1st Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 11.06.2023 (8am)
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the best known and most loved stories in the Bible and for good reason. It contains humour, surprise, insight into human nature and deep theological truth, all wrapped within a story that is memorable and yet accessible to children and adults of all ages. If you haven’t read the original in a while, you may like to do so. It is ten minutes of time well worth investing.
Well, today, we are just going to look at one aspect of the story, Jonah’s prayer inside the big fish.
A bit of context: Jonah has been called by God to go and preach to the people of Nineveh, the hated super-power of the day who are Israel’s greatest threat and enemy. No way does Jonah want to do that, so he jumps on a boat going in the very opposite direction. God sends a storm so strong that the boat is about to go under. The pagan sailors cry out to God; they throw all their cargo overboard; and finally they wake Jonah, who has been unaccountably asleep the whole time below deck. They ascertain that it is Jonah’s disobedience that has caused the storm, and so reluctantly, at Jonah’s request, they pick him up and throw him overboard. He is saved from drowning when a big fish comes along and swallows him whole.
And it is when in the fish, that Jonah finally prays. Three reflections on Jonah’s prayer.
The first thing is that it shows us that it is never too late to pray. Here is Jonah, in many ways an utter embarrassment to his profession as a prophet, someone who was so determined to do the wrong thing that he was willing to put others’ lives at risk; someone who would not pray when even the pagan sailors were doing so; here he is now praying.
There have been many times in my own life where I can identify with the Jonah of chapter one. There have been many times when I have been slow to pray, or even not prayed at all. Times when I have been too busy to pray, or too distracted to pray, or like Jonah, unwilling to pray because I know I would have to confront my struggles with faith.
And yet what I see in Jonah is that no matter how hypocritical it may seem to pray, no matter whether it seems I am coming to prayer as a last resort, rather than my first port of call, no matter my personal failings and unworthiness, God still welcomes me and wants me to come to him in prayer. It is never too late.
If you are finding that prayer is not coming easily at the moment, don’t worry. Simply pray that. Acknowledge that before God.
The second thing I am struck by is how Jonah prays. Here he is inside the belly of a fish. He has not drowned, admittedly, but his life prospects still do not look good. And this giant sea creature would have brought to mind fears of the “great leviathan of the deep”, the symbol of chaos and evil, that was such a strong part of the religious mythology of the time. The whole book of Jonah has a somewhat comic, ironic, air to it, but this part of the story has something of a nightmare quality to it. Many would have chosen drowning to the primordial fears of being swallowed alive by this symbol of pure evil.
And yet in the heart of the belly of the fish, Jonah prays a prayer of thanksgiving. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me… you listened to my cry… you brought me to life from the pit, O Lord my God.” Jonah prays these words, not from the beach once he has been safely delivered onto dry land, but whilst he is still in mortal danger. Jonah realises that he has already been saved – saved from his running away from God, saved from his attempt to cut off communication with the God who loves him – and that is what ultimately matters. Prayers may not always change our physical circumstances, but they can change our experience of them. In the words of the prayer of Lancelot Andrewes that are said as part of the Church of England’s service of morning prayer, “may our eyes be opened to behold God’s presence”. Jonah was thankful because he had discovered God’s loving presence was still with him, even in that symbolic hell of the fish’s belly.
As we pray for ourselves, as we pray for each other, as we pray for our community and world, there will be times when we are overwhelmed by the needs, by the suffering, by the despair, and yet to pray that we, that they, may know God’s presence in the midst is the greatest thing we can do.
And thirdly, reading commentaries on this passage from the book of Jonah, I have come to discover something more. Jonah’s prayer, no doubt spontaneous, no doubt coming from the deepest parts of his being, are yet, nonetheless, unoriginal. Almost every one of his words are quotations from the psalms – from Psalm 3, Psalm 5, Psalm 18, Psalm 30, Psalm 42, Psalm 69, Psalm 139 and Psalm 142. At this moment of crisis, he draws on the rich reservoir of the psalms, almost without thinking. They articulate, express for him, feelings, thoughts, emotions, that he may otherwise struggle to put into words. They provide him with the language of prayer.
There are times when we may feel lost for words – our joy or our grief, our hope or our despair – may feel beyond us to express. In such times, drawing on the words of Scripture, on the words that countless others have prayed before us, can give us what we need. The Lord’s Prayer I know is one of those that many find themselves almost instinctively praying at time of crisis or when approaching death, even if they have not prayed for many years. The Psalms, for the Church down the centuries, has also been such a resource, the place where words of lament or thanksgiving are expressed. Indeed, for most of the past 3000 years Jews and Christians have found it helpful to recite the Psalms daily, for them to be in the words of Eugene Petersen, “our school of prayer”, the place where we find the language for our prayers.
Preparing this sermon has challenged me to reawaken that habit in myself, to read a daily Psalm. Some of you, far wiser than me, may do that already. And though some of them may leave us uncomfortable in the sentiments they express – prayers from a hundred years ago can do that, let alone 3,000! – they provide us with the language to come before God with the whole gamut of our emotions, from joy to anger and despair.
At our 10 am service I will be giving out a sheet with words of Psalms to be used for reflection. Please take one too. And if it helps your meditation, colour the sheet in.
And a word of realism to finish. And this is a spoiler alert if you do not know the ending to the story of Jonah. Just to say it is fair to say that Jonah does not cover himself in glory. His prayer in the belly of the fish is his highpoint in the story. We too can have highpoints in our spiritual lives – moments of transcendence, moments of profound encounter – but those need to be earthed in daily prayer with God. It is never too late to pray, but it is never too soon either. And as we pray, let us draw on the prayers of those who have gone before us as we seek the presence of God in whatever situation we face.