On many an Easter morning, we wipe tears of joy as we share in the baptism of some of God’s precious children. Easter is a perfect time to celebrate baptism because for us Christians, it pictures death and resurrection. That’s what this life with Christ is all about: dying to ourselves, admitting we can’t save ourselves, recognizing our own helplessness, giving ourselves over to the Source of all life – The Life that burst from the tomb on that Easter morn long ago – so that, in our own dying we too trust we will find new life. Baptism gathers up all this multitude of meaning and symbolizes all this mystery.
We see hints of it even in the little story of Jonah tucked away in our Old Testament.
You remember Jonah. It’s a wonderful story, a kind of parable about human folly and divine mercy. In the story, Jonah is called by God to preach repentance to his mortal enemies (not at all a pleasing assignment) so he promptly boarded a ship that was headed in exactly the opposite direction. But then a great storm rose up out of the chaos of the sea and threatened to swallow the ship and everyone on it, and Jonah figured out that he had not been very successful hiding from God. He convinced the sailors to toss him overboard so that they might save themselves. Sure enough – immediately the sea grew calm while Jonah sank into its depths.
But God had a surprise waiting for Jonah, a mixed blessing, as it were. A great sea creature gulped him down and saved him from drowning. And here is Jonah – in the belly of the beast – for three long days and three long nights.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried
and the Lord heard my voice.
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me,
weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
When Jonah finally was able to die to himself and his own plans and schemes; when he admitted he couldn’t save himself; when he recognized his helplessness and gave himself over to the Source of all life, then the Lord spoke to the sea monster, and it spat out Jonah onto the dry land.
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is an odd exchange between Jesus and some religious folks who wanted Jesus to prove he was the Messiah. “Give us a sign. Give us proof that you are the Anointed One of God,” they demanded.
But [Jesus] answered them, “…no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
The “sign” Jesus offers is an odd one, don’t you think? Jonah’s sign – Jonah in the belly for three days. Jonah in the depths of the sea, at the roots of the mountains, with the seaweed wrapped around his head. This is a good sign? How can the sign Jesus offers as hope be something that comes from our most hopeless situations?
I’m guessing most of us live much of our lives in the belly of some monster or another. Disease that swallows up all our energy and sucks us dry. Broken relationships that break our hearts and overwhelm us with grief or anger or loneliness, A job that sometimes feels like a black hole with no glimmer of light and air. Financial worries that flood us with fear and anxiety. Death itself: those whom we have loved, hands we have held, lips we have kissed, sunken into the darkest places of the earth.
But it’s there, right there in the despair that we find God at work. And sometimes we discover – like Jonah did – that the belly of the beast actually saved us, kept us, preserved us for a time and gave us a chance to see life from a different perspective.
It is good for us to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our finitude, to recognize the fragile and temporal nature of our living. It is good for us to be challenged to turn away from putting our trust in our own selves and to turn toward God – depending on God’s strength, God’s wisdom, God’s power for our living. It is good to remember that God is God and we are not.
And it is good to remember that God is constantly at work creating life out of death. Sometimes we take life for granted; it’s hard to see God working on behalf of life when we are living pretty well and we think we have everything under control. But when we find ourselves in the belly of a monster, we know what dying feels like. We remember how hopelessness can wash over us like mighty waters as we sink deeper and deeper into despair.
That’s when we hold on to the sign of Jonah because if we are watching for the signs and signals Spirit is weaving into every hopeless situation, we will be able to see God’s glimmer of light in our every darkness; and we will be able to hold on to hope.
Jonah’s sign also reminds us that our own “three days” in the belly of the beast will not go on forever. In the language symbols of the Bible, “three days” means: “whenever the time is right.” Whenever the soil and the seed discern it’s time for the sprout to push up towards the sun. Whenever the womb and the baby discern it’s time for labor to begin. Whenever the Spirit moves. Whatever it may mean that God’s time is “right,” that’s when one thing passes and another comes into being. It’s good to remember that our days in the belly are not forever.
We can trust this because life itself teaches us that winter will pass and spring will always come; because the flowers bloom again and the frogs sing again and because the darkest night will always fade into the bright light of day.
But there is another reason we trust, we believe, we hold onto hope. Because The Story of Scripture confesses that there was a time in human history when God broke in and disrupted the normal cycles of living and dying. There was a time that the sign of Jonah pointed to when the Spirit of Life reached into the tomb after three days in the belly of the monster and defeated its power. There was a time when – in the power of the resurrected life of Jesus Christ – death died.
And so we are Easter People.
Whatever the belly of darkness and hopelessness that swallows us or those we love, we hold onto this hope – that the God of Life is constantly at work creating life out of every death.
Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed.
Living in The Story reflections for Easter, from Matthew 26-28 and the Book of Jonah
© Charlotte Vaughan Coyle 2014