Big Fish Story
Big Fish Story's Lesson for Ash Wednesday
Luke 11:29-32: When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!"
Ash Wednesday begins the forty day solemn season of Lent. A time for some serious soul-searching and God-listening... maybe more the latter as a way doing the former.
Years ago in the social hall at Union Theological Seminary the play, The Sign of Jonah, was presented. It was, as you would expect of the religiously academic, theologically opaque, yet, in the minds of those of us attending, fiercely relevant. To exactly what, I cannot now tell you, but it had something to do with the silence of the church during the rise of Naziism. Over subsequent years I have returned to that text which provided the play's title and its reference to the dour prophet dozens of times, usually in the fall when Jonah and the whale are ritually remembered in synagogues on Yom Kippur.
Now I think I get it, what Jesus claims about Jonah. And it's an incredibly nervy claim, and scary, yet energizing, to people in the profession in which I was lately engaged.
Jesus faces questions familiar to anyone on whom has been placed an aura of holiness in the public estimation. "Help me," plead those desperate for divine intervention. "Show me," challenge those who see no need, thank you, for any heavenly meddling in human affairs. Both want a sign.
And sometimes they think they have gotten it. When the toddler grandson sets fire to the drapes in the living room and the firemen barely manage to salvage the whole house, grandma is certain it is God's sign of disfavor, for what she isn't sure, except maybe grandpa smokes too much.
Or how about winning the lottery? A million dollars or more in the perpetually empty bank account, wouldn't that be a sure sign God's smiling face was turned toward you? But - like I recently reported to a correspondent who tongue-in-cheek (I hope!) wondered about praying for the winning ticket - 99% of us, especially those of us with perpetually empty checking accounts, wouldn't be able to handle such sudden largesse. Before a year had passed and the troubles had unfolded, we would begin to wonder, as nearly every winner has, if the financial blessing wasn't really a curse. That's the untold story the lottery ads on TV never report.
More noble or, at least, more spiritual are those who want proof, that there is a God; or that there is some meaning in this universe outside our own brains. Show me a sign, Jesus, that you are everything the Pope says you are.
To which Jesus replies that there is no sign for this evil generation other than the sign of Jonah. But, what for heaven's sake is that, the sign of Jonah?
Jonah is an unlikely prophet. He doesn't bring to his task the soul-piercing eyes of Bishop Sheen or the soulful eyes of Billy Graham. Fact is, he is downright reluctant to go a thousand miles to a strange country and tell its citizens things they surely don't want to hear; and, probably, old Jonah will wind up for his pains in prison or on the gallows. But the Lord God will not be put off by Jonah's stubbornness. You know the story: the attempted escape from assigned duty, the flight to the sea, the being thrown overboard, the devouring by a whale, the regurgitation, the eventual appearance in that strange country telling strangers to repent. Well, by God, they do repent and God spares Nineveh its destruction. Just like Isaiah says it will be, in Chapter 55:11. Not that that makes Jonah any happier. He begrudges God God's mercy.
No, no, he's not a Sheen or a Graham.
But Jesus tells us, nonetheless, to look to Jonah when we want a sign from heaven. What on earth can it be? I'm almost too embarrassed to identify it, considering the hoohaws bound to be sent my way by those who know me too well. Whatever. The sign of Jonah is preaching.
What a slim reed on which to build a kingdom! Words. The Beatles famously described "Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon no one will hear." My recurring nightmare has me standing in the pulpit suddenly realizing that the congregation is not listening. So I stop. And wake up. I have trouble too, you see, believing that God would use human words, sometimes even mine, to accomplish his purposes.
I went on in this vein one hot summer day in the dining room of 37 Driving Park Avenue, Lynbrook, New York. I was comparing my calling unfavorably with other human endeavors. Dorothy (as in "gift of God") DeBeauchamp gently chided me with her estimation of my job, saying, "There is no better job in the whole world than being a minister of the gospel, far better than a king." Congregants can not only bog the preacher down; they can and do buoy him up.
When we can hardly believe that Jesus says what he says about the office of the preacher, that through him, with him, and not infrequently in spite of him, the Word will find its way into the world and accomplish the purpose for which it is sent, namely, an abundant life. For everybody!
This Sunday when I enter the church (whatever church it might be) I shall bow my head and pray to God with the preacher in mind, "Lord, bring it on, your kingdom, your will be done; and please, God, embolden the preacher and en-grace his words to get to and awaken my soul."
Even old Jonah might say, "Amen."