The story of Jonah is one that always seems to fascinate children. It captures their imagination, and ours, too. But the book of Jonah was not written for kids. It was written for people like you and me – people of faith trying to find our way through life. It’s really a book about vocation – about seeing God at work in this world and in our life, about hearing God’s call, and about answering that call. (There is more to this book than that, which is part of what makes it a great book, but this is the theme that I am pondering here.)
At the heart of the book is the incident that we all remember: Jonah on a boat in a storm being thrown overboard and being swallowed by a large fish. (I always imagined a whale, but the story says a large fish.)
The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.Jonah 1:17
These three days and three nights will be a turning point in Jonah’s life, and they offer a metaphor for us all at various points in our lives. As but one example, I had a family member not long ago who suffered a serious leg injury that required him to stay at home. As we talked together, this story came to mind and I shared it with him. It was his Jonah moment.
So, here’s my question: Can we see this pandemic in the same way? As our Jonah moment? I certainly think so. And if so, then the story of Jonah can help us to see God at work in this pandemic. Not that this pandemic is God’s will. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that all things can work together for good for those who love God, and I do believe that God works in our storms, like this pandemic. I love how Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this in a letter that he wrote while in prison:
It’s true that not everything that happens is simply “God’s will.” But in the end nothing happens “apart from God’s will” (Matt. 10:29), that is, in every event, even the most ungodly, there is a way through to God.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
In every event, there is a way through to God. Whether it be an injury, a pandemic, or time in the belly of a fish.
So, back to Jonah, and to this turning point in his life, when he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a fish. What will he do now? What happens next? Jonah turns to God. He prays. A prayer that might be my favorite in all of scripture. And not just a prayer, but a prayer of thanksgiving. Even from the belly of the fish, Jonah is able to give thanks.
It’s too important a prayer to summarize, so here it is in full:
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, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord! (Jonah 2:2-9)
At this turning point in Jonah’s life, in the heart of the sea and from the belly of the fish, Jonah turns back to God. He gives thanks to God. And he renews his vow to the Lord. Wow.
Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. The same amount of time that Jesus will be in the tomb. This does not go unnoticed by Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers himself as the sign of Jonah for this generation.
Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”Matthew 12:38-40
The Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, just like Jonah. And his time in the tomb will lead to resurrection, just as Jonah’s time in the fish leads to new life. That is the sign of the prophet Jonah. A sign that speaks to all who find themselves in the belly of the fish.
Here we are, in the midst of a world-changing pandemic, in the belly of the fish, in the tomb, receiving this sign of Jonah. The question is, what will we do with it? Here is a sonnet that I wrote as I pondered this very question: