A good and faithful Southern Baptist little girl was talking to her school teacher about whales. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, even though they were very large mammals, their throats were too small. The little girl persisted and stated that Jonah was indeed swallowed by a whale. The teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was impossible. The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher said rather flippantly, “What if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then I guess you can ask him.”
Our Old Testament lesson for this morning is taken from Jonah’s prayer to God out of the belly of the whale. Our Gospel lesson from Matthew relates the story of Peter’s vain attempt to walk on water. Two water stories. Two stories of God’s people in turmoil and God’s presence with them. Water is used repeatedly throughout the Bible as an image for chaos and disorder. In the creation of the world as described in Genesis, God pulls back the waters of chaos to create the earth. In Jonah, God delivers his would be prophet from the bottom of the ocean so that Jonah can prophecy to the people of Nineveh. In Matthew, Jesus pulls Peter out of the raging waves as he is sinking and then calms the storm that threatens the disciples in their small boat. The simple lesson here is that God is with us even when chaos seems to be all around us. God is with us even when we think that life is falling apart.
There is an old Hasidic tale about two disciples of an old rabbi who were arguing about the true path to God. One of the disciples said that the path to God was built on effort and energy. “You must give yourself totally and fully with all your effort to follow the way of the Law,” he said. “To pray, to pay attention, to live rightly.” The second disciple disagreed. “It is not effort at all,” he said. “That is only based on ego. It is pure surrender. To follow the way to God, to awaken, is to let go of all things and to live the teaching, “Not my will but thine.’” As they could not agree on who was right they went to see the master . He listened as the first disciple praised the path of wholehearted effort and when asked by this disciple, “Is this the true path?” the master said, “You are right.” The second disciple was quite upset and countered eloquently on the path of surrender and letting go. When he had finished he said, “Is this not the true path?” and the master replied, “You are right.” A third student who was sitting there said, “But master , they can’t both be right,” and the master smiled and said, “You too are right.”
Two ways to God, God found in two different places – both right and yet both incomplete by themselves. Jonah was head strong. He wanted what he wanted and to heck with everything else. Jonah found himself in the belly of the whale because he had to learn the way of surrender. He had to learn that it must be God and not our own egos that direct the best parts of our lives. His life took him down into chaos, down into the depths of the sea. All of his plans, all of his schemes and attempts to control his life apart from God came crashing down around him. And it was only when he found himself in that very lonely and frightening place that he could say – “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”
Peter, on the other hand had to learn that the way of effort is pointless unless those efforts remain always focused on Christ. Headstrong Peter, always out front, speaking for the other disciples, jumping out of the boat, struggling to walk on the water and be like Christ. He was working hard, trying to be the best disciple and yet even with all his efforts after a few steps onto the water he began to sink. He began to sink because he took his eyes off the prize. He began to sink because he lost his focus on Christ and began to worry about the water around him.
We aren’t so very different from Jonah and Peter. There have been several times in my life when in spite of all my best planning life just doesn’t work out the way I intend. I am going one way and events propel me in quite a different direction. During my early days in Savannah, I was struck very quickly and very forcefully by the onslaught of a rare form of arthritis. It took over a year to find the proper diagnosis. My elaborate life plans that I had crafted told me that as the first rector of a brand new church I had an immense an amount of work to do to make that church thrive and grow. My body told me quite a different story. At one point, before I found the right treatment, I could not stand for more than thirty minutes without extreme pain. I could not open jars, turn door knobs, or tighten screws. Getting up out of a chair after any length of time was agony. Even rolling over in bed caused me pain. Every joint in my body ached in ways I did not think was possible and I can remember weeping on my bed one might terrified that in a few months, if things kept going like this, I would not even be able to pick up my children. My life had plummeted into chaos. I put on a good face, I tried to make the most out of a bad situation, but I was trapped in the belly of this whale of pain and all my plans seemed to crumble around me. It was a difficult time. It was a humbling time. The pain in my life dominated everything else and I was reduced to this very humble young man who had nothing to cling to but his faith. In the midst of my struggles, with my ego stripped away I could see like Jonah that everything good in this life depends on God. It isn’t ultimately our plans that matter, lots of plans will come and go. What matters is how tightly we are willing to cling to God.
In a similar way, have you ever confronted some major life change like the new job or the new school, or been caught up in the midst of the grief from a death or a divorce and thought – I am not sure I can do this, I am not sure I can make it? Life just feels too rough and you know you are sinking. These are the times when God calls us to get out of ourselves and focus on Christ. These are the times we must cling to the fact that he will carry us when we can’t carry ourselves.
I remember driving down Monument Avenue on Christmas Eve, 2000. It was my first Christmas at St. James’s. I knew the crowds would be huge that night and I was terrified. The street was all aglow with Christmas lights and the leaves were off the trees. As I moved East, St. James’s steeple began to rise in front of me. It was a beautiful sight to see. That magnificent steeple bathed in soft light bidding me on and scaring me to death at the same time. I remember thinking that I had been given a great gift to serve this church at this moment in her history. I felt fortunate and blessed. But I also felt immense apprehension. Could I measure up? Could I confront this new endeavor and be successful? Was I up for the challenge? As I drove along consumed with mixed emotions of gratitude, joy and fear; I realized that it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my success or my performance, it was about Christ. He had to be the focus just like his love had to be the message.
As a church community, every ministry we undertake, every new project or new program we tackle is only as successful as we are willing to keep our focus on Christ. Peter teaches us that in order to be disciples we must step out and away from safety, we must move out of the church and into the larger world. We are the body of Christ and as such we have to venture out in love and service or else we begin to shrivel up and die. But that service means little, those risks are meaningless unless our goal is to serve Christ and not just our own sense of accomplishment.
As the future unfolds let’s hold onto Jonah and Peter and the lessons they offer us. One of the reasons they are such attractive and memorable Biblical figures is because we can see ourselves in the reflection of their lives. Jonah finds himself trapped in the belly of the whale. Peter tries to walk on the water. We need to know that God in Christ is in both places – caring for us while we are in the depths, hauling us out as we begin to sink and beckoning us forward into the future with an outstretched hand. Amen.