Sunday, March 16, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Blame the Fish"

Jonah 1:11-17

11 They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.) 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. 14 So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. 16 The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises. 17 [a] Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Common English Bible)

“Friends Don’t Let Friends…A Lent Alongside Jonah,” Week Two

Four had suddenly become three.  The fish tank that sat in my childhood bedroom was suddenly bereft of one of its little swimming inhabitants—one of the two that belonged to my younger sister (whilst the other two were ostensibly mine).

My sister, who was maybe six at the time, was convinced that it was because of my fish had eaten her fish, and even at age six, she stood for no injustice.  “HE ATE BUTTONS!” she screamed in righteous indignation to our parents while I just sort of shrugged.  Yes, Buttons was missing, but who’s to say that it wasn’t all a magic trick, or that the little fishie Rapture had just occurred and my own miscreant fish had been left behind.  In MY mind, at least, there were a myriad of explanations to this seemingly open-and-shut case of maritime murder.

But in my first murder trial as an unlicensed, ten-year-old attorney, I lost, and my fish was sentenced to being returned to the pet store, which I am sure completely baffled the same poor goof who told us that the fish would all get along great together (which, in retrospect, is a pretty dumb question to ask a store clerk: I mean, they’re tiny little fish, not puppies).

But this meant that, over time, as we went through more and more pet fish, that this one fish of mine attained a status unto Elijah for me…you see, Elijah is the only Old Testament hero not to die (Enoch also doesn’t die, but he is simply attested to in the Genesis genealogies and that’s it); he gets driven up to heaven in a chariot of fire instead.  And so this fish became the only fish I ever owned to not eventually be flushed down the toilet, but to be driven off to heaven in a chariot of fire.  And by “heaven,” I mean the pet store.  And by “a chariot of fire,” I mean my parents’ 1995 Saturn station wagon.

Because that’s what happens when you blame the fish.  The poor fish gets completely set apart.

This is a new sermon series for a new church season: traditionally, the forty days prior to Easter Sunday make up a worship season called Lent, and those forty days correspond to the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and being tempted in the wilderness.  Lent is a season whose primary themes, then, are largely about denial of selfishness and repentance from our own past selfishness.  And really, there is no better story about selfishness in Scripture than that of the prophet Jonah.  Sure, you have individual stories about selfishness in Biblical heroes like Samson and David, but none of their stories involved getting belched out of a giant future sushi roll.  And really, selfishness is what defines Jonah, even more so than any other Biblical character.  He is the original prodigal, the original heir who renounces his Father hundreds of years before Jesus tells us His parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  So for Lent this year, we will be reading through, verse-by-verse, the entirety of the Jonah narrative.  It’s only four chapters long, so going verse-by-verse is definitely doable in a five-week series, and we’ll come out the other side all set for Palm Sunday and the beginning of the Passion narrative.  We kicked off this series last week by expositing Jonah’s predicament: God calls Jonah to preach in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital in modern-day northern Iraq.  Jonah says “I DON’T WANNA!” and runs in the opposite direction, towards Spain.  Along the way, he pays fare for a boat to take him the rest of the way, they run into a storm, and they ascertain by casting lots that Jonah is the one responsible, and that is where today’s Scripture passage picks up.

Now, as you could probably glean from the sermon’s title and the story I just told you, we’ll be focusing on the role of the giant fish here today, but there are a couple other potential misconceptions about this part of the story that I want to nip in the bud as well: firstly, this is, in case you missed last week, a story about Jonah and a fish, not Jonah and a whale.  After all, most whales are endangered, and I imagine God would not be so cruel as to risk one to a massive case of indigestion just to make a point.

More importantly, though, this is that also not a story about human sacrifice, even though Jonah tries to turn it into one with his demand to be thrown overboard.  The conscientious sailors eventually acquiesce to his patently self-destructive request, but not before collectively absolving themselves of this massive breach of maritime ethics in making someone walk the plank.

It would be easy to say they do this because it is okay in whichever moral and spiritual spheres these non-Israelite sailors live, but as the passage conveys, these sailors end up worshiping YHWH.  So that cannot be why they eventually cave to Jonah’s entreaties—in fact, Jonah, in whatever zealous selflessness inspires him to be thrown overboard, is completely misguided in this sacrificial urge because, that is, in fact, not what God wants.  And it never was.

In spite of what the story of Abraham and Isaac might lead you to believe—the one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac upon a Grillmaster, only to pop out and shout, “JK!  JK!  LOL!  ROFFLECOPTERS!” –human sacrifice has always been banned in Jewish law.  Leviticus 20:1-5 bans the practice of sacrificing one’s offspring to “Moloch,” a pagan god of the Ammonites, Phoenicians, and Canaans, whose cult demanded human sacrifice.  Since the covenant between YHWH and Israel is akin to a father-child relationship, you can see why human sacrifice would be banned—throughout the Old Testament, even God’s wrath still left room for resurrection.

And God leaves room for resurrection here, for Jonah, because I think contrary to popular belief, this giant fish that is sent is not sent as a means of punishing Jonah—it is sent as a means of protecting Jonah.  The sailors are not able to sail to land, meaning they are dumping Jonah out in the middle of the sea.  He will die of hypothermia or drown before anybody reaches him.

But God does.  Through the magical gigantic fish.  That swallows Jonah whole and somehow manages to keep him down for three days and three nights (and you’d think if God were truly omniscient, He’d have negotiated some sort of product placement deal with Tums/Mylanta/Pepto in here).  And while this three-days-and-three-nights business makes it awfully tempting for us to see in Jonah a foreshadowing of Jesus, I would hesitate to interpret this text that way.

See, Jesus, while certainly reluctant at moments (especially Gethsemane), is still ultimately subservient to God.  Jonah really is not.  Jonah does have some admirable qualities that I mentioned last week—he is clearly honest to a fault, and abundantly  blessed with determination—but someone who is ready, able, and willing to surrender himself to God he is emphatically not—at least, not yet.

And so while Jesus is in part a prophet—in addition to being Messiah, rabbi, the Christ, and so on—Jonah is really more, as Yale’s John Collins puts it, something of an anti-prophet.

Which means that while Jonah might be prepared to offer himself up in sacrifice to God, he is not, in fact, spiritually mature enough to realize that this is not what God really wants.  God does not want human sacrifice; if He did, it would have been simple enough to just let Jonah drown.

To return to the Jesus metaphor, it would have been simple enough to just let Jesus remain dead.

But in either case, it wasn’t.  It isn’t.  With God, it is never as simple as dying.  There always remains a second chance at living.  Even the eventually-willing-to-throw-Jonah-overboard sailors realize this.  They worship God upon seeing that they have been saved from the storm.
And in this way, the sailors and Jonah are figuratively in the same boat, even if literally they no longer are.  They are protected from the elements by a God who still watches over them.

There is another possibility to all of this, though: that Jonah is so determined to escape God that he will sacrifice anything, including his life, to achieve that ends.  Through this lens, Jonah’s willingness to be chucked overboard is not a magnanimous gesture towards some good-natured sailors he befriended, it is a final act of defiance against his Creator.  And the sailors’ initial reluctance to throw him overboard reads not as an intervention of moral scruples but as a determination to see this man live long enough for God to take justice upon him Himself.

If that sounds like me just getting up here and saying, “Ta da!  Everything I just told you about this Scripture passage is a lie,” I promise you it isn’t.  Because as we will see next week, after Jonah has had his three days and three nights to think about things in the maw of a giant future piece of sushi, Jonah realizes that he does need the sort of deliverance that only God can provide—deliverance not simply from the elements, from a storm at sea, but deliverance from oneself.  Deliverance from our worst impulses, deepest prejudices, and destructive tendencies.

That is why there is no point in blaming the fish here.  There is no justice to be had in pointing any fingers at it, because as a divine instrument, it serves not as a weapon with which to destroy, but as a tool with which to rebuild.  And that has worth even to this day.

As I was putting the final touches on this sermon over the weekend, I read the news that Fred Phelps Sr., the founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church (the “God Hates F*gs” people who picket funerals), is on the brink of death himself at the age of 84.  I was raised a mere hour’s drive from the Westboro Baptist Church in eastern Kansas, and it was not uncommon for some hate-motivated stunt of his ilk to make the papers or the evening news in my hometown.

His reported demise perfectly coincides with the message I am trying to convey here.  Jonah too does not want to minister in God’s name to a people he despises.  So he runs from God.  But after three days and three nights within the giant fish, Jonah realizes how low he has sunk, and he pleads with God for deliverance from his darkest self.

If ever there were a pastor in dire need of a few days inside of a giant fish, it’s Fred Phelps.  But that salvation from our darker selves is a salvation we all need, whether we know it yet or not.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 16, 2014

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