16th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 11.09.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week, we began to look at one of the Bible’s best loved stories – that of Jonah and the whale. Its an amazing story, full of humour, adventure and honesty about who we are as people.
Jonah was called by God to go one place. And he responded by going as far the other direction as he possibly could.
You see Jonah thought that God only cared about some people (people like him), but in fact God cares about all people (even people like those who lived in Nineveh, Jonah’s enemies).
Jonah thought that God wouldn’t notice if he ran away. But God cares about us so much he always knows where we are. He is always wanting to make himself known to us.
And Jonah thought it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t do what God wanted of him. But it does matter. God always wants what is best for us and for others.
And so we get to our second instalment of the story. Jonah is in the big fish. And finally he prays.
Everyone around him has been praying. Indeed the story in chapter one gives a lot of detail to how the pagan sailors prayed fervently – but not Jonah.
But once inside the fish he prays. He talks to God.
It may seem like it is too late to pray, inside the belly of a big fish, but it is never too late to pray. God is always there for us, always ready to listen to us, no matter how bad the situation.
You may feel “I can’t possibly pray to God now”. Either:
things have got too bad – God can’t possibly help; or
things are all my fault – I couldn’t ask God to help me after what I’ve done
Well, things couldn’t be much worse than sitting inside a big fish; things couldn’t be more one’s fault than what Jonah did, and yet God hears Jonah’s prayer.
It is never too late to pray.
And there are two things that stand out for me about the prayer Jonah prays:
While he is still in the fish, he praises God. While the end is not yet in sight, he is thankful. He knows and believes that God is at work. But one imagines that there is also some sense of release. He was trying to do an impossible task – to run away from God. He was carrying a huge amount of unresolved guilt. And now that is gone. He has turned back from Tarshish. The joy of doing the right thing can be liberating, even when the outcomes are not certain. We see it time and again of public figures spinning a web of lies and deception to try and cover up something they have done, and yet only ending up tying themselves in knots. The relief and weight off their shoulders when they finally come clean can be liberating, even if the consequences remain significant. Confession before God leads us back to a place of liberation and praise.
The other thing that strikes me about Jonah’s prayer is that it is immersed in the Psalms. No word or phrase that he uses in his prayer is original – it is a patchwork of lots of different psalms. It is a prayer from the heart, drawn from his memories of worship in the Temple.
Psalms help us to pray deeper than sometimes we can by ourselves, like when reading a book and we come across a phrase that expresses exactly how we think, or a song that captures exactly how we are feeling. The psalms don’t just articulate our thoughts and feelings – they deepen them and help us to understand them.
The Psalms are God-inspired prayers, honed by centuries of experience and usage, which can take us deeper when our on words run dry.
To finish, I will read some words from Psalms 69 and 139. I wonder which of these words and phrases speak to you or for you this morning. Some are words of anguish, others words of asking; others, words of praise and wonder:
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, I have come into deep waters; the floods engulf me.”
(Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed this morning – these words may speak fro you.)
“I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.”
Maybe you feel God is not listening – its OK to tell him that.
“You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you.”
Sometimes we just know that we need God’s forgiveness.
“Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink.”
“Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me.”
“I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving.”
“Let heaven and earth praise God; the seas and all that move in them”
“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
“You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”