Last week we thought a bit about the need to “come to rest” in God in the midst of our busyness, to stop struggling to prove ourselves, at least to God, even if we are constantly facing targets and pressures elsewhere. This week’s readings remind us that that not every “coming to rest” is freely chosen. We can be forced to a standstill by our circumstances too.
Jonah comes to rest in the belly of a big fish in the first reading we heard tonight. He had been called by God to go to the Assyrian capital city of Ninevah to preach a message of repentance to them. Frankly this was a big ask. Assyria was the mightiest empire the Middle East had ever seen, and it was very brutal. Israel had been hammered by the Assyrians, and many of their people taken into exile, scattered around the empire. Telling Jonah to go and preach there was a bit like expecting a Jewish person to go to the heart of Nazi Germany and tell Hitler to repent. It was that frightening. But Jonah isn’t just frightened that the Assyrians will harm him. In fact, he is far more frightened that they won’t, that they will heed God’s call, and that God will then forgive them. That would just add insult to the real injury the Jewish people had sustained at the hands of Assyria. He really couldn’t bear that at all.
So instead of going to Ninevah, to the north-east of Israel, he gets onto the first boat he can find going in the opposite direction, westwards across the Mediterranean towards Tarshish which was probably either in Spain or Sardinia. He wants to put as much distance as he can between himself and the work God wants him to do. But, according to the story – and it is just a story, probably based on an ancient folk tale – God sends a storm. Jonah, convinced it is his fault that this is happening, persuades the crew to throw him overboard. Presumably he expects to drown – but even that would be better than going to Ninevah. But God hasn’t finished with him, and, as we all know, a big fish comes and swallows him up. The words we heard were Jonah’s prayer from the belly of that fish. It’s very reminiscent of some of the Psalms in its language, but when Jonah talks about the waters closing in above him, when he talks about sinking down to the underworld, he means it quite literally. He has hit rock bottom, quite literally – the ocean floor – but the fish has saved him, and Jonah realises that he has been given a second chance.
In the parable Jesus tells, we see the contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax-collector who knows that he is in a mess. The Pharisee appears to think he can float himself up to heaven on the hot air of his boasting – in fact he probably suspects he is more than half-way there already - but the tax-collector knows he has nothing to offer but his sorrow. The burdens of guilt he carries drag him downwards like Jonah sinking beneath the waves. Which one goes home having received God’s blessing of peace? Not the one who thought he had earned it, but the one who knew from bitter experience that he never could. The tax-collector comes to rest, at rock bottom, but finds that God is perfectly present with him there.
Advent is a penitential season, a time for taking a long hard look at ourselves and being aware of what needs to change. That sounds like a rather negative thing to do, but actually it is the first step to finding true joy. At Christmas, we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness could not overcome, but if we don’t acknowledge that darkness, the darkness in us and around us, we will never really see and appreciate the light either. We will live instead in a permanent half-light, a gloom by which we can just about get by, but never really live with the fullness of life God wants for us. So tonight, let’s be honest with ourselves and with God. It isn’t all fine in our lives, but it doesn’t have to be. We can fall as far as we need to, but we will always come to rest in the merciful hands of God. Amen