Fifth Sunday of Easter

sculpture of Jonah in the belly of the fish

Jonah remembers God

[A sermon on Jonah 2, with references to Acts 9, which was actually in the Revised Common Lectionary for last week … ]

So Jonah’s prayer comes from a dark place; Jonah is in a dark place – not just metaphorically, the way we might mean a place of fear, or desperation, or regret, is a “dark place,” but literally, the way a closet in a cellar without any windows or light switch is a dark place, as in without any light. No windows or light switch in the belly of that great fish!

We know this because of the way Jonah talks. He never actually uses the word “dark,” but he certainly makes references to deep, dark places: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew word for the underworld, the world of the dead; the “roots of mountains,” the “deep,” the “Pit.” Not words that evoke a walk in the park on a sunny day. And then, he emphasizes the problem of not being able to see: he talks about being driven from before God’s eyes, about not being able to set eyes on God’s holy temple, the place he really associates with God’s presence and with God’s saving and forgiving activity. So from all that I think it’s fair to conclude that Jonah can’t even see his hand in front of his face. It’s dark, he’s in a dark place.

This inability to see, this darkness, is just one thing Jonah has in common with Saul – who is going to become Paul later on – in the other story we read this morning. Because they have a few things in common – they are both travelers, they are both traveling on errands that aren’t what God seems to have in mind for them, they’re both traveling, we might say, in the wrong direction. And in both of these cases, the darkness lasts for three days, three days and three nights – I wonder whether that that could be significant – whether there’s anything that’s supposed to remind us of?

And then, it would be correct, although maybe a little uncharitable, to point out that this darkness was completely avoidable. Jonah obviously has brought this darkness on himself. Because he had clear instructions from God, up there on the dry land in the full light of the sun, and he went running in the opposite direction, towards this darkness. He may not have thought that at the time, everything may still have looked pretty clear, but he knew it was the opposite direction from his call, the opposite direction from God’s instruction, the opposite direction from God’s approval, we know he knew that because he had told his traveling companions flat out that was what he was trying to do … he might as well have turned his back on the sun, he might as well have put a bag over his head, because as we know, God is where the light is, the direction of the light is going to be the direction of God …

This is probably something good for us to remember – if we ourselves want light for our travels through life, it will make sense to keep those travels in the direction God seems to lay out for us. (Ananias is a better example than Jonah – someone who goes where he’s directed, despite his entirely reasonable anxiety…)

But what about Saul? He clearly thought he was doing what God approved, because he was defending his religion, his theology, his training, his faith – zealously defending it, in fact … it took seeing God’s blinding light, hearing Jesus’ voice, being confronted with that actual light, to demonstrate how deeply he had sunk into darkness, all the while thinking he was following the light of God’s word, God’s instruction.

Which may just go to show us that sometimes we are most in darkness when we are most certain of our own righteousness.

It seems to me Saul might have been able to tell that something was wrong if he’d paid attention to the fact that he was planning to hurt people: kidnap them, bring them to Jerusalem, have them condemned, maybe even killed. He might have noticed that God’s activity in the story of Israel is mostly the opposite of that – it involves saving people, freeing people, and forgiving people. So I think Saul could have had a clue, but he was already blinded by his own certainty, his own learning and his refusal to listen to new information – because he doesn’t seem to have actually sat down and talked with any of these disciples, heard what they had to say about their experience of Christ. He seems to have had contempt prior to investigation. So that’s probably something else that is good to avoid.

Anyway, Jonah is in a dark place – but, maybe ironically, dark as it is, it is already getting lighter. He hasn’t exactly seen the light at the end of the tunnel that people talk about, but there’s a little more light in his mind in this prayer than he has had in the story up until now. He has remembered God, the Holy One of Israel, he’s praying with thanksgiving for the salvation he has already enjoyed, he’s turned his attitude and his orientation toward God, and already it’s light enough for him to see, he is seeing that whatever isn’t God – the empty nothingness of life without God, the “vain idols” that are whatever goals aren’t in the direction of God’s goals – is futile. Life, deliverance belongs to the Holy One of Israel, belongs to the God who made sea and dry land and light in the first place.

And we, who have the benefit of knowing Jonah’s story from the outside instead of having to be Jonah, we know that as dark as Jonah’s place is, it’s the place God provided to be the vehicle of Jonah’s rescue. So there’s a little part of me that wants to say “hang in there, Jonah, things are looking up …”

Because turning back to God, turning back to the light, is the direction of hope and deliverance in both these stories, in Jonah’s story the remembrance of God, in Saul’s the promise of God up ahead. So that’s something for us to remember, too, when we find ourselves in dark places – the metaphorical ones, I’m thinking of now, rather than the literal ones like the bellies of large fish, but the ones we can imagine being in, because we have perhaps wound up there before, places where we are afraid …, or desperate to get out of some situation …, or have done something we regret and that regret is coming to overshadow everything else … or perhaps have even gotten into the habit of annoyance or hate when it comes to someone or something and we can’t see anything positive, can’t shake it … remembering that God is where the light is may help us get re-oriented towards the way out of a place like that.

So when we are in a place like Jonah’s, whether or not of our own making … remembering that there’s light in God’s direction is something to hang on to. But what if our darkness is more like Saul’s, the kind we don’t even recognize for darkness?

All this thinking about darkness and light reminded me of a story I heard; it comes from Persia, where there are a lot of stories about someone named Nasruddin, and something everyone knows about Nasruddin is that he’s … let’s just say that Nasruddin is known for not being the brightest bulb in his village. So the story goes that one evening, after dark, Nasruddin’s neighbor is coming home and sees Nasruddin out on the sidewalk, in the light of the street-lamp, and he seems to be staring intently at the ground. So his neighbor says, Nasruddin, what are you doing? And Nasruddin says, oh, I dropped my key and I can’t get into the house, so I’m looking for it. And the neighbor says, hey, let me help you – and looks for awhile, and then says How on earth did you drop it over here, anyway? And Nasruddin says, oh, I didn’t drop it over here, I dropped it over by the door. So the neighbor says, What? Nasruddin, why aren’t you looking for your key over by your door, then? And Nasruddin says, obviously, because the light’s a lot better over here.

That’s ridiculous, of course! Except that Nasruddin does have a point … we do need light … we can’t really hope to find our keys, or our way, in darkness.

And we wouldn’t think Nasruddin was ridiculous at all if he had lost his way and was standing under the street lamp to read his map. I suppose we can say a little prayer of thanks that nowadays we can even have Google maps, that come with their own lights.  And come to think of it, if God is where the light is, then maybe the Bible is a little more like a gps than it like a map – and I’m guessing we have many of us heard that – because it brings some of God’s light right along with it, helping us read it even in pretty dark places.

But in the case of the lost house key, standing under the street lamp won’t do … Nasruddin, as we know, is going to have to go where the keys are, if he wants to find them; he’s going to have to take the light to the dark place himself.

And in the case of lost people, of people who have been living in darkness, that’s exactly what God does. God brings the light to where they are – to where we are. Sometimes directly, sometimes by means of faithful people like Ananias who go where God sends them, meet who God tells them, help who God asks them to. It’s actually something else Jonah’s story, and Saul’s story, and our own stories share: God is where they are, where we are, not elsewhere; God brings the light to them, to us; Jesus, God’s Word to us, comes to the darkest place we know, to death itself, and fills even that darkness with light and after three days and three nights makes it the beginning of new life.

God brings the light to God’s people: brings the faint light of memory and hope, brings the dazzling light of God’s truth, and then the healing light from Ananias’ faithful errand, the triumphant light of the risen Christ on Easter morning. All we really need to do is recognize that light for what it is – and praise God for it.

Because God is with us wherever we are – and God is where the light is.

Thanks be to God.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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