Sermon for September 25, 2016

A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational UCC
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

Principal reading is Jonah 2

Last week we were introduced to the prophet Jonah. The city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria is barbarian and evil in its ways. The Lord calls on Jonah to go to that city. Instead of responding, Jonah makes a run for it in the opposite direction. But Jonah quickly comes to understand that he has underestimated God in a big way. A violent storm at sea results in Jonah being thrown overboard to save the sailors and the ship. Jonah is drowning when suddenly the Lord commands a big fish to swallow him up.

This is where we pick up our story today. Jonah is thrown off the ship, probably to drown
but then Jonah is swallowed by the big fish. We are told that Jonah was in the belly of the big fish for three days and three nights. In common language of the day, three days and three nights referred to the amount of time it took to die. If you were a listener of this story when it was originally told, you would have known that Jonah escaped death by drowning
only to die by being swallowed up by a big fish.

Jonah ran from God, got thrown overboard and then swallowed up by a big fish –
he has hit rock-bottom. After three days and three nights, he finally decides to address God. From the very depths of hell, Jonah finally decides to talk to God. And God answers him.

From a purely human perspective, if we had been treated by Jonah the way he treated God,
we probably would have given him the silent treatment, let him stew for awhile. It was a good thing for Jonah that it was the Lord he called on rather than a mere human.

Jonah called to the LORD out of his distress,
and the Lord answered him;
out of the belly of Sheol Jonah cried,
and the Lord heard his voice.

In this prayer, Jonah acknowledges God’s power without ever really admitting his own role in his current circumstances. He pretty much blames God for everything and then asks God to get him out of the mess he is in. God, silent throughout Jonah’s prayer still does not say a word directly to Jonah but commands the fish to vomit him out on dry land.

So after unsuccessfully avoiding God, finally Jonah calls on God for help. There are scholars who take this prayer or psalm at face value and believe that Jonah was finally acknowledging that God was supreme in his life and was repentant of his actions. There are other scholars who interpret this psalm as satiric – Jonah sort-of mocking God, not really sincere in his repentance – he’s at the bottom, has no where to go but up, so might as well call on God.

Even though the words of the Psalm appear to acknowledge God’s power, Jonah takes no responsibility for his plight. And if you read it carefully, you note that in this prayer, Jonah refers to himself either as subject or object 26 times in 8 verses – sort of egotistical.
So some scholars maintain that Jonah is not truly repentant here.

As I was thinking about this myself, I realized that it doesn’t actually matter. Only God knows the heart of Jonah.
And God rescues him. And God rescues him from the depths of hell. God brings Jonah back from death. God is God of all places, all times, all things, all creatures, AND now we understand that God is God even over death. God has heard Jonah’s cry and has answered it with compassion.

When things are OK with us, don’t we often go through life with minimal thought of God.
And then when something happens that we don’t understand or feel we don’t deserve,
then we call on God in our distress, in our anger, in our sorrow and we expect God to respond.
Tragic circumstances may be the result of our own actions or life choices or they may be totally out of our control.

Are there times when you feel very alone and far from God and God’s love?
• Maybe you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy;
• have you lost a loved one and you grieve alone while the world moves on;
• have you lost your job and your self-esteem is at an all time low;
• are you depressed and feel like you no longer want to exist;
• are you being bullied at school, shunned by friends, ridiculed;
• have you been passed over yet again for that promotion at work;
• do you have a loved one with a catastrophic illness or injury;
• are you in a spiritual desert feeling like you come to church week after week without encountering the presence of God.,
• the list goes on.

Each of us faces times when we are in dark despair – there are times in each of our lives when we feel like we are in the belly of the big fish, so far away from God, we cannot reach him.
We may be in such despair that there seems no way out, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, nothing will ever be the same again. How do we know that God is with us?

For some of us, we know that God is with us because we have experienced God’s presence in the past time and time again and we know even if we cannot feel God’s presence, that God is indeed with us. We know from scripture that even the heroes of our faith struggled with this and needed to be reminded of God’s presence often. Even Jesus felt alone as he hung on the cross.

Sometimes God’s presence is made real to us through the presence of people who just come and ‘be’ with us while we are in the belly of the whale – they don’t have to have all the answers – they just are with us.

Jonah called out to God in his despair. We need to ask for help too. Ask for prayer, read scripture, call a friend to just come and sit with you.
God uses other people, people not unlike Jonah, people just like us to bring the light of God’s
love into our world.

I have had many discussions with people who not only don’t ask for help, they refuse it when it’s offered. They do not want to put anyone out so they refuse the help of others. Accepting the help of others in both small and big ways accomplishes two things. It allows someone else to be the answer to prayer – to answer God’s call in their life. And while it may not significantly alter whatever your physical circumstances are, it serves to reassure you of God’s love for you and that is a powerful thing.

God loves you with an enormous love.

No matter where your heart is – God loves you.

When you are in the belly of the big fish take this message from Paul’s letter to the Romans, 8:38-39 and read it :

“For I am convinced
that neither death,
nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers,
nor things present,
nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Tape it to your bathroom mirror, tape it to your dashboard,
carry it with you in your pocket – read it aloud each and every day.

Let it be a little spark of light in your darkness until God frees you from the belly of the big fish.

Amen.

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