The Sign of Jonah

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”
—Jonah 2:8-9

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” “And now one greater than Jonah is here.”
—Matthew 12:39, 41

Lent into Easter is a dizzying turn of the season—not the slow emergence of blossoms from the unfreezing earth but the eruption of brilliant sunshine following stormy gloom: a disorienting, if uplifting, chiaroscuro. It’s also a challenge to worship planners. And worshipers.

Think about it. Our hearts don’t always adopt the penitential spirit of Lent or follow easily as the liturgy plunges from the high acclamations of Palm Sunday into the somber moods of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the long, dark night of the Easter Vigil. We may not keep—or even notice—all of these traditional observances.

Nor do our souls always leap up at that declaration of all hope on Easter morning: “Christ is risen, Alleluia!” Our response, “Alleluia, he is risen indeed!” doesn’t always have quite the exclamation point it should have. We may feel like we’re still mired in the ways of a fallen world and oppressed by our own fallenness. Those besetting sins beset us still. We have not yet found the way out of debts we cannot repay. The chemo isn’t working. Alleluia?

Consider the prophet Jonah: “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” That really ought to have an exclamation point!

But where did that song of thanksgiving come from? From the belly of a great fish! If Jonah lived in the joyful hope of God’s deliverance, it was a hope that was not yet seen. His prospects were not all that bright. His problems at that moment might make ours seem slight by comparison. Yet somehow Jonah—in the depths of the sea, in the belly of a fish; overwhelmed by the knowledge of his own sinfulness and sorely aware of God’s judgment upon it—somehow even there he found the faith to believe that the God is a God who “makes all things work together for the good of those who love him, and are called according to his purposes.” And so, in his own words, “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Alleluia!

If you read the whole prayer recorded in Jonah chapter 2, you can trace an almost liturgical setting of the lessons Jonah has learned, the life he has lived (and the hope he has yet to live out) before the face of God. There is acknowledgment of his sin and God’s judgment, and, above all, at the climax, God’s gracious delight in saving the lost.

If you read this prayer carefully, you can see that Jonah has learned to critique not only the idolatry of others but his own idolatry. He has learned, or will learn, to find security not in his own manipulation of God’s grace (which Jonah loves when it comes to Israel, but not when it comes to Assyria or other nations), but in God’s desire and determination to pour out that grace freely. Jonah has accepted, or prays his willingness to accept, that God may give more to others, and ask more of him, than he himself would give, left to his own devices.

And that’s the point, isn’t it, of Lent and Easter? God does not leave us to our own devices. God asks more of us than we would give, but gives more to us—and, like it or not, to others—than we or they could ever secure. And all this because of “one greater than Jonah,”—one who entered and overcame the chaos of a fallen world. That is the sign of Jonah.

As we continue to live in that conquered-but-still-present chaos, this hope sustains us. And whether or not we always feel it, it’s always there and always true. In storm or sunshine, in Lent or Easter, in life and even in death, our God is a God of hope.

Worship is one of the main things that forms that hope in us, and forms us in that hope. There, like Jonah, we face our fallenness and receive God’s grace to go far beyond our own capabilities. One communion liturgy puts these words in our mouths: “Nourish us with these gifts, that we might be for the world signs of your gracious presence in Jesus Christ.”

That is our hope, our calling, and sometimes our actual experience, as we strive to make Jesus’ priestly service to God our own way of life. Salvation comes from the Lord. Alleluia!

Michael Winnowski (mwinnowski@gmail.com) is pastor of the Geneva Campus Church in Madison, Wisconsin.