THE BELLY of the BEAST

BY:  JAN A. ANTONSSON

APRIL 12, 2014

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The Glory Road Blog, A Kingdom Highway

 

“I cried out to the Lord from my tribulation, and he heeded me.  From the belly of hell, I cried out, and you heeded my voice” (Jonah 2:3, CPDV).

 

The title today comes from one of Richard Rohr’s Meditations, entitled, “Suffering can bring us to God.”  In it, he made the following comments:

 

“Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Luke 11:29, Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead you (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place where you can’t fix it, you can’t control it, and you can’t explain it or understand it. That’s where transformation most easily happens. That’s when you’re uniquely in the hands of God.”  End quote.

 

Jonah is the perfect example of Rohr’s premise.  Jesus mentioned Jonah when he was teaching a crowd of people, calling them “a wicked generation,” asking for a sign, saying “…none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.  For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).  I gleaned new insight into the significance of what He was telling them, which He spelled out plainly:  “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Vs. 32).  

 

This reluctant prophet’s story takes only four short chapters to tell, but the gist of it is this.  God told Jonah “Go to the great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1).  It has to count for something that God described this ancient city as great, and that He took the trouble to send a prophet to warn them of their impending doom if they didn’t repent. The assignment is simple enough, because what God wanted said or done, He always revealed to the prophets and then, empowered them to deliver it.

 

There is no indication of any danger to Jonah’s person involved here.  No wicked Queen threatening to kill him; no evil prophets trying to discredit him.  It was a straightforward mission from God.  Ninevah was the capitol of Assyria, located on the Tigris River, a three days journey for the prophet to travel.  Instead of heading toward that city, Jonah ran away from the Lord in the opposite direction, taking a ship bound for Tarshish.

 

I’m sure you remember the story, though I do encourage you to read it again.  It amazes me that he thought he had any chance of succeeding in his reckless abandonment of God’s assignment.  A horrific storm came up, sent by God to teach him a lesson.   The violence of the tempest terrified the sailors because the ship was about to break apart.

 

Jonah was a nonchalant sort of fellow, for while his fellow travelers were up top throwing out cargo to lighten the ship, he was taking a nap below deck.  They woke him up and pleaded with him to call upon his god.  They cast lots to see whose fault their predicament was, and it fell upon Jonah.  They asked him where he came from.  He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord,” the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land”  (Jonah 1:9).  As the kids say, “Well, duh, Jonah.  If you knew this, what possessed you to turn tail and run?”

 

When the terrified mariners asked what they should do to appease his God, Jonah instructed them to toss him overboard.  They really did not want to do that, but as there was no other recourse, they complied with his request.  God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was inside the fish three days and three nights.  From within the belly of the beast, Jonah repented and cried out to the Lord, promising to sacrifice to Him.  God heard his repentant cry and commanded the fish to vomit him up.  I can’t imagine what being in the belly of a great fish may have felt like, but it probably wasn’t any picnic for the fish either.

 

Once Jonah was on dry land, he set off for Ninevah, where he delivered the word God had sent him to speak.  The inhabitants of that city were cut to the quick, and all of them, from the king, to the lowest peasant, as well as the beasts of the fields, all repented in sackcloth and ashes.  They called upon God to turn from his fierce anger so that they would not perish.  What a happy ending it was that God saw their repentance and their intention to turn from their evil ways.  Happily they were spared the destruction he had threatened.

 

Like a spoiled child, Jonah threw a fit and said “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That’s why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

 

OK, so let me get this straight:  Jonah was furious because he had put out all the effort to get there, was swallowed by a whale, but now, he would miss the fireworks of God’s punishment, because these Ninevites had repented.  He went out and sat in a place east of the city and waited to see what would happen. Did he think someone wouldn’t get the memo about repentance and God would send a lightning bolt down to fry him?  We don’t know, but he made a shelter, and God graciously caused a vine to grow up over Jonah’s head to give him shade from the hot sun.  The wayward prophet was happy about the vine, but the next day, God sent a worm to chew it so that it withered.  Jonah was furious about that and told the Lord that he was angry enough to die.

 

The Lord said to him, “You have been concerned about this vine though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:10).

 

Throughout the Bible, there is evidence that God cared about the whole world, not just Israel.  When Jesus was teaching the crowds and condemning them for seeking a sign, He observed,  “The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here”  (Luke 11:32).

 

It seems to me that the “sign of Jonah” was unbelief of and disobedience to God’s word, which is exactly how the Pharisees received Jesus’ teachings. Many today are in the same metaphorical boat with Jonah and the first century Jews who rejected Christ.  It isn’t always rank heresy that gets us into the belly of the beast, or the cactus patches God sends us, but perhaps only indifference or fear of failure.

 

Have you ever been in such soul’s torment that you thought you would die from the pain?  Have you felt like God has forsaken you because He has left you to suffer alone?  Have you lamented that nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen and even if they did know, they couldn’t help at all?  Jonah experienced all those feelings, from within the belly of the beast before he was saved.  That’s a familiar theme in Bible stories, bringing to mind Daniel being saved in the Lions’ den; the three Hebrew children being saved while in the fiery furnace; Christ being saved from the depths of Sheol, and in arising from the place of the dead, He brought all mankind into resurrection with Him. 

 

Scripture reveals that God is the authority for all the trials and troubles which befall us, tailor made to bring us down from wherever our ego has taken us, and He has done that, not to kill us, though it often feels like death is very near, but He has in fact, created a unique and incredible stage play, in which we are the tragic hero, so that He can reveal to us HIS GLORY in the final act!  It sounds incredible, but I speak from experience that it is the way of the cross which leads home.

 

The prophets of old had bitter, harsh recriminations to lay on the unrepentant people of Israel.  Isaiah is my favorite of all of them, not because his proclamations of doom were less horrible, but because he always included God’s love for His children.  At Easter time, the anointed arias of Handel’s Messiah speak so much love and glory to my heart.  “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:1-2, KJV). Isn’t this what we all want to hear when we’re in the belly of the beast, the cactus patch? God’s Easter message to us is after death always comes resurrection!

 

May our Father’s comfort flow over us like a river which blesses and keeps us from despair as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Because He is with us, we shall fear no evil.  His rod and staff protect us.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In Christ, we proclaim it, amen.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BELLY of the BEAST [Jan A. Antonsson] 04-12-14          3

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