BOISE is not your final destination, now would be a really good time to get off the plane. This plane is going to BOISE.”

I don’t know how often that happens—people getting on the wrong plane. But it must happen if they have to warn people about it.

Hearing this passage from Jonah, I thought of that announcement. Jonah is sent to Ninevah, the modern day city of Mosul in Iraq, a city of the Assyrians.

Instead, Jonah heads West to Joppa and gets on a boat headed to Tarshish. Scholars are conflicted about where Tarshish actually was, but all of the possibilities involve getting in a boat and heading West, even as far as the Iberian peninsula of Spain.

And as the flight attendant did, the narrator of Jonah tries to make sure Jonah knows where he’s going. He decided to flee to Tarshish, he got on a ship headed to Tarshish, he went to Tarshish.

He’s called to preach a message of repentance to Ninevah.  But he heads to Tarshish. Jonah, like all good Israelites, hates the Ninevites. They are Assyrians. They have a nasty habit of invading and occupying Israel. They are enemies. They do not follow the God of Abraham. They are “those people”. So Jonah has good reason to hear God’s call and say, “ha. Not likely.”

I invite you to read the whole Jonah story at some point this week. It won’t take you very long. It is hard to get your prophet east when he’s on a boat headed west, so God sends a storm that hurls Jonah into the watery deep. Before he can drown, he is unceremoniously swallowed by a giant fish.

He was in the fish for 3 days and 3 nights, which is a good biblical amount of time to be entombed in darkness and left alone with your thoughts.

A Sabbath, of sorts.

The story doesn’t tell us what Jonah did with that time.

I’ve been thinking about what I would do, how I would respond. And I’ve been wondering what Sabbath rest looks like in the belly of a whale.

Because sometimes Sabbath rest is what we crave. We eagerly seek a day of rest, a day away from the hustle and bustle. That’s exactly how I feel about tomorrow, by the way.

But sometimes we find ourselves with lots of time on our hands, not because we’d planned it, but because that’s how life goes. One day you think you have a lot to get done, but you break your leg and can’t do anything but lie on the couch and binge watch TV. Life happens. We get laid off. Or our car breaks down, leaving us stranded. Through no fault of our own, circumstances of life can leave us with unintended time.

How do we experience that time?  

Or, like Jonah, sometimes we have an unintended Sabbath directly because of our actions. We head toward Tarshish when God has called us to Ninevah. We head away from where God is dreaming us and we head toward behavior that leads to consequences. Friends who have spent time in jail talk about what that time is like, how it moves differently, more slowly, than normal time.

Whether we’ve been in jail or in a fish or not, we have experienced the relativity of time—it flows so much faster when we are with good friends than it does when we are waiting for a call back from a doctor with a diagnosis.

No matter the circumstances that lead us to that kind of time, it is up to use to choose how to receive that time.

When we have unintended time, time away from what we want to be doing, do we chafe against it?

Or can we experience that time as a gift? As a chance to just be. As time to sit with the thoughts that get crowded out by the distractions and work of our world?

Again, we don’t know exactly what Jonah did with his time, but after three days in the belly of a whale, he offers the prayer we heard.

‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

I don’t know what you expected to hear in Jonah’s prayer, but I confess my first draft of any prayer would have been a little less praise and thanks and a little more are you freaking kidding me? You saved me by having a giant fish swallow me? This is disgusting. It smells horrible in here.

It’s been clearly documented that I would make a lousy prophet.

I suspect, though, that Jonah’s prayer wasn’t written on the first day in the belly of the whale. I suspect this is not the first draft of his prayer.

One thing time can do, when you have a lot of it to spend, is give you a different perspective. For Jonah, what starts out as horrible and awful and beyond redemption, like being swallowed by a fish, turns into God’s answer to Jonah’s prayer to save him from drowning in the deep.

The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.

Three days in the digestive juices of a fish seemed to give Jonah a new perspective, and gave him what he needed to decide he could go preach to Ninevah, those jerks, and tell them that if they didn’t repent they would be overthrown.

The story continues in chapter 3:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

Notice  this good news. Jonah, despite his bad attitude and wishes for the destruction of his enemies, does what God calls him to do and an entire city is changed. The world is transformed, at least within the walls of the city of Ninevah.

This is good news.

How could we transform the world if we came through our Sabbath time in the belly of a fish, willing to follow God, willing to do what we do not want to do, willing to extend the grace of God to people we do not think seem deserving of grace?

The King of Ninevah leads the entire city, even the livestock, into a time of repentance.

The story continues:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And Jonah said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about this plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

I’m a fan of the band Mumford and Sons. In their song, Roll Away Your Stone, they sing:

“It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say ‘That’s exactly how this grace thing works’”.

Jonah struggled with this grace thing and exactly how it works. I think the reason we are still captivated by Jonah’s tale is only partly about the fish. I think it is because we, too, struggle with how this grace thing works.

He values his hatred of “the other” more than he seems to value his own life.

He values his excitement and glee at their pending demise more than he values the grace that has twice saved him from death in this story.

Like Jonah, we too see people as other, as outside of God’s redeeming love and mercy. We know our divisions are what cause violence, and greed, and destruction in this world.

We know we must do better.

Each day.

(At this point, we entered into a time of confession. Here is part of that prayer. )

In our distress we call to the LORD, and God answers us.

From deep in the realm of the dead we call for help, and you listen to our cry.

You hurl us into the depths,into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirl about us; all your waves and breakers sweep over us.

Like Jonah, we run from your call to share your grace.

Forgive us, O God.

Lead us back to your way, where we see all of the people we encounter as your beloved children.

Lead us back to your way, so we can build a world where the things that divide are less important than the things that bring us together. Show us, again and again, how this grace thing works.

Lead us back to your way, where your grace is extended to all:
to those who are hurt and those who hurt others,

to those who need to know of your love and those who try to limit your love,

to those who are victims of violence and those who think violence is the answer

to those who feel silenced and oppressed and those who silence and oppress others

We acknowledge we are meant to be one people but choose to live as many people. Forgive us for the ways we divide and separate and exclude, often in your name.

(After a time of silent confession, we celebrated communion, acknowledging that at God’s Table, all of our divisions and separations are swept away by the welcome of God.)

3 thoughts on “Sabbath in the Belly of a Whale

  1. Nicely done, as usual. Two tidbits — Jews read Jonah as the haftarah for mincha on Yom Kippur (don’t know if that was in the back of your mind when you picked this text as one to discuss confession with). The other thing — probably you know this already too — is that in medieval and early modern Christian theology Jonah was considered a type for Jesus; it’s one of the most well known examples of that interpretive style. It shows up in Cranach’s Luther altarpieces, a piece of iconography from the middle ages that the Reformers added to the Reformation pictorial tradition.


    • I knew the Jonah and Jesus connection, but did not know the Jonah connection to Yom Kippur, although it makes total sense. Ch 3 of Jonah is the lectionary text this weekend, matched with the call of the disciples, but since we had our Sabbath service, we just read much of the entire book of Jonah.

      I figured the Sabbath connection to being in a whale belly might not be connected to a historical understanding of Sabbath.


      • let’s just say it wouldn’t be completely obvious or occur immediately to a Jew 🙂 but it’s your Sabbath, you’re building it — and despite the emphasis on being with people during the Sabbath, I think even most observant Jews have spent Sabbaths in situations where they have been trapped alone with their thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

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