Greetings! I am Pastor David Hewitt of King of Glory Lutheran Church in Carmel, Indiana, and I welcome you to our latest “Boost from the Bible,” where we gather together to delve into the depths of scripture, always finding there God’s wisdom and love in this COVID time. Let us begin!
I am a Lutheran pastor and so of course I know something about Martin Luther, the reformer of the church. People may not realize this, but Luther did not mean to start his own church or denomination. He sought only to reform the Catholic Church, until he was kicked out. Luther was originally not only a monk but was also a professor at a school of theology in the town of Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago. Though he lived before cars, trains, planes, electricity, refrigeration, space satellites, cellphones, computers and whatnot, he still has many important things to say to us today. He himself, for instance, went through one or two pandemics in his own time and wrote about it.
As I was reflecting upon and praying about what I might say today, I was reading brief sections of what was the most popular biography of Luther for many years, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Published in 1950, it sold over a million copies. Luther was a professor of Old Testament Studies, and what I stumbled upon in Bainton’s biography of Luther was one of Luther’s lectures on the book of Jonah – you know Jonah, right – Jonah and the whale – oh, excuse me, “the big fish” – not “whale” – is much more accurate!
What intrigued me is how Luther described what Jonah might have been feeling IN the belly of that big fish, where Jonah was lodged for three days and three nights. But first, a little background on Jonah.
You see, Jonah had been given a calling by God to go to preach at Nineveh, the capital of the tyrannically evil empire of Assyria – the same empire that would later go on to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah knew just how bad the Assyrians were, and so refused to follow God’s call and go and preach to those horrible people. Instead of going EAST to Nineveh, Jonah commandeered a ship to take him in the opposite direction – WEST – on the Mediterranean Sea. Well, God would have none of that. God created a storm on the sea which threatened everyone on Jonah’s boat. The shipmates cast lots to see who was at fault, and, as we read, “the lot fell on Jonah.” Jonah had to admit to them that he was at fault, that the God Jonah worshiped – the God who, as Jonah put it, “made the sea and the dry land” – must be very displeased that Jonah had fled from the Lord by traveling on this ship. They replied, “What must we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” Jonah replied, “Pick me up and thrown me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know that it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”
You know, at first these men were reluctant to throw Jonah overboard; they tried rowing the ship to shore but couldn’t. They finally threw Jonah over and, we read, “the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men,” it says, “feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
Now here is where a lot of people get Jonah’s story wrong. People think God punished Jonah by having the big fish swallow him up. But that’s not how the story goes. We get a hint of the REAL story in the very next verse where it says that “the Lord PROVIDED a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” It doesn’t say punished – it says God “provided” – a positive word – the fish for or on behalf of Jonah. Why?
Well, let me read to you next, as our “Boost from the Bible” for today, the brief chapter two of the book of Jonah. It starts out: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying:
“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.
3 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from Your sight; how shall I look again upon Your holy temple?’
5 The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head
6 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.
7 As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to You; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
As we hear these verses again, let us note that Jonah praises God for rescuing him from death. How? By making the big fish swallow Jonah! How is that, you may ask? Well, we know that when we are in deep water, as Jonah was, we need to come up above the water to breathe, to survive. But, when Jonah was thrown overboard, he not only fell down to the depths of the sea, he was caught down there, so that he could not go up to breathe. Remember, I just read that Jonah said, “weeds were wrapped around my head…I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Jonah, his head wrapped up by – and caught up in – those deep weeds, seemed to be a goner.
But then, Jonah notes to God, “You brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord.” Jonah recounted that as he was drowning, he prayed to the Lord: “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.” So what we find is that the big fish that had come and swallowed up Jonah had indeed rescued him from death, for Jonah could breathe while in the belly of that fish three days and three nights!
Would that we felt the same way as Jonah about our God right now – would that we! For we, too, are either tangled in the weeds of these days of turmoil, or we feel isolated in the darkness of these times – finding ourselves in “the belly of the beast.” Would that we reacted to these strange circumstances by seeing them as Jonas saw the big fish swallowing him – as God’s mercy and goodness come to take good care of you and me!
Luther – who had himself suffered many a “dark night of the soul” – told his students in this lecture the following about Jonah’s experience: “the Bible says, ‘And Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the [big fish].’ Those were the longest three days and three nights that ever happened under the sun. Jonah’s lungs and liver pounded. He would hardly have looked around to see his habitation. He was thinking, ‘When, when, when will this end?’” And we know what that’s like, don’t we? Who hasn’t thought, in one way or another and at one time or another, “When, when, when will this ever end?”
We are in the midst of this strange, sometimes traumatic COVID experience right now; we are going through our OWN Jonah-like “big fish experience!” You know, Luther experienced his deepest trauma early in his adult life, when the Church hierarchy attacked him. Remember that in his lecture Luther imagined Jonah as living “without light, without food, absolutely alone” those 3 days. Luther, likewise, when he was sent to the town of Worms to defend himself in front of the Pope’s representatives, was surely tempted to feel that he was “without light” – the light of God – and “absolutely alone.” But Luther took solace in the privilege God gave him at Worms to reveal to the whole world the grace and forgiveness of the God of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection for us.
Others warned Luther not to go to Worms to defend himself, for he would be killed. He replied that he, like Jonah in the fish’s belly, still had faith, whatever fate may come. “This is no time to think of [my personal] safety,” Luther told his friends. “I must take care that the gospel is not brought into contempt by our fear to confess…[let us] seal our teaching with our blood.”
Likewise may we, like Jonah and Luther, not be afraid. Just as we are floating on and on, day after day among the restless storms on this 2020 sea as Jonah did – tempted to believe this speculation or that – let us instead trust in God. While each strange day calls us to account for our faith in God, let us understand that this unusual set of events is OUR big fish that has swallowed us up for our eventual good – yes, our eventual good – because it will one day spit us out onto a new land and a new way for our church and for our world.
Like Jonah in the darkness of the belly of the big fish, let us cry out, “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and God answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You [O Lord] heard my voice.” Let us, like Jonah did, have faith that our physical salvation will indeed come, and say as Jonah said while he was in the worst of it, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to You [O Lord]; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Yes, deliverance WILL come. We WILL be placed again on dry land – post-virus – because “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” Amen!