Sermon Delivered April 19, 2009 (Great & Holy Pascha).
A little less than half way through the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 12 we hear that:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered [Jesus], saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." 39But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
What is the Sign of Jonah? Jesus tells them:
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
This of course is why the Church has selected the Book of Jonah to be read at the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday which we celebrated this morning. Jonah, like all the prophets, is a type of Christ. In other words, Jonah comes before Christ and is very similar to Him. The Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures relates that:
Jonah typified the Lord's three days in the tomb. He remained unharmed in the sea and waves, and though swallowed by the whale, he was not consumed by death (Paulinus). Also, the belly of the fish is called "the belly of hell" and is likened to the three days of Jesus' death (Theodoret). As such, Jonah typifies Christ's descent into the nether world. Just as Jonah survived in the belly, so Christ survived the tomb (Cyril of Jerusalem). Jonah cries out to the Lord like many of God's servants, is heard and delivered (Symeon). Jonah's expulsion from the whale after three days typifies resurrection (Tertullian). Jonah's fate in the fish's belly was not destruction but salvation (Gregory N).
In addition, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (5th cent.) says that when Jonah is thrown into the sea, thereby calming the storm prefigures Christ's rebuking the wind and storm while with His apostles. Further, Jonah, like Jesus, is a Jew who preaches repentance to Gentiles (non-Jews), in Jonah's case the people of Ninevah.
However, I believe Jonah is also a type of the average person, you and me. Let us quickly review Jonah's story. God the Lord speaks to Jonah and tells him to go to the city of Ninevah and cry out against the people because of their great wickedness. Instead of doing what the Lord's bidding, Jonah flees to Tarshish aboard a ship. A great storm arises and puts the boat and its occupants in peril. The mariners discover it is because of Jonah's disobedience to the Lord that the storm was upon them. The men throw Jonah overboard and the storm abates.
How often have we forsaken the will of the Lord by disobeying simple commandments like "You shall worship the Lord your God and have no other gods before Him; You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; You shall honor your father and mother; You shall not commit adultery or fornicate; You shall not steal, lie nor covet"? How often have we disregarded Christ's word to discipline our tongue, check our anger, and control our lust? Think of the many storms, great and small, we have brought upon ourselves through our disobedience. These personal storms not only affect us, but like the mariners, they affect those around us. There is no such thing as a sin that doesn't hurt anyone but me. St. John Chrysostom (4th cent.) says that "In their attempts to lighten the ship's cargo, the mariners proved that the weight of Jonah's disobedience was the heaviest burden."
Looking at it from a different perspective, God was calling Jonah to perform a certain type of ministry to the Ninevites. Is not God also calling us to minister to each other, especially the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the strangers and the prisoners? The stewardship cards we send out each year, are they not a call from God to participate in the various ministries of the Church? How often do we turn our back on these opportunities to answer the call of the Lord? As we will see later, Jonah was afraid that the prophecy to the Ninevites would not be fulfilled and he would be ridiculed or persecuted.
Returning to the story of Jonah, one may think the terror on the boat was bad but now Jonah was thrashing in the cold tempest of the sea without a modern day life vest or preserver. To make matters worse, he is swallowed by a great fish. Jonah hits the proverbial "rock bottom." As any addict might tell us, rock-bottom is not the worst evil because it provides a harsh reality of our life separated from God and becomes the motivation for repentance and return to God. What does Jonah do in the darkness of the belly of the whale, in the midst of the sea? He cries out to the Lord. Listen to his prayer:
I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, I have been cast out of Your sight Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple. The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD; And my prayer went up to You Into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols; Forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You; With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed Salvation is of the LORD (2:1-10).
What does God do? He hears the prayer of Jonah and the great fish vomits him out onto the dry land. Now Jonah goes to the Ninevites and prophesies against their sin saying Ninevah will be overthrown after forty days (3:1-4). How do the Ninevites respond? They repent and God spares them (3:5-10). Great! Mission accomplished. Jonah should be happy, right? Well he is not happy. He is upset, actually very upset, because he doesn't see God's mercy but only sees that the destruction he prophesied did not happen.
How often do we follow God's commandments and do His will by acting righteously and helping others expecting certain results. These people benefit from our efforts but we lose any benefits to be gained because we are still thinking in a self-centered manner even if we are acting in a selfless way. How sad after God has mercy on us, rescuing us from the belly of our passions and lifting us out of the sea of self-destruction, that we cannot rejoice when He does the same for others.
How did the Ninevites enjoin God's mercy and compassion to be delivered from destruction? It says, "believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them (3:5). Hopefully, we have spent the forty days of Great Lent seeking to grow in faith and belief in God through prayer, worship, scripture reading and the like. Hopefully we have spent it fasting, denying our desires for gratification in order to gratify God by serving others through almsgiving. Hopefully, we have spent it wearing the sackcloth of true repentance by abstaining from evil thoughts, words and deeds.
To the degree we have practiced faith, fasting and repentance is the degree to which we are resurrected with Christ tonight. Returning to the 12th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus also says that:
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.
Let us identify with and imitate Jonah and the Ninevites so we can see the greater sign of the Resurrection of Christ. Let us reach out to the Great One, Jesus, so He may pull us up from the tomb of sin and death. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.