The picture with this sermon is a fractal called ‘Jonah in the belly of the whale’. What’s a fractal I hear you say? Good question. Fractals are geometric figures that have recurring complex patterns and designs. They originate from the basic idea that a finite sized object can have an infinite border. They have complex patterns that repeat again and again and again as they get smaller and smaller. The Koru or fern leaf is one that occurs in nature. The whirl of the frond is repeated on a smaller scale with individual leaves and then on each leaf and so on. Fractals have come into vouge more recently as computer-generated representations of complex mathematical equations. Part of their beauty is that they are full of vibrant colour because mathematicians can designate any colour to particular numerical values.
Ok why talk about fractals?
Well if a mathematician looking at this particular fractal is reminded of Jonah in the belly of the whale it shows us how well known the story of Jonah is.
Also I worry that sermons can be like fractals. The beauty of the shapes and patterns that are generated with the equations captivates people imagination. However if we were to simply display the equation that they represent to people most of us, me included, would loose interest very fast. We wouldn’t be able to see the beauty hidden in the series of letters and symbols that once feed into a computer produce such amazing images.
I worry that in preaching through the book of Jonah that we can take a great story and in the chapter we are looking at today a heart felt psalm of thanksgiving and somehow loose the beauty and power of them by trying to break it down maybe even trying to turn it into some sort of equation.
The power of the book of Jonah comes from the fact that it is a narrative. It’s a story we can get so caught up in. It’s like the parables Jesus tells because in the end it catches you. It sneaks up and then really challenges us to look at who we are and how we respond to a gracious God and live in the world.
It is the story of a gracious and compassionate God and someone who does not want God’s love to be shown to the people he considers his enemies.
God calls Jonah to go and prophecy a warning of immanent destruction to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s powerful enemy Assyria. Jonah knowing that God is gracious and compassionate tries to run away from God. he doesn’t want to give Nineveh the chance to repent. Nineveh is in the east he tries to head as far west as he can. The ship he’s on is caught in a storm and the crew cast lots and find out Jonah is running away from his God and disobeying him. Jonah is depressed and decides that only his death will appease God so tells the people on the boat to throw him into the sea. Reluctantly they do this. God sends a fish to save Jonah from drowning. While he is in this fish Jonah gives thanks to God for saving him. He promises to serve him and at the end of three days he is vomited up on the shore and heads off to Nineveh.
He tells the people there that the city will be destroyed in forty days and the king calls his people to repent. God spares the city. Jonah simply wants to die I mean How could God be so gracious to Israel’s enemies? In fact Jonah sits down in the desert and simply waits to die. God is gracious to him again and a fast growing vine grows up to offer him shade. When the sun and lack of water causes the plant to wither Jonah is upset, he’s angry with God and God’s reply is to ask how Jonah can be so upset about the plants demise and so uncaring about the fate of a city of well over one hundred thousand innocent children not to mention countless animals.
As I mentioned in part 1 (http://howard-carter.blogspot.com/2011/06/jonah-beyond-our-boundaries-to-gods.html ) the Jews read this story on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where they remember their sins and repent. They response to it with a prayer of confession saying,” We are Jonah”. They have received God’s compassion and yet like Jonah they acknowledge that they have not shown compassion to others.
This chapter of Jonah is a psalm; a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. Like a fractal equation it follows a set formula and like the fractal the expression of that formula is a piece of art in this case poetry.
Pslams of thanks giving start with an acknowledgement that a person was in trouble and God heard their prayer and rescued them. It then outlines the situation they were in and how God delivered them and finishes with thanksgiving, and a promise of future loyalty and service.
In this case Jonah says he cried out to God. In verse 7 Jonah says just as his life was ebbing away he remembered God and called out to him. It’s a great image, blacking out and slipping off into oblivion and in that last second he snaps out of his depression and anger at God and calls out to God for help.
The imagery used to talk of the situation Jonah is in is both specific but also used in many similar psalms of thanksgiving. The Israelites were a land-based people not people of the sea and for them the sea was an image of chaos and destruction. So you get here the idea of trouble and distress being like being picked up by a great wave and being pounded on the shore. Being caught up and whirled around and around till you have no idea of which way is up or down and your lungs burn for the need of air and you open your mouth to scream and all that happens is that you have to close it quickly or you’ll end up with your mouth filling up with salt water. Hey I’m a surfer I know what that feels like. You could imagine the blind terror of having kelp or seaweed wrap round your head. It’s bad enough when unseen in sneaks up behind you and brushes up against you or touches your leg. Depression and situations in our life can feel like being caught on the inside of a set of waves. Wave after wave comes in and tumbles you even when you duck dive under the first one. They keep coming and you don’t have enough time or energy to recover before the next one comes.
Jonah acknowledges that his situation is desperate it’s deadly. He would have died without God’s intervention. Again the image is going down in the water. Slowly sinking beyond the swirl and churn of the waves into the cold and increasingly dark depth of the ocean. Jonah would have been in his clothes as he went over the side of the boat so their weight would have pulled him down. But the images move from simple sinking to falling into the very depth of the earth and into the world of the dead with the door closing behind him. In the last second he calls out to God.
Sitting in the cramped uncomfortable darkness of the fish, Jonah realises that God has saved him. His psalm says God heard his prayer and answered him. However from the context of the story we see that the LORD provided a big fish to save him even before he prayed. It is a measure of God’s compassion and grace that even before Jonah’s prayer God had commanded a fish to come and to swallow him. Now I know we want to know what sort of fish or whale it was that swallowed Jonah without chewing him up on the way down. Scientists will tell us that a whale has a throat that is too small to swallow a man. But this is not of concern to Jonah who on reflection wrote the book or of the Lord who inspired him to do it. Mores the pity we like to have these things sorted. All we do know is that Jonah sees God’s miraculous undeserved gracious saving in this act.
In the hours of darkness inside the fish Jonah realises he is not dead that God has saved him so he responds in Prayer. He says he will worship and serve God and ends with the amazing affirmation that ‘Salvation comes from the LORD”.
The LORD Commands the fish to vomit him up on dry land.
You know we are supposed to be left amazed and awestruck by the fantastic way that God chose to save Jonah. It is amazing, beyond belief, that’s the power of it. Jonah is saved from sure destruction and death in such an amazing miraculous way. It shows the awesome extent of God’s grace. As I read the story I can’t help but hear the words of hymns such as ‘amazing grace’ and ‘how can it be’. I can’t help but reflect with equal amazement that God should choose to answer my cries in times of need. That God would even want to save me and call me to be one of his people. You may be quite amazed at that as well. But then if I’m amazed about me well…. However Jonah is still angry that the God who has shown him such grace should dare to be gracious to the people of Nineveh.
In Luke 7 a nameless woman, a prostitute, comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee and washes Jesus feet with her tears and wipes them clean with her hair and anoints them with oil, an act of such love and devotion. Simons response is to think if Jesus was a prophet he’d know what kind of women this was and wouldn’t let her touch him. Jesus responses by telling a parable about forgiven debts which ends with the barb those who are forgiven much love much. The woman leaves knowing that she is forgiven. The hook of the book of Jonah is not in the mouth of the fish but in the mouth of Jonah. Jonah is forgiven much, loved much, miraculously saved when he repents, but he can’t stand the fact that God could show that love and grace to his enemies, not even their innocent children and animals.
Fractals are patterns that repeat what happens on the large scale on a small scale. Our response to God’s grace and love is to replicate it and repeat it in our lives, beyond our finite boundaries to God’s infinite compassion.