February 24, 2021, in the First Week of Lent
Since this is Lent it is a most appropriate time for me to get back to sending out my “Daily Grace” devotions. I hope you find them helpful.
Wishing you well-being and peace,
Pastor Dave Gilbert
Scripture: Luke 11:29-32
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
“This generation . . . asks for a sign.”
A sign is something that points to another reality. For example, the letter H on a blue rectangle indicates a hospital nearby. Lent has its own signs: ashes, purple vestments, and in some churches the absence of sung Glorias and alleluias.
In the novel Brideshead Revisited, a priest at the bedside of a dying person asks him to give some sign of his repentance. Unable to speak, the dying man traces a large sign of the cross over his chest. As he does so, all in the room fall to their knees. That sign speaks of hope and repentance.
Jesus mentions Jonah, the reluctant prophet. God asked Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, but Jonah balked and fled. Then he was swallowed by a large fish. Scholars point out that the Jonah story is an allegory — a sort of parable meant to show the Israelites, and us, that God does not reserve his love for only one kind of people. No, evidently God wants all to repent and be saved from destruction, even (to Jonah’s great chagrin) the Jews’ most hated and brutal conquerors, the Assyrians of Nineveh.
Some who like to take the story literally have pointed to the whale-sized grouper. Grouper fish do not bite but almost inhale or gulp their food. They say that this eating style could explain how the story of Jonah might possibly be factual. Whether allegory or not, Jonah’s sign of being hidden, truly buried in the giant fish’s belly, paints a vivid picture of compelled prayer, prayer in the grip of duress. I remember seeing years ago an episode of the TV show, “Northern Exposure.” In the episode, Joel, the show’s principal character (a young, urban-bred Jewish M.D. sent to the small “hick” town in Alaska in fulfillment of a student loan condition), dreams that he has been swallowed whole by a whale. He dreams that he is dying in the whale’s belly, although he is still alive. Awakening from the dream he realizes it has all been a metaphor for his desperate unhappiness and his need to repent of his “negativity” toward the town’s people and his term of service among them. Joel had distanced himself over the years from his Jewish faith, but now, in the light of his dream he sees his need of God and faith.
In the Gospel of course, Jesus is, in referencing the case of Jonah, alluding to his own coming death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus’ body will be hidden away in the tomb —- out of sight just like Jonah. After three days he will rise and signal to all that he is truly God’s Son. Because Jesus rose from the tomb he is able to draw us out of the grouper bellies we may be hidden away in: our depressions, our little or big sins that keep us from the light. As Jonah prayed in the belly of the fish, may our times in the belly be times of prayer. As Jonah was spewed out by the fish after three days, and Jesus raised up on the third day, may we after our three days of darkness (or 40 or 100 or a year of pandemic despair), find new life —- the life of Easter Day.
God of Hope, thank you for the enormous sign of Jesus’ resurrection for the “dying and rising” that I experience in my daily living. I thank you for your constant love. You seek me out and reach down into the fish’s belly where I lie buried in excessive self-interest, bad habits, workaholism, external-image making, and the like, as well as the forgetfulness of those closest to me. Draw me out of spiritual darkness. During this Lent may I absorb the light of your truth and the warmth of your love.
“[S]omething greater than Jonah is here!”