Monday, August 17, 2009

Womb of the Whale

(Whether or not it was whale or just a large fish, I like the title.)

The prophet Jonah was sent to the people of the city of Nineveh to preach repentance. If they did not repent, then in "forty more days Nineveh [would] be overthrown." Initially, Jonah tried to run away from God by taking a boat from Joppa to Tarshish on the the Mediterranean Sea. A storm came up and the other men on the boat knew that Jonah had done something to anger his God. Jonah told them that if they would throw him overboard the sea would calm, and it did. God then sent a large fish (or the more poetic sounding whale) to swallow Jonah alive. Jonah spent three days in the whale and from the depths of the whale cried out to God.

From the belly of the fish Jonah said this prayer to the LORD, his God: Out of my distress I called to the LORD,and he answered me; From the midst of the nether world I cried for help, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood enveloped me; All your breakers and your billows passed over me. Then I said, "I am banished from your sight! Yet would I again look upon your holy temple." The waters swirled about me, threatening my life; the abyss enveloped me; seaweed clung about my head. Down I went to the roots of the mountains; the bars of the nether world were closing behind me forever, But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me,I remembered the LORD; My prayer reached you in your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy. But I, with resounding praise,will sacrifice to you; What I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the LORD. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore" (Jonah 2:1-10).

Jonah tried to flee from God, but was unable. His punishment was to be shut up in the belly of a whale in the depths of the sea at the roots of the mountains. Even there though, God was present to him as he cried out in prayer. The psalmist in Psalm 139 says, "Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast" (Ps. 139:7-10). Jonah realized too late the terror of falling into the hands of the Living God. Yet he also realized the peace that only God can give. As so many of the psalms begin in distress and end in a sacrifice of praise to God, so to does Jonah's. Psalm 22 quoted by Christ on the Cross is a prime example of this; "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?"

From out of the depths Jonah is reborn. "You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth" (Ps. 139:13-15). Jonah comes forth from the whale reborn and ready to God's will. God did not abandon him. When Jonah turned to God in faith, God did not withhold his right hand, but he delivered him from the pit within the whale. "For you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful servant see the pit" (Ps 16:10).
Jonah is a type of Jesus. Jesus was in a boat with his disciples. A key difference is that Jesus always did the will of his Father who sent him.
"He got into a boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" He said to them, "Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?" Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, "What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?" (Mt. 8:23-27).

Jesus was not literally thrown overboard; he is rather revealed as Lord of the storm. However, his Incarnation in which he sank into the depths of our humanity by becoming a man in the depths of the womb of the Virgin Mary and his Passion and Death in which he was cast into the depths of our sins and swallowed by the gaping Jaws of Death show that Jonah is fulfilled in him.

"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." He said to them in reply, "An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here" (Mt. 12: 38-41).

Jonah was cast out of the boat and the wind and the waves were calmed and the sailors made vows and sacrifices to the one true God. Jesus was bodily taken up on the cross and cast into the raging wind, rain, storm, and crashing waves of sin and death. Jonah was cast into sea and swallowed up by the mouth of a great fish. Jesus was cast into the sea of sin and death and was swallowed up by the jaws of death. From the depths of the whales womb Jonah's prayer rose up. He made his own De Profundis. "From out of the depths I cry unto you, Lord." (Ps. 130). From the depths of the earth, Jesus prayed to his Father. He broke open "the bars of the netherworld" and preached to the prisoners. He lead them into heaven breaking open those gates that had been shut to man since the fall, probably singing a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving much like Jonah's.

Jonah points to the Resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not left in the pit to know corruption. He is gloriously and bodily Resurrected. Death, sin, suffering, and destruction are not the end. There is a resurrection in which we will all be reborn: either to life everlasting or death everlasting. The Resurrection of Jesus is so important and central to our faith that Paul says that if it did not happen then everything we believe is in vain. The bars of the gates of hell were not enough to keep Jesus drug down into the pit. The wrappings of seaweed in Jonah's case and the wrappings of a burial shroud in the case of Jesus were not enough to hold back the hand of the Living God. In Jesus Christ, death itself is swallowed up and has no victory. We therefore have our faith and hope in him.

From the depths of our suffering we cry out to God. God hears our cries and does not abandon us to the pit; rather he transforms our circumstances to a womb of hope from which we are born anew and from which one day we will rise with him.