As we determined last week, the story of Jonah is the story of us all. We are each faced with forks in our road, moments where the decision you make forever impacts all those around you. Today, we shift our focus intrinsically and reveal what that means for you personally.
I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
For 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;
yet I shall look again on your holy temple.
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
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 on me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you in your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols, forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed, I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!
This was Jonah’s prayer as he breathed from the belly of the sea monster.
While the choices we make implement a butterfly effect that leaves unchangeable marks on the lives of everyone in its range, each decision leaves permanent marks on our individual lives as well. Though many leave their marks unnoticed, these scars forever map our journey through life. For better or worse, our choices trace the road we’ve chosen and serve as a guide to those who come after us.
Jonah’s decisions led him down paths where he was venerated and exalted by his peers to suffering and isolation where being cast into the sea was in the best interest of those closest to him. After running from the mission God set before him, Jonah found himself cowering beneath the deck of a fishing vessel while his new friends brave the wrath of the sea brought on by his disobedience. He finally concedes to God’s persistence and confesses his responsibility for the situation along with its remedy, removing him from the situation. His fellow sailors, quite reluctantly, launch Jonah into the raging water, all the time begging the God Jonah just tangibly introduced them to for mercy. Only then, when the environment created by his own choices becomes too overbearing, does Jonah cry out to God for help.
God provides the world with a fool-proof navigational system to guide us both day and night, which sailors on Jonah’s journey primarily relied upon. While the sun guides vessels during the day, patterns in the stars guide ships at night. Mediterranean sailors in 5th and 4th century BC used the constellation Cetus as one of their guides. Cetus, known today as ‘The Whale’, was once coined as ‘The Sea Monster’. Sailors who set off in the direction of Cetus were said to be “sailing into the belly of the beast”. The original Hebrew and Greek texts of Jonah use words which literally translate ‘great fish’ to describe the place Jonah found himself after he was thrown from the ship to Joppa. 4th century Greek translations change this word to Cetus. From that, William Tyndale gave us the English translation of ‘whale’ in Jonah’s adventure. Whether Jonah was swallowed by a literal fish or if we are reading sailors’ slang and Jonah miraculously survived three days on the open sea by God’s mercy, (having been tossed into “the belly of the beast”), I am not sure. Either interpretation makes Jonah’s story no less of a miracle, but I do find it interesting Jonah never thanks God for providing a fish to swallow him, but does express gratitude for protecting him from specific perils of the open sea (i.e. the waves and billows, the deep which surrounded him, the seaweed wrapping around his head).
Something else is missing from Jonah’s prayer, repentance. Not once does Jonah acknowledge his disobedience to God. His entire prayer is a cry for help to get him out of the mess he created. This arrogance is a place many of us will find ourselves, likely on more than one occasion. We become so invested in our own sin that, instead of taking responsibility for the circumstances we’ve created, we bathe in our refuse until the environment becomes too putrid to bear. Only then, whining out of our voluntary discomfort, do we cry out to God and beg for His intervention. In His unfathomable mercy, God will respond to our cries as a devoted father and pull us up from our filth, but his answer to our insatiable desire to return to the muck came centuries ago through His son, Jesus.
Jesus sacrificed himself so that we may find salvation though him, a way out of our cycle of failure and disappointment, but salvation is not a one-time deal. Salvation, embracing Jesus as your savior by committing your life to forever emulating his, is the kick-starter for your continual process of sanctification while you walk the earth. Christians refer to someone professing their faith in Jesus as “being saved”. I prefer the phrase quoted by Brennan Manning which was commonly used in the 1930’s, “I’ve been seized by a great affection”. Jesus died to save us from our sin, but he also rose so that we may be daily saved from ourselves.
I have been seized by a great affection so that I may show great affection. God loves in us what is not yet. We love in people what they already are: virtue, beauty, courage, and hence making our love self-interested and fragile. We must learn to love people as God does, empowering them to spread His love further.
May your choices map out a life spent in selfless love that inspires generations.