Have any of you seen a whale up close — or not up close, but even at all in real life?
I haven’t, but I imagine it’s the sort of feeling you get when you’re standing in front of a mountain, or a waterfall, or the ocean, or even a huge building. Of course none of those are living things, the way that a big fish is, but there’s a strange sense of peace, seeing something that’s so much larger than yourself. I always feel small, in a comforting way, because it reminds me that everything isn’t up to me, that I can’t really do very much on my own, I’m just too little by myself.
There’s another angle to this feeling, too, whether witnessing a geographic marvel, like a mountain or a waterfall or a big body of water, or a big old building, like a cathedral or a basilica in Europe, Asia, or South America, something really, really old. Those kinds of things make me remember that my life is small and short compared to the age of the world and history of humanity. Mountains stood and water carved canyons thousands of years before people even saw them, temples were erected and churches built over the span of many lifetimes, and hundreds of years before I was a twinkle in my daddy’s eye.
I remember a moment in the basement of one of these worship spaces, I was in France, by the ocean, wandering around a monastery that had been built in stages, even the newest stage being several hundred years old, much older, of course, than our country itself. So I was there in the oldest part of this compound, in a little chapel that had maybe one small window up near the ceiling; it was mostly dark, and I sat down near the back edge of the room, and as I tried to be quiet, it struck me: “People have prayed here for a thousand years.”
How many people was that? How many prayers had been whispered inside those walls? How many hands had been lifted to God for deliverance from those very stones? How many lives were contained in the air? How many souls had been transformed by God’s presence in that very place?
I felt the weight of my ego melt away. It’s not that the place made me feel like I was insignificant, but it reminded me that the burden of success is not on my back. The outcome of the world doesn’t depend on our efforts, not even on the efforts of all of us in this room, or of all the social justice activists in our country, or even all the impressive, successful, influential people throughout all of time.
If you are feeling road-weary, and your efforts are feeling stretched, and your energy is used up, I have good news for you.
It’s not up to you. It’s not up to me. It’s not even up to all of us together.
Once, a very very long time ago, humanity tried to make it all up to themselves. We tried to build something that would be remembered for all time, to make a name for ourselves, to show the strength of what a bunch of humans together could really do. We tried to show our power and our might and our great abilities. It’s written about in Genesis chapter 11, and it’s called Babel. One of the great temptations and deceptions of our egotistical selves is to let our pride, our own opinions of ourselves and our great abilities, to take over our entire perspective, our entire vision of the world and of what is true. Then, as the immense weight of the world and its great brokenness starts to make our shoulders buckle, we double down, we steel ourselves and try to push through, we gather together and huddle against the weariness and the exhaustion and the gathering clouds of hopelessness. And, spoiler alert: it doesn’t work.
This story is not unlike the story of Jonah that we hear this morning.
The book of Jonah is a scant four chapters long, and it’s as if the story is neatly split into four acts; the first is Jonah saying no to God and getting on a ship going the opposite direction he was told go; the second is Jonah in the belly of the big fish, praying for deliverance; the third, we read this morning; and the fourth, which is not ever scheduled to be read on a Sunday, is when Jonah reacts to the Ninevites’ repentance and God’s mercy.
It’s arguable that the biggest character in the book of Jonah is not God, or Jonah himself, the whale, or the great, big city of Ninevah, but Jonah’s pride, his outsized ego. Our reading begins: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
A second time
The first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah, he “rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” We’re not told in chapter one why Jonah chose to disobey God, but it becomes clear later in the narrative that Jonah’s pride has taken the wheel, driving him in exactly the opposite direction of God’s call — on a map, the ancient city of Ninevah is like Mexico, while Tarshish is like North Dakota. There’s no way to pretend that you’re headed toward one if you’re going in the direction of the other.
We are now a house with two toddlers, one human and one canine, and sometimes our big old dog Ben will try to negotiate. I’ll tell him, “get in your crate,” and if he doesn’t feel like it at the moment, he’ll head for his bed instead, as if to ask, “Well, how about here? Is that good enough?” And, God help me, sometimes I let him get away with it. But the point here is that Jonah is, at the very least, pulling a play from the toddler playbook, asserting himself, rebelling against the boundary that’s been drawn, the request that’s been made of him, and asking, “well, is Tarshish close enough?”
Can you imagine the look that God gives him from heaven? A little peek over his glasses, falling down his nose? As if to say, “No, Jonah, the exact opposite of what I ask is not ‘good enough.’ Your individualism is not going to win here. Your pride is not a match for me.” And in God’s very subtle, gentle way, he sends a staggeringly violent storm and a frighteningly enormous fish, and Jonah and his pride are swallowed up in the most extraordinary way.
While I suspect it wasn’t quite as romantic as gazing at mountains, or quite as calming as staring at spires, I wonder if Jonah experienced some of that awe which we might feel when taking in great stone edifices or booming waterfalls. I wonder if he started to realize how small he was, how his pride puffed him up like a balloon — with little but hot air inside of him.
He is moved to prayer, there in the digestive basement of this great creature, with, perhaps, just a small window of light somewhere up near the ceiling line… He prays, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (2:7). Jonah realizes how small he is, what a little cog his life makes in the great clock of God’s Kingdom. This perspective shift away from pride and toward submission to God’s will is the key to his freedom. The last thing he says before God makes the fish vomit him out, is, “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” Stripped of his pride, relieved of his ego, Jonah is now ready to hear what God has to say. Jonah is ready to receive the mission that God has in store for him. Jonah is ready to respond readily to the call that God gives. Then, as we heard already in our Old Testament text for this morning, Jonah prophesies to the pagan people of Ninevah, and they eagerly repent, and God reveals the great mercy that is his character.
This isn’t the end of Jonah’s pride, though. In the last chapter of this book, Jonah stomps out of the city God has just saved through him, and throws himself down under a shady vine. His pride has him angry that God forgives, and he mourns the death of his shade bush with much more feeling than he ever showed for the souls of the Ninevites.
To me, this is a very reassuring turn of events. The stories of dramatic and complete transformation are inspiring, the moment that forever changed everything is such a desirable outcome, but I haven’t managed to have one of those. I have days or even weeks that feel reformed, I have moments and phases that seem like progress, but then I have those other days, and those other weeks. The ones that feel like the same old Emily, the same old prideful, disobedient, un-surrendered, rebellious toddler. And apparently, this happens even to prophets, even to people who have a whole book named after them in the Bible.
And here’s the best news: God still uses them. God speaks to them a second time, and I suspect if the book of Jonah were longer, God would speak to him a third time, and a fourth time. Indeed, isn’t the coming of God in Jesus the ultimate instance of God speaking to each and every one of us yet one more time again?
However big our egos, however persistent our pride, however broken our past, or exhausted our efforts, or weary our bones, God invites us to remember that we are only a tiny part of his great big plan, his great big kingdom of redemption for the world. God speaks to us in the voice of Jesus, his son, asking us, not to change the world or conquer death or even to accomplish All The Things, but just to do what he tells us, to answer the call he speaks to each one of us, to be nourished by his own presence in the Body and the Blood, and then to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous work.