There is an old adage that goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes”. Likewise, we might also say that there are no disobedient prophets in the belly of a fish. And trust me, there is a link between the metaphor and our scripture. The great prayer that we will be exploring this morning comes from the lips of the prophet Jonah, known in popular culture for being swallowed by a whale, or more precisely, a large fish. But before we begin our exploration of his prayer, a little background information might be helpful.
Author and theologian Frederick Buechner, introduces us to the prophet, saying:
“Within a few minutes of swallowing the prophet Jonah, the whale suffered a severe attach of acid indigestion, and it’s not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.
When God ordered him to go to Nineveh and tell them there to shape up and get saved, the expression on Jonah’s face was that of a man who has just gotten a whiff of trouble in his septic tank. In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and this off his beat. In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased him more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.
It was the result of a desperate attempt to get himself out of the assignment that he got himself swallowed by the whale instead; but the whale couldn’t stomach him for long and in the end, Jonah went ahead, and with little more prodding from God, did what he’d been told to do. He hated every minute of it, however, and when the Ninevites succumbed to his eloquence and promised to shape up”, Jonah went into a funk. But that’s another story for another day.
Jonah was an Israelite, and a devout follower and prophet of YHWH. Yet despite his faith, he was a willfully disobedient adherent of his God. When asked by God to preach to the foreigners in Nineveh, Jonah adamantly refuses, and immediately boards a boat going in precisely the opposite direction. While on that boat, a violent storm suddenly arises, and the ship, along with its crew, is in peril of sinking. Jonah is well aware that he is the reason for the storm, and concludes that the only way to save the ship was to have them throw him overboard. And so, they do, and immediately, the storm is stilled. As Jonah begins flailing around in the middle of the sea, God sends the large fish to rescue him from drowning, not that spending three days and three nights in the belly of a fish is my idea of salvation. Because let’s face it, the inside of a fish would be one smelly place....
But if you think about it, stink or not, it’s pretty remarkable that God “ordained” a fish to rescue Jonah, because Jonah never asks to be saved. Additionally, Jonah had disobeyed God and frankly, didn’t really deserve to be saved. Yet, God cared enough about this disobedient servant to provide the fish. And maybe the odor was enough to give Jonah second thoughts.
And, so, it is against this background that Jonah prayed. Let us observe WHEN Jonah prayed. He prayed when he was in trouble, deep trouble. He knew he had displeased God, and was deep in the consequences of his sin. Likewise, we too will find ourselves bearing the consequences of our inappropriate choices (to use a teacher term). Like Jonah, we can come to God in the midst of our difficulties, with the confidence that God still is listening, and wants the best for us. God is willing and able to grant us second chances, and third chances and help us move forward. Also, let’s consider WHERE Jonah prayed; in the belly of the fish. It is a reminder to us that no place is unsuitable for prayer. When we are ready to return to God, no matter where we are or how far away we are or even how long it has been since we have prayed, God will hear us. Jonah reflects on this earnestly in his prayer, as well as God's readiness to hear and answer. As he makes his prayer, Jonah contemplates on God’s favor to him; when he sought to God, and trusted God in his distress. Hence, his prayer includes a warning to others, and instructs them to keep close to God. Jonah's experience encourages others, in all times and places, to trust in God, as the God of salvation.
So, despite having run away from God, Jonah was able to come back to God in prayer. As one writer said “The belly of a fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a great place to learn.” It is during those days and nights that Jonah came tor realize the foolishness of his actions, and returns to God in prayer. Not only does he pray, but he prays with thanksgiving for a deed that has not yet happened. He prays in the present tense, even though salvation is in the future. It is a reminder to us that there is nothing we can do that puts us beyond the reach of God, and no prayer that God will not answer, in God’s good time and in God’s good way.
For Jonah, his sojourn in the fish became like a spiritual foxhole (I told you we’d get to that!). One of the explanations of the term “foxhole faith” is that in times of great fear or impending catastrophe (such as soldiers in combat in WW1), men and women will believe in, or hope for a “higher power” that will be merciful and lift them out of their distress. Here, in the belly of the fish, Jonah has come to his senses. His faith in God restored, he hopes that God will be merciful and remove him from this stinking hole. Previously, he has forgotten God, even turned away from God, but now is returning to God, in hopes that God will be merciful. He returns to God because he simply has no other source of hope.
There are a number of people who find themselves in their own proverbial spiritual foxholes, seemingly without hope outside of God. One Christian writer recounts:
I always considered myself to have a strong faith foundation. Being raised in the Catholic Church, I never questioned the existence of God or my commitment to Him. I believed that – until I found myself in a “foxhole.” There I realized that my faith was elementary at best. It was the size of a mustard seed. But a mustard seed produces a tall, wide, sturdy tree. The Bible says the mustard tree grows to such a size that “birds of the sky can lodge in its branches.” (Matthew 13:32)
Recently, I came across this quote; “Christianity is not a message which has to be believed, but an experience of faith that becomes a message.”1 In my “foxhole,” I had an experience of faith that was transformational. When I cried out to Jesus, He revealed Himself to me. In my pain, He spoke into my heart words of comfort and of healing. In my confusion and uncertainty, He whispered words of guidance and direction. In my loneliness, He brought people into my life who lifted me up. When fear paralyzed me, He created circumstances that propelled me forward.
Most people thought I would not survive, many thought if I did, I would commit suicide. But today, my experience of faith has become my message. When I couldn’t stop crying, when depression ruled and I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow, Jesus gave my life meaning. All I had to do, all anyone has to do, is reach out and take His hand. Experiencing Jesus “is not reserved to a privileged few but is graciously granted…to anyone seriously seeking [Him].2 He is always reaching out for us.
Everyone’s encounter will be different, but certain elements are the same. We recognize the unconditional love of Jesus for us. We also realize that He is meeting our needs. While He doesn’t always answer our prayers with what we ask for or even when we ask for it, we eventually come to realize that He always provides us with what we need, when we need it. That creates a deep sense of security which births newfound, lifelong, unshakable trust in the Lord. Now, I feel I don’t do anything on my own accord, but “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
You may be dealing with significant health issue. You may be mourning the loss of a love one. You may have lost your job and cannot provide for your family. You may be in a stressful relationship. Whatever “foxhole” you are in today, I pray that you seek out the Lord and find that experience of faith that becomes your message.
That is my prayer for you as well. And if you encounter a friend or relative or family member in their own personal spiritual foxhole, reach out a hand that they may grab hold and find an experience of faith that pulls them out and beyond. Amen.