Dear brothers and sisters,
Good morning. Thank God for giving me a fruitful weekend of ministering to two churches in two different locations. I gave a workshop on Friday night at San Jose, and preached on Sunday at San Diego. It was my first encounter with these two congregations. I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to serve them.
We have been looking at how Eugene Peterson unpacked the message of Jonah to us. In that story Jonah didn’t drown. He was swallowed by a great fish and so saved. His first action in his newly saved condition was prayer.
This is the center of the story, a center located in the belly of the fish. The drowning of religious careerism is followed by resurrection into a vocation or submission to a calling. We become what we are called to be. We become what we are called to be by praying. And we start out by praying from the belly of the fish.
The belly of the fish is a place of confinement, a tight, restricted place. The ship to Tarshish was headed for the western horizon - limitless expanses of sea with the lure of the mysterious and beckoning unknown through the Straits of Gibraltar and beyond.
Religion always plays on these sublime aspirations, these erotic drives for completion and wholeness. Jonah, heady with this potent elixir and cruising confidently under full sails, the sea breeze and salt tang deepening the sensory anticipation of a thrilling life in the service of God, found himself instead in the belly of the fish.
The belly of the fish was the unattractive opposite to everything Jonah had set out for. The belly of the fish was a dark, dank, and probably stinking cell. The belly of the fish is Jonah’s introduction to askesis.
Askesis is to spirituality what a training regimen is to an athlete. It is not the thing itself, but the means to maturity and excellence. Otherwise we are at the mercy of glands and weather. It is a spiritual equivalent to the old artistic idea that talent grows by its very confinement that the genie’s strength comes from his confinement in the bottle. Jesus said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the drivers seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all” (Mark 8:34b, The Message).
The story of Jonah is inspiring. It describes how God mentored His servant, and how He revealed to mankind His attributes. Many religions describe God as cruel and horrible judge, who waits for opportunity to punish man for his sins. But Christian Bible describes God as a caring and gracious God, even though He is still righteous and would not compromise sins. When Adam and Eve sinned against God, He punished them but also clothed them with garment of animal skin (Gen 3:21). This is the kind of attributes that God revealed Himself to us.
Here in the Book of Jonah, God showed Jonah that He cared for not only His chosen people but those who sinned against Him. They were the terrorists in Jonah’s eyes. They were enemy of the Jews. In their theology, the people of Nineveh did not deserve the grace from God because they persecuted the people of God. But God did not act according to Jonah’s theology. God loved even the enemy of God’s people. This is how Christianity spread to the land of barbarians like the Vikings, Huns and Goths, who invaded the Roman Empire and took captive of many Christian women and children. These barbarians were later conquered by the love of God and were converted to Christianity. God worked in a miraculous way.
I hope we don’t need to go through the training closet like a fish belly in order to learn the lesson of obedience. God will allow suffering to shape His church and people so that we become the blessings of all nations near and far. Amen?
Love you in accordance to God’s attribute,