During Lent, I have been preaching on the ways God takes our brokenness and makes us beautiful and useful in spite of, or because of, our brokenness. This week’s reading was the story of Jonah.
I almost feel like this preaches itself. Try to run away from God, God will find you. God will keep you safe. And then God will ask you, again. Try as you might, you cannot escape God.
And oh, how we try. We spend much of our lives vacillating between running away from God and running towards God, with the occasional yelling at God and resting in God’s arms mixed in for good measure.
When we heard this story in Sunday School and as we have gone throughout life, Jonah is often presented as a terrible, whiny wimp. We’re kind of taught to not like him, because (I assume) we are supposed to not want to be like him.
But what is a more familiar story to us than the running away from God, finding that it was a bad idea, and trying to jump ship once we realize where our turning from God has gotten us?
Now, the particulars of Jonah’s story are a bit different from most of ours. I would venture to guess that few of us have ever been called to go to a city and tell them that they have angered God and they will be destroyed. This is a huge, complicated, dangerous, embarrassing, uncomfortable, life-threatening thing God is asking. Cities, one would imagine, do not respond well to being told they are in for some almighty destruction. I would imagine that Jonah knew that there was a very real possibility that what God was calling him to do could end in death.
God has never, at least not so clearly, asked me to do something that might end in my death. What God asks of me involves change. Radical change. Which might as well be death – in fact, it is a little death. The dying of who I was and the birth of who I am in Christ. God asks this of me all the time. Sometimes, I’m game. Sometimes, not so much.
Then there’s how clearly Jonah heard God’s command. The scripture doesn’t tell us how Jonah heard God so clearly. Would that we should be so lucky. Often I find myself wondering if that is God talking, my own fears, needs and desires, or just plain old indigestion. In modern society, with all of the noise around us, it can be difficult to discern what is God’s voice speaking to us and what is the voice in our heads, fed by our fears and our wounds. This is one of the reasons it is good to have scripture and community. Those two tools can help us discern if it is God’s voice or our own we are hearing.
Unfortunately for us, when we consult scripture and our community of faith, it often becomes clear that the voice that is asking us to do the hard stuff is the voice of God. The voice that is asking us to consume less and give more, that voice that is asking us to radically love people we’d rather not let into our lives, the voice that asks us to see God in everything around us, that voice that is calling us to walk a path that is very different from the one we are on and also very different from what is expected of us by society, our families and even ourselves. That is usually the voice of God.
Then, we get to decide what we’re going to do about what we have heard, felt, seen or experienced God calling us to do. When it is too hard, too inconvenient (I’m just not ready for that in my life now, God), to weird, too different, we often turn and run, walk, skip or crawl in the other direction.
What’s when the storm begins. Things get messy in a way that we can’t handle on our own. Those around us wonder what is going on. Sometimes, the storm is small, barely perceivable to those around us. Other times, it is clear to everyone we know that we are walking towards (or in) a world of hurt. They ask us what is up, or we figure it out ourselves. This storm is a result of not listening to God, so we jump ship. We change course. And we find ourselves in a dark place and we pray.
Somehow, there is a crack of light in the darkness. Grace shines through. We realize that God is there. We realize that dark place that seemed scary and awful is where God is meeting us. That fish’s belly, that dark place we are in, is a womb, a place in which we can rest and be fed by God’s love. A place where we can heal. God catches us when we fall, when we jump overboard, when we abandon the ship of our terrible ideas. And God holds us, carrying us through the stormy sea. When we are safe, when we have passed through the storm, we are reborn, ready to face the world, ready to answer God’s call (because we have seen and clearly remember what happens when we don’t).
Jonah’s brokenness is our brokenness – our desire to do our own thing rather than God’s, our very human desire to try to avoid pain and suffering that, more often than not, lands us in pain and suffering. Jonah’s healing comes to him in the darkest of places. God protects Jonah from the storm, feeds Jonah while he heals through a time of prayer and then has Jonah spit out, back into life, but into a new life. A life ready to follow the call of God. At least until the next time he decided the call is too hard. Then for Jonah, as for us, the cycle begins anew. Running from God and running to God, being lost and being found, always running through the cycle. The cycle has one truth. God is always there, waiting for us to jump ship, guiding us through the storm, giving us new life in him. On dry land. Outside of the belly of the fish.