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The belly of the whale

A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer

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The belly of the whale

Posted By : Robert Titley Sunday 10th March 2019

A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer

Picture: sculpture in Jaffa (ancient Joppa) from which Jonah sought to escape from God’s call.

First Sunday of Lent, 10 March 2019, Evensong

Readings Jonah 3; Luke 11.29-32


His name is heard less often these days, but Thomas Merton was something of a rock star in mid-20th century Christianity. Schooled in Europe but matured in America, baptised in the Church of England but a Roman Catholic by conviction, a dissolute student at Cambridge then a monk in Kentucky (he was admitted as a novice on this First Sunday of Lent in 1942), a seeker after a hidden life who became a celebrity, a Trappist bother who wrote best sellers, a contemplative who would be at the heart of the civil rights movement and an inspiration to Joan Baez – Merton said himself that he was a person of paradox.

One of his early books he called The Sign of Jonas (Jonah), after a saying of Jesus which recalls that most unlikely biblical hero. God calls Jonah to preach to the great city of Nineveh and he promptly jumps on a ship to Tarshish. If you're not familiar with the geography of the ancient Mediterranean, it is as if the Dean were to despatch his colleagues to a crucial meeting in London and they were then spotted boarding a train to Exeter.

By the time we meet Jonah this afternoon he has manned up, thanks to a storm, a near drowning, and an in-depth encounter with the large fish that has just spewed him back on land. God repeats the call which had sent Jonah on his futile escape journey and now he fulfils his destiny, prophesying against Nineveh, with spectacular success. The whole city engages in an extreme Ash Wednesday, fasting, dressing themselves – and their animals! – in sackcloth, while their king sits in ashes.

So Jonah gets the job done, but only after taking the scenic route through God’s purposes. It was this contrariness which Merton saw in himself. He wrote this in The Sign of Jonas after six years in the monastery: 

Like the prophet Jonas, whom God ordered to go to Nineveh, I found myself with an almost uncontrollable desire to go in the opposite direction. God pointed one way and all my ‘ideals’ pointed the other. It was when Jonas was traveling as fast as he could away from Nineveh… that he was thrown overboard, and swallowed by a whale who took him where God wanted him to go…Like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.

A Merton scholar comments on this passage:

The paradox is that the flight from God becomes the journey to God, that the escape from the world leads to an embrace of the world, that things bear the seeds of their own opposites.

So it is for the two characters in Jesus’ parable: in the impeccable spiritual hygiene of the Pharisee are the seeds of pride, and the smugness that locks God out. For the tax collector, despised lackey of the Roman colonial power, his abject sense of himself offers fertile soil for the seeds of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Here we are in Lent, four days after Ash Wednesday, our own day of repentance, a more discreet version of the ash the king of Nineveh sits in as he sorrows for his city of sin. Repentance is a good place to begin – as we did in this service – but let's not stay there too long. Let’s move on from self to God, to contemplate God and how God works with us.

God gives us a destination. We are invited to follow Jesus there, as in today’s reading the disciples are following Jesus to prophesy in a great city (in their case not Nineveh but Jerusalem). Sometimes, though, you may find yourself following Jonah towards Tarshish, to wherever is your place of escape. Opposite directions, but each lands you up where you are meant to be.

It saves time (and sometimes pain) to follow the direct path and do God's will straight out, and it is perverse to choose the Tarshish option: looking back, Jonah might on the whole have preferred to be spared a near-death experience and an insider's view of a large animal's digestive tract. But we do have a remarkable capacity to fool around when it comes to God, and that can get us into some odd places. So it may be that, like Jonah and Merton, you or I find ourselves travelling towards our destiny 'in the belly of a paradox'.

The paradox is that the wrong turnings, the refusals, the apparently wasted days, seem never to put us beyond God’s reach. Take two other characters in Jesus’ parables, the lost sheep and the prodigal son. What makes their stories compelling is what they say not so much about the sheep or the son but about the infinitely resourceful and patient love of God.

Merton knew this: ‘The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me…even our mistakes are eloquent, more than we know.’