This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/22/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Jonah 2. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
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We’re in the belly of the fish now. We’re deep down at the bottom of the ocean, where there is no light to see.
We’re in a place of waiting. Waiting on God. Waiting on people. Waiting to see what the course of this virus will be.
We’re waiting to see who will live and who will die. Who we will see again, and who we have embraced for the last time.
We’re waiting to see what kind of people we will be. Will we be those who hoard, or those who share? Those who hope, or those who panic? Those who protect, or those who expose? Those who love, or those who judge and blame?
This moment is one that reveals character. When the heat gets turned up, how do we respond to crisis?
The prophet Jonah was tested, too. God commanded him to go on what must have felt like a suicide mission. To go preach a word of judgment to the Assyrians, the biggest, baddest, most dangerous empire the world had ever known up until that point. God said, “Jonah, go and let those Assyrians know that they are in big trouble for all the terrible things they’re doing.” And Jonah says, “actually, I think I’m gonna take a boat ride to the ends of the earth in the opposite direction!”
God wasn’t willing to take “no” for an answer, though. And so we end up with this situation where a big storm swamps the boat he is riding on. Jonah is thrown overboard, into the raging waters – right into the mouth of a great fish. God sends a fish to swallow Jonah and keep him alive, under the sea, for three days and three nights.
Assuming it’s possible to live in the belly of a fish – assuming you had enough space and air to avoid suffocation – what would it be like to spend three days in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea?
It would be dark. It would be cold. It would be lonely. It would be an experience that tears you away from everything you’ve ever known. It would leave nothing but silence and expectation. It would be like you were already dead and buried. Nothing to do but wait. Contemplate. Pray.
So Jonah’s prayer is coming from the most intense place possible. Right on the borderline between life and death. His prayer reads like one of the psalms. It’s a real, whole-wheat prayer. It’s got all the roughage and fiber you need for good spiritual digestion. Written at 20,000 leagues under the sea, Jonah’s prayer has depth.
Jonah’s prayer is simultaneously one of thanksgiving and lament. Life is hard right now, and Jonah doesn’t sugar coat that. His prayer begins with a declaration of distress. “I cried out of the depths to you, God! Out of the pit of death!” Yet in the same breath, he continues, “and you heard my voice.”
We are in distress – and God hears our voice. We are in the pit, unable to escape – and God takes our hand.
The waters have closed over us. The deep surrounds us. Weeds are wrapped around our heads at the roots of the mountains. The land is closing up over us, burying us; we’re goners.
And yet, God is bringing us up out of the pit. God is raising us up from the dead. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Can you say that with me right now? Deliverance belongs to the Lord!
We are in this thing very deep. There’s a chance that not all of us will make it through this year. That’s a sinking feeling.
We’re descending into the tomb. We’re sinking into the depths of the earth. And yet our God is lifting us up from the pit. God is walking with us, no matter what happens – even into the depths of death. He walks with us through it all!
Just like Jonah, Jesus suffered and spent three days in the heart of the earth. Jesus went far deeper into the depths than even Jonah, and God raised him up. God delivered Jesus from the depths of the pit and vindicated him.
That is God’s promise to us, too. We will be raised with Jesus.
As the apostle Paul testifies in his letter to the Romans:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
We suffer with Jesus so that we may also be glorified with him. We face the waves and the depths and the weeds wrapped around our heads. We endure all these things, but we are not alone.
We know that God is with us. We know that he is trustworthy. We know that just as he raised our brother Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us. We don’t have to be afraid!
We don’t have to be afraid, but we are called to respond. When the fish spit him out upon the dry land, Jonah didn’t run away again. He knew he had to go to Nineveh. He had to do the scary thing. The faithful thing. The course of action that ran contrary to his desires, but which was his calling from God.
What is that thing for you? We’re living in a moment that reveals character. Who will we choose to be? Will we be the hands that help? Will we carry the good news to people who are in despair? Will we feed the hungry and comfort those in prison – even those who at present feel imprisoned in their own homes? Will we be the healing presence of Christ to others, even as we ourselves face the possibility of death?
When Jonah was in that dark, cold fish belly, he didn’t know whether he was going to make it. Three days is a long, long time when you don’t know whether you’ll survive.
Fortunately for us, our homes are much more comfortable than Jonah’s fish-hotel. But on the other hand, we’ve got a lot longer than three days to contemplate this situation. We’re going to be in the belly of the Coronavirus for quite some time. This unprecedented global crisis calls for faithful endurance.
One the several advantages that we have over Jonah, is that we are in the belly of this beast together. We may be socially distanced, but we are not alone. I hope that we as a community will take this crisis as a chance to go really deep. It’s an opportunity to evaluate what it is God is calling us to. Because we could die. And that means anything is possible.
Do you know what I mean? Do you feel that?
These last few weeks, my whole mindset has started to shift. There were lots of things that felt super-important: Work. Personal projects. Money. Elections. My ideas about myself, how others judged me. I was spending a lot of time thinking about how to “win at life.”
In the face of this global crisis, so many of these concerns have faded into the background. It’s not that they’ve gone away, but they’re relativized now. They matter, but they don’t have priority.
So some things are moving to the back burner. And other things are moving to the front. Being present with my kids. That’s really big. I’m a little bit like Jonah in that I don’t really have a choice! Schools are not in session, and I’m spending a lot more time with George and Francis these days. And suddenly that seems way more important than how much I’m exceeding expectations at my job, or whether you think my sermons are awesome. I want to be there for my kids.
This crisis is encouraging me to extend outside of myself. I’m volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry, which I’ve never felt able to do before, because it happens during the work day. And even in the midst of all the shock and horror, I’m finding myself really grateful for this opportunity. It’s so powerful to help make food available to those who are hungry in our community. Especially in times like these when we are all feeling anxious, to some degree, about where our next meal is coming from.
I feel so blessed to be your pastor in this historic moment. More than ever before, I’m how important the shepherding role that Faith and I share with Ministry & Counsel is. We’re working to care for the people in this community in the midst of an unprecedented situation. I believe that this experience is going to make our community stronger, and better able to show God’s love to others.
But right now, I know that we’re anxious. We need to be reminded of the strength of God’s power that we stand in. We need to be reminded of the power of the resurrection that is ours as children of God. We need to know that we are all held in God’s hand, that he is mighty and reigning over history. He is the good shepherd who will seek us out when we are lost. Even in the depths of the sea.
If there’s only one thing that you take away from worship this morning, I want it to be this: God is with us in this crisis. We are not alone. We are a community in Jesus, and we will leave no one behind. You are cared for. You are valued. You are loved.
We’re all going through a tough time right now. But the good news is that we don’t have to face it alone. We have the resources to make it as a community.
God sent the fish for Jonah. He sent the angels for Jesus. He is sending this church for you.
We are in a very dark season right now. This is the deepest, darkest Lent that we have ever known. We are in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. We are praying that this bitter cup might pass from us. We are shedding tears of blood. And we know that this is just the beginning. Crucifixion is coming. The tomb awaits.
But after the tomb is Easter. No matter how deep the darkness, the dawn is unstoppable. We will see it together.