“Swimming Lessons: The Sign of Jonah”
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Matthew 16: 1-4
The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament is a short story…a comedy of sorts but a comedy with a very serious and controversial moral.
centuries before Christ there were those in
So a very talented and clever writer wrote a story with humor and irony to make this point.
story Jonah is an Israelite running away from a truth that he wants to escape
– the truth that the God of Israel loves Israel’s enemies as much as Israel.
God sends Jonah to the city of
As Jonah tries to run away from the truth of God’s love and mercy for his enemies whom he wants God to destroy, God keeps putting roadblocks in Jonah way. Jonah is so determined to escape the truth of God’s love for his enemies that he finally throws himself over the side of the ship into the sea, which probably would have worked, if God in the story had not sent a big fish to swallow Jonah.
gives Jonah a three day spiritual retreat in the belly of the fish until
Jonah finally reconciles himself to the truth he has been trying to escape.
Jonah finally travels to
It is an amusing story with a pointed moral.
is 400 years later in
Well, sure. Who among us would not like a sign? Who among us would not like clear and indisputable evidence that a benevolent God exists or that Jesus is who we say he is or that life is eternal or that good will ultimately triumph over evil? Who of us doesn’t want a sign?
But Jesus says there will be no sign but one sign. He says that to want any other sign is evidence of our wickedness and faithlessness. “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah,” he says. (Matthew 16:4)
There is only one sign: the sign of Jonah. So what is this sign of Jonah?
Scholars disagree. The Gospel writers themselves disagree.[i]
Here’s what the sign of Jonah must be – it is the heart of the story of the Book of Jonah. The sign of Jonah is Jonah in the belly of a fish facing the truth which he knows in the depth of his own soul but which he has been trying with all his might to escape. The sign of Jonah is Jonah listening to his own soul in the fearsome solitude of the belly of a fish deep in the sea.
The theme of our Lenten sermons this year is Swimming Lessons. These sermons are meant to be about how we can go out into deeper waters with our faith.
There is little more important for our spiritual journey – or harder – than paying attention to our own souls – the truth deep inside of us. The reason we need to pay attention to our souls is because this is finally the only source of truth we have. As Jesus said, it is the only sign we are given. It is the only evidence we really have access to – the truth in the depths of our own soul.
When John Wesley began the Methodist movement within the Church of England the first Methodists met for weekly class meetings – small groups. Each member of the group weekly answered a set of questions, and the first question was: How is it with your soul?
So the members of the class meeting would have to prepare during the week. They would have to pay attention to the condition of their souls. What is going on inside of me? And the questions got more specific.
Here is one list of questions some class meetings used:
Well, the answer to some of those questions is no.
The beginning of the Methodist movement was a rigorous and regular self-examination of the condition of our own soul. The truth inside of us is finally the only sign we are given and unless we are willing to go deep into our own souls we will always be like Jonah before his confrontation with his soul in the belly of the fish…weak, evasive, fleeing from his own truth, running from God.
The belly of a fish is a good metaphor for the condition of our souls. Ever clean a fish? Part of the reason we keep so busy and preoccupied in life is because our souls are so messy and they are hard to look into.
The reason we, like Jonah, run so fast and spend so little time looking into our own souls is because it is messy in there. There is anxiety and fear and despair. There is lust and selfishness and greed. There is anger and violence and hate. Narcissism. Envy. Cruelty.
All fish bellies look pretty much alike.
But if we can sit with it long enough and get past all the muck and slime and stuff, God and God’s truth and God’s love is also at the depths of our soul. We know so little of God’s truth and God’s love because we are not willing to swim through the muck and slime to get to it. But it is there.
This is the sign of Jonah – the truth deep within our own souls. It is the only sign we are given.
Methodists talk a lot about the Wesleyan quadrilateral. The Wesleyan quadrilateral presents the ways in which we try to discern truth. One of them is Scripture…the Bible. But the Bible has to be understood and processed through the three other sources of truth which are tradition (what those who have gone before thought), reason (Wesley didn’t believe we should check our brains in the church vestibule) and experience.
Most people these days when we talk about the quadrilateral think of experience as our life experience, but that is not what John Wesley meant. John Wesley meant religious experience or Christian experience. He meant the experience of what our own souls tell us when we take the time to listen to what is really going on deep inside of us.
Few of us have religious experiences and the reason we don’t is because we run from them like Jonah. We fill our lives with busy-ness and clutter. But the only sign we are given is the silent presence of God deep inside of us once we get past the muck and slime and guilt and self-recrimination and all the other negative feelings that plague us.
Because it is our Pre-Cana weekend, let me add this…well, I guess, it is a warning. Our relationships can never become deeper or more profound than our individual self-knowledge.
Woody Allen says that when he was in college he cheated on the final exam in his course on metaphysics. He says he looked into the soul of the person sitting next to him.
The reason this is funny is because the idea of being able to look into someone else’s soul is silly. We can look into someone else’s eyes but we can’t look into their soul. We can only look into our own soul and share what we find there with those we love and trust.
No one else can look into our souls for us. Our relationship with our partner can not go deeper than our relationship with our own soul. When our relationships begin to feel superficial or not as satisfying as they used to be we might want to ask ourselves fist whether maybe the problem is within myself…some pain, some truth, some vulnerability within my own soul I am trying to run away from, like Jonah.
How do we pay attention to our own soul? There are a hundred ways. Some people journal. They write down in a journal what they are feeling inside. Some people pay attention to their dreams, a very biblical thing to do. Some people have spiritual guides. A therapist’s office can be the belly of a fish. Solitude can do it.
Jesus advised people to sit in their closets with the door closed. Most of our closets are probably too full of clothes for us to fit in them, which is part of the point. Find a space that helps you look inside rather than at the things around that stimulate our thoughts and appetites.
Herb Cohen says whatever you do to escape feelings of anxiety, stop doing them. If you eat when you begin to feel anxious, stop eating for a while and feel the anxiety. If you have a drink, stop drinking. If you take on a new project at work when you are feeling anxious, don’t. If you can feel your way through the anxiety, you will eventually get to another truth, to another place, Herb says. The only way out of hell, is through the middle, he says.
This was the original purpose of giving something up for Lent…to become less defended against our own souls so that we might go deeply into them, past the muck and slime to where God is.
The sign of Jonah is the truth of God’s love at the very bottom of our souls…the only sign we are given. But we’ve got to get through everything else to get there.
I’ve been doing some unusual Lenten reading this year in addition to our Foundry Lenten devotional. Some reading, actually, that is quite different from our Lenten devotional. I’ve been reading the collected poems of Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski was a reprobate, an alcoholic, a womanizer, a bad boy who just never seemed to grow up. Time Magazine called him “the laureate of American low life.”
His life was outrageous. He specialized in the shallow and self-interested and offensive. But he wrote poetry. He went into his own soul. Many of the poems are crude but he looks into his own depths without flinching.
I am especially fascinated by the poems he wrote toward the end of his life when he had a terminal illness and he was dying and he knew it – tough poems without sugarcoating anything…not his mistakes, not his sin, not his pain, not his disease, not the inevitability of his death.
The second to last poem, however, of his life is a poem called “Bluebird.”[ii] It is different than the others. Listen to it. He writes:
there's a bluebird in my heart
there's a bluebird in my heart
there's a bluebird in my heart
there's a bluebird in my heart
Oh, Charles! He lived such a messed-up life, but he did the one thing we who live more socially acceptable lives too often fail to do. He went into his own soul and when he went deep enough in those final weeks before his death, he found a bluebird.
There is a bluebird in you and in me if we go deep enough, past the muck and the slime. It is the only sign we have been given. It is the only sign we need. If we will just stop running long enough to listen.
[i] Matthew 12:40 says the sign of Jonah is Jesus’ death and resurrection, like Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days and emerging alive. But Luke says that the sign of Jonah is Jonah’s preaching and the repentance of those who heard him preach. (Luke 11:30) Mark doesn’t mention the sign of Jonah at all. Neither does John. The Gospel writers themselves disagree about this, nonetheless the scholars.