April 16, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson, First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Jyoti Sahi is a contemporary artist but he draws upon some of the most ancient themes in Christian art. Here is a close-up of a very elaborate Christian coffin from the 3rd Century.
In this image, a sea serpent replaces the stylized fish and instead of Jesus, its Jonah being disgorged from the deep. The sign of whom I am, Jesus repeatedly told followers and adversaries alike, will be 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.”
Jonah – the wayward prophet who gets eaten by the fish. If we zoom out on the coffin, we get the whole story.
God calls Jonah to preach repentance and salvation to Israel’s mortal enemies, the Assyrians. Afraid that God might actually save “those people”, Jonah tries to run away. God engulfs his ship with storms. Only when the sailors throw Jonah overboard do the storms stop. As Jonah hits the water, God provides a large fish to swallow him up. Jonah remains in the fish three days and three nights, at which point the fish regurgitates Jonah onto a beach.
Again God calls Jonah to preach to the Assyrians. Having learned his lesson, Jonah goes. Jonah’s powerful preaching calls the Assyrians to repentance. God pours out his grace upon them, frustrating Jonah, who still harbors hatred and malice toward his enemies. Angry at God, Jonah goes to the outskirts of the city to pout. There, God provides a vine to grow and give Jonah shade.
As Jonah goes overboard into the water, into the belly of the fish, he dies. He becomes nothing. His life stops. Is put on hold. Only when he cries out to God, pledges to follow him, to accept his values of grace, forgiveness and broad reaching love, does the fish disgorge him onto the beach.
Three days in the belly of the fish transforms Jonah from a man defined by earthly values into a prophet called by God.
Three days in the belly of the earth turns Jesus from a prophet called by God into Christ, the anointed one, Lord of the living and the dead.
As the ancient hymn says:
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.
To rise we must die. To become new Creations, shaped in God’s image, we must strip off our old selves.
Stripping off our old selves.
There in the fish, Jonah had to strip off the anger, wrath, malice and slander he’d long reserved for the Assyrians. Emotions so engrained they separated him from the person God needed him to be. Emotions so engrained that even after his salvation he struggles with them. Emotions so engrained he probably felt lost without them.
That’s how closely our sin clings to us. They are like a skin. They bind us. They become part of our identity. Just ask an addict who, after years of sobriety, still misses the high, the parties, the false sense of freedom. Reflect on your own experiences when you’ve been consumed by anger, or by fear, or by resentment or false pride or intense greed. Even depression or anxiety can become false friends. They cling to us like a skin. They bind us, as the world’s sin bound Jesus to the cross. As the earthly grave clothes immobilized Jesus in the tomb.
Resurrection allows us to leave that dead skin behind. To leave in the grave all that separates us from God. To leave it with Jesus’ grave clothes. To leave it with Jonah’s anger, wrath, malice and slander.
Resurrection frees us to be God’s chosen ones. To be holy and beloved. To be healed, renewed, forgiven. To be the fulfilled, whole, connected to our creator. Only when we’ve gone to the belly of the fish and been disgorged again on the beach can we preach love to our enemies and forgiveness to those who hurt us. Only when we’ve spent three day sin the belly of the earth and left the grave clothes lying behind can our crosses sprout into trees and our wounded hands embrace. Only when we awake; when we rise from the dead, can we experience Christ shining on us.