Sunday, March 23, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Friends Don't Let Friends Run From Their Fears"

Jonah 2:1-10

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish: 2 “I called out to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. From the belly of the underworld[a] I cried out for help; you have heard my voice. 3 You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me. All your strong waves and rushing water passed over me. 4 So I said, ‘I have been driven away from your sight. Will I ever again look on your holy temple? 5 Waters have grasped me to the point of death; the deep surrounds me. Seaweed is wrapped around my head 6 at the base of the undersea[b] mountains. I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight. But you brought me out of the pit.’ 7 When my endurance[c] was weakening, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 8 Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.[d] 9 But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks. That which I have promised, I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” 10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. (Common English Bible)

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

The young woman—still a teenager, in fact, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 15, and you wouldn’t think it to watch her run.  She looks like any other athlete who is in fantastic shape…that is, until she crosses the finish line of her race.  As the New York Times writes:

…the smallest runner’s legs wobbled like rubber, and she flopped into her waiting coach’s arms.  She collapses every time she races.  (She) was found to have multiple sclerosis three years ago.  Defying most logic, she has gone on to become one of the fastest young distance runners in the country—one who cannot stay on her feet after crossing the finish line…

Because multiple sclerosis blocks nerve signals from (her) legs to her brain, particularly as her body temperature increases, she can move at steady speeds that cause other runners pain she cannot sense…but intense exercise can also trigger weakness and instability; as she goes numb in races, she can continue moving forward as if on autopilot, but any disruption, like stopping, makes her lose control.

At the finish of every race, she staggers and crumples.  Before momentum sends her flying to the ground, her coach braces to catch her, carrying her aside as her competitors finish and her parents swoop in to ice her legs.  Minutes later, sensation returns and she rises, ready for another change at forestalling a disease that one day may force her to trade the track for a wheelchair.  Multiple sclerosis has no cure.

Imagine literally running from the future of this disease that will one day cripple you by tossing it aside and running on despite the numbness.  Imagine running so hard and for so long that your body has no choice but to stagger and crumple at the end.  But also imagine that when you fall, there is somebody to catch that fall.  A coach.  A parent.  Or, for Jonah, a giant-ass fish.

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 the series two weeks ago with Jonah having declined God’s generous offer to go preach on His behalf to the Assyrians in Nineveh by fleeing in the exact opposite direction, to modern-day Spain.  In doing so, he boards a ship in the Mediterranean Sea bound for Tarshish, and when the ship gets caught in a storm, Jonah is chosen by lot to be the one responsible for the storm and he is unceremoniously chucked overboard, at which point God intervenes and brings forth a giant fish to keep Jonah from drowning.  In those three days and three nights he spends as sushi food, Jonah finally stops running and utters the prayer in Jonah 2.

Jonah’s prayer in this second chapter of his book actually reads much like a psalm, to the point that many translations actually put this entire chapter (save for verses 1 and 10) in verse rather than straight-up prose.  And there is a point to that—Jonah’s prayer is as much poetry as it is human-to-God communication.  In some ways, we might think it remarkable that Jonah is able to conjure up such vivid, flowery verbiage while stuck in the craw of a giant fish, but really, that should be the last thing that strains our credulity—we are, after all, discussing a man who survived for three days and three nights inside of said fish, becoming neither digested or dehydrated.  So Jonah’s ability to pray, regardless of the circumstances, may just be the thing that grounds us to reality in this otherwise larger-than-life Bible story.

And as well it should.  Jonah has largely taken it on the chin so far from everyone involved in this story—God, the sailors he traveled with, even me as I have been recounting and unpacking this story alongside you.  But there still had to be a reason God called Jonah in the first place!  You’ll recall that I spoke briefly in previous sermons about the positive qualities Jonah did bring to the table—his honesty, his determination, and so on—but plenty of people have those qualities in abundance but are not necessarily called to a preaching ministry.  Jonah is, and this prayer reminds us why.  Just as Jonah reaches the point where he realizes that he needs salvaging, so too are we meant to reach the point that there really is something amazing in this obstinate, rebellious man that is truly worth saving.  Jonah has a gift, and his time in the fish reminds us of that and perhaps reminds himself of that fundamental reality.

Yet no matter how gifted we are, we still cannot do it all alone.  Jonah could not flee from God alone—though not for lack of effort—so he enlisted the help of sailors who were willing to let him board their ship.  And simultaneously, he could not turn back to God alone.  He needed this fish to protect him from drowning when, as he prayed, his endurance had weakened—endurance necessary to re-summon his commitment to his divine Creator.  He needed to stop running, and when he did, just like for this young runner with M.S., there was somebody there to catch him.

The real problem arises, then, not when there is someone or something to catch you when you finally stop running from your fears—your fear of God, your fear of somebody else, your fear of yourself—it is when there is nobody to catch you.  It happened once to our young runner with M.S., at the national championship 5,000 meters, and it was an abject scene: she simply fell over at the finish line, laying prostrate as the announcers speculated as to whether or not she was having a seizure.  And it almost happens to Jonah.  And he finally, at long last, realizes it.

He stops running.  From God, from himself, from his fear of doing what it is that God wants.

And what God ultimately wants is simple, even if what we want is anything but.  As the Old Testament scholar Johanna Bos writes, “At its core, prayer is the intervention between a world bent on self-destruction and a God who is turned toward this world in love.”  Jonah has been bent on self-destruction from the beginning of this tale.  But God is bent wholly on love.  And yet somehow, Jonah fears this God to the point of running to the ends of the earth to evade Him.

This is why friends do not let friends run from their fears: because sometimes, those fears ultimately turn out to be really quite unfounded.  Friends don’t let friends run from their fears.  And friends don’t let friends run away from God out of such a fear.

Because, paradoxically and beautifully, sometimes we only arrive where we are meant to be when we finally stop running.  The final line of Jonah’s prayer is the most powerful for me: “For deliverance belongs to the Lord!”  And if it feels like thus far that I have been glossing over the individual details about the theology of the prayer, I haven’t.  But before we can recognize that deliverance does indeed belong to God, we must also recognize our own circumstances—whatever they may be—that cause us to “call out to the Lord in (our) distress,” as verse 2 puts it.

We have to stop running in our fears and our distresses.  And when we do, Jonah says, God will answer us.  Even as far down as from the depths of the underworld—and here, the Hebrew word Jonah uses is sheol, which can also be translated as the pit—God will answer.  No matter how deep the pit is dug, God in His Heaven still hears our cries.  God always hears our cries.

When we run, and cry out in exhaustion, God hears us.  And when we finally stop, and collapse, and cry out in pain, God hears us then too.  If anything, being in the belly of a giant fish puts yet another auditory barrier between Jonah and the world—not only is he underwater, beneath that which personified chaos to the ancient Israelites—the sea—but he is also submerged within a leviathan with no soul, no cognition beyond what the Lord speaks unto it.  Jonah is as cut off as any person could possibly be while still being very much among the living.

This is why, even though Jonah is presumably healthy and fit, he is in Sheol.  This is why he is in the land of the dead.  Because not physically but emotionally and spiritually, he is the closest living thing to that deadening stasis of utter separation from God and humanity alike.  Here, in the belly of the fish, he is about as close as one can be to hell in one’s earthly life.  Utterly alone, utterly forsaken, his only ally in the world being a thing that literally freaking ate him, Jonah at long last comes to his senses.  Finally he understands that deliverance comes from the Lord.

He stops running.  From God, from himself, from his fear of doing what it is that God wants.

What in your life do you need to stop running from?  What in your life do you need to start running towards?  Perhaps most importantly, what in your life can God help deliver you from?  Ours is a God of liberation from bondage, from the chains of poverty, from the oppression of enslavement, from the hurt of exclusion, from the paralysis of fear, from the pain of self-destruction, and ultimately from the clutches of Sheol—the hands of death itself, and far from that liberation being something that you should fear, it is something that God calls you to, like Jonah, no matter how far you have come and no matter how far you have gone.  Because just as God will always hear your cries, so too can we always hear God’s cries for us, whether here in the sanctuary or out in the world or in the depths of the sea, God’s voice still lingers.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 23, 2014

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